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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Oman traditional boat builders see surge in demand amid low oil prices 

Goods distributors in the region looking to cut costs are seeking out wooden boats to ship freight

Sur is known for its boats which are hand-built from timber using old-fashioned tools and no mechanisation. Getty Images
Sur is known for its boats which are hand-built from timber using old-fashioned tools and no mechanisation. Getty Images

Rajab Khamis was smiling as he sat in his spacious workshop with his toolbox on the table and inspected the blade on the woodcarving tool.

For the first time in eight years, the 58-year old craftsman has an order to build a boat that weighs more than 25 tonnes.

“The seven boats I am building are orders from a shipping company in Iran," said Mr Khamis, who has spent the last eight years working on smaller boats. "They are all designed to carry 200 tonnes of weight. Each boat will cost them US$650,000 (Dh2.4 million) and it will take 18 months to complete [each boat]."

Mr Khamis owns a boat yard in Sur on the eastern coast of Oman, the only region where the country's seafaring heritage endures. And he is not the only boat builder to benefit from a recent surge in demand for his skills.

About 20 kilometres away in the town of Ashkara, 64-year old Saleh Al Shahri, a veteran of 40 years in boat building, is also hard at work in his workshop. He has an order worth $20.75m from a Kuwaiti businessman to build 14 boats ranging from 150 to 500 tonnes.

“I have not built a real boat since 2007 and I am really excited to go back to the old days of building serious seafaring vessels that carry goods up to 500 tonnes. A month ago, a Qatari businessman, with another order, approached me and we are still negotiating terms. So business is looking up at the moment," Mr Shahri said.

The three-year contract has already generated more than 40 jobs for local people as well as contracts to timber suppliers, he added. Five other boatyards in the area are also enjoying a windfall.

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Sur and the adjacent towns have been building boats for more than 1,000 years that sailed as far as East Africa, China and India. Sur has also supplied boats to the rest of the Gulf countries, earning the town a reputation of being a major maritime centre in the region. However, competition from modern international shipping companies in the 1970s sent the boat building trade in Sur into a rapid decline.

But what has spurred its sudden revival in the last two years? Transport experts say that with oil prices low, goods distributors in the region looking to cut costs are seeking out cheaper ways of transporting freight.

“Big ships made of steel are expensive to maintain and that makes sea freight costly when it comes to short-haul transportation over the water," Ghalib Al Siyabi, the proprietor of Sharqiyah Transportation Company based in east Oman, told The National.

"The wooden boats are low cost in both maintenance and freight cost. With low oil prices, the GCC goods distributors and Iran now find it cheaper to invest in inexpensive vessels for moving their supplies in the region.”

In February last year, boat builder Juma Mabrook put the land his business stands on up for sale. It was destined to be the site of a new shopping complex owned by a Muscat businessman. But a phone call three months later made him take down the "for sale" sign; more than a year later, the 52-year old master boat builder is carving wood for eleven boats ordered by a UAE investor based in Ras Al Khaimah. He has also taken on 18 school graduates to handle the work.

“By the grace of Allah, now I am back in business with a $7.3m order for middle-weight boats," said Mr Mabrook, his voice raised above the clamour of hammers and machinery. "I am also generating jobs and provide business to local suppliers as well.”

He lovingly caressed the hull of a half-finished boat. "This is made of solid teak imported from India. Termites don’t eat it, salt water does not degrade the structure, it never splits in the hot sun and it lives forever. We still have old boats in the museum that were built of teak wood in Sur more than a century ago," he said.

Mr Mabrook said boat builders in Sur do not need blueprints or sketches - they have it all in their heads. They use hand tools, not machinery, to curve and bend the wood for the ribs of the boats, with their workshops full of old-fashioned tools like awls, bows chisels and caulking irons. The wood is sourced from trees grown in the southern Omani city of Salalah, while the iron nails used to bolt the boats' hulls and ribs together are made by a local silversmith.

Mr Al Siyabi said it was too early to say whether the new boat building demand would last or if it was just a flash in the pan.

“But it looks promising that the good times are back for our boat builders," he said. "Why? The current economic downturn in the GCC makes the regional states increasingly rely on each other for goods supplies."

"These boats are the economical answer as a cheaper form of transportation. Sea routes are quicker than roads and there is no traffic congestion in the water. Air freight is expensive. So it looks like boat builders in the eastern region have hit the jackpot again after many decades."

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