x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Property prices sink Oman's dhow legacy

In modern-day Oman, it is no longer ocean trade but property that is driving the economy in coastal towns.

Rajab Salim builds his last dhow before winding up the business to replace his workshop with a new property development.
Rajab Salim builds his last dhow before winding up the business to replace his workshop with a new property development.

MUSCAT // For hundreds of years, the dhows built in Oman used the Arabian Sea as a gateway for trade voyages to the Far East. The vessels, painstakingly put together by highly skilled carpenters, used the winds to carry goods thousands of kilometres.

But in modern-day Oman, it is no longer ocean trade but property that is driving the economy in coastal towns.

In the east coast town of Sur, dhow builders are winding up their businesses and building properties on the sites of their workshops.

Rajab Salim, 54, a master boat builder, whose career spanned more than 33 years, was putting the final touch on his last dhow, a 200-ton vessel ordered by the Royal Navy of Oman, before starting to demolish his 200-year-old workshop to make way for a high-rise building.

He is one of the four dhow builders left in Oman, all based in Sur.

"I am closing the workshop after I have delivered this order to build a block of flats on top of it. It makes me sad to do it but I will have to wait for three years before another dhow order comes again," Mr Salim said.

Mr Salim's family has made dhows of different sizes since the 1820s. They have been used by the navy, for trade missions, cargo carriers, fishing and even racing over the last two centuries. But more recently, cheaper imported vessels have taken a toll on his family business. The number of staff employed at the workshop dwindled from 26 in the 1980s to five now. "We can't compete with imported and cheaper vessels. Our dhows are made from solid wood and the price has gone up a lot in the last 10 years. We don't even get small orders from fishermen, who go for economical boats," Mr Salim said.

Another master builder, Khamis Ramadhan, 61, said he would give his business another year to clear out the last two orders. After that, he would let the bulldozers in to flatten his workshop. There are plans to replace it with a six-floor residential building.

"It hurts me to put an end to my family business that started 350 years ago but it is no longer economical to build dhows. The flats I am building will help me survive," Mr Ramadhan said.

His ancestors helped build the Sultanah, the royal vessel that sailed to New York from Zanzibar in 1840 in a goodwill mission ordered by Oman's ruler Said bin Sultan, when the east African island was the Sultanate's colony.

Sur was renowned for making the dhows that created Oman's empire in East Africa and established the country as a seafaring nation of considerable influence in the 18th and 19th centuries, historians say.

But Oman's maritime heritage goes right back to the eighth century when its sailors docked a vessel in the Chinese city of Canton, now known as Guangzhou, according to archives at the state-funded Oman Maritime Museum.

"These old workshops must be preserved and become museums and not destroyed to illustrate our glittering past. Someone must come up with cash to save them," said Salim bin Maftah, the former president of the Sur-based Oman Maritime Museum. He pointed to an old 400-ton dhow, famously known as Al Boom, a passenger and goods transporter, which now sits idly on the Sur beach.

He said a Muscat businessman, Salah al Marhoon, has already agreed to buy the old Al Boom to convert it into a seaside restaurant.

"I am planning to buy as many old dhows as possible of such size for my restaurant business. This will be my contribution to preserve the past," Mr al Marhoon, 44, said.

But Mr Salim said not many dhows are left that are in good shape. He knew of fewer than 10 big dhows that used to sail on trade missions years ago. Half of them were rotting on Omani beaches, years after they were retired.

Government officials said the state was supporting the dhow industry by commissioning works to build dhows for expeditions, sailing regattas and racing sponsored by the Royal Navy of Oman.

"Obviously, we cannot put orders big enough the whole year through to make it worth their while. The dhows we are commissioning are only for ceremonies and have no commercial value to us," a Royal Navy of Oman spokesman said.

Local shipping companies said dhows are now no longer practical as sailing vessels. "A 400-ton dhow costs 320,000 rials [Dh3 million] to order. We buy imported boats of the same capacity for half the price for sea transport business," Harith al Harthy, the owner of the Muscat-based Coastal Transport Company, said.

Fishermen agreed and said that glass fibre boats were a fraction of the cost and faster and cheaper to maintain than a dhow.