Revealed: How the world's largest dhow was built in Dubai

An Emirati dhow-maker is keeping the ancient craft afloat

by

Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Mon 10 Oct 2022, 12:33 PM

Last updated: Mon 23 Oct 2023, 11:43 AM

Inside a shipyard adjacent to the book-shaped Mohammed Bin Rashid Library in Al Jaddaf, a small group of men work tirelessly everyday to ensure an Emirati maritime tradition does not fade into the pages of history.

The men are building dhows, the likes of which have sailed Arab coasts for hundreds of years. Small teams bend large wooden planks as if they are made of clay.


Once the workers have nailed the planks into place and created a frame, it’s time to put the keel and stem into position. The ribs are fitted next, then the rudder.

 

Before long, the boats are ready to sail.


Integral part of landscape

Dhows are integral part of the UAE’s landscape. Two of Dubai’s most iconic landmarks – Burj Al Arab and Dupai Opera -- are shaped like the traditional sailing vessel.

Dhows also adorn tourist brochures, postcards and the Dh20 currency note. But modern vessels have taken a wing out of their sails, making them relics of the past.

However, an Emirati man is battling heavy odds to keep the dhows afloat.

One of the last remaining boat makers in Al Jaddaf, Majid Obaid Al Falasi was felicitated by DP World earlier this year for constructing the world’s largest wooden dhow.

Almost the length of an American football pitch, the 92-metre long handcrafted vessel called ‘Obaid’ has also been recognised by the Guinness World Records as the largest boat of its kind.

Al Falasi says the record is not going away from Dubai as long as he’s alive.

“After me, my son will carry our legacy forward and then, God willing, his children,” says the 52-year-old who began as an apprentice under his late father, Obaid Jumaa bin Majid Al Falasi.

Graphics by Raja Choudhury
Graphics by Raja Choudhury

His record-making dhow is named after his father. “I learnt everything from my father. It’s fitting that the boat is named after him,” says Al Falasi as he sits behind a massive teak wood desk in his nautical-themed office filled with vintage maritime artefacts.

He sweeps his arm across the room. “We have got enough things here to make a maritime museum. Perhaps we will make one some day.”

Falasi says he has fond memories of working alongside his father.

“I used to go straight to shipyard after school hours and watch boats being made from scratch. In the mid-seventies, my father built what was then possibly the biggest dhow in the world. The biggest boat at that time weighed 180 tonnes. Ours weighed 300 tonnes. People mocked my father, saying he would be never be able to fill up such a huge vessel, but he proved the naysayers wrong by ferrying a large haul of fertilisers and other mixed cargo to Abu Dhabi from Pakistan during the boat’s maiden trip itself.”

Al Falasi, who took up the mantle after his father’s death in December 2009, says he was never fazed when he set his mind to built the world’s biggest dhow and started work without any blueprint.

“All that we had was raw passion and a firm belief in our ability. We sourced the longest pieces of logs from around the world. For the first time, steel was added to a dhow to give it strength.”

When he was nearing completion, Al Falasi applied for a Guinness World Record, only to be told that his entry couldn’t qualify as there was already a dhow in another Gulf country that was longer and wider than his.

“I protested because the dhow they were referring to was attached to a hotel. It couldn’t sail. But Guinness authorities refused to budge, saying a dhow is a dhow.”

Al Falasi said his foreman was left aghast when he asked him to stop work and start all over again.

“The change of plan set us back by several months and cost us a lot of money. It was suggested that I add an external fixture increase the length and width of our dhow. But I refused. I said if we have to break the record then we will have to do it the right way,” he says.

Built from 1,700 tonnes of wood and 8,000 tonnes of steel the record-breaking boat finally hit waters in 2019 but it wasn’t officially inaugurated until the following year.

“We ferried 623 used cars among other cargo to Yemen with me as captain,” says Al Falasi. “Steering the enormous vessel was an exhilarating experience.” The honour was finally bestowed upon Obaid in October 2020.

Dubai has seen a strong revival in dhow trade with the establishment of the Marine Agency for Wooden Dhows, an agency set up by the Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation (PCFC) in 2020 to streamline and regulate the activity of the traditional vessels in the emirate’s waters. Such has been the influence of these traditional maritime vessels that five of Bentley's limited edition Bentayga models were inspired by the dhow.

One million metric tonnes of merchandise was ferried from countries across the MENA region and beyond by 6,052 wooden dhows during the first half of 2022

Al Falasi says the dhow trade will pick up even further in the coming years.

“This is a legacy of our forefathers. We will preserve it every day.”

mazhar@khaleejtimes.com



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