Dubai: Meet abra drivers ferrying riders for less than Dh1 for decades

Dubai - These wooden boats have served as the oldest form of transport in the emirate and residents are still riding them to this day.

By SM Ayaz Zakir

Published: Sun 25 Jul 2021, 4:32 PM

Last updated: Sun 25 Jul 2021, 4:44 PM

Flying taxis may soon be hovering over Dubai but for Aboobackar Naduvattom, nothing could ever beat his good old abra, the water taxi that saw the rise of the city he calls home.

Indian expat Naduvattom feels fortunate that he gets to earn a living at the Dubai Creek, where the emirate’s hustle and bustle started.

“History tells us that cities grew on the banks of waterways and it was the creek for Dubai,” said Naduvattom, who has been crossing the creek and bringing people from one side to the other since he came to Dubai in the early 1990s.

“Back then, what we saw was Dubai as a small town, with settlements on both sides of the waters. Now, it has become a big city that tourists from all over the world love to visit.”

Dubai’s trusty abras — the wooden boats with open sides and a roof — have been around since the 19th century.

Some time in the middle of the 19th century, about 20,000 to 30,000 people live in Dubai but it had attracted several merchants from different parts of the world. And to ply their wares at the markets on both sides of the creek, traders relied on abras day in and day out.

These wooden boats have served as the oldest form of transport in the emirate and residents are still riding them to this day, whenever they have to cross the creek and go from Deira to Bur Dubai, or vice-versa. These water taxis are managed by the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).

“These boats are solid and strong. It has been used to ferry people and goods for over 30 years,” said Abdul Kalam, another long-time abra driver, who arrived in Dubai from Bangladesh in the late 1980s.

Most abra drivers in the emirate hail from India, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh and Nepal. In the evenings, whenever they come together for tea, seniors would reminisce their early days in the city — sharing precious moments that offer a glimpse into Dubai’s history.

“I have seen rowing boats when I came here,” Kalam said. “Many senior abra drivers have once told us about the boats with oars that were once used before they were replaced by the diesel crank engines.”

Some have been moving abras around for such a long time that they had seen the creek being dug and widened to accommodate the large cargo vessels for Dubai’s fast-growing trading hub, Naduvattom said.

“We have heard that Indian rupees used to be the accepted currency before the Union of the emirates. Back then, a one-way abra ride was just 10 paise,” he added.

Earlier, the abra fare was at 50 fils, and now, it’s Dh1. An hour-long ride used to cost Dh60 and now it’s Dh120.

Through the years, the abra transport has grown from moving goods and people across the creek to showing tourists the charm of Old Dubai.

“I have met people from all over the globe. That’s the best part of Dubai. A few have even called me after their departure,” Kalam said.

When Covid struck the travel and tourism industry, the abra drivers’ earnings have taken a hit, too. But they are hopeful that better, brighter days are coming soon.

“The pandemic has caused a setback and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, will surely have a solution to this. We trust his leadership. More tourists will visit Dubai again and this will surely improve our income,” added Naduvattom.

As they start their day at 6:00am sharp, Naduvattom and Kalam remain grateful for every sunrise they catch while sitting in their abras by the creek — where the Dubai story started.

Did you know?

> Abra is derived from the Arabic word ‘Abaara’ which means to cross.

> The earliest known reference to the Dubai Creek, where the traditional boat is seen ferrying passengers, can be found in an 1822 report by a British naval surveyor.

> Since the middle of the 19th century, abras have served Dubai’s earliest traders who are buying and selling goods at the markets on both sides of the creek

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