Marathon dhow race aims to preserve ancient Gulf heritage

Published on: Amended:

Sir Bu Nair (United Arab Emirates) (AFP) – Under a blazing sun, far from the skyscrapers and SUVs of modern Dubai, hundreds of enthusiasts have sailed in the waters of the Gulf aboard traditional wooden boats, anxious to preserve an ancient heritage.

Around Sir Bu Nair, a teardrop-shaped island about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, 118 teams raced dhows, the sailing boats that have crisscrossed the waters of the Arabian Peninsula for centuries.

“I started about 10 years ago, when I was 23, with my father and my brothers,” one of the sailors, Abdullah al-Mheiri, told AFP under the setting sun.

He had just ventured out into rough waters with 11 teammates to compete in the Al-Gaffal Dhow Race, a grueling annual tournament that runs from early morning to early afternoon.

On a dhow, the crew, dressed in white dresses, struggled to unfurl a white sail, pulling at arm’s length on ropes, then seeking balance as the giant fabric took the wind.

Each dhow has a crew of 12 Karim SAHIBAFP

For Mheiri, taking part is his way of paying homage to his heritage – Al-Gaffal refers to the return of fishermen to the shores of Dubai after a sea trip.

“Duty” to preserve the environment

Like much of the Gulf before the discovery of oil, the settlements that make up the United Arab Emirates today, including Dubai, were formed largely around maritime activities, including pearl fishing using once ubiquitous dhows.

Air humidity can be a big challenge for crews
Air humidity can be a big challenge for crews Karim SAHIBAFP

But with the creation of the federation in 1971 and the advent of oil-driven development, economic activity in the United Arab Emirates would quickly swell to become the second largest in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia.

Despite relatively low oil wealth compared to its neighbours, the emirate of Dubai has seen a spectacular rise, capitalizing on its strategic location to transform itself into a financial, air and tourist centre.

But away from the to-and-fro of social media influencers and luxury skyscrapers, Mheiri prefers the quiet respite he finds in the open sea.

The starting point for the race, Sir Bu Nair, is ideal, he says, as it is also home to a nature reserve.

Dhows have a centuries-old heritage in Arabian waters, as the craft has traditionally been used for fishing and pearl diving
Dhows have a centuries-old heritage in Arabian waters, as the craft has traditionally been used for fishing and pearl diving Karim SAHIBAFP

“We have lived with the sea for hundreds of years,” he said. “Preserving the environment is a duty.”

According to the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, the island “is one of the most important nesting sites for hawksbill turtles in the entire Persian Gulf and certainly by far the most important place in the United Arab Emirates”.

Heritage preservation is vital to the organizers of Al-Gaffal and they have sought to set an example with competing sailboats, which are not equipped with engines.

“One of the most important messages we send is passing on this legacy from one generation to the next,” tournament director Mohammed al-Falahi told AFP.

“But the point is that it doesn’t pose a risk to nature either,” he added. “We do not forget that Sir Bu Nair is a nature reserve which is home to many species of turtles” in the Gulf.

The teams of sailing enthusiasts set off at dawn on Saturday, sometimes struggling as much against the scorching heat as against the waters.

Their sails hoisted, the ships caught the wind, like white clouds billowing across the expanse of blue, toward the shore of Dubai, where the neighboring Burj al-Arab hotel stands in the shape of a sail.

Comments are closed.