Stretching along the Deira creekside east of the Grand Souk between Deira Old Souk and Al Sabkha abra stations, the Dhow Wharfage offers a fascinating glimpse into the maritime traditions of old Dubai that have survived miraculously intact at the heart of the twenty-first-century city. At any one time, the wharfage is home to dozens of beautiful wooden dhows, some as much as a hundred years old, which berth here to load and unload cargo; hence the great tarpaulin-covered mounds of merchandise – anything from cartons of cigarettes to massive air-conditioning units – that lie stacked up along the waterfront. The dhows themselves range in size from the fairly modest vessels employed for short hops up and down the coast to the large ocean-going craft used to transport goods around the Gulf and over to Iran, and even as far afield as Somalia, Pakistan and India. Virtually all of them fly the UAE flag, although they’re generally manned by foreign crews who live on board, their lines of washing strung out across the decks and piles of cooking pots giving the boats a quaintly domestic air in the middle of Deira’s roaring traffic. Hang around long enough and you might be invited to hop on board for a chat (assuming you can find a shared language) and a cup of tea.
Dubai is one of the Middle East‘s major entrepôts. Huge quantities of goods are imported and then re-exported through the city, with extensive shipping routes stretching up and down the Gulf and beyond to India and East Africa. The city’s convenient geographical location and laissez-faire trading environment has also made it one of the region’s major smuggling centres. Dubai‘s famous gold trade was built on the back of long-established smuggling routes into India, while in recent decades the city has served as an important trans-shipment point for diamonds, hashish, opium and weapons.
A particular bone of international contention – especially with the US – is Dubai’s thriving trade with Iran, a large part of which is channelled through the dhow wharfage in Deira. Many of the boats here head straight across the Gulf to Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas, just 100km distant, and although most cargoes consist of harmless domestic items, a small but significant proportion do not. Smuggled goods range from simple contraband like American scotch and cigarettes through to more sophisticated items which are exported in contravention of UN sanctions and the long-standing US trade embargo. These include computers, mobile phones and various electronic components, as well as more sophisticated hardware ranging from aeroplane parts to weapons and explosives, including items that, it’s thought, could potentially be used in Iran’s nuclear programme. Continued attempts to crack down on illegal trade with Iran in the past few years have been made, although given the number of boats in service and the virtually nonexistent security infrastructure at the wharfage, such efforts are inevitably flawed. “Dubai,” as one observer put it, “is an absolute sieve.”