The inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula were among the greatest seafarers of medieval times, using innovative shipbuilding techniques and navigational instruments to establish extensive maritime trading connections. Early Arab traders established outposts as far afield as India, Sri Lanka and East Africa, and the legacy of these early adventurers can still be seen in the religious and cultural heritage of places like Lamu in Kenya and Zanzibar in Tanzania, where the distinctive form of the lateen-sailed Arabian dhow survives to this day.
The word “dhow” itself is simply a generic name used to apply to all boats of Arabian design. Classic designs include the sambuq, a sizeable ocean-going vessel incorporating Indian and European features, including a square stern which is thought to have been influenced by old Portuguese galleons (traditional Arabian dhows are tapered at both ends), and the boom, another large seafaring dhow. Other smaller dhows still in use around the Gulf include the shu’ai and the jalibut, both formerly used for trading, pearling and fishing, as well as the abra, hundreds of which still ply the Creek today.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the traditional dhow was its so-called stitched construction – planks, usually of teak, were literally “sewn” together using coconut rope. Nails were increasingly used after European ships began to visit the region, although stitched boats were made right up until World War II. Traditional dhows are also unusual in being built “outside-in”, with exterior planking being nailed together before the internal framework is added (the exact opposite of European boat-building techniques).
The traditional dhow’s most visually notable feature was its distinctive triangular lateen sails, which allows boats to sail closer to the wind when travelling against the monsoon breezes. These have now disappeared on commercial vessels around the Gulf following the introduction of engines, though they can still be seen on local racing dhows.
Traditional wooden dhows still play an important part in the local economy, and continue to prove an efficient and cost-effective way of shipping goods around the Gulf and, particularly, over to Iran – as well as finding a new lease of life as tourist pleasure boats. There are still a number of traditional dhow-building yards around the UAE: in Dubai at Jaddaf, and in the neighbouring emirates of Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah, although the incredibly labour-intensive production costs and a gradual loss of the traditional skills required in dhow-construction (local boat-builders are famed for their ability to work without plans, building entirely by eye and experience) may eventually drive old-style dhow-building into extinction.