On a hot April day, Dubai’s South Asian sailors rest on the decks of their wooden dhows anchored along the wharf at the mouth of the Dubai Creek in the shadows of the glitzy five star Hyatt Regency Hotel.
All kinds of goods line the wharf, from tyres to refrigerators, pasta to washing machines, while some ships are already loaded with cars and barrels of oil and tar destined for neighbouring countries in the Gulf, and to Pakistan, India, Yemen and Somalia.
For years, Somalia has been a popular and profitable destination for Dubai’s dhows because of the war-torn country’s need “for everything,” one captain tells Gulf News. Abdul, a 50 year-old dhow captain originally from Gujarat, India, said almost anything is shipped to Somalia, which accounts for 75 per cent of his business.
But in recent weeks, business in Yemen, a port of call on the way to Somalia, has rapidly increased, said Abdul, who did not give his last name. The war in Yemen is “good for business,” he said standing on the deck on his ship loaded with dry food stuffs and barrels of tar that he thinks will be used to repair roads in one of the Arab world’s poorest countries.
Two weeks ago, a Saudi Arabian-led Arab Sunni coalition launched air strikes against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels who have taken control over large parts of the country including the capital, Sana’a. In recent days, dozens have reportedly been killed in Aden in fighting between advancing Houthi forces and pro-government soldiers in the central Mualla district near the port.
Abdul said the ensuing war has meant there is demand for even the basic goods in Yemen, such as dry food stuffs. He said the goods are now sold on Yemeni wharfs at a premium because of the “demand increase due to the shortage of supply,” and because of the danger to the sailors docking in Yemen. Abdul did not say how much prices had increased.
Wadhah, who lives in the Al Wahat district in the Yemeni province of Taiz, said prices of some imported goods had increased since the Saudi Arabian-led air strikes began on March 26. A 50kg bag of Australian flour has increased from 4500 Yemeni Riyal (Dh77.13; $21) to YR7000 ($32.50), he said. The price of a gas cylinder has increased from YR1400 to YR2000 but can be purchased on the black market at an even higher price of YR4000.
Along the wharf in Dubai, Arab and South Asian men unload cartons of pasta to be stacked onto pallets that will be loaded onto waiting dhows. The captain of another dhow loaded with foodstuff destined for Somalia also said Yemen is becoming increasingly profitable for willing sailors. Sikander, 31, also from Gujarat, said demand for foodstuff meant that they could be sold on Yemeni ports at a premium but that it was risky.
Traders are “taking advantage of a situation … to charge premium prices,” said Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation in Geneva, by phone.
“Obviously, in a situation like this when you have numerous conflict areas going on, people are going to try and make a profit on it … shortages are going to be around and prices are going to be increased,” he said.
The dhows are ideal for shipping goods to countries like Yemen and Somalia.
They are able to dock in underdeveloped ports that lack facilities needed for larger vessels. The dhows are also perceived to be more willing to dock in these countries than owners of larger vessels who will not risk their ships in war zones or to piracy.
The dhows calling into Yemeni ports are risking getting caught in the cross fire, particularly in urban areas, said London-based Tim Hart, maritime manager at Control Risks, by phone.
“There is a risk of collateral damage. There is a risk of being up in the fighting that’s going on, particularly in areas where there are high levels of armed exchanges,” he said.
For Asgar, a 50 year-old Pakistani dhow captain, the risk of being caught in the crossfire is too much. Asgar said he would no longer sail to Yemen despite the lucrative business on offer. Instead, he will continue shipping used cars and electronics to Somalia and Iraq.
— with additional reporting by Mannat Jaspal, intern, in Dubai and Saeed Al Batati, Correspondent, in Yemen