In the week of the Dubai Yacht Show, exhibitors can afford to be bullish about the future of water sports and yachting in the Gulf.
The first time I went to Dubai, back in the late eighties there were a few tower blocks and a busy creek. The highway from Abu Dhabi was single lane with accidents and car wrecks every mile or so. People didn’t go there for holidays. Now look at it.
Every time I go to Dubai the cityscape has changed. Water sport is still under-represented but when you look at the Gulf as a whole, the number of new ventures is increasing with Abu Dhabi keen to establish itself as a yachting venue and initiatives such as Oman Sail transforming an entire nation’s approach to sailing.
The 2015 EFG bank-sponsored Tour of Arabia (EFG – Sailing Arabia The Tour, if you insist on its full name) is just finishing, with home-grown Arab sailors increasingly involved each year. But the tour is proving attractive for leading international sailors too, lending an opportunity for some top class warm weather sailing.
The more exposure visitors get to the Gulf region, the more it can escape from the TV images of war-devastation associated with Iraq and now Syria. It’s not so long ago, either, that a racing yacht belonging to Andrew Pindar, the UK-based sailing sponsor, was seized by the Iranian navy as it sailed from Bahrain to Dubai. The incident sparked urgent diplomatic exchanges until the crew and yacht were released.
Today Pindar is running his two racing yachts from Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina, now in the black and gold branding of Etihad Towers. As principal, also, of GAC Pindar, he has teamed up with a leading Dubai-based logistics provider. GAC concentrates its business on commercial shipping but today it also supplies services to superyachts, such as bunkering and yacht-cleaning with its brushless hull wiper, a state-of-the art piece of kit that dispenses with the need for divers.
The increasing availability of such services is making the Gulf a far more practical proposition as a destination than it used to be. Taking a superyacht through Suez from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, is still hardly routine, given security considerations, but the threat of piracy appears to be diminishing as the US and UK navies improve their responses to attacks. It is two years since Somali pirates last successfully boarded a ship and today the Gulf of Guinea has taken over as Africa’s piracy hot spot.
In the meantime superyacht owners have become more security aware and understand what they must do to protect their vessels and crews.
The new Suez canal project is an important commitment by Egypt, putting its faith in trade and infrastructure to inject some much needed stability in to a region that has been undermined by insurgency. Suez cannot work as a trade and leisure link to the Gulf without a secure route that runs through the Strait of Hormuz and close to the Horn of Africa.
As the route to the Gulf becomes more attractive, so superyacht passages will increase and that includes yachts such as the world’s largest, Azzam, with a shallow draft designed to help it negotiate sea with an average depth of just 50m.
The superyacht industry has come to depend more on the success of the gulf states, particularly now that Russia is becoming isolated politically and economically. There are still Russian billionaires with extensive interests and funds outside Russia, but the last thing most of those people need just now is another yacht.
Without the Russians there will continue to be interest from Europe, the US and among the new elites in emerging economies. But when you look at the rarified billionaire market, the existing wealth in the Middle East has proved one of the most consistent sources of new business throughout the recession years.
While much of this business has been concentrated among the royal families, we shouldn’t dismissed the impact of Arabian entrepreneurs such as the Omani businessman, Mohammed Al Barwani who liked his Dutch-built yacht so much, he bought the builder, OceanCo, providing the kind of financial stability that must have been the envy of the Italian yards.
I met him a few weeks ago with his chief executive, Marcel Onkenhout, just before the yard delivered its latest, build, the Espen Oeino-designed Infinity, previously known by its codename, Y710.
Just now it is building two large sailing yachts, an 85m yacht – a joint project with Vitters - that will be world’s largest ketch, and 106m Solar, that will have three DynaRig masts, two meters in diameter at the base. The rig was pioneered on Maltese Falcon. “They’re wonderful yachts but we don’t see ourselves becoming the new Huissman, says Onkenhout. “The focus of our yards will remain in the 80-90 range metres.” That said, the company is building a new shed that will accommodate builds up to 140m.
Edmiston is showcasing the 88.5m OceanCo-built motor yacht Nirvana at the Mina Seyahi Marina this week. It’s the largest yacht to attend the show and a sign of the Dubai show’s growing importance since it was established in 2008. Models of two bigger OceanCo projects will also be on display – the 107m Bravo and the 110m Rialto.
In future, says Onkenhout, the yard will be committed to more sustainable builds with hybrid propulsion systems, reduced emissions and recycling of waste heat.
Unlike most yards, OceanCo can engage in speculative builds of custom designed yachts. “There’s always one in train,” says Onkenhout. This is because the build is underwritten by Al Barwani on the basis that if the yard doesn’t sell it elsewhere, he’ll use it himself. “I’m the best customer ever,” he says.