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#5336, 7 August 2017

Maritime Matters

Dhow Trade in the North Arabian Sea
Vijay Sakhuja
Maritime Security Analyst; former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi; and former officer of the Indian Navy

The half yearly report on global trends in sea piracy and armed robbery against ships for 2017, published by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), presents a mixed bag of news: the good news is that 87 piracy incidents were recorded across the globe in the first six months, the lowest in five years for the same period. The bad news is that Somali pirates were once again active in the Gulf of Aden after a hiatus of nearly five years. The IMB has cautioned that the Somali pirates “still retain the skills and capacity to attack merchant ships far from coastal waters.” 

One such attack involves an Indian dhow, the Gujarat based ‘Al-Kausar’, which was hijacked near Yemen's Socotra Island in April  2017. The vessel was on transit between Dubai and Biosaso, Somalia when the 10-member crew was taken hostage by the pirates. The dhow was marshalled to the port of Hobyo. India dispatched warships to the area and inter-government agencies maintained a close watch and effective coordination to end the crisis. After successful negotiations between the dhow’s agents and pirates, the crew was released.

The above incident merits attention from four perspectives. The first concerns the safety of crew against piracy and armed robbery, particularly those onboard dhows. These are poor people and easy targets for pirates; they surrender without putting up any resistance and are forced to pay hefty ransoms for release failing which they remain in captivity for long periods. This is not the first time an Indian dhow has been captured by Somali pirates. In 2009, Bhaktisagar, a Gujarat based dhow was hijacked by Somali pirates who demanded US$300,000 to release the crew. In another incident, a US Navy ship rescued an Indian dhow and the captured pirates were handed over to authorities for trial in a Kenyan court. In 2014, Somali pirates released Al Nasri, a dhow carrying 2,000 goats destined for Dubai considering it as fragile cargo. There are also other cases of Indian dhows being captured by pirates including Krishnajyot, al Kadri, al Ijaj, and Osmani. The fate of the vessels Nar Narayan, Sea Queen and Vishwa Kalyan is unknown. 

Notwithstanding these perilous voyages, Indian dhows have continued to sail between the Persian Gulf and Somalia. The Indian Directorate General of Shipping, through various advisories, has declared the east coast of Africa and Somalia as dangerous for shipping including for smaller craft such as dhows, and has strongly recommended avoiding areas west and south across the imaginary line between Salalah in Oman and Male in the Maldives. 

Second, the dhows which come under the control of pirates can potentially masquerade as trading vessels and used for attacks on unsuspecting ships, for drug smuggling and even for terrorism. The dhows are suspected to be used for drug trade and between 2013 and 2016 the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) intercepted and seized over 9300kg of high purity heroin from these vessels. In 2015, a dhow named ‘Barooki’, with 12 crew members (seven Iranians and five Baluchs) was discovered off the Kerala coast raising fears that it may be engaged in subversive activities after “no fishing equipment like nets or other materials were found in the dhow.”

Third is the economics of dhow trade. In the Arabian Sea, dhow trade is centuries old and has been popular among the smaller Gujarati and Kerala traders in India and in the Persian Gulf. The dhows displace less than 1000 tons and carry a variety of cargo including iron, coal, steel, cement, grain, livestock and other low value items. These are not ‘just in time’ or ‘time-bound deliveries’ and the dhows can sometime take up to two to three weeks between India and the Gulf countries or to ports in East Africa.

Another significant role of the dhow trade concerns the supply of food to war-torn Yemen. These vessels ship nearly 14000 to 18000 tons of foodstuffs (cereals, rice, condiments, etc) every month to Yemen and each boat carries as much as 2000 tons of cargo. The voyage takes about five to eight days. The threat of Somali piracy and the ongoing civil war in Yemen has severely impacted on the food supply chains between the Gulf region and the Yemini ports of Hodeidah and Salif on the Red Sea, where all the large grain silos are located. 

The fourth issue about the dhows is traditional boat-building.  These boats are built in India, Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The dhows in India are built in Gujrat and Kerala. Those built in Gujarat are towed to the Gulf countries for fitting of machinery, particularly engines and other navigation equipment. Apparently, under a barter deal, the supplier of engine and equipment becomes a ‘co-owner of the vessel and plies the services of the vessel for a number of ‘trade days’ in exchange for sponsoring the engine.’

In India, Baypore in Kerala is home to the art of Uru making, a wooden dhow that was part of the trading network with Mesopotamia. The dhow trade is popular along the Malabar Coast and these vessels call at small ports in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. 

Given its economic versatility and traditional boat-building capability, dhow trade needs to be preserved. It is a good example where culture, trade, history and society blend and can be an agenda for soft power exchanges between India and the Gulf countries, particularly Oman, Iran and the UAE.

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