Taking stock of Dubai’s fishing heritage

Sudeshna Ghosh explores how workers at Jumeirah Fishing Harbour are carrying Dubai's history as a prominent fishing village into the present day

Ali Khalifa stares out at the sea, a sense of longing writ large on his face, sitting on a wooden bench outside the majlis in Jumeirah Fishing Harbour. Around him, a languid sense of ennui pervades, everything blanketed in a haze typical of hot summer afternoons. Rows of fishing boats bob silently in the marina, while the waters of the Arabian Gulf gently lap at the shore.

On land, large fishing nets lie unused, as if waiting for their next outing. On the far side in a covered storage area, Babu Kutty, a wizened fisherman from South India repairs a net with his weathered hands.

Traditional lanterns embellishing the block of wind tower-style buildings wear a desolate, dusty look. There are barely any people around, except for a few more Indian fishermen sitting on a grassy knoll, apparently chewing the fat.

But inside the Fishermen’s Majlis next door, it is a lively clubhouse-style atmosphere with Emirati men of all ages gathering for a coffee and a chat; it is from here that I have prised Ali out for a chat.

He has been going fishing with his father since he was a child. “Back then, there was no harbour. The coastline was sparsely populated, this was all a beach, we used to play football here,” he reminisces. “As kids, we would even catch fish just from the edge of the shore, with our lines, and go and sell it in the market for 4-5 dirhams.”

While that may have just been a bit of pocket money for children, this coast and its bounty is what sustained Dubai’s economy, alongside pearl diving and seafaring, prior to the UAE’s unification in 1971. For billions of people living in coastal communities around the world, the ocean is their lifeblood, providing not just the staple diet, but also serving as the primary economic driver.

“We used to have a saying, ‘If your lungi [cotton sarongs worn by men in certain communities] is wet, then your pocket will have money’,” Ali laughs.

Unlike other coastal societies however, Dubai’s financial landscape has changed beyond recognition in the last few decades, with fishing receding in importance to not even feature in the country’s economy today. A combination of factors has led to this, not least the rapid development thanks to the discovery of oil, and subsequent economic diversification towards real estate, trade and tourism - which inevitably leads to traditional ways of life being left behind in the whirl of socio-economic change.

This has had another indirect effect on the coast, as offshore property developments have contributed to depleting fish stocks (alongside other factors such as unregulated fishing practices in the past and changing water temperatures).

Now, to have any degree of success, fishermen need to go much farther out to sea. Even more so in the warmer months, as the water temperatures nearer the coast are too high to provide a habitat. As such, the fishing here is quite seasonal – if in winter a fishing boat can haul in up to 300kg a day, in the summer, it is barely 50-100kg.

The fishing methods change too. Net fishing is not allowed between May-September, so they use a wire cage trap technique called gargour – an igloo-shaped contraption that is baited with bread, then left out in the bottom of the sea for a few days.

Although people like Ali, a greying businessman with a successful international career don’t rely on fishing anymore for sustenance, he ensures he goes out with his crew all year-round. (In Dubai, fishing practices are highly regulated now, with licenses are only given out to Emiratis, who usually hire small crews, usually of Indian fishermen, to help).

For him, the call of the sea is visceral. “I go fishing because of pleasure. We live all our life by the sea, it’s our culture, our heritage,” he says matter-of-factly. “Fishing isn’t easy, especially in the winter. It is cold, the waters are rough, there are storms. But, I want to bring fresh fish home to my family every day.”

His sons may not share this sentiment though. Even though he takes his boys out fishing once in a while, he rues that “the next generation will not know how to repair a broken net, or make a trap”.

The recent regeneration of the fishing harbor to turn it into a community hub attempts to address this. Opened three years ago, it has been built in a traditional Arabian style, and houses a number of restaurants, apart from a small fish market and the aforementioned majlis. It is planned that the harbour will eventually become a lively waterfront destination for tourists and residents, with a promenade, and showcases of Dubai’s fishing heritage.

Ali makes no secret of the fact that he, like most of his contemporaries, would rather swap the air-conditioned majlis for the informal barasti on the beach he remembers from his past. But for the generations to come, this gentrification of the former nerve-centre of the coastal community may be just what is needed to keep the history alive… lest we forget.