Miles away from Qatar, a sleepy coastal town in northern Kerala is paying a steep price for the diplomatic crisis that has hit the West Asian country. The boatmakers of Beypore, skilled in an ancient art of making ships and other marine vehicles, are fearing staggering losses and drop in trade that come their way from the prosperous sheikhs of the Gulf country.
The artisans of Beypore, near Kozhikode, have supplied as many as 10 luxury dhows, modelled on yachts and costing ₹5-7 crore each, to the Qatari royalty since 2010-11. These enormous boats are constructed using an ancient technique, believed to go back thousands of years, to the beginning of India's maritime trade with Mesopotamia.
The basic framework of the dhows are made in Kerala—a bulk of it using very expensive teak wood—after which they set sail for Qatar. Once they get there, the final electrical and engineering works are finished. With the current crisis in Qatar, which has precipitated a naval blockade, the transportation of the dhows has become a headache for the builders.
Locally known as urus, these dhows have revived an industry that was dwindling for almost two decades, until Qatari sheikhs decided to get their very own customised luxury water transport around 2010. In the intervening years, technological advancement and use of heavy metals in ship-making had made wooden boats redundant. The once-prestigious craftsmen were pushed into the service of making smaller fishing boats, until the demand came back in vogue again, giving employment to nearly 200 families of carpenters and iron smiths.
The age-old knowledge of boat-making had, however, stayed alive among the master craftsmen, who rely entirely on memory to conceptualise and execute the building of dhows. The secret to creating ships and boats with some of the most superior hulls in the world is closely guarded, never committed to paper and handed down only to the most deserving.
It takes at least three years to build a luxury yacht, some of which can be as long as 180 feet and weigh about 1,500 tonnes. The orders come well in advance, given this extended timeline, and gained a certain momentum since 2014, when FIFA announced Qatar as the next venue for the football World Cup in 2022. The fortunes of a dwindling shipyard and business suddenly looked up, with people choosing to work for Arab clients, who allegedly promise better pay and perks compared to the local Malayali promoters.
A sizeable number of Keralites are currently living and working in Qatar—almost half of the 6.5-7 lakh Indians who are resident in the Gulf nation. Deprived of an income through their tradition craft, many boatmakers have also moved to the Gulf for many years.
While working conditions in Qatar may not be the best in the world, many employees in Kerala claim that their Arab bosses not only pay them well but also take care of the medical expenses if they are involved in accidents. The Qatar crisis has suddenly set the clock back for them, to a time when their special gift for boatmaking was on the verge of extinction.
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