Following a major restructuring at the company announced at the beginning of this year, The SuperYacht Times gets an exclusive interview with the new Acting CEO of Gulf Craft, Abeer Alshaali, alongside her father, Executive Chairman and company founder, Mohammed Alshaali, and discovers what’s next for the UAE-based business.Photo: Gulf CraftLocated in the north of the country as the least populous of its seven emirates, Umm Al Quwain has a population of 72,000 inhabitants and a total area of 770km², with its closest body of water being the Persian Gulf. Known as a site of significant Bronze Age archaeological importance due to the unearthing of a bounty of ancient coins, arrowheads and ceramics in the area, Umm Al Quwain is also home to numerous sites of interest including a fort, the ancient near-eastern city of Ed-Dur - the largest pre-Islamic site on the Persian Gulf coast - and Dreamland Aqua Park (the largest water park in the UAE).
As of the year 2001, however, Umm Al Quwain has also been the home base for the UAE-based shipyard Gulf Craft’s largest manufacturing facility, where its first superyacht over 30 metres, the Millennium 118, first touched the water.Photo: Gulf Craft Inc. The location for the building of Gulf Craft’s boats was originally found elsewhere, however, at a 218,000 square-foot facility in Ajman, the smallest of the UAE’s emirates, which was established by keen fisherman and boater Mohammed Alshaali with his brother back in 1982.
Starting off small by producing 14-foot runabouts targeted at the local market before reaching the milestone of the company’s first fishing boat, the Sport Fishing 24, the founding of the company by Alshaali originated from his personal experience with the prohibitive expense of shipping the boats he wanted to use for his fishing hobby from Europe or the USA to the UAE. “The idea came to us as the costs of shipping were just too much every time I wanted to buy a boat, so I thought why don’t we just build them here for ourselves?” To transform this idea into reality, Alshaali began discussions with other companies who were building boats predominantly in the USA.Photo: Gulf Craft“We bought the technology from them, used their expertise, purchased some moulds and that’s how we started.” But launching a fibreglass boat-building business in a country which, as Alshaali describes it, “had no boat-building industry and no supporting industry behind it” presented its own series of challenges for the co-founder, who was also juggling this new endeavour with a diplomatic career serving as UAE ambassador to the US at the time.Photo: Gulf Craft Inc. There were also practical, operational considerations which might not occur to those of us based in Europe and the US, right down to the level of importing screws to the shipyard. As Alshaali explains, “We had no manpower or knowledge of building boats so we had to bring everyone in and train them and even bring in the trainers! It was a real learning curve for both ourselves and our customers for the first 20 years. We used to even pay our salary to those working in the company because we weren’t making any money: there were a lot of challenges.” Indeed, Gulf Craft’s distance away from subcontractors and suppliers remain as the primary challenge for the shipyard today.However, the expression about clouds and silver linings also comes into play here. Gulf Craft is known for its four distinctive brands: Silvercraft, Oryx Yachts, Nomad Yachts, and the largest of its ranges, Majesty Yachts, spanning from the pocket-sized Majesty 48, the first superyacht - the Majesty 100 - right up to the Majesty 175 which is currently in build and awaiting a buyer ahead of her planned debut at this year’s Monaco Yacht Show. One of the common themes which keeps on returning during my conversation with Mohammed and Abeer is the importance of space on a Gulf Craft yacht: a quality which they attribute to the yard’s business model of building everything in-house.The Chairman elucidates further: “Even in our smaller yachts we create better space on board than any of the competition. How do we do this? Not because we are geniuses, no, it’s because we do everything in-house: we don’t have subcontractors or suppliers. We do the design, the engineering, the building, the marble, the interior, we do the flooring, the ceiling: we do everything. As a result, everybody can work together to control and maximise the utility space for the customer.” Naturally, cost is also key. “This also goes to the cost - because we do everything in house, we control the quality, the cost, the delivery, and this is the benefit for the Gulf Craft customer: they get a better quality, or at least the same quality, at much less cost compared to the others. In short, we have made being far away our advantage.”Photo: Majesty YachtsIndeed, the status of Gulf Craft today amongst the world’s foremost superyacht builders (“in the superyacht business we are between seventh and 15th in the world”), serves as proof that these initial obstacles didn’t need to become a sticking point for the company which it was unable to shake off. In fact, speaking to both the chairman and CEO, it becomes apparent that Gulf Craft has managed to overcome these logistical challenges to find a clear position within the market and is now looking to venture further into international markets: primarily the US and Europe, but also South-East Asia, Australia and South America.
Now making its presence felt at the major yacht shows worldwide, including both Cannes and Monaco, Gulf Craft ended 2019 on a high note after being awarded ‘Best in the Show’ at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show for its 43.3-metre Majesty 140 superyacht. With this accolade behind them, the company conceptualises itself as a true “international player” and its strategy going forward reflects this.Photo: Gulf CraftCurrently undergoing a major, ongoing restructuring plan which saw CEO Gregory Yeakle step down last summer and being replaced in the new year by Abeer, Gulf Craft has a whole host of exciting plans ahead. This includes the desire to venture into building larger yachts up to 60 metres out of steel and aluminium - a first for the fibreglass-specialised shipyard. This would require a new facility to be built (in addition to its quarters in the UAE, Gulf Craft also constructs vessels at a 100,000 square-foot facility in the Maldives) in order to accommodate this, and for which there is, according to the chairman, “definite interest from clients: we have the drawings for the first boats ready and we hope that we will start the first yacht soon.”Photo: Gulf Craft Inc. Photo: Gulf Craft Inc. As well as responding to the much-commented-upon industry trend of new clients wanting to go bigger with their superyachts (“I think this is a universal trend: those people who have money try to always go bigger for their yachting needs, so whoever had a 30-metre 10 years’ ago will have a 40 or a 50-metre now”), taking advantage of the potential of going bigger by building in steel and aluminium also makes strategic sense for the company from a business perspective thanks to its ability to allow them to expand their market reach.Photo: Gulf Craft“We see that there are a lot of potentials for our product worldwide, and that is what we are counting on to build these big yachts for this market. When we talk about smaller yachts, we are more efficient in the Gulf region, but when it comes to exporting them - we cannot be as competitive as we are for bigger yachts. Whatever you pay for insurance, transportation, aftersales and marketing is the same whether you are exporting a small boat or a big boat, but you obviously make more from the big boat, which is why we are focusing on bigger yachts for the international market.”
Alongside plans for a 200-foot steel and aluminium boat - which would join the Majesty line of superyachts - the company is also focusing efforts on broadening the reach of its mid-size range, having started their strategy for 2020 by “opening the market in Europe for Nomad and Oryx” as Abeer explains, commenting that she envisages significant growth for these two brands in the coming years. Photo: Gulf Craft Inc. As for Abeer herself, who studied at Rice University in Houston, Texas before working for HSBC, taking on the role of acting CEO at Gulf Craft was an organic and natural progression from her previous role handling the management as Executive Management Officer at the company. Addressing the inevitable question of her status as the first Emirati woman to ever hold such a position at Gulf Craft - and, indeed, as the first female Emirati staff member to be employed by the company - Abeer sees it simply as “a sign of the times”, since we are seeing “more and more women in leading roles across the public sector in the UAE and worldwide.” Photo: Gulf Craft Inc. Looking to the future from her position at the helm, Abeer also hints at more excitement to come from Gulf Craft, with plenty of as-of-yet-undisclosed new products in the pipeline. “We are working hard on diversifying our market and raising the quality of our products to help us gain more maturity in the marketplace. The product line we will be launching in the next few years is going to be really interesting and spark a lot of attention! I am excited - I think in the next five years we will be seeing some real growth in terms of market share.”Photo: Gulf CraftFor both Mohammed and Abeer, the success which Gulf Craft has forged over its 38-year long history so far is, at least in part, because of its unique geographical location far away from the hub of the superyacht industry, not just in spite of it. As the Chairman comments, “We don’t come from an industrial country, we come from a luxurious country, a country of Emirates airlines, with the highest building in the world. We come from a rich country and this is reflected in the products we sell.”
Abeer agrees: “Dubai is synonymous with luxury, but, at the same time, Gulf Craft was founded by boating people. So we sit at a special precipice in between people who have a history with the sea, have a love for the sea and know what boaters are looking for, but also understand the luxury aspect that clients have come to expect today. This is what gives us a real understanding and a feel for what clients are looking for in that marketplace.”Photo: Majesty YachtsFinally, then, with its completion on track for May 2020, it is hull number one of the Majesty 120 (first presented at the 2019 Monaco Yacht Show) which will be the next talking point for the yard and which will allow Gulf Craft to keep broadening its reach. Its design is “ideally suited” for international customers spanning the Gulf region, Europe and the USA, and features “fresh and light” interiors from the drawing boards of Cristiano Gatto.
The boat’s layout is available in either a five or six cabin configuration for up to 12 guests and she includes a sundeck jacuzzi and a beach club which can be converted into a tender storage unit. And, as a final nod to international industry trends, the Majesty 120 also has the accolade of being the first Gulf Craft superyacht with 100% electrically-operated and all engines and generators are powered using conventional diesel methods.With the restructuring process still very much underway at the company, there is clearly plenty of change on the horizon for Gulf Craft, but, as Mohammed Alshaali himself puts it, they’re more than up for the challenge. “To keep alive in the market, you have to bring some innovation, whether that is with the machinery, the engineering, the layout or the usage of space. That is what Gulf Craft has always been known for and will continue to be known for in the future.”
This article was first featured in The SuperYacht Times newspaper. Subscribe now to receive your copy straight to your door and never miss another issue.