DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- When frigates fire warning shots across the bows of small wooden vessels and when tiny, swift craft attack large ships carrying goods to the wealthy lands of the western end of the Persian Gulf, old timers on these sandy shores wonder just how much things really have changed with the arrival of oil and modern times.
The warships firing a few weeks ago were U.S. Navy vessels and not British men-of-war, and the small marauding craft are Iranian speedboats and not swift, wind-driven Arab dhows.
But much of what has happened over the past few weeks seems to be a page out of the history of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Contrasting with the modern architecture, Mercedes cars, superhighways, touch-tone telephones and stylish boutiques that make up the urban landscape of the United Arab Emirates, a walk along Dubai's Creek -- the protected inland channel that has been Dubai's harbor for almost two centuries -- is like a journey into history.
There, small wooden vessels, whose appearance seems little changed from that of centuries ago -- although some are driven by propellers rather than the wind -- dock along the quay, waiting for cargoes that may go to destinations like Mombasa, Bombay, Bahrain and Iran.
There was a time when the creeks of Dubai, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimeh hid swift pirate boats that preyed on shipping in gulf waters, much as speedboats operated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards do today.
The British put an end to the gulf piracy with a punitive expedition sent out from Bombay in 1819. The pirates may have left, but the dhow stayed, carrying fishermen and pearls to the maharajahs and villagers of India, slaves from Africa and, today, everything from rice to refrigerators to Iran and ports beyond. With dozens of dhows crossing daily to and from Iran, there is widespread suspicion that they may even be used to drop the mines that have been bedeviling gulf shipping recently.
Outwardly, these vessels look much like the craft that Marco Polo derided as unseaworthy centuries ago. They range from small fishing vessels of about 20 feet in length to 50- or 60-foot cargo craft. The ships still are made by hand, often with tools of ancient design , at small shipyards along the coast. Most of the craftsmen today are Indian or Pakistani, but the ships' designs are Arabian.
There really is not a single vessel called a dhow, although it has come to be used as a generic term in the West for the single-masted, sharp-prowed, lateen-sailed ships native to this region. In the Arabian Peninsula, there are a half-dozen different versions of this type, but technically at least, no dhows. There are baghalas, now rarely seen, which are large ships with a high stern resembling a medieval, European-designed galleon.
The most commonly seen large vessel, however, is the round-bellied karachi. Another ship once common but now less often seen is the jalibut, which has a vertical rather than angled bow. The ship and name are said to be derived from the gallevat, a shallow-draft warship used along the Indian coast until the end of the 18th century, whose name is said to stem from the Portuguese gallcota, a war galley.
Much more common are the boom, which has a short, high-angled bow and a vertical stern, and the sambuq, the ancient pearling boat with a slightly rounded bow and high stern.
Common to all is the gulf seaman's version of the toilet, an open-air platform, with a hole, slung over the back of the ship.
While little has changed in design or comforts aboard these vessels, one modernizing element has been added to many: an engine, which supplements the sail. Some are said to have diesel plants powerful enough to outrun all but the fastest Indian patrol boats -- necessary equipment for the gold-smuggling runs that are said to be one of their major uses.
For all the centuries of experience, sailing the dhow, especially with cargo, is an adventure every trip.
"There are no plans, no load specifications for these things," said one old British sailor now in the shipping business in Dubai. "So they load them up with everything from cars to camels and take them out the Creek to the headwaters. There, the crew, usually six or eight men, puts the ship through some tight turns to see if it will handle the cargo. Most of the time they make it. Sometimes they don't."