All Hands on Deck with Ismail Shareef, General Manager, Al Shaali Marine Maldives

PUBLISHED August 05, 2022 | updated October 15, 2022 02:30

Mr. Ismail Shareef began his career with Al Shaali Marine in 2011 as the Service Delivery Manager. For the past eleven years, he has honed his craft in a way that pays homage to boat building as well as driving the company's strategic direction and tremendous growth.

We sat with him to learn more about his experience, the challenges he faced, and what he’s currently up to.

1. From your perspective, how has the Maldivian marine industry evolved over the years, can you tell us some of the drastic changes experienced in the industry?

The industry has drastically changed from when it initially started in the Maldives. Compared to then, as of recently, everyone wants to operate the fastest vessel. Speed is utmost importance while the required safety standards have been ignored. With speed set as the first choice, there’s bound to be setbacks or difficulties faced, not only with marine vessels but also in other industry activities. In business, speed is enhanced with set specific proportions. Engines built for commercial use are not equipped to operate at an excessive speed, as leisure vessels have that demanding speed for customers. Leisure vessels are used in short periods, having a limited lifetime. The durability is on the low with these vessels despite the high speed. In the case of safety as well, these vessels are not stable compared to commercial vessels. Cost wise, fuel consumption is high, making the overall cost also high. It is not easy to work and try to recover the cost back. Therefore, as I have mentioned, the biggest change has been the transformation of speed over the years and the various developments to marine vessels. 

When we were little, there were only a few vessels equipped with engines. Back then, we used to have Riyaa Dhoni, also known as Sailing Boat. It was perceived as uncomfortable before but now we want to go back to Riyaa Dhoni. With development in the industry, modernized vessels have made our hearts faster, wanting to travel faster. Starting from engines boats, now we also have petrol fueled boats built. As of recently, there is no wall for the industry to build boats of various designs and shapes wanted. May it be for a ride across the lagoon or to a picnic island, to spend overnight and a fully live-in vessel, it is possible with the enhancement of technology across the world. No matter where in the world, development of new mechanisms or machinery does not go unnoticed by the people, we are all connected in the world through online platforms and more. When such products are introduced to the market, it is easy to decipher the materials used and the processes involved with building it. I can say this is vital with progressing in the industry through exchange of ideas and concepts. 

2. Please share the status of Al Shaali Marine’s position in the Maldivian marine industry?

Al Shaali Marine Maldives was founded in 2006. During the time of our establishment, there were countless builders in the Maldives. There was no special certification required to build boats in the Maldives. Due to not having identified these builders at the time, the Ministry of Transport also didn’t have recorded information on them. There were at least 2 to 4 builders on each island, referred to as Maavadibe (builder) in Dhivehi. They mainly built small vessels such as fishing boats using Coconut Palm Tree wood (Ruh vakaru) and Cottonwood (Dhiggaa). 

There was no specific vessel for transportation until very recently. Prior to the ferry service with speed boats, we had bigger engine boats also considered the cargo boats, enabling transport from atolls to Malé and vice versa. At the time, tourists were transferred to the resorts using boats made from wood (Baitheli), as fiber boats had yet to be built in the early 2000s. Fiber boats were introduced to the Maldives starting 2004. Most of these boats were built abroad and delivered to the Maldives. As we started our business in 2006, Gulf Craft, Universal and a few were in the picture with boat yards built. With the establishment of boatyards in the Maldives and the emerging stakeholders had paved the way for a successful industry. 

There’s definitely an advantage for the first to establish and commence building boats despite the challenges as they get more exposure. After a while, fiber boats were being built across the Maldives, starting from smaller vessels to bigger ones. People don’t know many skilled boat builders who have constructed these vessels. Anyone could build as there was no building code, and it was an easy process where no official registration in relation to identification and education was required. 

Gulf craft was the first to build fiber speed boats in the Maldives. Al Shaali did not have a focused market or boats when we began our operations. Al Shaali designed and built boats for not a specific individual but in its own grounds, available for those interested. Marketing of the Al Shaali brand was not in the initial plans. That may be the reason for Al Shaali’s impotency in building their name at the start. We had catered for what was on demand in the market here, customer requirements and what we could build with our capacity. Gulf Craft started with craft 36, we began with 34. By the time, we built 36, they had 38, again we built 39, then they came out with 40. In between, we also built excursion vessels, 55. We have expanded our business in the Maldives market with various models for different sectors. From 2014 onwards, we studied and identified relevant markets in our efforts to showcase our products. Since then, we have designed and introduced new vessels through boat shows from 2015, every year. 

3. When did you initially join the Hospitality and Tourism industry and can you tell us about the journey of Al Shaali Marine; shipyard and the brand success story in the Maldives?

Right after secondary studies, I joined a corporate job at MWSC. Then I moved to MIFCO as a practicing marine engineer. They gave us practical tasks, for example, we cut pipes using hand saws and more of these works using hand-held tools. At the time, I had planned to go study in Sri Lanka. However, it got pushed back. I was unsure if I would be able to leave for studies. I decided I would apply somewhere rather than waiting for this uncertain chance. I got the job of an Assistant Account at Island Explorer. It was one of the biggest safaris to tour in the Maldives, operated by Universal. Despite having a specific position, you had to work in other areas, such as dealing with guests. Hotel staff numbers were limited onboard with a good number boat staff. Hotel staff are usually the ones in service of guests.

Therefore, we were required to help them with activities onboard. I was able to complete my open water and advance diving during this time. Due to my active side onboard, the management realized that I had the potential and the ability to fulfill work requirements in such an environment. I was assigned a promotional role as well. Unfortunately, the boat was shut down as it had to undergo maintenance. This maintenance was not provided here in the Maldives, we have to move the vessel to a dock yard abroad, the Lanka dock. The staff were released from that point. I joined Velassaru or formally known as Lagoona, in-charge of the dock section. Working there, I noticed that Meeru had a job opportunity for a Transport Manager. I got the job and worked for a few years. They engaged in training and development for building staff. My father was a fisherman and a builder, he had all the tools to repair and build a boat. From an early age, I was familiar with these tools and basics of building, thanks to my father. I could identify any defects or problems in vessels and work with needed repair. I parted with the resort, not because I had a place to join in mind, but I wanted to dissociate from the resort life. I realized it was not for me. After a while in 2011, I got the chance to work with Al Shaali Marine as a Supervisor. In 2013, I was promoted to Service Delivery Manager, then to Operations Manager, ultimately to General Manager. Whether I was the Service Delivery Manager or the General Manager, overall, I managed the place. Though responsibility grew with the promotions. 

4. Please share with us your views on the local marine safety standards surrounding the tourism industry.

There are safety standards implemented in the Maldives marine industry. However, people to follow them are scarce. Despite having standards, everyone wants an easy way to carry out the service. This is mainly due to the absence of a monitoring mechanism here in the Maldives. It can be that people and captains are not aware of these standards. This can be regulated with a monitoring team. For example, when we arrive at the airport harbor in Hulhulé, we see that resort teams guide and instruct guests on safety (wearing life jackets, etc.) before boarding in the absence of such people in the boat or they do it, ending with a “wish you a safe journey.” In this case, we see very clearly that standards are upheld with monitoring. Apart from resort transport, we rarely see the set standards followed. Truthfully, the unfortunate situations happening with normal transport networks and even across other areas, people are not made aware of instructions to follow during a state of emergency. Even in a situation of engine malfunction, with no instructions given on such issues, people have no choice but to panic. The safety regulations and standards can only be followed by assembling a team to monitor the vessels. 

National Boating Association of Maldives (NBAM) conducted campaigns together with stakeholders and companies in the industry to spread awareness on the importance of wearing life jackets onboard. They have helped but sometimes, the means to follow it are lacking due to the irresponsibility of vessels.  The regulating bodies need to monitor the local transport services. We need to have a terminal established specially for passengers arriving and departing from vessels, so that there will be no vessel docked at the area for long. Sometimes, we see passengers having to walk over one or two vessels to reach land after arriving at the destination. These boats are docked in a small area where transportations services are being carried out, putting the passengers at risk. This can be difficult for those of older age and ones finding it difficult to walk due to medical issues. This should not be allowed. Passengers should be able to step out straight to the terminal or jetty here. 

If there is no person to do the job currently, they should hire a person(s) to do the job. When commenced, this will be practiced and regulated under the set law and standards. 

5. Tell us about your aspirations to design and build Express 55-foot catamarans?

This is one of the most reliable models built in the Maldives. It is designed based on the Maldives sea conditions in mind to overcome unforeseen issues. The stability and durability of the vessel comes hand in hand with the comfort of the vessel, all services superior in regards to normal vessels. This inboard catamaran is designed for passenger transport with the capacity to accommodate 50-60 passengers. The boat will be showcased at Maldives Marine Expo 2022. The boat is built based on the reviews from the market with an all-new interior design. The seating can be customized and adjusted for customer preference. It can have rows of individual seats or a more home-ly feeling with sofas in the fully closed-air-conditioned cabins. 

6. Considering your growth in recent years, what do you need to match with the best-known boat building brands, who have been long established across the world?

I cannot give a precise growth rate for Al Shaali Marine, we can be considered one of the most renowned boat building companies in the marine industry, Maldives. We are always on the lookout for new changes, and we try to implement them in our productions. The company’s biggest asset is our staff. We put our utmost effort to develop staff, ensuring that they love the work they do, providing them with the best working environment. We consider our customers as part of our family, no matter what level, dealing with them in a cooperative and friendly way. We try to identify required developmental means for our staff annually. 

Working closely with customers, we try to overcome our challenges with coming new developments in the marine industry. There is no restriction to what we offer to customers as long as it’s in line with what we build.  

7. How are your sales in the resort market, and what are the key challenges and other potential markets you want to focus on? 

There have not been major challenges with what we do unless it goes beyond our knowledge. We mostly secure clients by reaching out to them first from our side. There are challenges in communication with customers, in relation to exchanging information. We have not faced difficulties with building, as we have the capability to cater for customers needs, whether it be for passenger transport, leisure/luxury vessels (with support from Dubai) and excursion / diving purposes. These products are available under the same roof. We are a service center, we can repair and provide maintenance for any type of sea craft for the resort market and others with equipment and tools available to us. Any individual can approach us for these services. In the case that maintenance is required for a vessel in which we do not have proper equipment and parts for, if we are provided with it by the client, we can surely ensure our role in building the vessel.

We are not focusing on any specific market, we are working for the whole marine industry. 

8. Do you have any plans to expand your facilities and existing services? 

Our boatyard has recently undergone expansion. But in the future, we have plans to further expand more efficiently in regards to the existing conditions, and requirements. We had planned to develop a yard in a new area, but it has been halted due to unfavorable conditions. Expedition plans are also there. We want whatever vessels we are operating in the Maldives to be built here, not only with Al Shaali but with other builders in the industry as well. Another thing is training and development. We need capable, hardworking individuals, unhesitant to take on leadership roles. 

If we have a vessel in Addu, there should be a means for its maintenance in that Atoll, rather than having to come to Malé for these services. To have such facilities available at your own convenience, closeby is a day that we look forward to. 

9. What are the key sustainable development initiatives or CSR activities done by Al Shaali Marine in the Maldives? 

We do not have listed our CSR programmes or we do not make public all our efforts in conducting such activities for the community. We have participated and aided in various causes for the government and the local community. We intend to provide support in the future as well for any circumstances that require our help. 

Al Shaali Marine Maldives partnered with National Boating Association of Maldives (NBAM) to initiate the ‘Life Jacket, Wear it’ campaign. Al Shaali looks forward to participating in more community engaging beneficial and development activities for the Maldives, as a whole, over the coming years. 

10. What would be your advice for the millennials who want to join the Seafarer’s industry?

It is not easy to have our surrounding ocean as the work environment. Those who want to work in any field related to the marine industry should have the passion and love for the job. You shouldn’t decide nonchalantly just to join, as you will have to bear a lot of responsibility in working onboard. Starting as a crew member, you can reach master level. And in engineering; from a mechanic to sprinter engineer. You can also be involved in building, design and manufacture in addition to operating vessels. As such, opportunities are countless in all these areas. Firstly, you need to have interest and determination to provide services for customers. A simple task such as helping a person on board is praiseworthy. You have to be ready to extend support to passengers in whatever difficulty -minor or major- they might have. 



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