A life-long love of the sea led Dr Mohammed Al Barwani to acquire not just one but two major shipyards, Oceanco and Turquoise Yachts. He tells BOAT about balancing the business of yachting and life on board his own 32m motor yacht in Oman...
“I remember building a small boat from planks of wood when I was a kid. My friends and I carried the boat to the sea but as soon as we put that thing in the water it sank and all my friends walked away,” says Dr Mohammed Al Barwani with a wry smile. Thankfully his shipbuilding has gone better than his raft building, as he is now the owner of Dutch yard Oceanco and the major investor in Turkey’s Turquoise Yachts.
“I’ve always lived by the sea, and I have always loved the sea. I remember going fishing when I was about six and it was me that got hooked,” he explains as we take respite from a hectic Monaco Yacht Show in the Yacht Club de Monaco. However, despite being a lifelong owner of various boats – ranging from a Laser sailing dinghy to his current 32-metre Hatteras motor yacht – it wasn’t until 2010 that the Omani businessman, who is founder and chairman of MB Holding Group, became involved with the industry from a business perspective.
“It was during the financial crisis, and I was visiting Oceanco hoping to find an abandoned project,” he explains. “I didn’t find a project, but the owner at the time wanted to sell and do something else. I was impressed by the people I saw; I was impressed by the cleanliness of the shipyard, and I thought maybe we should get into this.” Taking on a shipyard during the economic uncertainties of the period was undoubtedly a gamble, but it paid off. “We were very lucky because soon after the financial crisis the business came back. We acquired it in April 2010; in 2010 we didn’t sell any boats, but in 2011 we sold three boats.”
Over the past decade Oceanco has been behind some extraordinary and innovative yachts – including 106.7-metre sailing yacht Black Pearl, 110-metre Kaos (formerly Jubilee) and 90-metre DAR. “I am proud of every yacht that we have produced; we produce beautiful yachts,” he says. Dr Al Barwani keeps in regular contact with the management but only visits the yard every couple of months. “When I took over, I gave freedom to the management to do what they want to do. I have a final ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but it is the management that is driving it. I enjoy it, it’s not work, it is more of a pleasure.”
In 2015 Dr Al Barwani decided to expand his investment in the superyacht industry further, acquiring a majority stake in Turquoise Yachts. “I thought at the time, and I still do, that Turquoise has a lot of potential for growth. Turkey has been growing as an industrial country and Turquoise was also growing. Since we acquired it, the company has come some way,” he says.
On the eve of Monaco Yacht Show, Turquoise announced the sale of its largest project to date – an 87-metre custom superyacht named Project Vento. This project sits at the top end of the sweet spot that Dr Al Barwani would like the yard to focus on. “We want to concentrate on yachts from 55 metres to about 90 metres,” he explains. “The 40-metre range is too demanding, and we can’t make money there.”
Dr Al Barwani has owned his current 32-metre Hatteras for 12 years and predominantly keeps the yacht in Muscat. When the weather is good, he often hosts meetings on the aft deck in the marina, ordering in food from the local restaurants. “It’s nice for my clients because instead of being in an office and talking business, we are out on a boat.” But when it comes to the weekends it is all about family. “I have eleven grandchildren, we could start a football team, they are my pride and joy,” he says. “On the weekends we all go out on the boat to relax. I may go for a half an hour dive and the kids enjoy being on the jet skis or the sea bobs.”
His favourite cruising spot is the Daymaniyat Islands, situated less than 20 nautical miles from Muscat. Comprising nine small islands, the nature reserve is famous for its hawksbill and green turtles. “The islands are beautiful,” he says. “I have scuba-dived in a lot of places, but for me Daymaniyat is one of the best diving spots in the world.”
He is passionate that more yachts should come and experience the Omani coastline for themselves. “Oman has a lot to offer, you will be alone on a beautiful beach, the islands are unspoilt and clean. It is just one of the best places to be,” he says. “Going back a few years ago there were a lot of yachts coming into the Indian Ocean but then unfortunately piracy came up and the yachts stopped coming. Now the yachts are coming again, but the problem is there are no facilities and services. It is a chicken-and-egg situation.”
As well as diving, Dr Al Barwani’s other passion while on board is photography. “I inherited the interest from my father. I still travel with a camera – I have three or four of them, but unfortunately my smartphone is taking over,” he says. “I take photos of anything, passing yachts, the sea, the kids. All of my photos are on my phone or the cloud, at my last count there were more than 20,000 pictures.”
With his football team of grandchildren, it’s perhaps not surprising that Dr Al Barwani has considered upsizing to an Oceanco. “We started building a 90-metre on spec and I got the kids to come to the keel-laying ceremony and then a year down the line someone wanted to buy it,” he says. “It has actually happened a couple of times and now the kids are saying, ‘Grandfather, we don’t want to do that anymore because you keep on selling them!’”
Having failed to build his own yacht (without selling it in the process), Dr Al Barwani now has his sights on a 70-metre and has a new plan. “I may consider buying a used Oceanco or Turquoise,” he explains. “A lot of these boats have a life that could go on forever. I would buy a 15- or 20-year-old boat, take it back to the yard to get it refitted and make it more environmentally friendly. It would come back out as a new boat.”
Sustainability is becoming increasingly important for both yards Dr Al Barwani is involved with. “There is definitely a move towards conservation of energy, conservation of the environment and recycling of materials,” he says. “The clients are driving it, the public are driving it but the regulations are also driving it. There will be ports in future where you can’t go in unless your boat meets certain minimum emissions.”
There are of course multiple hybrid and green fuel solutions hitting the market, but Dr Al Barwani also thinks there might be a simpler solution. “There is nothing cleaner than building a sailboat; for 3,000 years there have been sailboats and for 3,000 years they haven’t polluted the oceans.” Oceanco has increased the number of sailing yachts it is producing, and there is currently a 127-metre vessel under construction at the yard. “Ten years ago, we were not building sailboats; now we are probably the leading builder of large sailboats,” he adds.
Aside from his involvement in the superyacht industry Dr Al Barwani’s career has predominantly been based in oil and gas and he sees a lot of similarities between the two. “Oil and gas are a very disciplined area. Because of the accidents that have happened historically it has evolved to be very safety-conscious,” he explains. “It has given me a discipline to look first thing into the safety of anything and obviously safety comes along with environmental issues and sustainability.”
Aside from his oil and gas assets, he also has business interests in banking, insurance, engineering and hospitality. The latter includes several resorts in Oman. “I think there’s a similarity between building yachts and building hotels. A yacht is basically a floating hotel,” he says. One of his daughters looks after Dr Al Barwani’s hospitality business and his other children are also involved in different areas of MB Holding Group. “Some have more interest in the oil and gas and some take more interest in the shipbuilding.”
With the next generation continuing his legacy, at some stage Dr Al Barwani might finally find the time to visit his dream destination. “I have dreamt of going to Raja Ampat for a long time. I have read everything about it, I have watched all the movies about it. It is the place at the top of my bucket list,” he reveals. However, he has very set ideas on what type of yacht he wants to visit the Indonesian archipelago on, and it isn’t made of wood. “I want to go on a nice yacht built by one of my two shipyards,” he says. “As soon as I get my future yacht, I will be there.”