Pearl diving was once the driving force of the UAE economy. It contributed massively to the UAE’s sustenance and was the major profession for most of the population. Although the industry collapsed by the early 1900s, the traces of this historical golden period, are still ingrained in the hearts of the people of the country. Let’s find out more about the history of pearl diving in the UAE.
Pearling and the UAE economy
Pearling was the mainstay of the economy in the UAE. The money earned from this occupation circulated in the market, benefiting both divers and other residents of the UAE.
Abdulla Al Suwaidi, the founder of Suwaidi Pearls, states that at the beginning of each pearling seasons, wealthy families of the region used to give an advance loan to nukhadas (captains). They would spend the money to maintain their boats and buy supplies for the crew. In exchange for the favour, they would offer them the pearls they collected.
However, captains who were not indebted to any financier would sell their pearls to a professional pearl merchant.
Soon, the pearling ecosystem of the UAE piqued the attention of divers from Yemen followed by India, Iran and other Arab countries when they came to Dubai to trade spices, textiles and rice. Eventually, Arab and Indian moneylenders controlled the trade as the chief financiers of the industry.
Mumbai became the world’s largest pearl market. Stones were polished and dispatched from Mumbai to Europe, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
Those intrepid local merchants who wanted to save brokerage fees by dealing with India sought British, French and American buyers. That’s because they constantly bought pearls from the souqs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
History of Pearl Diving in the UAE
Pearl diving has been intrinsic to the UAE culture and heritage. There are many facts about the history of pearl diving that will offer you an unprecedented glimpse to the region’s past.
Basis of the foundation of Dubai and Abu Dhabi
UAE’s two biggest cities – Dubai and Abu Dhabi- came into being because of the booming pearl industry of the country. Being home to pearling sites, they were regular destinations for pearl divers. To save their travelling time, they moved their families to these coastal towns and began living there. Soon others followed suit, and these destinations became home to many!
The global appeal of UAE pearls
UAE’s pearls were in great demand across the world. They were traded all the way to India, Srilanka, Venice and Scandinavia. Top-ranking brands such as Cartier catapulted to fame by using these pearls due to their prestige and quality.
In fact, in 1912, Jacques Cartier embarked on his first journey to the region to search for pearls.
Treasure Trove of History: Pearl diving heritage preserved in the UAE
The popular Dubai Museum displays pearl diving artefacts, featuring a life-size diorama of pearl divers. The Pearl Museum also features the largest exclusive collection of Arabian Gulf pearls by Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais, a descendent of pearl divers in the UAE. He donated his collection to pay tribute to all the pearl divers of the country.
Other monuments that pay tribute to the rich history of pearling in the UAE are:
- Ras Al Khaimah’s Pearl Roundabout
- Sharjah’s pearl-topped monument at Al Ittihad Square
- Dubai Pearl, a freehold development
How pearl divers worked in the UAE
Let’s dig deeper and find more about the tradition of pearl diving in the UAE.
Pearling Season: When was pearl diving practised?
Pearl diving usually occurred between June and September. The water was warm so it was easier for divers to go deep into the sea in the quest for pearls.
Equipment used for pearl diving in the UAE
Pearl divers in the UAE used:
- Dyeen: a woven bag that divers carried to put the shells
- Fattam: a clip made of turtle shells
- Yeda: rope to tether the diver to the dhow
Role of boats: Dhows had a significant part to play
During these months, a dhow used to carry divers as well as other important crew members to the sites targeted for this activity. The sailing vessel also had an ‘Al Saib’ on board, the sailor in charge of pulling the divers up to the surface.
The magnitude of the activity: Diving underwater was no easy feat
Divers had to tie a small stone to the bottom of their foot to maintain a strong balance while searching for oysters in the seabed. There was always a risk of drowning and attacks from one of the more aggressive marine creatures.
Pearl Diving Sites: Spots to find pearls in the UAE
Captain Mohammad Khalifa Bin Thalith from Dubai Ports, the man who put together a list of pearl diving sites stated that the Arabian Gulf was home to as many eight sites where pearling was possible. Now, these areas have been submerged into oil fields that are not easy to reach.
Old practices of pearling in the UAE
Old practices such as plugging the nose with turtle shell clips, protecting ears with earwax, maintaining a communal atmosphere and consuming coffee and dates before a dive have been an integral part of pearling.
How did the UAE pearling industry decline?
The Gulf pearl industry began plummeting in the 1920s. It further declined by the late 1920s and early 1930s. By that time, the Japanese had found a way to make flawless artificial pearls. This was the main reason for the decline of the pearling industry. The onset of the Great Depression and the reduction in yields from the pearl banks also added to the loss of business for pearl divers in the UAE.
The UAE pearls are remembered and appreciated worldwide to this day. Its role in defining the history of Dubai cannot be stressed enough. The historical chronicles of Abu Dhabi too, are not complete without the mention of the once-thriving pearl industry of the city.
Do you know any interesting facts about pearl diving in the UAE? Let us know in the comments section and stay tuned to MyBayut for more insights on the traditions and culture of the UAE.