x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ask Ali: The demise and revival of pearling

A look at history of the UAE's pearling industry.

Dear Ali: What happened to the pearl industry in the UAE? KR, Sharjah

Dear KR: Well, in order to understand what happened to the pearl industry, let's try to put ourselves in the position of the people who lived during the pearl-diving days that started in the Arabian Gulf region about 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Before oil was discovered, pearling ran the economy and was the most popular source of employment and income based on the trade among the seven "Trucial States" and with countries around the world. By the end of the 16th century, the Europeans had a great interest in buying the pearls of our region.

Life was hard back then because one's survival depended a great deal on the men being able to catch a lot of seashells and then open the oysters in search of the pearls, but it also depended on the relationships between those countries that exported/imported pearls. At the same time, pearling facilitated a unique social-life structure with rich traditions. This part of our cultural heritage and identity is still visible in the UAE today. For example, the way the pearling crew organised themselves on the dhow and motivated each other with traditional songs to keep on working hard is reflected in our strong work ethic followed by a communitarian but Islamic lifestyle.

Along with the UAE and the Gulf pearls in general, Japanese cultural pearls started to emerge in the 1920s. Additionally, the good Indian-European relationship had a strong influence on the pearling industry, which led to many not wanting to buy UAE pearls anymore because there were rumours that the pearls that were available at the time were mixed with the Japanese cultured pearls and this brought into question the quality of the UAE pearls. These factors caused the ancient pearling tradition in the Arabian Gulf region to slowly dwindle until it was completely destroyed after the depression of the 1930s.

But, in my opinion and based on my research, as soon as oil was discovered in 1932 in the Kingdom of Bahrain, everyone stopped "digging" for pearls, because if you think about it, most of the pearl divers wouldn't want to dive into the sea anymore since many men lost their lives in such a dangerous job. And everyone had no other choice than to adjust to the new economy, which wasn't easy and brought a lot of hardship for our people living in this region.

However, one of the UAE's visions for 2020 is to "revive" the importance of the pearls, for example, by turning our nation into the world's capital of the natural pearls as it used to be known for. For the past few years, a national agency called the Pearl Revival Committee (PRC) has been extensively working towards this goal. The Pearl of Sheikha Fatima, for example, is one of the largest and rarest natural pearls in the world. The PRC helped to have it exhibited at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi in 2010.

A revival of the pearls is also being pursued through my latest venture - Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey tours. If you are interested in experiencing a unique journey through this part of our country's past, then feel free to book a tour at www.adpearljourney.com.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow //www.ask-ali.com">www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.