Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 29 May 2020

Portrait of a Nation: meet the UAE pearl farmer inspired by 'treasure hunting' grandfather

In 2018, Abdulla Al Suwaidi opened the first cultured pearl farm in the Gulf

Abdulla Al Suwaidi, 46, diving for pearls in the Arabian Gulf. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi 
Abdulla Al Suwaidi, 46, diving for pearls in the Arabian Gulf. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi 

Abdulla Al Suwaidi’s most vivid memory of his grandfather, Mohammed, was during an early morning visit to their local waterfront back in the late 1970s.

On the short walk from their house to the shores of Al Rams Beach, Ras Al Khaimah, not a word was exchanged between the two.

When their feet touched the sand, Mohammed, who was in his 70s, removed his kandura and walked towards the sea in nothing but his woozar, a piece of white cloth tied around the waist.

Mr Al Suwaidi, just eight at the time, watched as his grandfather slowly disappeared under the water.

“I just sat on the shore looking on, intrigued by what he was doing,” he told The National.

“After a few minutes, he appeared on the surface before diving back under again.

I was in awe at how long he could stay under the water.

I remember going home and telling my siblings that he was half man, half fish

Abdulla Al Suwaidi

“He did the same thing over after over again.

"I was in awe at how long he could stay under the water.

“I remember going home and telling my siblings that he was half man, half fish.”

As the dawn orange sky faded into a light midday blue, the pair made their way back home, again, in complete silence.

As a young boy and brother to twelve siblings, Mr Al Suwaidi, now 46, said he was always fascinated by his grandparents, who lived in the family villa.

Often at odds with his feisty brothers and sisters, his elderly relatives were an escape and great source of “stories and wisdom”.

Abdulla Al Suwaidi says he has not found his best pearl yet and probably never will. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi 
Abdulla Al Suwaidi says he has not found his best pearl yet and probably never will. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi 

“The fragrance of my grandmother’s room is a smell I will never forget, it brought me a lot of peace as a boy,” he said.

“And my grandfather; he was a tall, slender, quiet man.

“I would always ask questions about him but he very rarely spoke.

“After that trip to the beach, my grandmother told me that he was in fact diving for pearls.

“I asked what a pearl was, she told me they were gems worn by royalty and I curiously responded with ‘you’re telling me my grandfather is a treasure hunter’.

“Can you imagine the excitement I felt as a young boy?”

It was at that moment Mr Al Suwaidi’s journey into pearl diving and farming began.

In 2005, he started the first cultured pearl farm in the Gulf. And in 2018 he opened it up to the public.

Nestled at the foot of the majestic Hajjar Mountains in Ras Al Khaimah, the father-of-three said he founded Suwaidi Pearls farm to preserve his ancestors’ legacy.

“I am trying to breathe life into our pearling history,” he said.

“Writers, poets, explorers who died centuries ago are still celebrated today.

Abdulla Al Suwaidi as a young boy. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi
Abdulla Al Suwaidi as a young boy. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi

“The pearl diving industry may have come to a halt in the 1940s due to a global dip in demand, but it is a huge part of our Arabian story.

“It deserves to be celebrated.”

Free diving up to three minutes at a time, Mr Al Suwaidi’s grandfather was one of the last remaining pearl divers in the UAE.

He passed away in 1998 at the age of 96, after more than 50 years living “at one with the ocean”.

Abdulla's grandfather, Mohammed, was one of the last pearl divers in the UAE. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi
Abdulla's grandfather, Mohammed, was one of the last pearl divers in the UAE. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi

And his grandson vows it was the dangerous pastime that kept him young.

“Those days in the late 70s and early 80s he would take me out and dive for hours on end,” he said.

“He wasn’t doing it to make a living.

"He was an old man and that was just his way of keeping fit and staying strong.”

Mr Al Suwaidi said his imagination was “brought to life” by the stories his grandfather would share with friends in their majlis.

Conversations were filled with “tales of prosperity and adversity” from the early days of pearl diving.

Often, he said he would walk in and out of the room offering them coffee, just so he could listen in.

“They inspired me to want to dive,” said father-of-three, Mr Al Suwaidi.

“I was eight or nine when I first jumped into the sea off the side of a boat.

A pearl from a farmed oyster in Ras Al Khaimah. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi
A pearl from a farmed oyster in Ras Al Khaimah. Courtesy: Abdulla Al Suwaidi

“I put a clip on my nose, held a net around my neck and carried a stone to help me sink, all while clutching a rope.

“I was 14 when I did my first real pearl dive.

“I went down about 10 metres and only held my breath for a minute or so.

"My grandfather used to go as deep as 27 metres and could hold his breath for minutes on end.”

At his 4,000 square metre outdoor facility in Ras Al Khaimah, oysters aged two-years-old are carefully seeded with a tiny bead made from mother of pearl shells and a piece of mantle tissue harvested from another pearl.

The process takes about 30 seconds and triggers the oyster’s immune system to help it produce the elegant gems.

Each year, about 45,000 oysters are implanted, with a 60 per cent success rate.

Mr Al Suwaidi said the oyster life span is between four to seven years. During that time, the natural pearl forms. At his farm, this process is expedited and the gems form within one to two years.

“My grandfather always said there is an unlimited number of pearls growing at the bottom of the ocean.

“It’s just requires commitment and desire to find your catch.

“I have pearls of all different sizes and colours, but I am always searching for the best.

"That search will never end."

Updated: April 30, 2020 05:13 PM

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