Pearling in Abu Dhabi

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We went on a morning trip “pearling” in Abu Dhabi. Pearling was a big industry for them, although a very tough one. Once the Japanese were able to create pearl farms, the business died down in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Fortunately for them, that was around the time that oil was discovered. On the tour the guide explains the logistics for diving for pearls (below). We were able to each pick an oyster and see if there was a pearl inside-in the end they made sure that everyone had one. They varied in color-from pink to gray to white. It was very interesting!

The lulu (locally qamashah), or pearl oyster was a source of wealth in the Emirates, long before the discovery of oil. Pearl oysters occur naturally on relatively shallow banks (fasht) in the Gulf.

Outsiders were forbidden to engage in pearling without the permission of the rulers and pearls were to be gathered only by the traditional practice of diving, for which the use of modern diving equipment was banned. For this reason, the time-honored methods, first developed thousands of years ago to harvest pearl oysters, continued to survive until the demise of the industry itself.

Despite much nostalgic reflection on the communal spirit encountered in pearling, there is no doubt that life was extremely hard for the average diver. Diving commenced about an hour after sunrise, the divers having breakfasted lightly on coffee and dates, and proceeded right through until an hour before sunset, except for prayers and sometimes coffee and a short rest at midday. The hard-working diver, nose pegged with clips of turtle shell (ftam) and ears plugged with wax, plummeted to the bottom with the aid of a stone (hajar) attached to his foot, which was subsequently pulled up by his attendant hauler on board ship. Fingers protected by leather caps (khabt), he quickly filled an attached basket (diyyin) with as many shells as possible, finally signalling by a tug on his rope that he needed to be hauled to the surface. The diver rested in the water after his arduous task, holding onto his rope in characteristic pose, while his basket was being emptied. But it wasn’t long before he was again descending to the deep.

In the early 1930s, the worldwide economic depression and the Japanese discovery of the cultured pearl (a pearl created by placing a shell bead inside an oyster manually) spelt disaster for the Gulf’s pearling industry. The vision of the Skeikh meant that Dubai, thanks to its free trade port, was not as badly affected as the rest of the region. Nevertheless, it was a serious blow to the local economy – one from which it would not fully recover until the discovery of oil.

excerpts from: UAE Interact and and article by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

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