To casual onlookers and observers, the UAE’s pearling history appears both quixotic and quaint with its imagery of sleepy fishing villages roused into seasonal action, wooden boats leaving land in picturesque sail, and hardy men plying the waters for months on the mere promise of good fortune.
National tributes include icons such as Ras Al Khaimah’s Pearl Roundabout, Sharjah’s pearl-topped union monument at Al Ittihad Square and the freehold development Dubai Pearl. Odes are drawn to the nukhada – the captain who led the way to pearl banks using only the sun, stars and the colour and depth of the sea, and the nahham – the singer whose only job on the boat was to assuage arduous chores. Re-enactments held at heritage and cultural centres showcase the great hardships faced by the divers, in stark contrast to their simple gear of nose plug, finger guard, and cotton cloth or bodysuit. Children and tourists are taught that although it was a dangerous profession and a hard life, these forbears who found plentiful pearls and sold them to avid buyers lived contentedly until the death knell was sounded by Japan’s cultured pearls, and the Second World War.
Some of the gear used by Gulf pearlers
While this picturesque poignancy serves up a nice slice of living history – and much pride in it – there is more dynamism and depth to the UAE’s pearling industry. The legacy left behind by the intricate ecosystem of divers and their captains, the men who sponsored their expeditions, enterprising merchants and middlemen, and buyers who were lured to the region by the world’s finest pearls, showcases the country’s earliest instances of financing adeptness, trade expertise, and sturdy relationships of co-dependence.
“Many of the factors that defined the UAE’s pearling industry still stand true today, and principal among these were innovation, resilience, multiculturalism and an innate expertise in financing,” explains Abdulla Al Suwaidi, founder of Suwaidi Pearls and one of the foremost Emirati authorities on pearls. “Much like today, the people were tolerant, opportunistic, adaptable and resilient, and theirs was a combination of ambition, negotiation and far-seeing vision.”
The birth of financing
“For a long time, many pearl diving families had simple operating systems, whereby they would trade pearls in exchange for food, clothing and furniture. However, it is a very interesting turning point in our history, when the influx of both people and wealth increased. It is not far-fetched to say that their prowess translated into the birth of formal financing in the country.”
Abdullah Al Ghurair, Chairman of Mashreq, concurs there was formidable local expertise in money management and foreign trade, and it was these that spurred his ambitions as a young man in his 30s, when he and his brother established one of the first privately owned banks in the country in 1967.
“Many local families were already adept in pearl financing, but we were all looking for ways to increase our reach and markets,” he says. “Some of these families, just like ours, set up small banks to finance the pearling community and all the other businesses that were developing alongside. We simply learnt as we went along.”
Pearling was not only the foundation on which most of the big merchant dynasties of the Gulf built their fortunes. It was the mainstay of most lives, in one way or the other. It also anchored the economy, as pearling money circulated in the market and allowed communities to benefit.
“It became customary for the wealthier families to give the nukhadas an advance loan of some rupees and rice at the beginning of each pearling season,” says Al Suwaidi. “The nukhadas would use the money to prepare their boats, carry out maintenance works, and buy supplies for their crew. In exchange, they would offer their financiers the pearls they found when they returned. This is simply how our banking system began, alongside bartering.”
A diver resurfaces with his catch
Typically, after every trip, the captain had to deliver the season’s pearls to his financier, who would pay a rate below market value, and the remaining money was divided between the captain and the crew. Alternatively, captains who were not sponsored could sell the pearls to a land-based professional pearl merchant, or to more emboldened merchants who travelled out to sea in search of trade, as they vied among themselves to buy lucrative harvests.
Pearl trading was a highly skilled profession among local financiers and merchants. The Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding describes their business meetings held at coffee houses, where they examined and exchanged pearls and negotiated sales. The merchants deployed a rudimentary sign language for trade and bargaining, and most of their gestures were hand signals underneath a cloth. Their equipment was also simple: little metal sieves called tus with the holes on each determining the size and weight of pearls, and magnifying glasses to check hue, lustre and surface quality.
The first taste of globalisation
The pearling ecosystem also reveals how the UAE’s internationalisation began much before the discovery of oil, and helped shaped the country’s huge ambitions.
Despite the rustic nature of their trade, this enterprising community catered to a global audience that lay far beyond their shores. The pearling trade attracted divers from Yemen, the Indian Ocean island of Suqotra and Oman's Batinah Coast, while merchants from India, Iran and other Arab countries came to Dubai to sell rice, spices and textiles. Indian and Arab moneylenders controlled the pearl trade as financiers to the industry and many pearl merchants were of Persian and Indian origin. But at the height of the pearling industry, this motley lot served a large part of the world.
“Much as we know the Silk Road connection between the East and the West, the Gulf pearling industry also established its own parallel version, which I have personally labelled the Pearl Route,” says Al Suwaidi. “For centuries, this route was famous for its trading centres and distribution network.”
Almost everyone aimed to sell the pearls to Mumbai, the world’s largest pearl market, where the stones were polished and dispatched to jewellers in Europe, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Meanwhile, intrepid local merchants who sought to avoid middlemen and brokerage fees learnt to deal directly with the British, French and American buyers who started showing up at the pearl souqs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
“My father owned sea-faring pearling boats that later diversified into other trading arenas,” says Al Ghurair. “In the 1960s, our family was already doing what we now call international business, primarily within the GCC countries and India. When we sent up the bank, it was an extension of what we were already familiar with.”
“It is startling to consider that pretty much any town that you can name in the Gulf today –including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City – was founded as a pearl fishing town within a couple of hundred years in the 18th or 19th centuries,” Robert Carter wrote in his paper, Pearls: How Pearls Shaped the Arabian Gulf. The British archaeologist, a specialist in the history and pre-history of the Arabian Peninsula, then went on to author Sea of Pearls, a book on the formative role played by pearling in the shaping of the Gulf countries.
A living legacy
Archivist Dr Frauke Heard-Bey’s authoritative book, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates chronicles the progress of the country’s seven emirates from a time of desperate poverty that followed the end of the 7,000-year-old pearling industry to become nerve centres of the world's financial and economic dealings, with Abu Dhabi providing the crucial political vision and Dubai launching wide-ranging initiatives to promote sustained economic growth.
The latest chapter in the UAE pearl story has yet to be written. Founded in 2007, the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre’s Dubai Pearl Exchange held its first ever sale in 2009, shifting pearls worth $5 million (Dh18.4 million). In 2011, the exchange held trade auctions in partnership with leading pearl farmers Paspaley, Jewelmar and Robert Wan to attract more than 100 pearl traders from over 20 countries. The gems on offer were worth as much as US$35 million retail or $13.5 million wholesale.
Captains who were not sponsored could sell the pearls to a land-based professional pearl merchant
Meanwhile, Suwaidi is busy planning new initiatives that focus on the history and progress of the pearl industry by retracing ancient routes, reviving historic facts, and presenting the world with a modern reincarnation of the gem of Arabian Seas. “I am proud that today, the UAE has taken on the dual roles of being a celebrant of its natural pearl diving history, and a promoter of cultured pearls cultivation,” he says. “I can see the future of the UAE’s pearl industry as one that holds a lot of promise.”
Al Ghurair adds that pearls represent an integral part of the UAE’s living history and heritage. “It was pearls, not oil, that we were first renowned for, and it is this naturally occurring treasure that brought us the first taste of wealth,” he says. “It is quite astonishing how quickly the UAE has made the transformation from a pearl-producing nation to a global facilitator of pearl trade.”