Pearl hunting in the Persian Gulf: whether the past will become the present
A pearl is a gem, which has monuments almost in all Arabian capitals. Once pearl hunting was the basic income (up to 95%) of the Arabian Peninsula states instead of hydrocarbons. Prior to the widespread exploration of oil fields on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1960s, the economic activities of all coastal cities, i.e. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, now famous for their giant towers, boutiques and chic life, were limited to pearl hunting.
“One lord for all of us, i.e. pearls”
The vast majority of the male population of the cities on the coast of the Persian Gulf was engaged in pearl hunting in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The pearl oyster Pinctada Radiata, inhabiting the Gulf, engenders pearls of many different and sometimes unusual colors and shades: white, pink and cream, green and gold, blue, gray and even black. The chemical composition of the Gulf water and its temperature create perfect conditions for pearl oysters. These places have a long tradition of producing high quality pearls. They were supplied to Europe and North America; therefore the Persian Gulf was even called the Pearl Gulf in the past.
Diving for pearls was a seasonal occupation, it was held in the warm season – from May to August. Pearl hunters did not see their families for months; they were at sea on primitive wooden vessels and exposed themselves to various dangers. When they returned ashore, it was a real treat – their families came out to meet them, they sang songs and danced. For one season, those men involved in pearl fishing provided for their families for the winter.
Since the beginning of the season, hundreds of traditional for the sailors of the Persian Gulf wooden sail boats, i.e. dhows, left the ports of Manama, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and sailed to the places rich in pearl shells. Many pearl divers, rowers and crew members, who were responsible for raising the divers by means of ropes from the bosom of the sea to the surface, came to the Arabian Peninsula from Africa and Asia. Since the second half of the 19th century, pearl hunting in the Persian Gulf countries became so massive that this craft united people belonging to very different social strata – the poor and the rich. There are written evidences of how Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, the ruler of Qatar, said in 1877, “From noble families to servants, there is one lord for all of us, i.e. pearls.”
In those years, the Persian Gulf was just flooded with boats and ships of various shapes and sizes, which hunted for shells, during the season.
British researchers described how more than two thousand ships sailed for pearls from the Persian Gulf ports: over 900 – from Bahrain, more than 300 – from Dubai, 400 – from Abu Dhabi, and about 350 – from Doha. In Bahrain, which was more famous for its unusual warm gray pearls than other places, more than 17 thousand people were involved in pearl hunting in the early 20th century.
Pearl hunting was possible thanks to the loaned capital: large pearl merchants financed the owners of the ships before the hunting season, so they could go out pearl hunting. In turn, the owner of the ship supplied the crew with food and clothing for the period of pearl hunting.
Oil instead of pearls
Since the 1930s, diving for natural pearls on the coast of the Persian Gulf was in decline. There were fewer ships that sailed for pearls. Traditional pearl hunting on the Arabian Peninsula started fading with the invention of the technology of producing cultured pearls in Japan in 1916. It allowed producing this gem in large quantities, and it was so cheap that the technology was adopted by Arab monarchies themselves; they began to open farms where cultured pearls were produced by the Japanese technology. After the decline of the pearl industry, the number of the urban population of the Arabian Peninsula was sharply reduced due to the outflow of workers, who left their homes in search of new places of employment. Thus, from 1908 to 1941 the population of Bahrain dropped from almost 100 thousand to 90 thousand, while the population of Doha decreased from 27 to 16 thousand people.
In the 1960s, when oil boom in the Gulf countries began, traditional pearl hunting in the coastal waters of the Persian Gulf, unfortunately, passed into history. As the residents of Arab monarchies say, diving for pearls stopped when oil was discovered.
The revival of the old tradition in a new way
However, Arab monarchies value their history and traditions. The annual competition for pearl divers called Sinyar, which is held in Qatar in May, attracts many fans from the Gulf countries, who want to try their hand in this difficult craft in exactly the same way as their ancestors did. Previously, the craft of pearl hunting was handed down from father to son, but now everyone interested can try to become a pearl diver.
The future participants of the competition start to train now – in winter. Without any special equipment and devices, divers will go down to the depth and stay there for one and a half-two minutes to fill the basket and to find as many shells as possible with a nose plug, a knife and a basket for oysters in their hands, following the example of their ancestors.
The cash prize for the greatest number of shells collected is high, it is more than 100 thousand dollars, but it is granted to the team not only for the number of oysters, but also for the careful handling of them. The contestants will not know whether there is a pearl at least in one of the shells, because they cannot open them by the rules of the competition and must release them back to the sea alive.
Unlike their ancestors, modern people of the Gulf countries have the opportunity to care not only about their daily bread and profit, but also about the environment of their countries, rational and careful use of their resources, so they do not seek to destroy the oysters to see if there is a pearl inside the shell. In the old days, pearlers opened hundreds of shells, thereby killing them, to obtain just a few pearls. As the participant of this competition Mohammed al-Sada told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti last year, his team did not manage to win the first prize due to lack of careful handling of oysters.
According to another permanent competitor Abdullah Bilal, they go out to sea on traditional wooden boats in the hot season to get shells from the bottom with the help of primitive equipment not because of the cash prize, but in order to “preserve the vanished tradition and bring it back to life”. Another former and future competitor Jihad al-Jaidah believes that this contest reminds of the importance of the sea for Qatar. He said, “The majority of Qataris were born near the sea, and it is part of their life.”
In addition, in his opinion, this tradition reminds of the fact that recently the life in the Gulf countries, which currently occupy one of the first places in the world in terms of well-being thanks to oil and gas extraction, was very difficult, full of hardships, deprivations and hard labor. The governments of Arab monarchies, particularly the UAE and Bahrain, where there are no more unexplored oil fields and oil reserves are being depleted, are thinking about what their sources of income will be after the hydrocarbon era comes to an end.
Taking into account the fact that more than one hundred years ago, in 1913, the value of the pearls, obtained for one season and sold in Bahrain, reached about nine million US dollars, it is possible that once Arab monarchies will wager not on the production of cultured pearls but on gathering natural rare and thus especially valuable pearls again, and the pearl monuments will be returned to all the Gulf countries, including Bahrain, where the authorities removed the Pearl Monument from the square bearing the same name during the anti-government protests in 2011.