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Pearls, Heritage and History

Mar 13, 2019 at History Essays

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The history of pearling is closely associated with the development of economy, social systems, and culture across the Gulf States. The Emirates (later, the United Arab Emirates) had always been at the center of Gulf pearling. This paper highlights the most essential stages in the development of pearling and its profound impacts on the history of the UAE. The paper includes a detailed review of pearling from its earliest times, through reorganization, flourishing and decline, until present. The impacts of pearling on the history, culture, economy, education, and population growth in the UAE are described. The implications of pearling for the future of the UAE are evaluated.

Keywords: pearling, fishing, Emirates, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Traditional Pearling, Heritage and History 

The history of the traditional pearling industry dates back into centuries. Since the earliest times, the traditional harvesting of peals from oyster beds has been shaping the economy and culture of the Gulf coast. The pearling industry reached the point of prosperity in the 19th century but had to give up its outstanding positions under the influence of the international economic crisis of the 1930s and the emergence of cultured pearls in Japan. Still, the Gulf coast retains the sacred traditions of pearling with the United Arab Emirates playing one of the dominant roles in this process. Everyone in the UAE remembers the crucial role pearling had played in the economy and lives of the nationals before the discovery of oil. To a large extent, what used to be a hobby turned into a profession that eventually has become a part of the culture and tradition. Pearling happened to become the backbone of the regional economy, dominating the lives, health, and expectations of wellbeing in the Arabian Gulf and the UAE. The rapid revival of the pearling industry in the 21st century gives hope that it will remain an essential element of the cultural consciousness in the UAE.


Pearling at the Beginning of its History

The Oldest Pearl Found in the UAE

In 2012, all leading news agencies in the world published the sensational news of the oldest pearl in the world found in the United Arab Emirates . According to Compton (2012), a group of French researchers discovered what was thought to be the oldest pearl in the human history. Presumably dated in 5500 B.C., the pearl was named after Umm al Quwain, the territory in which it was found (Compton, 2012). The discovery once again reminds the international community of the deep cultural links between the United Arab Emirates, its history, and the pearling industry.

Pre-Islamic and Islamic Writings about Pearling

Pre-Islamic and Islamic writings provide a great in-depth review of pearling, its historical and social significance . The first references to pearling are found in the 2nd millennium B.C. and include the Epic of Gilgamesh, the writings of Pliny, and the Babylonian Talmud. In 3200 B.C., historical records described pearl merchants of Dilmun who exchanged pearls for timber to build temples (Fox et al., 2013). Many early sources include references to pearling in relation to "fish-eyes" or "fish-stones", which are claimed to be the first terms used to denote pearling (Oppenheim, 1954). Still, it is the Epic of Gilgamesh that represents one of the crucial points in the analysis of pearling history. It should be noted that the Epic of Gilgamesh includes only several indirect references to pearling, namely, several descriptions of his diving to the bottom of the sea. These descriptions are frequently interpreted as pearling, because there seems to have been no other activity that could be so closely associated with diving. Moreover, several authors suggest that the reference to the "flower of immortality" in the Epic of Gilgamesh can also indicate the first signs of the pearling industry and its development in the Gulf region (George, 1999). Early references to pearling are also found in other ancient classical writings, for instance, Theophrastus wrote about the pearls being produced in the Red Sea, whereas Pliny mentioned the acts of pearling taking place in some area of Gulf (Raschke, 1978). Pliny also confirmed that pearls were among the most valued goods in the Roman society (Raschke, 1978). "As another reference to the trading/pearling town prototype, Sinbad the sailor of The Arabian Nights fame legendarily hailed from the trading town of Sohar, which was subservient to the trading island of Hormuz (below off the Iranian coast opposite Ras al Khaimah in the UAE), settled and controlled by the forebears of the historic Sharjans" (Fox et al., 2013, p.12). Unfortunately, most early writings provide only indirect meanings of pearling, and only the earliest Islamic works create a more multifaceted picture of the pearling industry. Here, the Holy Qur'an is, probably, the main source of valuable historic knowledge, which confirms the immense cultural and economic value of pearling for the entire Islamic world .


In the 7th century B.C., pearls were reported to be the sign of Paradise (Al-Shamlan, 2000; Bearmann, 2000). At that time, the Persian Gulf emerged as one of the central markets and world's routes for the pearling industry, although no direct references to pearling were found until later centuries B.C. It is not clear whether the absence of notes in the ancient literature is related to certain disruptions in the pearling industry or the lack of popular attention to pearls as a cultural and economic practice. Yet, since the 10th century B.C., references to pearling in the Islamic literature become more frequent, indicating its growing scope and importance in the Islamic economy and culture. In the 12th century B.C., Al-Idrisi described Julfar as one of the primary centers for the Islamic pearling industry, followed by the description of Bahrain, where pearling was already flourishing (Vine & Elders, 1998). Later in 1517, Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa also noted that Julfar had a great fishery of large and seed pearls, and the Moors of Hormuz came to Julfar to purchase pearls and transport them to India and beyond (UAE Interact, n.d.). Despite the abundance of primary evidence for the rapid evolution of the pearling industry, it is not until the 17th century that pearling became a matter of international expansion .

Pearling as One of the Primary Gulf Industries

By the beginning of the 17th century, pearling became one of the primary industries in the Gulf region, which was facing the growing demand for its products . In 1675, the West India Company published one of the first stories of the growing pearling industry as part of its business records . Certainly, pearling had existed before that time, and some Dutch records indicate the Gulf region as the center of the international pearling industry at the beginning of the 17th century (Donkin, 1998). Still, one of the most compelling descriptions is the one found in the West India Company's records, most probably because the prevailing majority of Gulf pearls at that time were imported to India (Donkin, 1998). At that time, Captain John Weddell described the robustness and economic potential of the pearling industry of the Gulf region (Donkin, 1998). Later records estimated that, in Bahrain alone, at least one million pearls were generated per year, making the pearling industry a true center of the economic and social development across the Gulf States (Donkin, 1998). Yet, while the 17th century pearling industry was flourishing, the 18th century has witnessed its dramatic reorganization. In the 18th century, the tribes coming to settle on the Gulf Coast used their access to pearls as a means to increase their military and economic power . That was the time which gave rise to the United Arab Emirates as a country of pearling. Thomas (1985) writes that, although Bahrain retained the power of the central pearl-manufacturing Gulf state, other pearling rivals started to emerge in the Gulf region. After the decline and subsequent collapse of the Safavid state, other states and territories acquired greater freedom for the development of their own pearling industries (Thomas, 1985). With time, Bahrain lost its monopoly on pearl trade. The tribes that captured Bahrain's share of the pearl industry used their new advantageous position to accumulate new military and economic power.

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The pearling industry became flourishing and popular among the locals, that it caused huge population shifts, which also led to the profound reorganization of the entire industry (Floor, 1984). In 1761, Abu Dhabi was founded among several other settlements and towns on the Gulf Coast, and the number of its houses grew by 400 within just two years (Thomas, 1985). The 19th century saw the pearling industry becoming extremely organized, while the demand for pearls exceeded their supply. Numerous historical writings mention India, China, Tartary, and Yemen as the primary targets for the pearling industry (Issawi, 1971). The existing and emerging industry players were willing to preserve their market position and yielded a great number of pearls in response to the growing demand (Issawi, 1971). At that time, the pearling industry has been established to open new venues for long-term economic and cultural growth across all Gulf territories. New pearling centers were founded, providing Gulf communities with greater opportunities for achieving economic prosperity. From the interview with my grandfather, pearl traders lived by the ocean with direct access to the open sea. They lived in houses made of palm tree branches. They used fish as the main source of food; they also owned cattle with pearling being just a seasonal work. Overall, the historical trends in pearling indicate that, with time, pearling became part of the Islamic culture .

Pearling as the Way of Life for the Gulf and the UAE

People who lived in the coastal areas specialized in pearling . Throughout the history of the pearling industry, its primary harbors lay along the Gulf coast, and Abu Dhabi, and later the United Arab Emirates played one of the primary roles in the evolution of pearling . "The Arab Gulf nations for centuries have been at crossroads where the people and cultures of India, Africa, Persia, and Arabia have met and mingled" (Torstick, 2009, p.2). Not surprisingly, at present, pearls continue to occupy one of the most special places in the local folklore. Torstick (2009) writes that, because of the importance of the former pearl-diving industry and the current emphasis on its revival, pearls are fairly regarded as items of value and beauty. Some people even think pearls to have a healing or mystical power and use them to find their lost love (Torstick, 2009). Objectively, pearls have rise to a mixture of lifestyles in the Gulf region. Since the 1500s, many Gulf inhabitants became part of the multicultural pearling tradition, with Julfar being its center . That tradition also covered the UAE and persists until present. Even today, some families residing in Julfar carry the Arabic prefix "bani", which actually means "lineage" (Fox et al., 2013). However, pearling was not merely an element of culture but also an essential source of employment opportunities for the Gulf region.

According to UAE Interact (n.d.), for the people of the Emirates, the pearling industry provided abundant opportunities for seasonal employment . "While many of those engaged in the pearling industry would return home to tend date-gardens in inland oases and herd camels between seasons, there were others for whom it was a full-time occupation" (UAE Interact, n.d.). It is possible to say that, since the end of the 18th century, when Abu Dhabi was founded, pearling became a distinct cultural and economic feature of the Emirates. Some historical records even indicate that divers from the Emirates went to Sri Lanka for pearling, when the Gulf pearling season was over (UAE Interact, n.d.). With time, the opportunity for temporary or permanent employment pushed many families to move to the Emirates and settle in the Gulf region. The pearling industry actually gave rise to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah (UAE Interact, n.d.). Not surprisingly, it is still essentially important to the culture, history, and economy of the UAE. By the turn of the 20th century, people working in the pearling industry became better off, making it a fundamental element of the national economy.

Effects of Pearling on the Social, Cultural, and Demographic Processes in the UAE

The rapid advancement of the pearling industry in the UAE brought immense social, cultural, and educational changes . Pearling was at the heart of the unprecedented population increase in Abu Dhabi in the 19th century . Pearls had played a serious role in the lives of the Arabs since antiquity, but never before had their quest for pearls been as great as it was at the peak of the industry's growth in the 19th century (Heard-Bey, 2001). The pearl oysters are located in water 30-40 meters deep, and yielding enough pearls to make a living was impossible without a considerable communal effort (Heard-Bey, 2001). As the international market for pearls was growing so was the importance of pearling for the inhabitants of the Arabian coast (Heard-Bey, 2001). By the beginning of the 20th century, more than 1,200 boats manned by 22,000 people were based near the Trucial Coast (Heard-Bey, 2001). Dozens of new families came to reside in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah, turning them into large cities. It is interesting to note that pearling also resulted in the emergence of economic and labor specialization. With pearling being mostly a seasonal activity, many tribes left some of the money they earned with pearls aside and used it to finance their economic activities during the low season (Heard-Bey, 2001). With time, they developed a specific economic specialization and participated in one type of economic activity, which helped them and other residents of the Emirates to maintain a high level of wellbeing. However, population increase was not the only social product of the pearling boom.

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Towards the end of the 19th century, the pearling industry turned into an area dominated by individual entrepreneurs, whose wealth was growing exponentially . Many entrepreneurs managed to accumulate enough wealth to buy a boat, while a complex social hierarchy involving tribes and local merchants was created (Hawker et al., 2005; Heard-Bey, 2001). As more pearl merchants were moving to settle in Abu Dhabi, they kept constructing their own social hierarchy based on tribal lineage and ethnicity (Hawker et al., 2005). The highest social positions were occupied by executives, who held a monopoly on the exports and imports of all goods from and to the city (Hawker et al., 2005). The Banyan merchants were following the executives; they were of the Indian origin, but they had easy access to credit resources and spoke fluent English (Hawker et al., 2005). The Banyans were also the main creditors of the pearling industry, since the Islam did not allow lending money for interest (Hawker et al., 2005). Eventually, all those shifts gave rise to the new systems of education, taxation, and institutional power in the Emirates . According to Carter (2009), at the end of the 18th century, regularized systems of taxation were imposed on the pearl industry, and financial resources were actively used to build and sustain an effective social and educational infrastructure. The emergence of the state apparatus marked a new stage in the development of the Emirates. Unfortunately, for many years, the pearling industry was in the economic and social oblivion.

The Rise of the Pearling Industry in the Modern UAE

At present, the pearling industry in the UAE is to rise from the lost years and profits. Under the influence of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the introduction of the cultured pearl in Japan, the pearling industry of the UAE was thrown into a deep and continuous crisis . The First World War also had devastating impacts on pearl fishery (United Arab Emirates Yearbook, 2013). When the new government of India implemented a new system of taxation for the pearls imported from the Gulf, the entire industry quickly faded (United Arab Emirates Yearbook, 2013). Today, the UAE is strongly oriented to revive its pearling industry through commodity exchanges . According to Doran (2013), the demand for pearls from the UAE will continue to increase. Meanwhile, the locals try to retain their cultural individuality and keep diving for pearls in ways that were used by their parents and grandfathers. Malek (2013) writes that pearl divers in the UAE are willing to keep their traditional activities and teach their own children to dive for pearls. The Zayed National Museum that is to be opened in 2016 reaffirms the state's strong commitment to cultural uniqueness and prosperity, one of its main elements being the pearl industry. Apparently, pearling happened to become the backbone of the regional economic, dominating the lives, health, and expectations of wellbeing in the Arabian Gulf and the UAE. It will remain one of the major elements of the national economy for decades ahead.


In conclusion, pearling remains a centerpiece of the cultural and historical traditions in the UAE. Since the earliest times and until present, pearling has been an essential carrier of enormous cultural heritage. Certainly, the pearling industry was strongly influenced by numerous cultural and social factors, but pearling itself brought immense social, political, and demographic changes to the Gulf region. Pearling happened to become the backbone of the regional economy, dominating the lives, health, and expectations of well-being in the Arabian Gulf and the UAE. Future policies should target the revival of the pearling industry, making it an essential element of the country's developed economy.

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