Pearling in The UAE


Before the oil discovery era in the Federation of UAE, pearl industry was a booming business that the natives of these cities engaged in. The pearling company generated a lot of wealth in the 17th and late 19th century as many individuals took it as a full-time employment and specialized in it. The pearl industry went into decline in the 20th century due to the Japanese cultured pearls and discovery of oil. Apart from pearling, some individuals returned home between seasons to continue with other occupations in farming and camel herding. As an occupation, pearling was enshrined with traditions, and therefore new divers would not engage in the activity till they acquired permission from the rulers and merchants. This essay analyses the implications of the pearl industry in the UAE in the period.
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Changes Brought By Pearling In UAE (17th To 19th Century)

Pearling became a new source of employment both part time and full time. There were those who engaged in it as full-time professionals while others alternated with other activities between seasons the divers travelled all the way to Sri Lanka to fish pearls when the fishing season in the Gulf was over. The Emirate population before the discovery of gems used to live in sandy deserts and in mountains where they engaged in small occupations which were of significance. These activities included fishing in the inland oases, subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, rural handicrafts and weaving of bishts from camel hair. The camel was important in the emirate culture since it withstood the desert temperatures. It provided proteins for the family such as milk and meat, transportation of goods to the market and it was involved in the traditional races. The palm was also a drought resistant crop which was cultivated by the natives. Its branches were used to build houses and provided dates for the family. These were the important social- economic activities that the Emirate population engaged in until the discovery of pearls which was held with high value and thereby given prominence by most people. Many people abandoned these activities and began to work in the pearl industry. Pearling led to increased population in the coastal regions such as Dubai and Abudhabi. Most migrants preferred to settle since there was the availability of resources compared to their inland homes. They adopted a settled lifestyle which was not the case earlier due to the harsh geographical conditions which were not appropriate for them to settle down. People from the mountains and sandy deserts were nomads who moved from time to time to look for resources. They, therefore, used to cover a broad span region to maximize the resources. Before pearling, there were few settlements along the coastal towns but with the booming business the natives from mountains, oases and sandy deserts with their families to the coastal region. Population growth was witnessed, and this made the pearl industry to be the mainstay of the UAE economy.
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Aspects of Emirati Society That Changed Due To Pearling

Pearl Industry led to urbanization and civilization in the UAE. According to Heard-Bey, by the late 19th century most Emirate population had migrated to coastal towns to seek greener pastures in the pearl industry. Pearl merchants would afford front houses while rulers left in forts. Establishment of ports eased the exportation of pearls. Different tribes mixed though lived in separate areas and formed new quarters which were tribal as they were before migration. Letter from Finlay to the foreign office of India accorded the bordering tribes the right of fishing pearls. In the early 20th century. Affluent and elite pearl Merchants began to seek legislative seats in their states and cities. They witnessed high levels of economic growth during this period. The land in the Gulf region was arid, and therefore farming activities were less significant since they generated a little income. Therefore, pearl diving was the only event that brought revenue in the region. Many families moved and settled in the coast areas. Alongside pearling, families engaged in farming activities since there was the availability of water which was not the case in their former homeland. Therefore, this enabled the divers to supplement their income from pearling before the domination of cultured pearl from Japan; the region produced more than fifty percent of the natural pearl in the world since it was the primary source of power and wealth. Its demand all over the world from both the west and the east came from their unique color and lustre. The pearls were in high demand because they were used in making jewellery and therefore brought a lot of income. India was a great market for gems from the UAE .pearling industry was leading in this century and therefore was a pillar in entire economy accounting for 95% of the total income o Dhow building accelerated by the pearl industry also generated income to a great deal. UAEs economy, therefore, grew in a tremendous way because there were sufficient and available markets. The social structure of the UAE society changed due to the pearling business which was not only generating a lot of income but was also highly valued by the emirate population. The tribes of Qubaysat and Rumayath that who practiced date farming and camel herding, almost left these activities as they migrated to the coast to be professional divers. Pearling which was only done seasonally especially in the summer became a full-time occupation even during the harsh winter. Carter  noted that during the cold winter when pearl fishing deemed to be impossible the divers made way as far as Ceylon to continue with their search for pearls.

Aspects of Emirati Society That Remained the Same

Few Individuals living in the UAE continue to engage in pearling till today. However, the activity has less emphasis today since the discovery of oil fields has taken the lead in the society. They obtained most of the pearls from the Japan and India. Compared to the previous periods, some aspects have not changed in the Emirati society. Pearling has left behind a rich heritage of traditions. The UAE has kept some of the pearls in the museum as a form of preservation of the Emirati heritage. The Emirate society is still tribal in origin even today. This social aspect did not change even with the discovery of pearling industry. The Emirate society today observes their culture and holds it dearly in their hearts. Both men and womens positions are clearly defined. Women know their place after marriage though they still keep their father’s name to show how emotionally attached to their family. Mens honor arose from the conduct of their wives and daughters. The latter therefore had to carry themselves with dignity even when their husbands were absent due to the pearling business. They, therefore, supported their husbands by taking care of their families and alternating economic activities as their husbands engaged in pearl hunting. In the Emirate culture, the men are supposed to protect and provide for their families. The art of diving was a tradition that had to be observed by all divers. Pearly fishery commonly referred to as ghaus was not only an economic activity but a socially integrated system which instilled a lot of values in the emirate culture(interact).The use of modern diving equipment was banned. The pearling crew included eighteen to twenty men, eight divers, and ten hauliers. They sang or said rigorous chants to coordinate the tasks while on board. The average diver deed the most demanding work, their day began early in the morning. They would collect shells first and then stay underwater for an extended period. While the divers were working, neither would they eat nor drink since it was not advisable. They would do the job until evening; the work was strenuous with very harsh conditions although the divers were healthy. The pearling industry offered potential wealth, but the divers would go into massive debts in case they encountered a bad diving season. On the other hand, a good season could provide them with finances that were even enough for them to acquire land. Pearling traditions remained and existed up to date.


In conclusion, the discovery of pearls locally known as the Lulu in the UAE came at the right time because it led to a series of positive developments in various sectors witnessed in that continent. Though the pearl industry declined in the late 19th century due to the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls, overfishing of the pearls and world war 11 which led to economic depression, it had contributed a lot to most aspects of the Emirate society. The pearl industry created a strong foundation for the current economy in the UAE which is now mainly supported by oil and gas. The pearls from UAE still exist and are highly valued due to their originality .Due to its value, in 2003 The Dubai Museum was built to house the first pearls and to explain to the clients the tradition behind the pearls. Also pearl diving exhibit, it has the largest collection of pearls that belonged to Sultan Bin Al Owais who donated to the museum to pay tribute to the UAE pearl diving history.