Diving for “White Gold” in the Arabian Gulf
In the “Dubai” chapter of my book 7 ½ Places of Wonder, I touched on the region’s ancient pearling industry—for centuries an economic lifeline for those who eked out a living on the barren lands along the Arabian Gulf.
Since earliest recorded times, Dubai was a hub for eastern and western Silk Road traders.
As early as A.D.800, Arabian Gulf merchants were trading with India, Ceylon, the East Indies and China in such prized goods as spices, silks, ivory, aromatics, wood, paper, and saddlery. Additionally, pearls, sometimes called “white gold,” harvested from the Arabian Gulf, were highly valued and a widely traded commodity.
Dubai attributes its initial fortunes in the pearling industry to the “Creek,” an 8.7-mile inlet from the Arabian Gulf that allowed this then-seemingly-forsaken-community to become a strategic and profitable port of call.
While sandbars tended to form around the entrance of the Creek, obstructing the passage of large oceangoing vessels, they also pacified the tides, creating quiet oyster beds that proved ideal habitats for pearling.
For centuries Dubai’s local men had labored as pearl divers in the quiet oyster beds of the southern Gulf. From mid-May to mid-September they’d searched for Al Jiwan, the perfect pearl. But then oil struck. The pearl-buying merchants found more profit in gold, textiles, or even cigarettes, and the divers found themselves more lucrative jobs in the oil fields. Besides, Japan’s cultured pearl industry offered too much competition.
Pearling made cruel demands on divers. Typically, owners of pearling boats insisted that their divers plunge into the Gulf’s oyster beds without oxygen tanks. They were given one-meal-a-day rations of rice and dates, while enduring the ever-present danger of attacks by sharks and jellyfish. The boat owners took most of the profits.
Even when I lived among the inhabitants of the southern Arabian Gulf in the 1970s, I heard tales about older, but by then disabled, locals who had survived vicious shark attacks suffered during their diving years.
The pearling industry flourished until the early 1930s when the global economic depression and the Japanese discovery of the cultured pearl killed off the Gulf’s pearling industry. Ibitissam, a friend from my years in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes wore a rose pink-colored pearl necklace that her then fiancé, now husband, gave her when they were courting. She refers to it as a “Gift of love, but also as a symbol of the changing times—the Gulf’s rapidly disappearing past.”