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Before Qatar first struck “black gold” in 1939, life in the Gulf revolved around pearls. These iridescent gems of the deep shaped the culture, politics, regional relations and fortunes of its people for more than 7,000 years – most notably Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, which was the dominant force in the local pearl industry in its heyday. around the turn of the 20th century.
Revered for their brilliant luster and luminosity, Gulf pearls were a particular hit with the aristocracy and emerging middle classes of Europe and the US. Along with its neighbors and arch-rivals Bahrain and parts of the Trucial States (which include today’s UAE), Qatar rose to growing world demand, with 48% of its population of 27,000 in 1907 (or almost all men ) to be employed in pearling.
Half a century later, however, it was all over, with the resident statesman (the chief British representative in the Gulf) writing in 1958: “For the first time in many years no pearls left the port of Doha, and its cabins it used to be an important fleet rotting on the coast.’
The arrival of oil was only one of many factors that led to the swift and overwhelming demise of the Gulf pearl industry. But while many physical remnants of Qatar’s past have since succumbed to the bulldozers, this rich heritage remains woven into the fabric of the nation.
Scratch the surface of Qatar today and references to its pearling past are ever-present, from public art – notably the Pearl Monument at the entrance to Doha’s Dhow Harbor depicting a giant, pearl-bearing oyster – to modern architecture, including The Pearl -Qatar , a glitzy residential development and lifestyle built on a former pearl bed.
Keen-eyed commuters will also note the mother-of-pearl tiles that appear throughout Doha’s metro stations.
Visitors can still shop for rare (and incredibly expensive) Gulf pearls at The Old Pearl Diver boutique in Doha’s Souq Waqif run by octogenarian Saad Ismail Al Jassem, who claims to be one of the last commercial pearl divers in Catarrh
And while commercial pearl diving has yet to be revived in Qatar, as it has been in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the nation continues to revive its pearling heritage at annual festivals such as the Senyar Festival, which features a diving competition with pearls, and the Katara Traditional Dhow Festival, featuring a program of marine exhibitions and traditional activities.
Qatar’s museums, including the Qatar National Museum in Doha, offer similarly evocative elements throughout the year, where Mira Nair’s riveting film Nafas (Breathe) brings the pearl’s hardships to life.
In the northwest of the country, a small pearl exhibition at Al Zubarah Fort, located on the ruins of a former pearl harbor (now accessible to the public via a boardwalk that opened in November 2022) offers another fascinating taste of life in coastal pearling communities of Qatar
While the tujar (richer pearl merchants) and the sheikhs who controlled the pearl fleets amassed great wealth from the trade, life for the ghasa (pearl divers), who spent more than four months each summer at sea, was “very bleak” , says. Robert Carter, senior archeology specialist at Qatar Museums and author of Sea of Pearls: Arabia, Persia, and the Industry That Shaped the Gulf.
“They didn’t have much to eat except rice, fish and maybe some bread, so scurvy was a problem,” Carter explains. “Water was strictly rationed, so they would have to wash in the sea. and it was wet all the time, so they got horrible fungal diseases.”
Carter also notes accounts of divers, who typically made 50-60 dives a day, being stung by rays and eaten by sharks.
When the divers – weighed down by a rock – collected about 20 oysters, they would pull a rope to be pulled back to the surface by a siyub (rope carrier). Any pearls found in the molluscs were sorted and kept locked in the dhow (pearl boat), with the opened shells either thrown back into the sea or preserved to be sold as mother-of-pearl. A crew member caught trying to hide a pearl would, according to the late Australian sailor and author Alan Villiers, risk being beaten to death.
“Profits were shared among the crew, so stealing a pearl would mean breaking a huge bond of trust,” Carter explains. A decent payday was never guaranteed anyway, with low seasons often leaving divers, porters and even dhow captains without the means to support their families until the next season. Slaves, meanwhile, had to deliver their share to their masters.
The pearl industry has historically had complex labor practices. At its peak it is estimated that a significant portion of pearls were enslaved. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1807 in the British Empire, slavery was allowed to continue in Qatar for nearly four decades after the region became a British Protectorate in 1916.
Part of central Doha’s Msheireb Museums, Bin Jelmood House – the former home of a slave trader – documents Qatar’s history of slavery, with exhibitions touching on the role of slavery in the pearl industry.
Among the more mysterious links to Qatar’s pearling past are some natural carvings in the desert landscape. Near the dreamy turquoise beaches of Fuwairit, one of several abandoned pearling settlements in remote northern Qatar, the publicly accessible petroglyphs of Al Jassasiya – believed to be up to 250 years old – clearly depict, among other things, pearls with protruding oars. from mandorla-shaped hulls like legs on an insect.
The shifting sands of Qatar’s desert continue to reveal clues to Qatar’s pearl history, including the discovery of a Neolithic pearl bead in 2022 by Qatar Museums’ Head of Excavations and Site Management, Ferhan Shakal – believed to be the oldest known pearl which was discovered in Qatar.
There are probably many more treasures waiting to be uncovered, but the evidence already tells us, Carter says, that the pearl industry played a much more pivotal role in Qatar’s history than it is often given credit for.
“There probably wouldn’t be anyone here except the Bedouin if it weren’t for the pearl fishery,” Carter says.