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How Pearling Changed The UAE

How Pearling Changed the UAE

Pearls occupy a rather important place in the history and economy of the United Arab Emirates. A pearl is considered the most exquisite jewelry creation of nature from ancient times to present days. Thus, before the discovery of oil, pearling was one of the main activities that the economy of the United Arab Emirates was based on since this item of jewelry was extremely expensive on the market. Pearling played a crucial role in the history of the UAE as it influenced the business activity of Emirate society, its income level, the division of labor, and had a significant impact on its demographics.

The United Arab Emirates is a relatively young federal state. The federation became operative on December 2, 1971. Despite the fact that the country has mostly developed for the last 50 years, its history is much longer. The main historical events in the United Arab Emirates are related to the development of trade and investment. There is direct evidence that the settlements on this land began to form in the era of glaciation, and trade – during the fifth millennium BC. Originally, it was a territory where date palms grew. People also traded in copper produced in the local mines. The author Georgia Daleure affirms that “the inhabitants of the region were for the most part self-sufficient and used the revenues from pearling and trade to purchase items such as textiles and rice that they could not produce locally themselves”. As the port was gradually developing, European traders began to occupy this area around the XVII century. They supplanted competitors – Muslim traders. Many regions of the state transformed into a fishing port. Along with fishing, local fishermen became engaged in pearling. The author Mahmood Monshipouri notes that “the pearling industry almost six thousand years old was for decades the backbone of the region’s economy”. Pearling became highly popular in the second half of the XVIII century until the first half of the XX century.

At that time, the local population lived very poorly. Residents mostly lived in the desert and conducted a trade with the help of camels’ caravans. They suffered from extremely high temperatures. Extraction and trade in pearls slightly improved the situation of local residents. Pearls occupied the greatest place in the economy of the territory comprising about 95% of the total revenues of the treasury. Dubai became the region that was mostly engaged in extraction of pearls. The authors of the book Cultural Heritage in the Arabian Peninsula state that pearling played an important role in the economy of Dubai”. Accordingly, people called this city a pearl coast.

Pearling greatly influenced the local population as the majority of people were engaged in this business. This industry changed practically all aspects of Emirate society. It is associated with the fact that almost all men of the region harvested pearls. Thus, this industry involved a great percentage of manpower. However, the role of women in the region remained the same. They were not allowed to dive and, thus, women continued to take care of the household and raise children. In such a way, this aspect of Emirate society remained the same, and pearling did not influence the role of women.

Usually, all men were either traders or divers. Pearling was under the control of large traders, who paid specially trained people for extracting pearls from the bottom. With the development of this industry, traders became richer as divers gave them all pearls found. Thus, the former received good money from pearling, whereas pearl divers had little benefits from this business. Moreover, the latter were constantly at a great risk as extraction of pearls was rather dangerous. Divers were equipped with a knife, a basket for oysters, and a clip on the nose. They plunged into the waters of the Arabian Gulf, collected several pearls, came to the surface, and dived again. Out of hundreds of oysters, only one had a pearl. Thus, it was rather difficult for divers to collect many pearls. After harvesting, they gave their yield to the owner of the boat or a trader. A salary of a diver was enough to feed a family. Professional divers were also in danger of becoming a treat for dangerous fish of the Persian Gulf. In addition, the constant pressure drops and corrosive sea salt had an extremely negative effect on their health. The lack of protection for eyes and ears resulted in deafness and blindness. Consequently, divers lived a short life. Nevertheless, they passed this profession from generation to generation as it still brought an income. In addition, pearling was not a profitable business for divers. In some years, a season of production of pearls could even lead to the bankruptcy of the family as divers had to buy a place on a boat in advance. The season lasted for approximately four months but those divers who wanted to earn more often traveled to Sri Lanka. When a boy turned nine, he was already suitable for pearling. Thus, mothers often sent their little children to dive if the family needed money. Cases when divers died in the sea were frequent at that time. Therefore, pearling greatly changed the life of poor men in the region as they started diving since an early age and often died young because of dangerous and harmful conditions of this activity. The opposite situation was with traders. Divers gave them all the goods, for which they received low pay, while traders sold pearls at a high price and became richer. They conducted trade with European countries and, thus, received an opportunity to have goods that were not typical for their region.

The first half of the XX century was the most successful for the pearling industry of the UAE. In 1900-1930, pearling in the Persian Gulf reached its peak. In 1907, 1215 ships and over 22045 people were engaged in extraction of pearls. Thus, pearling had a great impact on the traders’ income. In this region, divers discovered a great number of expensive pearls. For example, in the 1920s, one of the pearls extracted in the Gulf was sold at an unprecedented price – 15 thousand pounds. Today, it is approximately 350 thousand pounds. After the success of the industry in the region, two world wars, and the subsequent global crisis (the Great Depression), the invention of technology of artificial cultivation of pearls in Japan led to the fall of interest in pearls and reduced the amount of natural pearling in the UAE. In the book The Economic Development of the United Arab Emirates, Mallakh noted that “Japanese pearl farming was much cheaper making it possible to sell pearls on the world market at a price below that of natural pearls”. Nonetheless, pearls remained the main financial tool for UAE residents up to 50s of the XX century. Over time, people in the United Arab Emirates also learned how to grow cultured pearls that helped keep the industry at the high-level in this region.

Trade in pearls has always been an important part of the economy of the United Arab Emirates. They were the main export commodity until the discovery of oil on the territory of the modern UAE. Pearling greatly influenced the local population as the majority of people were engaged in this business. However, this industry did not change the role of women in Emirates. Pearls traders received the greatest benefit, while divers experienced difficulties extracting them and gave most of the profit to merchants. Due to pearling, the popularity of Dubai as the main pearl coast greatly increased. World wars, the crisis, and the emergence of synthetic Japanese pearls caused serious damage to the industry of pearls production in the United Arab Emirates. Nevertheless, this business still exists in the country in the forms of artificial production and natural extraction of sea pearls.

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