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On UAE's glittering coast, pearl trade tradition brought back from the deep

China Daily | Updated: 2019-11-29 09:20

Abdullah al-Suwaidi on Oct 31 demonstrates at his pearl farm, in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, how his ancestors gathered oysters from the seabed. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP

RAS AL-KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates - Before the discovery of oil transformed the Persian Gulf into one of the world's wealthiest regions, the fortunes of its people depended on pearling - a tradition that Abdullah al-Suwaidi hopes to revive.

Many Emirati families can trace their ancestry to a time when they were involved in the pearl trade, which served as the foundation of their modern-day wealth.

Although diving for the treasures is no longer necessary in an era where pearls can be cultured, Suwaidi said that after the death of his grandfather he felt "socially, culturally and historically" responsible for passing the knowledge on.

"I lived and grew up around my grandfather," the 45-year-old said.

"He taught me a lot about pearl diving ... because of my continuous stream of questions and requests for more information and stories of adventure."

Suwaidi Pearls is the only commercial pearl farm in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, at a time of increasing awareness of cultural traditions, such as falconry and camel racing, and efforts to promote and preserve them.

Last month, Abu Dhabi authorities announced that the world's oldest natural pearl - discovered two years ago just off the capital at Marawah Island - would be displayed for the first time at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the local outpost of the famous Paris museum.

The 8,000-year-old pearl was hailed as proof that the objects have been traded along the coastline since Neolithic times.

"The fact that it is the oldest known pearl in the world is an important reminder of the antiquity of pearling and the deep connection that exists between the UAE people and the rich resources of the sea," said Peter Magee, head of the Department of Culture and Tourism's archaeology section.

Diving into history

Suwaidi's pearl farm lies off the coast of his hometown of Al-Rams in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah.

The oysters live in cages suspended from buoys that float close to the shore. After being "seeded", some 60 percent will produce pearls, compared with just one in 100 among wild oysters.

No one dives commercially for pearls anymore but some people like Suwaidi still do it for the love of it and to show tourists how it is done.

Feet first, he jumps into the water to demonstrate how his ancestors would pick up oysters off the seabed. He sinks to the seafloor - weighed down by a rock attached to a rope - where he starts to pick up oysters and place them in a basket hanging from his neck.

Between one and two minutes later, he tugs at the rope, and his assistant pulls him up to the surface.

The pearl industry once underpinned the economy of the UAE but the trade collapsed in the 1930s with the advent of Japanese cultured pearls and as global conflicts made them an unaffordable luxury.

Instead, the Gulf nations turned to the oil industry, which dominates their economies to this day.

But Suwaidi still embraces the tradition and sells his pearls to local and international designers. He says the venture is not merely aimed at making money.

"When people come to the UAE, they want to see something they haven't seen anywhere else. Pearling is a main (cultural) factor," he said.

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