1911 file photo shows Jacques Cartier with the merchants in Bombay. Image Credit: Supplied

If you grew up and attended school in the UAE during the 1990s, you would have come across a lesson in your 6th grade Arabic language book published by the Ministry of Education, which included a three-page essay on the UAE’s pearling history. It conjures up images of a simple life in a sleepy fishing village, with big wooden boats (dhows), a captain (nokhatha), a crew of pearl divers and their slew of wailing women waving goodbye to them from the shore. You were taught that it was hard, you were taught it was dangerous, you were taught it was brave. If lady luck stood by their side, you were told, those men would return from their six-month expedition, sun-charred and exhausted, with booty of pearls and the promise of good fortune. The men sold the pearls to faceless buyers, made money and took care of their families. And you think to yourself, what a wonderful world. And then the Japanese ruined everything. Mikimoto and his cultured pearls, you were taught, ravished the market, tore down the Gulf pearl trade, taking down the hopes and dreams of the village people with it.

While this maybe an acceptable postcard version of that historical moment capturing a polished flashback of the past, it fails to capture the dynamism of the landscape and the complexities of the Trucial States’ (now the United Arab Emirates) pearling industry.

Sculpting Memory

The visual culture of the UAE is flooded with images, iconography and other symbols lauding the pearling history of the place. Spend a few minutes walking around Jumeirah and you will find numerous street signs paying tribute to the era of the pearl. Streets like Al Fattam (the necessary nose-clip apparatus used in the diving days) are just one example. Dubai Pearl, the $6 billion cavity on Dubai’s Al Sufouh road, a promised land for the much-awaited Bellagio, skyscraper complex and 1,800-seat theatre, also chose a sentimental route for its name.

Other tributes include less stately exhibits such as cafeterias like the Pearl View Cafeteria in Barsha and the gargantuan Lulu hypermarket chain (‘Lulu’ is Gulfie Arabic for ‘pearl’). Elsewhere around the country, there’s the pearl monument by the Sharjah Souq, the Pearl roundabout in Ras Al Khaimah and other ceremonious odes to a bygone era.

The trouble is not that there isn’t enough commemoration of the era, or that there is an absence of pride in the same, but it is the way we choose to remember it. At museums, in books and photo exhibits, an obscure recollection presents itself while deleting, consciously or not, important nuances of the time. Descriptions and images of the pearling era conjure up images marked by a false homogeneity, a community detached from the world around it; one that is insular. And that could not be farther from the truth.

Far from being just an artefact of heritage, the UAE’s pearling legacy presents a case study in the history of interconnectedness and ‘globalisation’ of the Trucial States; a legacy that stands as a testimony to the UAE’s global ambitions.

What is missing from this choreography of memory is the position of the Trucial States as entrepreneurial trade-driven communities catering to demands far beyond their reach. It glosses over the relationship of dependence that the pearling economy had with the rest of the world. It flattens the layers of multi-ethnic communities feeding the ecosystem, and omits the stakeholders from the all over the world and forgets.

It also presents an uncomfortable fact: that the Trucial States, and now the UAE, have always been opportunistic. It presents a narrative in which the ‘globalisation’ and opening up of the UAE to the world did not start with the discovery of oil or even with the arrival of Arab-Persians from the southern coast of Iran. Rather, it began with the pearling economy, at a moment in history, which is often misconstrued as isolated, introverted and an artefact of heritage rather than a time that deeply rooted the UAE’s identity as a globally motivated player with ambitions far beyond its size.

Opportunism on the Coast

According to 12th century Muslim geographer Muhammad Al Idrisi, the pearling industry in the Gulf dates back 7,000 years, but reached its peak during the mid 19th century. Catering to demands of the British, French and American markets at the time, the pearling industry flourished in order to supply a commodity of precarious value. Dr Frauke Heard-Bey, an Abu Dhabi based historian, writes in her book From Trucial States to UAE. A Society in Transition: “Victorian Britain and the rest of Europe saw in pearls a tangible symbol of the romantic Orient. This predilection was taken up by society in the United States, and during the first two decades of the 20th century New York became the second biggest market for Gulf pearls after Bombay.” Capitalising on pearls’ qualitative value, the Trucial coast and other Gulf states seized an opportunity and built an industry that catered to the demands of a foreign market. This involved further interconnectedness and a complex network of divers, financiers, brokers, merchants, traders, rulers and, at the time, protectors. It was fragile, complex and very much outward looking.

To further elucidate this, consider the supply chain and the multiple players involved in the pearling industry cycle.

Littoral able-bodied men and tribesmen were the exclusive participants in the pearling expedition dives and took on many roles, including those of captain, diver and crewmembers. While not directly global, but more multicultural, it is also important to note that the littoral and tribal people of the Trucial states involved in the dives were not exclusively Arab, but of varying ethnic backgrounds, including African and Balochi decent. On shore, Arabs shared the industry’s territory as merchants and traders competing alongside Persian and Indian merchants as key stakeholders in the Gulf pearling world. Together, they built an industry: they made deals, traded, stole, bought, sold, funded and collected. The merchants, Arab, Persian or Indian all sold to Bombay; funnel and hub of the pearl-trading market. In Bombay, pearls were drilled, polished and dispatched to markets far and wide from the European markets to Baghdad, Persia, Turkey and other parts of India. To circumvent Bombay and all middlemen, attempts were made by Arab merchants to cut deals directly with the Europeans and with French and American buyers showing up at the pearl souqs of Abu Dhabi and elsewhere along the coast. Not to mention that the currency of trade in the Trucial states was the Indian rupee owing to their status as a protectorate. Even the eventual decline of the industry, towards the early 20th century, was to a large extent, externally begotten. The technological disruption of the ‘cultured’ pearl, introduced commercially by Japan’s Mikimoto in the 1920s, the aftermath of the First World War and the ensuing Great Depression — all contributed to the crash and eventual destruction of the pearling economy in the Gulf. How’s that for global?

Complicating History

While the oil boom story makes for a much more compelling and hyperbolic account of the emergence of the UAE as the protagonist of a romanticised zero-to-hero story, historical nuance tells a different tale. What it illustrates is a historical position of the Trucial States as participants in an international ecosystem.

Understanding the complexities and context of the pearling industry in the Trucial coast subverts the characterisation of UAE society as sheltered and history-deficient. Much to the dismay of the nostalgics, it takes away the ‘purity’ of what is regarded as a “better time” in the past: a time of quiet, a time of honour and values, of moral uniformity, a time of innocence. Instead, it presents a place that much like today’s UAE, was dynamic, tolerant, opportunistic, shrewd, adaptable and above all resilient. These character threads weave themselves strongly today into all aspects of society; a complicated recollection of this country’s pearling history should stand as a testament to this.

This article was written in conjunction with the panel The End of Pearling in the Gulf with Butheina Hamed Kazim (Fulbright scholar of Media Culture and Communication, New York University 2011-13) interviewing Dr Frauke Heard-Bey (Abu Dhabi-based Historian) at the Global Art Forum 8 titled Meanwhile … History at Art Dubai 2014. GAF is co-directed by curator-translator Omar Berrada of Dar Al Ma’mun and artist Ala Younis, and commissioned by writer Shumon Basar.