The history of
pearl diving in Qatar
Qatar is known for making its riches from the oil and gas industry, but did you know that long before that, they were one of the biggest pearl exporters in the world?
Pearl diving was a big business in Qatar during the 19th century. The pearl industry made up 75% of the Persian Gulf’s total exports. Until the 1940s pearl diving also made up most of Qatar’s economy and employed almost half of the population. In fact, the Gulf once took up nearly 80% of the global pearl market, selling to wealthy Europeans and royal families across the world.
However, the introduction of pearl farming in the 1930s meant that other countries were able to capitalise on this lucrative market, causing the industry to all but vanish in the Gulf.
Although this ancient tradition is no longer considered a thriving and profitable industry, Qataris still recognise the old practice of pearl diving to honour their heritage.
Before technology was readily available, free diving was the only way to harvest pearls. This required pearling boats (known as a ‘dhow’) abound with thirty plus men embarking on strenuous four-month voyages across the Persian Gulf.
Due to the complexity and manual nature of diving, each crew member would have an allocated job, specific for them. Divers were known as ‘Jazwas’ and were ranked by how many shares of the profit they received. A ‘Kais’ diver received three shares, while the puller, known as a ‘Seib’ would get two shares.
The captain of the boat was known as a ‘Nakhuda’ and received a fifth of the profits and the ‘Tajir’ was the overall captain who wouldn’t go to sea but financed the expedition. Finally there was the ‘Tabakh’ — usually a young boy who would cook and clean on the boat.
This risky voyage would require divers to don a traditional cotton diving suit and use a clip made from turtle shell or sheep’s bone to keep their nose plugged while searching underwater for oysters. Divers also often wore a sheath made of leather on their hands and feet to protect them from the rocky surfaces found below.
In order to dive deep into the sea, up to fourteen metres below, they would throw a rope with a rock tied at the end into the water and jump in. They would then submerge into the water for one to two minutes at a time to collect oysters in a woven basket. The diver then, with help from the crew, would come back up to open the oysters and count the pearls.
As well as being physically strenuous, pearl divers were constantly battling dangerous circumstances. With no access to oxygen tanks, they would have to hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time.
Diving would continue until nightfall, when all the oysters were collected and opened up. Divers could go through thousands of oysters before finding a pearl.
Pearl diving today
The pearl diving industry began to dry up once pearl farming was introduced by other countries, most notably Japan, and the demand and value of the pearl began to drop.
The number of pearl boats shrunk from 3,000 to just 530 in the space of a few decades. Divers moved away from the pearl trade, and the region turned to oil production.
However, Qataris continue to pay homage to their pearl diving legacy to this day. In fact, the Pearl Qatar — an artificial island and one of the most prominent spots in the country — was built on an old pearl diving site. The shape of the island even resembles a string of pearls.
Qatar’s annual Marine Festival also honours the country’s pearl diving legacy, with a three-day pearling competition and an educational voyage along the shore. As well as taking part in traditional pearl diving practices, visitors can enjoy a seal show, golf, food and a show, while learning about the history of pearling.
The Pearl Monument was also built to pay homage to Qatar’s ancient legacy. Located near the Dhow Harbour, this fountain sculpture of a giant open oyster, with a huge pearl nestled inside, lights up in the evenings, making it an ideal spot for photos.
Then there’s the Senyar competition which is held annually in May and commemorates Qatar’s diving past. Teams take part in diving for oysters, with the winner bagging a hefty $100,000 prize.
Anyone who visits Qatar today might not be aware of the history of pearling but they are sure to witness homages to this ancient tradition that the country was once built on. A vital piece of Qatari history that remains close to the local’s hearts.