World Cup hosts Qatar are leaving their pearl-diving past far behind

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — 70 years ago, Saad Ismail Al Jassim dove 13 meters deep in the waters of the Persian Gulf and held his breath to comb the seabed for oysters in hopes of finding a cluster of pearls.

Today, a 335-metre yacht that serves as a floating hotel for thousands of football fans moors on the shore where divers once set out in wooden boats to hunt for pearls – a symbol of the breathtaking transformation that World Cup hosts Qatar have seen over the past century .

Like its Gulf of Arab neighbors, Qatar’s main commodity before it began exporting oil and natural gas to the world was pearls, the iridescent, precious pearls formed when an irritant slips into the shell of an oyster.

Al Jassim, now 87, was one of the country’s last professional pearl divers. “Our journey would take three to four months,” he said. “We (would) only eat, drink, sleep on the boat.”

Pearls have been used in jewelry for centuries, and none were considered as precious as the natural ones found in the Gulf, according to author Michael Quinten Morton, who has written eight books on Middle Eastern history, including Masters of the Pearl: A History of Qatar.” In the early 20th century, Qatar was the center of a booming pearl diving industry.

According to Morton, merchants in Qatar worked to meet Europe’s demand by shipping the gems from local markets to Bombay and on to Baghdad, London or Paris.

The hunt for the glittering pearls was dangerous work that kept fishermen, many of them enslaved, at sea for months. Divers tied a stone weight to one foot and descended 14 meters, often cutting their noses to hold their breath underwater. The fisherman opened the oysters and sorted them back onto the boat.

If divers surfaced too quickly, they risked decompression sickness, also known as bends, where the wrong gases build up in the blood. Then there were attacks by sharks or other animals. Or drown.

“A lot of people had hearing problems. Others had vision problems,” said John Duke Anthony, founder of the National Council on US-Arab Relations and an expert on the Gulf States. “Not a pretty sight, but they did what they did and supported their families.”

In the early 1900s, Japanese businessman Kokichi Mikimoto perfected a process for creating “cultured” pearls by implanting an irritant in an oyster that stimulates the secretory process that creates the hard stone in nature. By World War II artificial pearls had conquered the market.

A tenth the cost of natural pearls, Morton says, cultured pearls were quickly destroying Qatar’s pearl diving industry. The sparsely populated British protectorate was one of the poorest in the Arab world. By 1944, only 6,000 workers were still employed in the Gulf pearl trade, compared with 60,000 two decades earlier, Morton wrote.

Within decades, another commodity changed the country: oil. British geologists drilled for and discovered oil in the Dukhan field in western Qatar in 1939. A decade later, the country began exporting petroleum. In 1971, Qatar both gained independence from Britain and discovered a vast offshore natural gas field that it shares with Iran. The country began exporting natural gas in 1997.

It would never be the same again. What were once barren dusty and sandy beaches have been transformed into towers of glass and steel, artificial islands and malls housing some of the world’s biggest brands. Today, tourists admire the Doha skyline on dhows, the traditional wooden boats used by pearl divers – a nod to the days when the kingdom was a conglomeration of poor fishing and pastoral tribes led by the Al Thani family, the same ones living today Qatar rules.

But otherwise there is hardly anything left from this period.

Al Jassim runs a small pearl shop in Doha’s Souq Waqif, a labyrinthine market. A large black and white portrait of him as a bodybuilder hangs on the wall. The natural pearls, which he began hunting for at age 18 and which his father made before him, are rare today.

“Now no one is selling the natural pearl,” Al Jassim said. “Those who have them, keep them.”

Visitors often ask Al Jassim about its pearling days, possibly prompted by a sign at the store’s entrance that reads “the old pearl diver” under his name. But he shrugs at the change he’s seen in his life in Qatar.

“Every country will change over such a long period of time,” said Al Jassim. “Even yours.”


Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham


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