Pearl Fishers of Arabia

Pearl Merchant Examines Pearls on Board

Pearl Merchant Examines Pearls on Board

When you think of Arabia today, you think of oil, and unimaginable wealth. But less than a century ago, oil had yet to be discovered. The region was poor and one of its main sources of income - pearl fishing - was about to be killed by cheap competition and the intransigence of colonial administrators, writes Matthew Teller.


"Yusuf was ready to dive. He took his basket, holding it by the rim, and twisted one leg about the rope with the stone. Down he went, down, down. I could watch him drop three, four fathoms. Then he was gone."

So wrote Australian explorer Alan Villiers, describing a pearl-diving expedition off Kuwait in 1939, in his book Sons of Sindbad.

"How long he was down! There was silence aboard. Then came a slight tug on the rope and the tender was hauling in fast, hand over hand. It was a long time before I saw any sign of Yusuf, deep below. A smudge became the blurred outline of a man.

"Here he came, breaking water at last. His basket first, well-filled with oysters, then his old head with an arm thrown up to shield his water-tired eyes from the glare of the sun. He blew once, like a whale."

Villiers knew he was lucky to see, and photograph, the last gasps of an industry - pearl-diving - which had sustained Arabia's coastal communities for generations.

Since the 1920s Japanese cultured (artificially produced) pearls had flooded the world market, their cheapness and abundance fatally undercutting Arabia's labour-intensive harvesting of natural pearls from the oyster banks beneath the warm waters of the Gulf.

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