How natural pearls changed the face of Qatar

Kari in Qatar

Kari in Qatar

Before Qatar first struck “black gold” in 1939, life in the Gulf revolved around pearls. These iridescent gems of the deep shaped the culture, politics, regional relations and fortunes of its inhabitants over more than 7,000 years – not least Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, who were the dominant force in the local pearling industry at its peak around the turn of the 20th century.

Revered for their brilliant luster and luminosity, Gulf pearls were a particular hit with the aristocratic and emerging middle classes of Europe and the US. Along with its neighbors and fierce rivals Bahrain and some parts of the Trucial States (which encompass today’s UAE), Qatar rose to the increasing global demand, with 48% of its 27,000-strong population in 1907 (or nearly all men) employed in pearling.

Half a century later, however, it was all over, with the political resident (the chief British representative in the Gulf) writing in 1958: “For the first time in very many years no pearling boat left Doha harbor, and the hulks of what used to be a considerable fleet lie rotting on the coast.”

The arrival of oil was just one of multiple factors that led to the swift and crushing demise of the Gulf pearling industry. But while many physical remnants of Qatar’s pearling past have since succumbed to the bulldozers, this rich heritage remains woven into the fabric of the nation.

Scratch the surface of Qatar today, and references to its pearling past are ever-present, from public art – notably the Pearl Monument at the entrance to Doha’s Dhow Harbour depicting a giant, pearl-bearing oyster – to modern architecture including The Pearl-Qatar, a glitzy residential and lifestyle development built on a former pearling bed.

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