Is Bahrain Still The World's "Pearl Capital"?

Diving for Pearls in Bahrain  Courtesy DANAT

Diving for Pearls in Bahrain Courtesy DANAT

After 85 years, Bahrain has re-prioritised sustainability in its bid to offer visitors a chance to experience its pearl heritage beneath the waves of the Arabian Gulf. Bahrain's name stems from the fusion of two Arabic words—‘thnain Bahr’—translating to ‘two seas’, referencing the springs beneath the seabed merging with the highly saline water of the pearl banks. For centuries, Bahraini free divers braved the depths of the Gulf aboard traditional dhows, harvesting pearls, revered by royalty, fashion elites, and leading American, British and French jewellers.

Farah Mattar, director of Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, says, “The oyster beds in northern Bahrain were once the heart of a thriving pearl fishery, dominating the Arabian Gulf from ancient times until the early 20th century. This led to Bahrain's reliance on pearls, shaping its economy in the 19th century. Muharraq, the capital at the time, became the focal point of this single-product economy. The pearling season determined the livelihoods of many, including merchants, creditors, boat owners, captains, divers, hauliers, and sail-makers.” She adds, “Pearls collected in Bahrain were sent to Europe and India, where they were refined and traded to larger markets. Despite the decline of the pearl industry in the 20th century, its legacy endures as a significant aspect of Bahraini cultural identity.”

Acknowledging the historical importance of this tradition, Unesco added the Bahrain Pearling Trail to its World Heritage List in 2012, as a remarkable traditional marine resource utilisation and human-environment interaction. This site encompasses 17 properties within Muharraq, along with a natural coastline and three oyster beds, preserving the rich urban,
architectural, and natural heritage of Bahrain's pearling economy. Successfully registered in 2012 and finalised in early 2024, the site spans 3.5 km at the core of historic Muharraq, offering a comprehensive narrative of the island's pearling history.

While some pearl oysters rest in relatively shallow waters, the most lucrative beds lie far deeper—up to 40 feet or even 125 feet below the water surface. These perilous dives pushed traditional pearl hunters to their limits, highlighting the dangers of this ancient practice. Pearl hunting isn't just scuba diving. Specialised gear is essential: Weighted stones for rapid descent, nose clips to protect the airway, oyster knives to pry open the shells, leather finger guards against sharp edges, oyster baskets for the precious haul, and even rudimentary cotton diving suits. Back in the day, pearl divers, historically skilled free-divers, used turtle bone nose clips and rocks as weights to plunge from dhows. A Seib deckhand managed a lifeline attached to the diver, ensuring safety during potential shallow water blackouts. After filling the baskets, the Seib would hoist them to the surface for sorting.

Discussing the evolution of pearl diving in Bahrain, Mattar explains: “Pearl diving, once a simple task requiring minimal equipment, has evolved significantly. Nowadays, advancements in diving suits and equipment have greatly improved safety and ease during dives. Despite these changes, the traditional method of manually opening oysters with knives remains unchanged from the days of the pearling heyday. The intricate knowledge of pearl diving, including the location of prime oyster beds yielding the finest pearls, remains closely guarded among experienced divers.”


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