Visitors to Abu Dhabi's coast in the 1930s would see nothing of the sophisticated industries that work along it today. Instead, most economic activity there was centred around pearl fishing.
At the height of summer, wooden dhows – traditional fishing and pearl fishing vessels – would set off during the hottest, most humid time of the year. If the boats were returning, observers would have seen exhausted, often sick men piling off the boats, ready to return with modest earnings to their families.
And then change arrived. An abrupt and financially disastrous end to the pearl industry came when the Great Depression decimated the appetite for luxury goods and, around the same time, Japanese scientists discovered how to make artificial pearls.
However tough, the practice took on a massive cultural significance that is present to this day. It was also a key factor in opening up the GCC area to modern markets. It was as far back as 1912 when Jacques Cartier, of French jewellery house Cartier, travelled to the Gulf in search of its exquisite pearls. More than a century later, his company launched a 2017 campaign entitled "The Pursuit of Magnificence", which documented its intertwined history with the region. The homage is understandable. Cartier loved his trip, writing in a journal: "I saw the phosphorescent sea. From the captain's bridge, the two waves shaped by the ship’s bow were so blue it looked as though they were being illuminated from below."
Now, photos by French-Canadian photographer Alain Saint-Hilaire recently seen by The National depict the industry at work and the same blue sea, but this time in the flesh. Taken in 1971, they could be a reconstruction, but still offer a detailed, less-romanticised depiction of the industry. The luminous ocean contrasts with harshly exposed conditions, basic food on offer to sailors and the extreme physical exertion required of them.
However sad it was saying goodbye to the industry on a cultural level, Saint-Hilaire's pictures make it clear why sailors had "no sentimentality", giving up the job "as soon as they could", according to historian Rob Carter, an expert in pearling.
But in a sign of how deep the practice is linked to the story of the GCC, pearl fishing is making a gradual, far safer, comeback, particularly in Bahrain. In 2021, the country's Institute for Pearls and Gemstones said it significantly increased the number of diving licences it issued. Today, natural stones are still immensely valuable when compared to artificial alternatives.
With pearling grounds also found in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Dubai and Qatar, the trend could spread across the Gulf. The region is trying to diversify its economy, and now the GCC is in a position to revive, at least in part, an industry that kept its ancestors going in harder, less prosperous times. Doing so would not just support expertise specific to the region, but also create a safe and sustainability-focused way to keep an important part of its heritage alive, with all the environmental and cultural benefits that would follow.
Visitors in Abu Dhabi can already try their hand at a far easier version of the trade, from actual trips out to sea, to a simulation in Yas Waterworld. What's to say that one day UAE residents could not revive the real thing, and maybe even make a living out of it?