Umm Al Quwain: Before Oil - Pearls

Umm Al Quwain

United Arab Emirates

April 5, 2016

Before oil…. 


The pearl diving tradition in the Arabian Gulf goes back at least 7000 years.  The decline came when the Japanese began producing and marketing cultured pearls in the early 20th Century.

In Umm Al Quwain, a small, sleepy emirate about 40km north of Dubai, I visited the Umm Al Quwain Museum.  In this restored 1768 fort, I found pearl diving equipment on display in this former residence of a local ruler and seat of government.  Highlights in the museum also include old Bedouin jewelry, fancy weapons and the ladies’ quarters.

Across the road is the Umm Al Quwain Archeology Center.  Now here you get a sense of antiquity of the Arabian Peninsula.   On display are tools and jewelry and pottery dated from the Sixth Millenium BCE through the First Millenium CE.

Travel Article from USA Today

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), pearl divers risked death by drowning and shark attacks, in addition to damaged eardrums, to dive for oysters in the Persian Gulf. The practice was once the major source of income for the majority of inhabitants in the UAE, who would use their share of the proceeds from the pearls to squeak out a living and provide for their families.



Pearl diving was once the most lucrative profession in the United Arab Emirates and was tightly woven into the UAE culture that dates back around 7,000 years. When the Japanese discovered how to make artificial pearls in the early 1900s, the practice of pearl diving naturally declined. Because of the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf in the mid-1900s, jobs in the oil industry quickly took over as the most lucrative in the region.


Pearl diving was practiced only part of the year, from April to September. During these months, the water was warm enough for divers from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to dive safely. Their boats, known as dhows, were wooden sailing vessels that featured a triangular sail. The most important crew members were the diver himself and the Al Saib, the sailor in charge of pulling him back up to the surface.


Oyster beds in the Arabian Gulf, also known as the Persian Gulf, were the premier pearl diving sites for divers out of the UAE. According to Captain Mohammad Khalifa Bin Thalith from Dubai Ports, who put together a map of pearl diving sites in the Gulf, eight areas were known as the most popular dive sites. However, parts of the once-thriving pearl diving areas are now within underwater oil fields and are difficult to reach.


Pearl diving is a practice that fascinates many tourists to the UAE and a big piece of the culture as well. These days, the history and culture of pearl diving are used to boost the tourism industry as opposed to the pearl industry. The Diving Village, which is part of the Heritage Village Complex in Dubai, recreates a traditional maritime village where tourists can view demonstrations of age-old pearl diving practices, models of traditional dhows and an aquarium full of local fish.


The Dubai Museum features a pearl diving exhibit that includes a life-size diorama of pearl divers. In addition, the Pearl Museum in the National Bank of Dubai, now part of Emirates NBD, houses the largest collection of Persian Gulf pearls in the country. The collection belonged to Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais, who came from a long line of pearl divers and donated the collection to the museum as a tribute to the UAE's rich pearl diving history.


Article on Pearls and Pearling


See also:  Eleven Facts We know About Pearling


Information on the 7000 year old settlement of Umm Al Quwain:



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