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FIFA World Cup host Qatar is leaving pearls far behind


DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Seventy years ago, Saad Ismail Al-Jassim was free diving 40 feet (13 meters) into the waters of the Persian Gulf, holding his breath, to comb the seabed for oysters in the hope of finding a cluster of pearls.

Today, the 1,100-foot (335-meter) yacht, which serves as a floating hotel for thousands of soccer fans, is moored off the shore where divers in wooden boats once left to hunt for pearls, a symbol of the stunning transformation World Cup host Qatar has undergone over the past century.

Like its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Qatar’s main commodity before it began exporting oil and natural gas to the world was the pearl, an iridescent precious bead that forms when a stimulus enters an oyster shell.

Al Jassim, now 87, was one of the country’s last professional pearl catchers. “Our journey will take three to four months,” he said. “We (will) eat, drink, sleep only on the boat.”

Pearls have been used in jewelry for centuries, and none were considered as exquisite as natural pearls found in the Persian Gulf, according to author Michael Quinten Morton, who has written eight books on the history of the Middle East, including “Masters of Pearl: A History” . Qatar”. In the early 20th century, Qatar was at the center of a burgeoning pearl mining industry.

According to Morton, merchants in Qatar worked to meet European demand by shipping gems from local markets to Bombay and on to Baghdad, London or Paris.

Hunting for the shiny beads was dangerous work that kept fishermen, including many enslaved, at sea for months at a time. Divers would tie a stone weight to one leg and descend 45 feet (14 meters), often pinching their noses to hold their breath underwater. The fisherman opened and sorted the oyster back into the boat.

If divers ascended to the surface too quickly, they risked decompression sickness, also known as the bends, when the wrong gases build up in the blood. Then there were attacks by sharks or other animals. Or drown.

“Many had hearing problems. Others had vision problems,” said John Duke Anthony, founder of the National Council on American-Arab Relations and an expert on the Persian Gulf. “It’s an ugly sight, but they did what they did and supported their families.”

In the early 1900s, Japanese businessman Kokichi Mikimoto perfected the process of producing “cultured” pearls by introducing a stimulus into the oyster that stimulates the secretory process that creates the hard stone in nature. By World War II, artificial pearls had taken over the market.

At one-tenth the cost of natural pearls, according to Morton, cultured pearls quickly decimated Qatar’s pearling industry. The sparsely populated British protectorate was one of the poorest in the Arab world. By 1944, only 6,000 workers remained in the Gulf pearl trade, down from 60,000 two decades earlier, Morton wrote.

In a few decades, another commodity changed the country: oil. In 1939, British geologists drilled and discovered oil in the Dukhan field in western Qatar. Ten years later, the country began to export oil. In 1971, Qatar gained independence from Britain and discovered a huge offshore natural gas field, which it shares with Iran. The country started exporting natural gas in 1997.

It will never be the same. What was once a barren stretch of dust and sand has been transformed into glass and steel towers, man-made islands and shopping malls featuring some of the world’s biggest brands. Today, tourists gaze out over the Doha skyline on dhows, traditional wooden boats used by pearl hunters, a nod to the days when the kingdom was a collection of poor fishing and pastoral tribes led by the Al Thani family, the same one that rules Qatar today.

But little remains of that era.

Al Jassim runs a small pearl shop in Doha’s Souq Waqif market, a labyrinthine market. A large black and white portrait of him as a bodybuilder hangs on the wall. Natural pearls, which he began hunting for at the age of 18, and which his father used to make for him, are rare today.

“No one sells natural pearls now,” said Al Jassim. “Those who have them keep them.”

Visitors often ask Al Jassim about his days as a pearler, perhaps because the shop’s entrance has a sign reading “Old Pearl Fisherman” under his name. But he brushes off the changes he has seen in Qatar in his lifetime.

“Any country will change in such a long time,” Al Jassim said. “Even yours.”


Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham


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