How an iridescent gem changed the face of 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.”