For at least two thousand years life for those who lived along the coast of the Arabian Gulf revolved around pearls. As surely as the sun rose and set, so did the pearling trade follow its natural rhythm. In May each year the men took to the pearling boats and headed out to the oyster beds. There they stayed for months living on the small open decks and diving for pearls all day under the broiling sun. It was grueling work.
The season for pearling finished in September and then the boats pulled up anchor and sailed for their home ports. Anxiously waiting on shore were the families of the men on board. Also anxiously waiting, pacing the shoreline with impatience and milling around the town, were hordes of foreign traders from every corner of the world who had converged to buy pearls. The return of the boats touched off a feeding frenzy of fierce competition among them as the pearl harvest was sorted and inspected.
By the 1920’s the pearling business seemed as strong as it ever had been. Pearling fleets were being expanded and more divers recruited. Although Dubai did not have as many boats as some of its neighbours in many ways it served as a hub for the business and trade. In fact, its entire economy hinged on pearling in one way or another.
Then, one September Dubai’s pearling boats returned to a town that was as dead as a doorknob. The families of the crew were there on shore to greet them as always but the foreign traders were not. None of them had come and nobody knew why.
I wonder what it must have been like in the bleak days that followed to walk through the empty sand alleys of Dubai past the high walls of coral-stone courtyard houses and along the lines of palm frond huts and feel the atmosphere of bewilderment and anxiety. People would have been waiting to be paid – the captains, the divers, the boat builders, even the shopkeepers and suppliers in the souk. This was an industry that operated on credit. At the end of the season when the pearl harvest was sold everyone was paid. And then those people paid their debts and those people paid their debts and so on down the line. But the pearl harvest hadn’t been sold because no one had come to buy. There wasn’t any money. I’m sure nobody would have known what to do.
Perhaps comforting rumours sprang up that explained everything. Maybe they wondered if there was a war that had prevented the foreign traders from traveling. Surely the traders were simply delayed because this war had forced them to take a longer, more difficult travel route. Or perhaps there had been a big earthquake that had disrupted the route. Perhaps there was a plague of some sort in Europe and the traders were too ill to come.
All anybody would really have known in Dubai and in the other towns of the Arabian Gulf was that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
In time news did arrive - and it was almost beyond comprehension, worse than they could ever have dreamed.