Unbeknownst to the people of the Arabian Gulf, far away in the country of Japan a man named Mikimoto and some of his compatriots had been trying to discover how to make pearls grow in oysters on purpose, how to farm pearls. They had succeeded. And in 1928, they had just harvested their first small commercial crop. These cultured pearls were in essence pearls made to order. They could be grown in that highly desirable perfectly round shape, they could be grown to uniform size, quantities could be planned in advance and harvested to schedule. There was no dangerous diving to find them. And, in comparison to the natural, wild pearls of the Arabian Gulf, they were selling dirt cheap. If cultured pearls were the future then there was no reason to pay a king’s ransom for natural, wild pearls. And hence no reason for traders to travel to the Arabian Gulf at all.
In the blink of an eye a way of life that had flourished for thousands of years was dead. Overnight the vibrant, prosperous small sheikhdoms scattered along the edge of the Arabian Gulf became destitute for there was no way to escape this sudden predicament, no solution to a catastrophe that had blind-sided them. Mere day-to-day survival of the population became the overwhelming priority. Food. The rice that was imported from India – how would they pay for it now?
Added to the shock must have been a strange sense of isolation and abandonment, even betrayal. They had been dropped cold. If there had been a warning they hadn’t understood it for who could have imagined such a thing even if anybody had tried to tell them. Now, suddenly they weren’t important anymore. Nobody came, nobody cared. The world had abruptly forgotten them, just turned its back. For Bahrain, the real powerhouse of pearling, the come-down must have been especially bitter and it never forgave the insult. To this day the sale of cultured pearls is illegal in that country.
Even Dubai, with its strategic natural harbour and its concerted efforts to develop trade, was henceforth to be considered nothing more than a poor, backward fishing village, obscure and uninteresting, not even worth a dot on the map.
This state of poverty lasted for over twenty years. With no light at the end of the tunnel there must have been a terrible feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness and monotony. The past was gone forever. This was the strange new normal. For two thousand years they had been proud pearlers. What were they now? Nothing, nobody. How would they ever change this life of grim subsistence?