From pearling to museums: a branded history of Qatar

You are not alone finding yourself somewhat confusing, especially on your first trip, in Qatar. It’s like walking into a restaurant with “since 1854” at the entrance, but only to find that it sells nothing different from Burger King. History and tradition in Qatar are just like brands, and what you’re gonna taste from them will be something else.

There it is — a white sphere lying in an opened oyster shell. The wave-like fringe of the shell is black, with colorful dots on it. Water is coming down from the sphere, flowing into the pebbles under it, into the city, into the ocean, and into the past, when the coast on the other side of the harbor was not a forest of skyscrapers yet. When the night falls, music starts and lights shine out from that magical sphere, as if it is going to turn into a treasure box, or tell a fascinating story.

Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen, Denmark

That monument, so real but so unusual, was the first thing that caught my eyes when I came to Doha. I thought it was a pure and random decoration, which might be a commemoration of a local folklore, in which the sphere became an elegant princess, a nasty witch, or something else. As time goes, I begin to know more and more about the mysterious and special connection between Qatar and this small but beautiful perfection created by the nature — pearl. Indeed, it is a treasure box. Before the oil, pearl had been the primary source of Qatar’s income for decades. However, it almost suddenly vanished after Qatar found more tremendous profits in hydrocarbon fuels since the 1940s. So, when people are still moved by the little mermaid’s love story today when they come to her statue in Copenhagen, the Pearl Oyster Monument on the corniche of Doha seems to represent a history (a complicated one) completely lost.

In recent years, pearl, as well as many other traditions that represent Qatar’s pastime, have been used by the nation to emphasize its special identity in the Gulf region and in the world. However, there is a contradiction in Qatar’s national branding strategy. While its ambitious modernization gains significant success, the way the country exhibits, represents, and revives its traditions — the Qatar identity — is confusing. Many of Qatar’s past days and old lifestyles, such as pearling, have perished; but the country is now eagerly trying to bring all of them, good or bad, back in life in monuments, museums, or even artificial reconstructions — just for people to see its will to realize and revive its history. It seems that they are only a brand on the surface, not in depth — by the country and individuals alike to advertise their ideologies and businesses; they are only in monuments, museums, and reconstructions, no where else to be found, or, more precisely, can no longer survive economically and culturally, in a Qatar that envisions and brands itself as the leading power of modernization and globalization in the region.

Pearl divers (Ghasah) jumping into the water from the boat

Since most countries find their inspiration of national branding from history, pearl and pearling industry did play a significant historical role in Qatar peninsula for centuries. “The earliest evidence of people hunting pearls [in this region] could be traced back to over 7,000 years ago,” said Robert Carter, professor of Arabian and Middle Eastern archeology at University College London Qatar. Carter has conducted numbers of researches about the history of pearling in Qatar and the general Gulf region in his publications, such as Sea of Pearls. He mentioned that although the legacy has gradually “faded into history and oral stories,” pearling has long been an important element shaping local tribes and cities, which became capitals and major ports in the Gulf region that we see today. “The capital of Qatar would not have been Doha if there had not been pearling industry,” Carter said.

“Both diving for pearls and exporting them needed proximity to water, and that was why Doha and Abu Dhabi were established on the coastline. It would have been totally different for oil towns.”

According to Carter, pearling industry in Qatar and other Gulf countries soared in the 19th and early 20th centuries, due to the development of global market, especially the European market. “In another way,” said Carter, “pearling shaped the region’s identity because it ties the region into the world.” During this period, pearling was in major source of income in the Gulf both because the quality and the price of the natural pearls. “In Qatar, 95 percent of male population was directly involved with pearling industry, and women were mostly indirectly involved with it as well,” Carter mentioned.

The column of pearling collapsed in the 1920s. “The price [of pearls] spiked in the World World I,” said Carter, “creating chance for a huge drop after the over inflation.” Together with the economic depression and Japan’s production of cultured pearls, the price of natural pearl was never able to bounce back after the 1920s. “People still hunted pearls in the 1930s and 1940s, even for tiny profits; but it rapidly died out after oil came in, bringing enormous money,” Carter said.

One of the last pearl divers who is still living, who now sells pearl products in Souq Waqif, Doha

After the dwindling of pearling in Qatar for more than half a century, the country is bringing the memory back to re-highlight the identity — the idea of towns and cities, and the notion of globalization — that was once built by pearls. It fits Qatar so well in its theme of modernization. Doha changed dramatically over the last decades: the city was reborn, while the first birth was given by pearling industry. Globalization is also what Qatar is eagerly branding itself to the world now, but with different approaches, such as international investigations and the 2022 World Cup. Qatar is not the first country trying to reaffirm the national identity and brand by reviving the memory of pearling pastime. “It was Kuwait that first developed such an idea in the 1950s and 1960s,” said Carter. There are also other events, in which Qatar tries to bring the pearl diving tradition back to life today. The Cultural Village Foundation — Katara has been organizing Senyar Championship and El Meyna Competition (for 10-to-14-year-old teenagers), fishing and pearl diving contests for “Qatari nationals,” in February and March for five years (El Meyna Competition has been hold for three years in April and May). These competitions seem to protect and present the pearling tradition in a strict way: the participants must be Qatari citizens or hold GCC countries citizenships. Also, the pearling boat, dhow, must be made of wood.

Despite these efforts, pearling in Qatar still remains superficial, ceremonial, and then nothing else. It becomes a tag of the nation for foreigners, a conditioned-reflex type of answer for tourists when the word “Qatar” pops up. Maybe it is what Qatar tries to get — it is enough for people to know the pearling industry and to correlate it with Qatar — because it is just a “brand.” Qatar definitely cannot depend on pearling as a major financial income anymore today. Pearling diving is dangerous, laborious, and most importantly, profitless; and these reasons cut the industry entirely in the country that it does not even have a single program just trying to protect the industry. No. Not even for the sake of nostalgia.

Maybe there is one, 100 kilometers away from Doha, in which people can more or less find (very hard to find, actually) some trace of the country’s pearling pastime in a modern setting. The Qatar Pearl Legacy was co-funded by Qatar Foundation, Qatar Luxury Group, and Tahitian pearl brand, Robert Wan, in 2009. The project owns the only pearl farm, which provides Robert Wan cultured Tahitian pearls (black pearls). Pradeep Kunwar works in Qatar Luxury Group and is the contact of the farm of Qatar Peal Legacy. “Our farm is very small, and so far we do not have a formal office yet,” he said. Also, the Qatar Pearl Legacy “does not have yet any online information.” However, Kunwar is busy because he has to prepare for the national day event from Dec. 8 to Dec. 20, during which he will be educating thousands of visitors about pearling and the brand’s information in Al Sadd.

Although the farm produces cultured black pearls, which is not the same kind of natural pearl that Qatar used to produce in history, it is more than surprising to find out that the project, after-all funded by the famous and semi-national Qatar Foundation, and such a great example to be included in the pearling branding program, almost does not exist on the Internet and anywhere else. “I think the main reason is, still, that the farm is not lucratively productive enough,” said Carter. “Of course Qatar does not want to use a project that earns little to brand the industry,” he said.

“If there is a way of making money (for Gulf region inhabitants), they will make money.”

Another similar attempt to revive the pearling industry was led by Abdulla Al Suwaidi, who founded a farm for cultured pearls in Ras Al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, six years ago. The farm produced some 40 thousand pearls equal to 24 kilograms a year. However, Carter mentioned that the farm failed recently because “it was not lucrative enough” as well.

“Pearling in Qatar is both a pride and a stigma,” said Carter, which is another reason why it is hard to revive the pearling history in depth here. “It is not a memory that everyone wants to hold on to.” Not only for the dangers of pearl diving, the history of pearling in Qatar, as well as in other Gulf countries, is entangled with memories of poverty, slavery, etc., giving it a complexity that is hard to deal with today, although it had shaped the cultures here in the past. So, while the country borrows the glory, perfection, and beauty of pearls as its brand and shell of identity on the world stage, Qatar keeps this shell as on the surface as possible to avoid the pain of it, or to hide and explain it implicitly by modernization — an eventual, and necessary, approach to save the country from poverty and backwardness.

This complexity, exhibited by Qatar’s national branding strategy, is not limited to pearling alone. Qatar also brands its nowadays, its modernization — not history or tradition — in its museums. A lot of them borrow the pastime as a shell to present the huge contrast and improvement modernization (and oil) had brought, or simply to show its ambitious modernization and not talking about the past at all. “Msheireb Museums are a leading attempt to show Qatar’s own history,” said Aisha Ali Al Kuwari, senior officer in the programs department of Msheireb Properties. Different from other many museums in Qatar, which demonstrate a more general Islamic culture, Msheireb Museums focus on indigenous old lifestyles of Qatar. “They show many aspects,” Al Kuwari said, “including history, achievement, failure, and poverty.” The program started in 2009, when the research team found several old houses in the heart of old Doha and started to renovate and reconstruct them (from almost ruins) into museums. If you walk into one of the museums today, you will find nothing “really old:” all the houses have been rebuilt, painted with white paints, and air conditioned. Only the small boards on the wall show what they were like before the reconstruction.

Although the Msheireb Museums is about Qatar, it aims at a boarder group. “We hope that the museum can educate the Gulf, Middle East, or even the world,” Al Kuwari said, “especially the young generations.” In the museums, there are actually not a lot about Qatar’s pastime. One will feel rather disappointed if he/she is looking for a Qatari pottery in the 17th century or a blanket in the 1800s. The oldest objects are still from the 1920s, before the oil era. In these reconstructions inside the “real” old houses, what people can see is how modernization has changed Qatar, how Qatar is going to rebuild Msheireb district with contemporary style of buildings inspired by old houses, and how the oil workers felt “no shame working to build a nation.” Same as pearling, but Msheireb Museums are even more explicit in terms of Qatar’s interesting national branding strategy — it is literally using the shell of its past to brand its present and future. There is nothing really traditional and historical within that shell that the country is trying to bring alive — the only thing that is kept old is designed for people to automatically link to the modernization of the country, which is the real core target of Qatar’s national branding.

Movie that is showed in Company House, Msheireb Museum, which tells the stories of early oil workers in Qatar.

While the nation utilizes tradition as a strategy to brand its modernity, individuals borrow the sense of tradition to advertise their own careers and business. In this way, traditions like pearling in Qatar has evolved from a historical legacy into a modern way of entertaining and recognition of marine ecology. “The connection between Qataris and pearling make a lot of local people interested in diving today,” said Khaled Zaki, an Egyptian marine consultant, underwater filmmaker, and the founder of Qatar Marine, a scuba diving club to “link the diving here to the world.” Zaki started to dive since 1985. After he first came to Qatar in 2001, Zaki decided to stay and promote local diving ever since. “By doing this,” he said, “I want to present the pearling diving history [of Qatar] in future and to let people know what and where to go in Qatar.” He also tries to raise the local awareness of environment by showing “both positive and negative changes in marine ecosystems in Qatar.” Different from pearl divers, Zaki’s diving group, and many other diving clubs in Qatar, is no longer diving for pearl — they are looking for great and cool pictures of sea creatures like amphiprion clarki (Clark’s clownfish) and zebrasoma xanthurum (yellow-tailed sailfin-tang), the “Marlin” and “Dory” in Finding Nemo.

“Sometimes you will see oysters as well,” said Zaki, “but you never know whether they have pearls in them.” In fact, nobody knows in Qatar now.

Zaki and his team, with two of his diving students from France, went to the Sealine Beach, a resort in the south of Mesaieed. They had everything prepared just when the rising tide had reached its peak in the day. “We will go as far as that buoy,” he pointed at a small floating dot about 100 meters away from the coast when his team was loading diving suits, oxygen tanks, and webbed shoes off from his truck. After they went into the water, Zaki had a short conference with his teammates. “Remember that do not use you phone if you can while we are walking down [the water],” he said. “It might drop from your phone.” So I stood at the beach, waving them good luck, and seeing them disappearing in the blue ocean, only with some bubbles coming up occasionally. I wondered what the real ocean kingdom would be like. A hundred years ago, on the same water, great number of pearling boats witnessed a bustling period of Qatar’s past. Those Ghasahs (pearl divers) probably did the same thing, but they did not go down just for fun — they went down, with risk of their lives, for money and for food. This history is about to be eternally forgotten in the deep ocean, and I did not know if it would come to Zaki and his friends’ minds, just for a second, when they were enjoying their adventures in that same ocean, an ocean full of memories, desires, and unknowns.