UAE's pearling industry seeks to regain long-lost luster

Tue Aug 6, 2013 3:46pm EDT
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By Mirna Sleiman

DUBAI (Reuters) - Abdulla al-Suwaidi dreamed of reviving a long-lost part of Middle Eastern culture when he seeded his first oyster with a tiny bead and placed it in the warm waters of the Gulf in 2004.

Almost a decade later, the co-founder and vice-chairman of RAK Pearls is finally seeing the fruits of his labors with the first auction of cultured pearls from RAK's oyster farm off the coast of Ras Al Kaimah, one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.

"We're seeing today a revival of a culture, a treasure that's been lost to us for many, many years," al-Suwaidi told Reuters in an interview.

Natural pearl diving was once the main income of many families in the region. But it vanished after World War One with the development of vast oil reserves in the Gulf and the rise of competition from Japanese cultured pearls.

RAK Pearls, the region's only cultured pearl producer, now has some 40,000 oysters bedded down in the Gulf's briny waters and in June the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre Authority (DMCC) held an exclusive auction for some of its produce.

"Dubai has been a trading center of pearls for many years but this is the first time that we auction locally cultivated pearls with a quality that surpasses anything that you've seen farmed in countries like China and Japan," DMCC Executive Vice Chairman Ahmed bin Sulayem said.

The value of traded natural and cultured pearls through nearby Dubai grew by an average 25 percent annually between 2003 and 2011 to hit $30 million a year in the last few years, while volumes have risen 10 percent annually, according to Franco Bosoni, director of commodity services at DMCC.

Prices per pearl could hit as much as 1 million UAE dirhams ($272,300), according to RAK's Japanese board director Daiji Imura. Smaller pearls could sell for as little as one dirham.   Continued...

A man displays a pearl at RAK's oyster farm off the coast of Ras Al Kaimah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah