When the pale view of the mountain range looms up on the horizon, you know you are approaching your destination. Until then, the road to Ras Al Khaimah is marked by rust-coloured sand dunes peppered with sturdy tufts of green alongside modern housing clusters under construction. But now, well past the city centre, as the majestic views of the Hajjar mountain range tower over you, the drive towards Al Rams, a sleepy fishing hamlet on the northern tip of Ras Al Khaimah, takes an interesting turn. With the backdrop of the dramatic mountains, the spectacular scenery unfolds with every turn on the road until at last, you watch it slope into the water. And it is here, on a sliver alongside the sea and the mountains that Al Rams nestles, a place today popularly known for its fishing activities.
But it is to delve into the ancient history of pearling that had once catapulted this tiny region to international fame that bring us to Al Rams where a cultured pearl farm is carefully preserving this rich legacy. Taking us on a fascinating trip to the yesteryears, to a time when pearling was once the pillar of the country’s economy, is Abdullah Al Suwaidi, who set up the region’s first cultured pearl farm in 2005 on the very waters that had produced the finest Arabian pearls coveted by royals, nobles and celebrities in distant lands. As the grandson of one of the last remaining pearl divers of the UAE, through his pearl farm, Suwaidi is single-handedly working to revive a tradition and industry that disappeared from the Gulf region almost a century ago.
At the harbour, before we board the traditional pearling boat to visit the pearl farm at the foot of Jebel Rams, we watch the men go about their daily routine of mending nets and cleaning after the morning catch is done. In this idyllic haven with its blue, clear skies, a gentle breeze in the air and an awe-inspiring jagged landscape all around, they seem content and happy with their lives.
The boat has been decked out in a traditional majlis style, and we are offered dates, water and coffee, as soon as we settle down. It is a high tide day, an ideal condition for navigating the shallow waters, says Suwaidi, as we glide into the gently bobbing waters.
‘Nature, culture, treasures — these are the highlights of this trip,’ he says, by way of introduction to the pearl farm tour. ‘Al Rams is blessed with the bounty of nature – grey mountains, turquoise waters, mangroves teeming with marine and bird life, and a tranquil, serene environment.
‘It is precisely this pristine and thriving ecosystem that has seen this region produce some of the world’s finest pearls famed for their incredible lustre and luminosity,’ he adds. ‘The quality of a pearl depends on the quality of the environment in which it grows. The fresh water that pours down from the mountains, reduces the salinity and infuses it with oxygen creating an ideal condition for reproduction and food supply for the healthy growth of the pearl oysters.’
Formerly known as Julphar, this region was a dominant political and pearling centre during the 17th century, boasted of large pearling beds and was also close to the Strait of Hormuz that enabled trade to distant regions of the world. Although pearling was once the lifeblood of the local community and the UAE’s main source of wealth, what is more fascinating, believes Suwaidi, ‘is the way it melded into the social structure of the society, leaving behind a rich heritage of traditions.’
At the mangroves in the far distance, we catch sight of pink flamingoes dipping their large, curved beaks into the water. We notice herons and egrets, and a host of other birdlife circling low over the wooded mangroves. ‘Mangroves are nature’s gift; they harbour a thriving biodiverse ecosystem from marine and sea creatures to birds and smaller animals,’ explains Suwaidi.
Yonder is a stretch of sandy shore where we glimpse at a herd of around 20 to 25 camels grazing in the natural environment. We watch as they walk in a straight line while one strays off towards the water for a luxurious dip.
As we edge closer towards the 4,000 square metre farm, a large sea turtle pops its head out of the water and dives in just as quickly. When Suwaidi points out that only one out of every thousand turtle hatchlings will survive until maturity, we realise we are fortunate to have seen a mature adult in its natural habitat.
We notice that seagulls are perched on all the buoys holding the oyster mesh baskets in place. ‘This is because oysters attract plenty of small fish which the seagulls feed on,’ explains Suwaidi as we embark and enter the Suwaidi Pearls Arabian Pearl Farm — a large pearling boat anchored next to the oyster breeding grounds.
It is here that we learn more about the country’s pearling heritage as Suwaidi takes us on a historical journey that starts with the discovery — in 2012 — of the world’s oldest natural pearl in a grave in nearby Umm Al Quwain, which French archaeologists carbon dated to 5500 BCE. ‘This is a significant find as it shatters the widespread belief that the UAE did not have much of a history prior to the discovery of oil — this fully intact, lustrous archaeological pearl now traces our history to more than 7500 years ago!’
The Gulf was renowned as the pearling centre of the ancient world, and pearl ornaments exported from the region were extremely popular with both the Greeks and Romans throughout the early centuries. Pliny the Elder, the renowned Roman author and philosopher, had described the Arabian pearls as ‘the most perfect and exquisite of all others’ as early as 1st century CE.
But retrieving these fruits of the sea from the seabed was no easy task as we soon discover how divers had to spend months at sea in peak summer subsisting only on one meal of rice, fish, dates and coffee each day while the captain led them to pearl banks using the sun, stars, and the colour and depth of the sea as a guide. A dive lasted around 60 seconds and they undertook 50 to 200 dives per day, foraging on the ocean floor to collect as many oysters as they can before their breath runs out. The only protective gear they had on was a nose clip and finger guards.
The entry of Japanese artificial pearls in global markets in the early 1900s along with the loss of fortune of wealthy clients in the aftermath of World War I, spelt the death knell of the pearling industry across the Arabian Gulf, explains Suwaidi. And, with the discovery of oil, divers shifted to alternative occupations.
From a large aquarium cleaned by oysters who are filter feeders, Suwaidi picks out one, inserts a knife into the hinge, and gently cuts through the tough flesh to pry it open. We gasp in unison as hidden in the centre is a perfectly round, shiny pearl. Gently extricating it, he rubs it between his hands with sea salt and fresh water “to remove the smell of the sea”.
We are then introduced to the process of culturing – a 5-stage process that begins with allowing juvenile pearl oysters to develop into mature ones, after which they are held in darkness for a month to prepare for seeding. ‘They need to be in absolute darkness to relax and open up,’ explains Suwaidi. ‘Seeding is done by inserting a round bead made from mother-of-pearl shell, along with oyster tissue, that allows a layer of nacre to grow around the bead, forming a pearl in the course of time.’
Successfully seeded oysters are then placed for a period of one year in a vertical mesh basket and are regularly cleaned to keep them healthy. Suwaidi says that while only 1 out of every wild oyster fished will produce a pearl, the success rate is 60 per cent with seeded pearls. Yet, what emerges out of the oyster is just as shiny, iridescent and lustrous.
Every part of the oyster is used on the farm, says Suwaidi. The oyster meat goes to the restaurants while the shells are powdered and used as organic manure or crafted into jewellery. We meet Joey Mercado, who uses a small blade for cutting through the tough oyster shell and a needle file to shape them into pendants ranging from floral and heart patterns to those in the shape of the UAE map.
Suwaidi then leads us to the upper deck of the boat where he reveals the treasures he has collected over the years from the waters of Al Rams. Pearls of various sizes, shapes and hues tumble out of each velvet pouch and we also acquaint ourselves with the tools of the trade including little metal sieves to determine the size and weight of pearls, and magnifying glasses to check for lustre and surface quality.
‘Pearls are the only gems produced from a living organism,’ says Al Suwaidi, as he shows us one of his prized pieces — a single strand prayer necklace, assembled after combing through four seasons of harvest — or approximately 160,000 pearls — to get the perfect match in size, shape, colour and lustre. ‘You cannot cut, shape or polish pearls — it is a product of nature, and the reason why it is so highly valued.
‘It is my dream that everybody should be able to enjoy the exquisite beauty of an Arabian pearl,’ he adds. ‘It is an investment in Arabian heritage and a legacy that we should all be proud of.’
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The Suwaidi Pearl Farm Tour offers the following options:
1. Visiting the Pearl Farm (introduction to nature, history, culture, innovation)
2. Oyster opening experience
3. Pearl diving
5. Touring the mangroves
6. Traditional lunch provided by Emarati women from the village.
You can choose any or a combination of activities from above. Rates from Dh150 and lasts from 1 to 5 hours depending on the activities chosen. Children between 5 and 9 pay only half price. Kids should be escorted by guardians.
To book, contact Sara on 050-6815151 or email email@example.com.