When the oil came, diving stopped

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“When the oil came, diving stopped,”Jehad Al-Jaidah says Qatar’s history of pearl diving. Pearls have been a huge part of Qatar’s history, economy and livelihood for centuries and these industry came to a screeching halt in the 1950s with the rise of worldwide demand for oil. Now, not many people know of Qatar’s rich heritage.

when the oil came, diving stopped - image of a traditional dhow - pearl diving in Qatar
© David Harding

Jehad Al-Jaidah is the organizer of the Senyar, Qatar’s biggest annual pearl diving event. David Harding wrote an interesting article about this diving festival in The Daily Star on May 23, 2015. I love the history of pearl diving and the treasure (and hardships) this lifestyle brought. Even Jehad Al-Jaidah tells writer David Harding, “It was a very hard life.”

Pearl divers were laborers in every sense of the word, especially in regions like Qatar where they worked throughout the summer months, sometimes spending the entire time on the sea. And during this time, divers had to make enough money to sustain themselves through the winter.

So, now this tradition is revived and once again, stakes are high. The winner of the Senyar will take home the equivalent of US$110,000.

In this competition 5 teams compete on traditional dhow boats in the Gulf. Each boat has a skipper, a person who cares for and feeds the divers and a referee. There are up to five gawas (pearl divers) on each boat.

The competition does not completely mimic the pearl diving of old especially since the divers gather oysters but they do not open the oysters. Fearing the negative impact on the wild oyster population, truthfully this competition is about collecting oysters rather than collecting actual pearls. Which, would be SO much more fun, however, kudos to the organizers that are not negatively affecting the environment by depleting the wild oyster stock. As we know, oysters are essential to water quality and their habitats are important to maintain.

Despite the lack of actual pearls, the diving is quit similar. Divers take turns fee-diving without any assistance or oxygen. They dive around 6 meters to the bottom of the ocean, gathering oysters and they stay down for about a minute and a half before they have to return to the surface.

The men participating hope that this competition will revive Qatar’s diving heritage which is all but lost. When the oil cam, diving stopped but the men participating in this competition hope to revive Qatar’s rich diving heritage.

Thanks to David Harding for a great article!


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