Often quoting a line from poet Rumi – ‘how can you reach the pearl by only looking at the sea? If you seek the pearl, be a diver’, UAE’s Abdulla Al-Suwaidi is determined to restore the glory days of the Arabian pearling industry.
Abdulla Rashed Al-Suwaidi is not just a proud Emirati and first-generation entrepreneur but also a great storyteller. He can hold you spellbound with stories of the pearl and the pearl diving industry in the Persian Gulf for hours together. After completing a bachelor’s degree in political science from the School of Public Affairs of the American University in Washington DC, he joined the UAE Foreign Service.
Following two successful stints in Australia and Japan, he returned home to work with the country’s ministry of social affairs. After leaving government service, Al-Suwaidi founded his pearl cultivation and trading business in 2005.
The idea was to revive the famed pearl industry that declined with the entry of the Japanese cultured pearls and the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula. Towards the close of the 19th century, the pearling industry contributed 75 per cent to the region’s total exports.
Business Today recently caught up with him at his oyster farm overlooked by the Al Hajar Ranges off the coast of the emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah.
For how long have you been a part of the Arab pearl industry?
All my life! My grandfather was a retired pearl diver. By the 1970s, he had completed almost 50 years as a diver. Yet he never stopped. That way, I am like him. Even I have not stopped so far. I started this project to revive the Arabian pearl industry 15 years ago while exploring the possibility of seeding oysters to produce pearls to compete with the world’s finest. Things worked out magically. People working with me felt this was a miracle as growing a pearl here takes anywhere between two to three months. Encouraged by the results, we decided to move to a bigger farm. About five years ago, I opened my workshop, which I also call my castle to visitors, to fulfill a long-held childhood dream. Today, it is not only the second-biggest tourist attraction in Ras Al-Khaimah but the only one in the world that cultures Arabian pearls.
What were you doing before venturing into this area?
I was employed with the [UAE] foreign service and was travelling the world with several pairs of suits that I would keep changing from time to time. I felt that I didn’t fit into those suits but a pearl diver’s suit. So, I decided to return to where I belong.
How has the industry evolved from the time you started your association with it?
There have not been any big changes. In the 80 years since the local pearl diving industry collapsed, not much has changed. The oysters are still there. You still find the traditional wooden boats. However, I feel that those boats don’t belong to the museum.
How successful have you been in reviving the industry that has been closely associated with the Arabian Peninsula for hundreds of years?
I don’t think that you should be asking me this question for I cannot proclaim whether I have been successful or not. You should be asking the people that I supply pearls to. You should be asking this of the tourists that visit here. But I see growth returning to the sector after three terrible years of the Covid-19 pandemic. With more people taking interest in ecotourism, the number of visitors to the farm is growing by thousands and that is a good indication. The number of pearls that we have been producing has also gone up.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the business?
We had four months of lockdown. After the lockdown, the farms again opened leading visitors to return. But the slowdown in economic activity has limited transportation and tourism activity. It will continue to have an impact for another couple of years. We expect a healthy recovery, and faster than when it’s anticipated. But it will take another two years to get back to normalcy.
What are the primary markets for your pearls?
My contribution of pearls that are produced here is on a very limited scale because what is produced in other countries is in thousands of tonnes. However, I am not focusing on quantity but on quality. And that’s why the seekers of the famous natural Arabian pearls who cannot get them anymore come to me for beautifully cultured Arabian pearls at a convenient price. That’s how I have become popular. So, not only is my market very diverse and very dynamic, but it’s also growing.
You have also been speaking about creating your brand for pearls. Tell us something about that.
It is under process. I am looking for passionate designers, who want to do not just regular designs, but also designs that tell a story. Like the mythology behind pearls so they can be appropriately presented to the public. I already have a regular supply of high-quality pearls. Once I have the designers, we will move to the next step of supplying the world with beautiful Arabian designs.
And how will you retail those designs?
Many people are now approaching me to present my products at their stores. However, I want to do that with a brand and stories. Collaborating with others will be very easy. It is just a matter of building designs and the product together.
You also talk about the close ties that the Arab pearl industry has had with India. How are things today?
It is very small currently. Like, my farm is very small. I don’t go to the Indian market. Some Indians come and buy pearls here and sell them in the local market. There are different ways of selling pearls. There are bulk auctions and then there are sales of sorted out the quality of the A, B, C, and D varieties, depending on quality.
The relations between Indians and Arabs were very strong in the past. They still are, albeit in different areas. India was the market for pearls. So, Europeans and other nationalities came to India to buy pearls that were produced in Arabia. And Arab traders went to India to sell. There is this very interesting story that I heard from my grandfather. One of the traders who had lost pearls while at the sea, had nothing to sell when he reached India. So, he borrowed money from his friends in India to pay his suppliers back home. The following year, he returned to India with a larger quantity of pearls and more than recovered his losses after making a huge profit on their sales.