Before the discovery of oil, the United Arab Emirates's economy was based on pearl harvesting and pearl trading. Pearl harvesting became a defining industry and was one the first big achievements in the history of the United Arab Emirates. Records show that pearls were heavily traded as early as the times of the Roman empire. Given the geographical position of the Arabian peninsula, the Arabs were able to trade both to the East (India, China) and the West (Europe, especially Portugal, British Empire, and the Netherlands).
The pearl oyster, locally called the qamashah, represented a source of wealth and prosperity in the 18th and the first of half the 19th century. It was a similar resource to oil which is unanimous with the UAE today. Pearl harvesting was the driving force of the economy which offered seasonal and full-time employment to the people of the peninsula. Slowly, families populated the coasts and gave birth to settlements that we know today such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. Pearl harvesting was not just a means of trading, it was the main industry for Arabs which left an abundant heritage for the generations to come.
The pearl oyster, also called lulu, could be found in shallow banks in the Persian Gulf. Before the era of cultured pearls, the oysters were extracted by the simple method of diving. Today, more than 99% of pearls are cultured in pearl farms. Read more about this topic here: How pearls are harvested.
Foreigners and outsiders were forbidden to dive if not granted permission by the rulers. Also, the use of modern equipment was banned which meant people would dive in with ropes and weights attached up to 15 meters deep. Experienced divers could collect a dozen or so oysters in 2-3 minutes. One diver could repeat this process even fifty times per day! It was not an easy job. Records show that ships with crews of up to 18 men per boat would go to sea for months and tend pearl beds during the summer period.
Pearls from Dubai were internationally known and recognized as unique jewelry. The pearls were and are still graded according to their color, shape, and size. The most popular and highly valued pearls were called jiwan (grade one pearls). The pearl industry reached its peak in the first part of the 20th century however the combination of the 1929 global depression and the Japanese cultured pearl harvesting of the 1930s damaged the Gulf industry. After years and decades of struggle, the last great pearl expedition left from Dubai in 1949.