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Volume 17, Number 5September/October 1966

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Pink Gold

For the Arabian Gulf's new shrimping industry the future is as rosy as the shrimp themselves.

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by Ali A. Khalifa

Shrimp, according to one encyclopedia, have 10 legs and swim backward. That is, of course, when they swim at all, which isn't very often. Usually they prefer to burrow into a bank in shallow water and hope that people like Captain Jum'a will keep away. Captain Jum'a—Captain Friday in translation—is the skipper of a 67-foot shrimping trawler called the Kifah and his job is catching shrimp. Every day during the season, which runs from October to April, he backs the trawler away from a dock in a small port called Manifa on the northeast coast of Saudi Arabia and heads for the sandbars not far from Manifa. Over the sandbars his crew lets down the nets and begins to scour the bottom for the small, curled-up, pink crustacean whose worldwide popularity is the basis of one of the fastest growing industries in Saudi Arabia, and whose price is beginning to pump impressive sums of rivals into the economy of the country's Eastern Province.

The Kifah is usually away from the dock at first light and her crew is normally at work as soon as the first heavy note of the big diesel throbs into the stillness of dawn. There are nine men in the crew, each tanned by sun and salt water to the color of the teak deck, each wiry and strong, with thick-muscled arms and shoulders, each with his job to do. The first job is to check the two main nets. As the trawler heads for open water and the sun, first pink, then orange in the mist, rises over the Gulf, six men immediately begin to inspect the airy piles of netting on deck, going over them inch by careful inch and mending frayed spots with blue nylon thread. When the trawler reaches the sandbar the nets will be dropped into the water and dragged along the bottom, expanding, as the water forces two wooden doors open, into huge balloons 52 feet across. The pressure is enormous, and frayed cord cannot withstand it.

Two other men, meanwhile, have dropped down into the dim, insulated hold and have begun to chop great blocks of ice into mounds of thin shavings in which the shrimp will be packed as soon as they are sorted. And the ninth man has gone to the galley to prepare the first of numerous Thermos bottles of steaming cardamom-flavored coffee that the crew will consume during the day.

On deck Captain Jum'a has checked the depth of the water and has ordered a gradual decrease in the boat's speed. The Kifah is approaching the fishing grounds. The boat barely seems to move, but actually is moving at the speed of a man walking briskly. At the sound of a bell from the pilothouse the crewmen take their position, silently and efficiently and at precisely the right moment drop the nets, each suspended from steel riggings, into the sea, one on the port side, the other on the starboard. On the starboard side they drop a smaller yellow trial net into the water close to the boat. They then sweep the deck, hose and scrub it and settle back to await results.

The big nets stay down about one hour and a half, but the trial net is raised every 10 minutes. If it emerges with a basket load—60 to 70 pounds the boat will circle that area repeatedly; if the net is empty or brings up mostly fish, the captain will steer along the bank in a straight line.

At the end of the hour and a half, if the catch is good, the captain will feel the drag of the big nets. He rings the bell twice. The winches start to turn, winding in the steel cables and dragging the long nets closer to the boat. In a surge of foam, the dripping nets, bulging to the bursting point, break the surface and are hoisted aboard. One sailor reaches under the bag and tugs at a heavy rope. The slip knot gives and spills the contents out in an almost liquid torrent—hundreds of quivering pounds of shrimp and fish, sliding and flopping across the deck until they cover it in a mound two feet high. The nets are quickly dropped back into the water, a canvas sunshade is stretched overhead and the men, squatting on low stools, start the tiresome job of sorting the catch. They use little wooden trowels to avoid puncturing a finger on the spine of one of the poisonous fish which may be lurking in the pile.

It takes more than an hour to separate the shrimp and to pick out choice fish to be put aside for future consumption. When the sorting is finished, the shrimp must be washed with sea water, shoveled into baskets and stored in the insulated compartments in the hold, a layer of shrimp alternating with a layer of crushed ice. Then the deck is hosed and scrubbed again, usually just before the bells signal that it is time to haul in the big nets again. It is a tough, backbreaking cycle and by noon the men are more than ready for a break and a meal. They are served unlimited helpings of fish and shrimp with heaps of fluffy white rice smothered in spicy tomato sauce with onion and lemon slices, followed by oranges or apples and steaming pots of tea and milk.

After lunch and a short rest in the shade they return to work, to the rhythm of lowering the nets, hauling up the trial net, reeling in the big nets, sorting the shrimp and storing the catch in ice. By mid-afternoon, as hot humid air presses down on the Gulf, the bins below deck are usually full. But sometimes, if the day is slow, nets are not hauled aboard for the last time until the sun is low to the horizon. Then the men sort the last catch in the twilight as the Kifah heads back to Manifa, re-enters the bay and moves between the buoys toward the dim lights on the pier, the search over for another day.

In the Arabian Gulf the search for shellfish is not new. From Bahrain, many years ago, some 70,000 men, diving from 3,000 ships, used to scour the bottom of the Gulf in search of oysters. The oysters, of course, were not intended for consumption, on or off the half shell; they were sought for the pearls they, hopefully, contained. Shrimping is more mundane of course, but it is also more profitable, according to an industrious businessman named Khalifa al-Gosaibi, the mainspring of the new expansion of the shellfishing industry and a man whose father remembers the great days of pearling.

Mr. al-Gosaibi is a good-natured smiling man with a crisp moustache and goatee, and considerable experience in business; his family operates plants and cold-storage warehouses in Saudi Arabia. He is also an optimistic man, if all goes well, he predicts, the 20th-century fishing fleet he is painstakingly assembling, and the spanking-new processing plant he has built, will eventually have a greater impact on the economy of Eastern Arabia than the more glamorous pearl industry ever had.

At the moment, Khalifa al-Gosaibi and his brother 'Adil boss a fleet consisting of three local wooden dhows and four diesel trawlers whose names succinctly sum up the story of Mr. al-Gosaibi's venture; the Kifah (Struggle), Filah (Expectation), Najah (Success) and the Rabah (Profit). They also own three insulated trucks which pick up the iced shrimp at the Manifa pier and speed them to the freezing plant in Dammam, and two huge trailers in which refrigeration equipment is being installed. They also have on tap plans to build a new pier so they will no longer have to use the jetty built by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to service its offshore drilling barges, and, later, a new packing plant and a saltwater ice factory similar to one now operating on the coast of Libya. Dammam, the capital of the Eastern Province, has a deep-water railroad terminal and the Gosaibi cold storage plant has, on the mainland, a rail siding which enables the brothers to unload imported frozen meats and vegetables from Europe and America at their doorstep, and refill the freight cars with freshly frozen fish and shrimp for export overseas.

The history of the modern frozen-fish industry in the Arabian Gulf goes back to the late 1940's when Aramco began to purchase fish and shrimp from local fishermen and process them for sale to its employes. Since the cold-storage facilities available then had not been specifically designed for such a role, the company, in the early 1950's, built a small freezing plant at its Ras Tanura Marine Terminal. Unfortunately, the local fishermen weren't able to supply the volume necessary to operate at full capacity and the plant had to close—but not before C.E. Dawson, an American expert on aquatic hard-shelled animals, completed a study commissioned by Aramco to determine if the Gulf could support a profitable fishing industry. His conclusion was yes, it certainly could—but only if modern trawling equipment and methods were introduced.

In 1961 Mr. al-Gosaibi approached Ararnco's Arab Industrial Development Department and requested technical and financial assistance to revive the fishing project. Aramco was quick to encourage the move and Mr. al-Gosaibi arranged to purchase some equipment from the Ras Tanura plant. Aramco also guaranteed a 1.1 million-rival loan from a local bank to match his own initial investment. Then, in July, 1962, the Saudi Arabian Government granted his firm a 15-year fishing and shrimping concession in the waters of the Eastern Province, extending from the Kuwait Neutral Zone to Qatar. A year later, the al-Gosaibi brothers opened for business and with the help of experts brought in from Europe and the United States began to explore the potential of the Gulf waters. For two seasons two dhows and two modern trawlers worked their way up the coast with an echo sounder and small trial nets. The results were discouraging at first, but at last they struck gold—pink gold—on a sandbar off Manifa. It measured 20 miles wide by 25 miles long and was crawling —literally—with shrimp.

Since then the al-Gosaibi's and their captains have learned a lot about shrimping. They have found, for example, that the best fishing grounds lie at a depth of 6-10 fathoms (36-60 feet) and that a soft, smooth bottom is essential if trawling is to be practicable. To stray over a rocky area or a reef—or over one of Aramco's underwater pipelines from the company's offshore fields—means the certain loss of a net, each of which costs $1,000. Mr. al-Gosaibi has even developed a highly original theory about shrimp. "Dragging the bottom is like plowing a field," he says. "The shrimp come in to feed where the sand has been stirred up. It seems that the more you take, the more will come. We're working a fertile sea bottom that hasn't been touched since God created this earth."

As an employer, Mr. al-Gosaibi conducts his business on the promise that if he takes care of his men they will return the favor. In 1965 there were about 120 employes at Manifa, about half on the boats, and 300 in the Dammam plant. The company provides medical care, work clothing and meals, and is building a new canteen. "Make your people comfortable and they will want to work for you," is his firm belief.

The company sells few frozen shrimp in the Middle East market other than those which are flown to Jiddah on the west coast of the Kingdom or to Beirut, distribution center for the cities of Lebanon and Jordan. Mr. al-Gosaibi doesn't want to depress the prices unfairly by competing with the local small fishermen whose primitive reed traps on the mud flats bordering the Gulf are no match for the modern trawler. Occasionally, when the plant is working at full capacity, the surplus shrimp are boiled and sun-dried for shipment to the villagers in the desert interior who still prefer the traditional product, but usually the plant concentrates on its frozen, jumbo-size shrimp which are marketed under the label "Ocean Reef" in the United States to de luxe hotels and restaurants. Mr. al-Gosaibi is also looking into the possibilities of setting up a cold-storage distribution center in Genoa, Italy, to serve the European market.

Original estimates forecast a catch of 6,000 pounds daily and the plant was built to process and freeze that quantity. The Gulf, however, turned out to be much more generous—one day last fall the seven boats brought in 17,000 pounds by noon—and already the al-Gosaibi brothers have begun expanding. They have built a second-story ice machine which shoots flake ice by gravity to wherever it is needed in the plant. A new cooling tower has gone up and new compressors have been installed. Two 20,000-pound freezers have arrived and a blast freezer, designed to handle five tons of whole fish per day, is on order. In the near future Mr. al-Gosaibi also hopes to add a fish meal plant which will process the now-discarded shrimp heads, as well as the several thousand pounds of inedible fish which are presently shoveled back into the sea each day. Such "trash fish," as they are called in the United States, can be converted into poultry feed which in turn will boost another booming local industry: poultry raising.

Last year Mr. al-Gosaibi had two new trawlers built in Pakistan. The construction took more than a year and Peter Larsen, a Danish net expert who has been with the firm three years, had to fly to Karachi to supervise the rigging and sail the boats back to the Gulf with their Pakistani engineer. Now the company has ordered four additional craft from the United States. "They're more expensive," Mr. al-Gosaibi explains, "but all four boats can be finished in as many months. When you're trying to get moving you have to save time. That means money!"

By late last year Mr. al-Gosaibi's plant staff was nearing 700 and he had added five boats to his fleet—under agreements with British, Italian and Greek fishing firms. The agreements allow these firms to trawl in the concession area, operate their own boats and assign their own specialists and technicians, providing that they employ local crewmen and that each captain agrees to train two Saudi Arabs. Each firm will also send out a "mother ship," a vessel of 500-800 tons with complete cleaning, packing, freezing and storage facilities, which will stay at sea for days at a time, hovering near its chicks like a hen. This year there were to have been some 30 boats and three mother ships working in the Gulf either flying the al-Gosaibi flag or working by agreement with him. It is still a long, long way from the 3,000 ships of the pearling industry, but the future looks almost as rosy as the jumbo Gulf shrimp themselves.

William Tracy, who writes regularly for Aramco World, is a free lance writer formerly stationed in Beirut and now making a lecture tour through Australia and the United States.

This article appeared on pages 21-27 of the September/October 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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