FROM THE WRITINGS of the explorer Ibn Battuta to the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, references to the Arab fondness for oudh have persisted for centuries. Pungent yet pleasing, the complex fragrance from the agarwood tree permeates the air with a sense of opulence. Used to perfume everything from bodies and garments to houses and palaces, oudh has become undeniably synonymous with the Arabian Gulf. Interestingly, though, no agarwood-producing species is known to grow anywhere west of India. Deeply coveted within Arab commerce for over a millennium, oudh was always sourced from South and Southeast Asia, its sillage trailing long behind caravans on the Silk Route and medieval ships on the Indian Ocean.
An important entrepôt of maritime trade, the Gulf historically relied on pearling, which formed the foundational basis for the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. By the early twentieth century, fleets employing over seventy thousand people would remain at sea during the pearling season, divers sometimes being paid in pearls. South Asian merchants—including my ancestors—established themselves in the region for centuries and eventually controlled the trade as the chief financiers of the industry, with Bombay emerging as the world’s largest pearl market.
Although the natural pearl industry eventually declined after the Great Depression and the Second World War, the discovery of oil provided the most secure source of revenue in establishing the region’s path to urban development and industrial expansion. By the mid 1970s, twelve merchant houses—nearly all of Persian, Pakistani or Indian extraction—controlled import franchises, constituting the commercial elite in the United Arab Emirates, while doctors and nurses in the region were already overwhelmingly South Asian. For example, in 1976, of two hundred working physicians in Oman, only twenty were Omani, most being Indian or Pakistani.