The date has long featured heavily in Emirati agriculture, due to both the country’s climate and the plant’s intrinsic properties. Date palms are the only fruit-bearing plant that can be cultivated out of doors (as opposed to in greenhouses) in the harsh desert climate, and moreover, the tree’s strong roots help to bind sandy soils together, meaning other plants, such as vegetables, can be planted in between.
A KEY CROP: Dates are highly nutritious, containing high levels of vitamin A, iron, potassium and fibre, and the plant is suitable for both human and animal consumption. Perhaps most importantly, the calorific yield per unit of water is higher than many other crops. In terms of absolute calorific yield, dates contain 3000 calories per kg, compared to 970 for bananas and 480 for oranges.
Although the value of the agricultural sector in the UAE is not large – less than 1% of GDP in 2011 according to the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi – dates remain one of the most important crops for the country. The date harvest has been rising for some decades; according to figures from the Date Palm Research and Development Programme (DPRDP) at UAE University, production was only 8000 tonnes in 1971 but had jumped to 500,000 tonnes by 2000. The UAE counts over 40m date palms in the country as a whole, with some 120 varieties cultivated.
A 2009 study by the federal Ministry of Foreign Trade found that the UAE came fourth in terms of world production after Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an output of 755,000 tonnes in 2008. However, in that year the UAE led the world in terms of exports, accounting for about a third of the global total, or some 280,000 tonnes in 2008. However, domestic consumption also constitutes a significant market, with figures from the DPRDP showing that in traditional date-producing countries per capita consumption stands at 150-185 kg per year.
The government of Abu Dhabi is keen to support date farmers, as a means to preserve the country’s heritage and environment. However, most local farms are small and run on a semi-commercial basis. Thus, in a bid to introduce greater rationalisation, Al Foah, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s General Holding Corporation, was set up in 2005 to make the emirate’s date industry financially viable and competitive. To this end, the company helps to improve the date subsidy policy and farm management, packages the crop, and markets it at home and abroad.
Not only has the date harvest risen in response to these measures, with Al Foah processing 90,000 tonnes in 2011 compared to 20,000 tonnes in 2005, but also the quality has improved, with Al Foah applying strict quality and food safety standards drawn up in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority. Farmers who fail to meet these standards are disqualified from the subsidy, which takes the form of guaranteed prices paid on a sliding scale, favouring the smaller producer over the larger.
NEW BRANDS: Now however, the authorities are keen to move dates from being a mere agricultural commodity to adding value and marketing more high-end products. A good parallel might be chocolate, which can be bought as a basic product but which is also regarded as something of a luxury at the top end of the market. To achieve this, Al Foah has gradually diversified the number of brands under its stable. In addition to Saad, a bulk brand aimed at wholesale and value segments, the company has several other brands aimed at upmarket segments. These include Date Crown and Al Dhafra, with the former aimed at markets in developing countries and Oceania, and Al Dhafra geared to the GCC. Both brands also feature products such as dates stuffed with nuts and date syrup (a honey substitute). The newest is Zadina, founded in 2010 to cater to the gourmet end of the market, offering products such as date truffles, date fudge and date ice cream.
EXPANSION: The main centres of competition for UAE dates are North Africa and Jordan, both of which cater primarily to European markets. However, the varieties grown in these countries, Deglet Nour and Medjool, respectively, are very different from the varieties produced in the UAE, which is also better located for access to the Asian market. Although dates remain relatively unknown in parts of East Asia, UAE dates won an award for best-selling product at the 2012 SIAL Food Expo in China in May 2012.
Another potential vehicle for expansion is the organic market. Al Foah says it runs the biggest organic date farm in the world, at 1321 ha. According to local press, a number of organic food markets have opened across the UAE over the past year, especially in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. While the market for organic food is still comparatively underdeveloped in the UAE, the country’s fairly large base of highincome, health-conscious consumers means that there is ample potential for growth.
Moreover, during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, it is traditional to break one’s fast with dates. With over 1bn Muslims in the world, this creates a big potential market for the UAE’s dates. According to a 2008 US Agency for International Development study, the leading market by value for dates was the EU, which in 2006-07 spent $201m on date imports, followed by India, which spent $75m. A number of East Asian Muslim-majority countries were also significant date importers, such as Malaysia ($21m), Indonesia ($8m) and Bangladesh ($6m). The UAE itself was the third-largest importer, spending $34m.
RESEARCH: The DPRDP was founded in 1989 with a view to increasing agricultural productivity specific to date cultivation. Its remit involves increasing the technical and scientific base that is available incountry, and it features a tissue culture laboratory, a genetic base of high-quality date varieties, trained micropropagation personnel and a dedicated tree nursery. The red palm weevil, a parasite which first arrived in the Arabian Peninsula from Asia in the 1980s, threatened to devastate the country’s date plantation in the late 2000s. The creature burrows inside the trunk and eats the tree away from within, eventually killing the vital palm heart.
While the only solution used to be to burn the infected trees, a Ministry of Water and Environment programme to trap the weevils using a pheromone mixture to dupe the insects managed to contain the number of trees affected to just 5% of the total.
DATE TOURISM: In addition to the value produced by the date crop, however, date farming is also of growing importance to the tourist industry in Abu Dhabi. Perhaps the single biggest date-related event is the Liwa Dates Festival, which has been taking place in the oasis town of the same name in the Al Gharbia region since 2005. The festival, which is held in the summer, aims to showcase this aspect of the emirate’s heritage and traditions to tourists, expatriates and Emiratis, as well as providing an opportunity for farmers to showcase their crop.
The 2011 festival involved prizes for the best crop in seven varieties, poetry recitals and demonstrations of handicrafts and traditional Emirati recipes, often date-based. The 2008 festival featured the world’s biggest date dish, measuring 12 metres by 2.5 metres, which remains unsurpassed to date. The value of the prizes distributed in the 2011 festival came to $1.36m, and the event featured over 150 stalls and attracted 70,000 visitors. Although the festival’s economic impact is hard to quantify, there can be little doubt as to its importance to Liwa, as the city lies in a region that is otherwise little-visited by tourists.
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