A homegrown UAE brand bets on date’s heritage appeal

As longer, hotter summers dry out farms, a lack of water affects the size and texture of the date fruit. (Supplied)
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Updated 29 February 2020

A homegrown UAE brand bets on date’s heritage appeal

  • Dates are locally sourced by The Date Room from around 20 farms in the Al Ain oasis area of Abu Dhabi
  • UAE farms grow about 475,000 tons of dates a year, a significant percentage of which is exported

DUBAI: When you can answer the classic business question about a unique selling proposition (USP) in six different ways, you likely have a successful product on your hands.

Thankfully, when you are dealing with dates, unusual product features are not a problem.

There are more than 3,000 date varieties around the world, but Emirati brand The Date Room is approaching the sticky business of breaking into an established market with just half a dozen local cultivars.

From the buttery, caramel notes of the golden Kholas date to the lower-carbohydrate Razaiz type, their flavors offer a change from the more commonly available Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties.

Being locally sourced from about 20 farms in the Al-Ain oasis area of Abu Dhabi, they are also introducing UAE residents to the nation’s heritage.

“Emirati dates are unique because they’re generally much richer in taste and texture than others on the market — although they can be smaller in size,” said Tony N. Al-Saiegh, executive director of The Date Room.

The Date Room launched with two luxury boutiques in the UAE last November after founder Ahmed Mohamed bin Salem spotted a gap for local fruit in a market dominated by produce from Saudi farms.

While official market share by origin data is not available, Saudi dates may control close to 90 percent of the UAE’s retail market.

Yet, with an annual production of 755,000 tons, Saudi Arabia trails Egypt, Iran and Algeria, all of which produce in excess of a million tons each year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

By contrast, UAE farms grow about 475,000 tons, a significant percentage of which is exported.

Dates are among the world’s oldest cultivated crops. The palm is native to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, with origins that go back more than 5,000 years to what is modern-day Iraq.

The appeal of dates has grown considerably in recent years. Their high fiber and mineral profile have led to their classification as a superfood, they have been used for their high natural sugar content in healthy natural alternatives to processed candy bars.

“The Date Room’s main initial motive was the fact that our own farms produce a superior quality of date in every way,” Al-Saiegh said.

“Our families have been enjoying these dates with every meal and occasion for generations, so why not introduce it to the market in a way that makes them available to everyone but also promotes the unique culture of the UAE?”

The company’s annual production runs to about 160 tons.

For now, distribution is restricted to the UAE, but Al-Saiegh says his team is in talks with distributors in India and Indonesia.

With farmers everywhere agonizing over the impact of climate change, what are the challenges facing date farmers, accustomed as their crops are to heat and aridity?

Scientists expect 2019 to be the second-hottest year on record after 2016, and they forecast that by 2070, today’s major producers will suffer from a markedly unsuitable climate.

Despite palm trees being able to tolerate the heat for hundreds of years, Al-Saiegh says his farms are already feeling the impact.

“As the weather gets hotter and the summers get longer, it’s drying out farms and (arable) land. This means more water is required because a lack of water affects the size and texture of the fruit,” he explains.

While the full impact of those changes is some years away, the Abu Dhabi government has focused on conserving the UNESCO World Heritage oasis where the UAE’s dates are grown.

On the other hand, given the way technology has transformed the local agricultural sector with solutions such as vertical, indoor and soilless farms, Al-Saiegh may soon be able to add another distinguishing feature to The Date Room’s USP.

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Pressure piles up on Turkey ahead of EU leaders’ meeting

Updated 18 September 2020

Pressure piles up on Turkey ahead of EU leaders’ meeting

  • A European Parliament resolution called for sanctions against Turkey unless it showed “sincere cooperation and concrete progress” in defusing tensions with Greece and Cyprus
  • Turkey criticized the resolution, saying it was biased, and insisted on the need for completely demilitarizing Greek islands in the zone.

ANKARA: European pressure is piling up on Turkey ahead of a meeting next week about the country’s activities in the eastern Mediterranean, with the European Parliament urging the immediate end to “illegal exploration and drilling” in the region.

European Union leaders will meet in Brussels on Sept. 24 and 25 to discuss the single market, industrial policy and digital transformation, as well as external relations, particularly with Turkey and China. 

The situation in the eastern Mediterranean and relations with Turkey were raised by some member states during an EU leaders’ video conference of Aug. 19. Leaders expressed their concern about the growing tensions and stressed the urgent need to de-escalate. 

A European Parliament resolution on Thursday called for sanctions against Turkey unless it showed “sincere cooperation and concrete progress” in defusing tensions with EU members Greece and Cyprus.

Parliamentarians also want it to “immediately end any further illegal exploration and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, by refraining from violating Greek airspace and Greek and Cypriot territorial waters and by distancing itself from nationalistic warmongering rhetoric.”

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But Turkey criticized the resolution, saying it was biased, and insisted on the need for completely demilitarizing Greek islands in the zone.

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now analyst at Carnegie Europe, said the resolution reflected the views of a democratically elected parliament from across the bloc.

“This is not ‘country X against country Y,’ it is the aggregated view of the European Parliament,” he told Arab News.

Germany is pushing for mediation efforts, while France is campaigning for punitive measures to stay united with Cyprus and Greece.

Following talks with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides in Nicosia, French Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune said the EU should consider employing sanctions, among other available tools, if Turkey continued to “endanger the security and sovereignty of a member state.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that nothing could justify Turkey’s coercion in the eastern Mediterranean in a dispute over energy resources.

“Turkey is and will always be an important neighbor,” she said, a day after Turkey said the operations of its drilling vessel Oruc Reis were extended until Oct. 12. “But while we are close together on the map, the distance between us appears to be growing.”

Fiona Mullen, director of the Nicosia-based research consultancy Sapienta Economics, said that the European Parliament was less important for the east Mediterranean issue than the European Council heads of government.

“But in the European Council it looks as though momentum is building for serious sanctions,” she told Arab News. “I think this is why we saw the removal of the Oruc Reis vessel for maintenance. Turkey cannot afford big sanctions when the lira in such a vulnerable state.”

If backstage diplomacy was successful, she said, the removal of vessels around Cyprus would likely be a carrot for Turkey in terms of the customs union. “It is in everyone’s interests to find a win-win result out of this,” she added.

Pierini anticipated that three elements would stand out in the upcoming European Council debate: EU solidarity with Cyprus and Greece; availability for dialogue but not under threat; and ongoing work on possible graduated sanctions should the need arise.

The parliamentary resolution included the possibility of further restrictive measures to be “sectoral and targeted.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone call with European Council head Charles Michel on Thursday and urged Brussels to adopt an “impartial stance” toward Turkey.

The US is “deeply concerned” about Turkey’s moves in the region, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ankara told Washington to stay neutral on the row.