Dates, a staple food item in every Saudi household, attracts special attention during the month of Ramadan with endless varieties to choose from.
As the Muslim world welcomes the holy month of Ramadan, households stock up on one of the most essential items to break their fast, dates, an important part of the diet of Muslims — and Saudis are ideally placed to source their favorite types.
Majid Al-Khamis, director of the Majid Al-Khamis Agricultural Consulting Office, said that the most popular dates generally are Sokkari and Khulais, while the most preferred types for consumers during Ramadan are Sukkari, Al-Falah, Al-Khalas, Al Maknooz, Al-Khodari and Al-Sagai.
He explained that the average price of good dates ranges from SR10-20 ($2.6-$5) per kilo but typically costs increase before Ramadan, and more so during the holy month. Lower-quality dates were cheaper while higher quality were more expensive.
Al-Khamis believes that the future of dates as a trade in the Kingdom is very promising as it has the capability to produce dates of various types for different segments of consumers. Saudi Arabia is the second largest producer of dates in the world, he said.
In his opinion, however, dates have not yet been properly marketed with some merchants cheating their way into the market, displaying good-quality dates and hiding inedible or year-old ones underneath them.
He said the Kingdom is working, through the National Center for Palms and Dates and the Export Authority, to support and facilitate export operations and logistical services, and to link marketers in the Kingdom with international buyers.
“During the Ramadan season, dates are consumed in copious quantities in some Islamic countries, but unfortunately, dates are exported to these countries from other date-producing countries with a much less quality than that of the Kingdom,” he said. He added that local festivals for dates could play an important role in marketing dates inside and outside of the Kingdom.
A number of festivals across various regions are observed every year. From Al-Ahsa to Madinah, from Al-Kharj to Hawtat Bani Tamim, date festivals vary and the most famous is the Dates Festival in Buraidah with merchants coming from across the region to check the goods on display.
“The dates exchanges in Buraidah and Unaizah can contribute to revitalizing the date-production sector through electronic marketing, a platform that gives information about the qualities and types of dates for sale to facilitate marketing inside and outside the Kingdom,” Al-Khamis said.
Dates are an excellent and healthy option and were the main food, together with milk, for most families in the Kingdom hundreds of years ago. As an agricultural consultant Al-Khamis knows that dates are no longer the only products prepared for sale. Other products are made such as molasses, which is used in various capacities in food preparation. For example, one can make an ice-cream product with a date flavor using molasses.
“We can benefit from large quantities of dates and make molasses, which has great nutritional value and is easily included in many products. Today, there are tortillas with dates and flavors. We can use dates to make sugar and sweeteners for tea,” he said.
With wider prospects for producing different products using dates and delivering them to consumers, he sees that the future of these derivatives can be used locally and internationally through investments and production.
“For example, Nestle has invested in dates and manufactured products with dates such as cornflakes. There is also a factory in Al-Ahsa that makes crunchy dates, which children love very much.”
Abdulghani Al-Ansari, CEO and member of the board of directors of Dokkan Alajwa Holding Company, said: “There are no fruits as strong as dates, which are rich in many beneficial minerals beyond one’s imagination.”
In his opinion, the big challenges facing dates are mainly export and transformative industries. “For the latter, we need to exert great efforts to change consumer behavior from eating sugars to consuming useful substances such as molasses, date honey, date sugar and date jam,” he told Arab News.
“People around the world want to get Saudi dates but cannot because we have not reached out to them. This has led to smaller countries and companies with less quality to get the larger share of such markets and control them,” he said.
The issue requires many initiatives to address it, the most important of which is developing a strategic plan, he said.
A former member of the board of directors of the Madinah Chamber stressed that Saudi dates companies today should reach out to the world and forge partnerships to export dates, and the Saudi missions abroad should help in this.
Establishing an integrated city of dates in Madinah with a date exchange and dates laboratories, which test the quality of dates, is also very important.
“We must take advantage of everything contained in the dates, even the seeds and kernels, in which we can invest because there is a big demand for them for skin care. This is an important industry in which the palm tree itself is originally a mine and we have not discovered anything about it until today,” he said, and called for studying the Tunisian, Algerian and UAE experiences.
Tami Hawas, a farm owner, said that he has a small farm near a village called Alkohaifiah, located between Hail and Buraidah, and all the palm trees in it bear the fruit of the Fankha date. However, many people prefer dates that are more ripe than the Fankha.
Tami sells the crop in the winter, either in the market or through the Al-Fankha Date Festival, which is frequented by merchants in the region and consumers who prefer the Fankha, but people often preferred the Sukkari date, he said.
Other consumers tend to buy the Al-Manasef date, a type of that is half ripe with a distinct yellow cap, while some prefer dry dates such as the Barhi, he said.