The date palms industry in UAE is a vast industry that generates a significant amount of revenue and employment for people. The industry had been in existence for several thousand years and was the main source of income before oil was discovered in the region. As an agricultural industry, date palms offer a large compensation for the Sahara region because it provides work and sustenance for over 60% of the population. Basically, date palms are an agricultural relief for an area with very extreme temperatures like the UAE among other countries. The date palms are found in areas that are arid or semi arid, but with a water supply either as an oasis, a river like the Nile for Egypt, or an irrigation system as used in other parts of the desert nations. Aside from the fruits that are considered an Arabic delicacy all over the world, date palms are also useful in the making of confectionery and sweets, as well as baking products among other things. In addition, the industry not only provides labor in the production department, but also in marketing, processing, packaging and exporting as well as local supply and vending. Thus, it can be considered as a very lucrative industry in the UAE and beyond.
Considering how vast and extensive the date industry is in the UAE, this research proposal is aimed at examining the details of the industry with regards to the culture, history, benefits, and types of date palms cultivated in the UAE. The study involves examining companies that deal in the date palm industry to establish how they operate, and the driving force behind them in a bid to establish just how beneficial date palms are to the social and economic well being of the UAE.
In their analysis, Alhudaib, Arocha, Wilson and Jones (2007) established that date palms belong to the Palmae family, and their scientific name is Phoenix dactylifera. Just like other palms, they are tall with a great capacity to survive in high saline conditions and water scarcity. As a fruit tree, the date palm outdoes all other fruit trees with regards to tolerance and value considering it can be replaced in a very short time and can be used continuously under good conditions without being completely depleted of its resources. In more ways, the date palm can be considered as an exotic fruit that is tied to the heavenly religions and with the most emphasis in Islam considering even mentioning in the Koran and thus takes on a central position in the meals especially during Ramadan and other religious festivities (Al-Ma’ary, 1995). Date palms are also a great part of the socio economic structure in many nations, most Arabic including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Algeria, Sudan, Oman, Libya, and Tunisia (Oxford Business Group, 2009). This plant does especially well in areas otherwise considered to be barren and beat up by the sun and other degrading forces of nature. Furthermore, it can be stated that date palms are not as demanding as many other fruit trees, and thus they are able to do well in some of the harshest conditions known to plant life. Also, considering that the fruits do not all ripen at the same time, these plants provide the farmer with sufficient harvesting work in the ripening season as they have to be waited before they can be harvested. Also, the fruits are consumed worldwide and thus have quite a large market for the large volumes produced in the Sahara region and beyond.
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In their research, Oxford Business Group (2009) establishes that date palm is a highly tolerant plant and its fruit is a drupe with one seed which shape and size depends on the variety. The tree is propagated from either the seeds or the offshoots which only grow in the first four to five years after planting and have to be removed carefully to avoid damaging the entire plant. The fruits also do not ripen at the same time and thus harvesting is occurring later and not at once as in the case with other fruits. Various varieties produce different fruits with some being soft, others semi dry and others simply dry. They all however have a pleasant taste and are healthy, complete and with a very high energy content. The date palms are best suited for desert regions of the Arabic Peninsula, Sahara and Sabel (Oxford Business Group, 2009).
In the UAE, the date palms are largely grown in three main regions which include the Western and Eastern Coastal areas as well as the Inland areas and Oases (Noack, 2007). The country has dedicated itself to cultivating date palms in all regions in which the trees can grow as it is considered not only as an agricultural oil well, but also as an enabler of agriculture owing to the shielding properties of the tall trees and deep roots. Moreover, they are believed to protect the shorter trees and annual crops from harsh weather conditions like excessive heat from direct sunlight, and the strong desert winds. The fruits are also highly nutritious and have both a cultural and religious value to people of the UAE.
Unlike other regions which devote their date palms plantations only to areas with a natural water supply, UAE uses underground water supply in some of its date palms plantations to increase the amount of land that is viable for its cultivation. It is for this specific reason, along with the fact that the UAE is a geographically endowed nation with vast expanses of land at its disposal that have propagated the nation to the status of world’s highest producer of date palms.
The History of Date Palms
The history of date palms, along with the history of many other crops, has been hard to trace accurately. However, studies place the date palms as far back as 4000 BC with appearances in many historic writings and geological findings that include the Egyptian civilization, Syria and larger Mesopotamia. The fruit is also extensively mentioned in Islamic writings and it must have existed well before the religion has been founded. Currently, the cultivation of these date palms is largely limited to the Arabic countries in the Arabian Peninsula and the Sahara region stretching from Egypt all the way to Nigeria. All these countries draw their inspiration from the fruit’s global consumers who are attracted by its exotic nature besides the nutritional values.
The date palms are largely considered as a natural part of the ecosystem in the Gulf region. Most of the population cannot imagine a land without date palms as they have grown to see them as a part of the environment (UN Press Release, 2004). Even in ancient stories that are passed down from generation to generation, date palms are frequently mentioned implying they have always existed. While these fruits may not have originally come from the UAE, they are an irreplaceable part of its historical heritage and now even more as a part of its socio economic construct.
In the UAE, date palms were just another fruit trees and were largely produced for local consumption and for the tourism industry. However, under the leadership of the President, the crop began receiving much more consideration as an opportunity to build a civilized society that can sustain itself through agriculture and not just depending on the oil industry. As a result of this opinion and vision, the UAE increased its production of date palms by more than 4000% in a span of about 10 years.
Date Palms in the Culture of UAE
As a largely desert country, the UAE does not have many crops to boast about. However, the country has very deep attachments to the date palms. Historically, these fruit trees were considered heavenly by the ancient religions and they also were symbols of God’s mercy with regards to its ability to withstand the scorching desert sun and severe water scarcity and provide fruits for people to live on (UN Press Release, 2004).
The UAE is largely Islamic, in that Islam is not only the state religion, but also largely the only religion that can and should be practiced within state borders. This means that every citizen has a tie to the date palms considering it has religious roots. Moreover, the fruits are offered as gifts and blessings, and make up a large part of the menu during religious festivities that include the Holy Month of Ramadan. In this sense, the entire population of the UAE recognizes these fruit trees and acknowledges their centrality in the religious practices and festivities.
Also, there are quite a number of tourists who visit the UAE and are taken through the date palms culture and history thus increasing their interest in the fruit. Most of the produce, before exportation picked up, was actually meant for tourists and local consumption. To this day, the country has a date palms festival during which visitors are encouraged to buy various types of date palms at very competitive prices from different producers and marketers available. Generally, the nation’s leadership has a lot of faith in the country’s agricultural potential with special regard for the date palm and this faith has played a great role in pushing the UAE to its current status away from oil dependence. As a visionary leader, the President continues to lead the nation into an era of abundant wealth and prosperity that is not dependent on the oil resources of the Gulf region, and agriculture is at the center of this plan with date palms playing the leading role.
The Socio Economic Aspect of Date Palms in UAE
The UAE is a country with well developed economy, largely hinged on oil exports and tourism. There are numerous economic activities, however, currently agriculture has been given a top priority as well. Given the instability in the global oil market, the UAE government has sought to create an economy that can sustain itself even without its oil resources. To realize this vision, agriculture has been emphasized and the country is now very successful in producing its own dates as opposed to importing it from other Arabic countries in North Africa and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. This was of course achieved through a series of policies and incentives that were formulated and enforced by the government of the day. As more people became interested in the agricultural industry, the country’s sustainability also increased and currently it is largely independent of the oil industry given its agricultural potential.
Initially, most of people in the UAE were living in poor conditions given that not everyone could get work in the oil industry. Also, there wasn’t much to do in an economy that largely depended on oil. With the introduction and emphasis of agriculture and especially date palm trees, there has been a drastic change in the living conditions of a vast majority of people in the UAE. The industry currently employs a sizeable portion of the population in cultivars, and packaging companies as well as the exporting industry. In the global front, date palms employ over 60% of the Saharan population by providing income generating opportunities as farmers, local vendors, exporters and middlemen.
Numerous members of the UAE community have managed to amerce vast wealth from the date palm industry through cultivars, exporting companies, local supplies, and packaging companies. The date palms have not only improved the lives of people in the UAE, but also greatly grown the country’s economy and pulled it out of its previous dependence on oil as its major economic resource. The industry has also saved the country from having to import dates from other countries for its largely Islamic population given its importance to them.
International Perception of the Date Palms
For many years, date palms have been an exotic fruit to people outside the Arab world. The concept of the date palm remains a fascinating one in which most foreigners are curious about. As a fruit, it is considered rare and luxurious, often associated with royalty and power. The fact that the fruit is also mainly cultivated in Arabic countries also adds on to their fascination as they associate it with Arabic culture and heritage. Therefore, the international community largely perceives date palms as an Arabic staple delicacy which is highly valued and appreciated in numerous other cultures as well.
Considering that the fruit has religious connections in Islam, the global community also perceives it as a religious symbol especially during the Holy Month of Ramadan. The main reason behind this association is that many Islamic families stock their fridges with these fruits during the holy month and give them away as gifts to their friends and relatives. This is how most foreigners get to experience date palms for the first time, although others have to visit an Arabic country for their first encounter with date palms.
The Date Industry Globally and UAE
Nowadays, there are ten major date palms producing countries in the world. These include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Tunisia, Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria, Iran, Yemen and Oman. Out of these countries comes a total of about 10 million tons of date palms distributed across the world for consumption. A majority of these date palms end up in the hands of Muslim believers while the rest is consumed by people from other religions with a love for the fruit or a curiosity based on what they may have read or heard of it.
Egypt, with its dependence on the Nile for water, boasts of the highest volumes of date palms produced. The nation has date palms planted all over in areas that are accessible to water. Its date palms are also high yielding varieties owing to the fact that they have an all year round access to the Nile’s waters. The country has also largely invested in irrigation as a way of sustaining its agricultural sector and thus they have the best chance of leading the pack in production and export of dates. However, they do not have sufficient capacity to package and export all of their date palms given the industrial limitations in the country.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia elevated date palms as the most important cash crop with a representation of vitality and growth in its national emblem. With its vast land under date palm plantations, this country commands a market share of up to 18% worldwide with a production that is approximately 10% of the world’s total date palm production. In essence, Saudi Arabia has given the date palms industry the priority it deserves and thus they are reaping the benefits of their focus. Tunisia also boasts of a great amount of date palms production coming in with over 120,000 tons annually. This nation has dedicated over 60% of its land to cultivating date palm plantations and they supply more than half of Europe’s date fruits demand. However, Algeria produces 500,000 tons and competes with Tunisia for the Europe confectioneries market, and has dedicated over 80% of its land to date palms given their pivotal position in the desert’s ecosystem.
These countries, however, do not only use the fruits off the trees. They also use the other non fruit components for various things like feeding the livestock, building fences, mulching, weaving baskets, making textiles, and roofing among other things. They have also established new ways to use the fruit tree’s fruit and non fruit parts as raw materials for industries, such as sweet making, confectioneries and baking products among others. Of all the date palm producing countries in the world, the UAE has the largest amount of land dedicated to the crop and this is estimated to be about 220,000 hectares with a potential production of over 800,000 tons of date fruits annually.
The world’s date palm industries largely produce for export into the European market, but the local markets also play a big role in the industry. For example, Egypt is unable to process all of its date fruits for export despite the high amount of produce realized annually and thus it largely produces for the local market and its immediate neighbors.
Growth of the Date Palms Industry
Initially, dates were a local delicacy. A fruit considered to be wild and only palatable to the desert dwellers. With the spread of Islam, this perception changed and more people began to identify with the fruit. A further spread of civilization then opened the date fruits market up for exploitation by creating markets for the fruit both far and wide. As the demand grew, the enterprising nations gained interest in the industry to a point that some economies are currently hinged on the date palms production for sustenance.
In the beginning, the industry was all about producing the fruits and packaging them for export. However, there have come many more uses for the produce as opposed to being consumed as a fruit. Sweets and confectioneries, as well as baking products and even health supplements are being made from the date palm fruits. In this sense, the market is not restricted to the end consumers, but to sweet factories and bakeries which use them fruits as ingredients in their recipes.
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Also, the industry largely had to suffer destruction and degradation by pests and diseases. With revolutionary studies and discoveries in the field of disease and pest control in agriculture, the problem is in control and probably on its way to elimination. While there still are few reports of pests and diseases, the damage is no longer as crippling to the industry as it used to be in the past. The industry now stands among the most successful in agriculture and possibly the second best industry after oil in the Arabic countries. In some of these countries, dates production and export as a source of revenue is only rivaled by tourism in second place after oil production.
Considering how many people have been employed in the date palms industry, it is not exactly determined, but in the Sahara region alone over 60% of people directly depends on the date palm plantations for their livelihoods (Bashah, 1999). Thus, this means that the industry has the potential of sustaining a very large percentage of the populace in terms of work and sustainable income. This in turn means that the world’s population is less likely to have as high levels of poverty as it has been without the date palm plantations.
Benefits of the Date Palms Industry in UAE
Date palms have a wide variety of benefits to the populations as a fruit, a tree, a cash crop, a symbol in the national emblem and even a cultural and religious delicacy. The date palms have been cherished throughout history for a number of reasons some of which are known to us and proven by science, while others remain mystical and mythical to the present generations (Ferry & Gomez, 2002). Some of the known benefits are discussed below with a special focus of the agricultural, nutritional and medicinal, socio economic and religious values of the date palms.
Date palms are mainly planted in desert regions with high temperatures, high salinity and low humidity, but with an access to water. These areas are often around oases or just in the desert where irrigation has been factored in as an aid to agriculture. In such areas, there is very high sunlight intensity, strong winds and often extreme temperatures both cold and hot alternating. Date palms are often tall trees with deep and strong roots (Saudi Press Agency, 2009). Their leaves are long and provide a shade as well. Using the principles of soil conservation, trees help to break strong winds and thus protect the soil from being eroded. In an agricultural setting, these trees not only prevent soil erosion, but also protect the smaller trees and plants from being broken or uprooted by the strong desert winds. Thus, this means that the farmer can easily indulge in the cultivation of other smaller fruit trees as well as annual crops within the date palms plantations.
Additionally, the date palms have both fruit and non fruit components that are useful to the farmer. The low quality fruits can be used to feed livestock. The leaves are also often used for fencing and mulching in horticulture to protect the fragile plants from harsh environmental and climatic conditions. Basically, it can be said that the cultivation of date palms in the desert regions enables the farmers to engage in other farming activities thus boosting sustainable food production along the economic benefits of exporting this exotic fruit that is a secondary oil well in the Arabic world.
Nutritional and Medicinal Values
The date fruit is a drupe, with one seed per fruit. The fruit has numerous nutritional attributes aside from the pleasant taste and high energy content. The fruit is largely valued for its high fiber content as well. Other than its sophisticated categorization, date fruits are a real asset when eaten on a regular basis as they have numerous significant benefits to the body.
With regards to its medicinal values, there are a large number of ailments and physical troubles that the fruit and other tree components are said to handle successfully. While there may not be sufficient scientific proof to strengthen or eliminate these claims, some of them have scientific explanations while others are left to speculation from stories passed on from previous generations. Some of the problems said to be solved through the use of parts of the date fruits and trees are ulcers, halitosis, sore throats, colds, fevers, toothaches, diarrhea, cystitis, edema, kidney and liver problems, as well as ague, alcohol induced hangovers, and gonorrhea. All these problems are delegated to various parts of the date palm tree including fruit seeds, roots, bark, flower and even leaves.
Socio Economic Values
The date palm tree, due to its majestic height is considered to be a beauty in the desert. For this reason, it is often grown in residential settings as a method of landscaping vast lands. The trees are also used to as land marks and for boundaries in cases of vast land ownership.
Another major use of the date palms is that they provide food not only for people, but for animals as well. Over the years, desert populations have depended on the date fruits to feed themselves and their livestock too. As a cash crop, date palms provide an alternative source of sustainable income that pulls countries away from their dependence on oil as an economic driver. As an agricultural produce, date palms give countries a sustainable source of income that is not only dependable and sustainable but also environment friendly. The industry employs a significant number of individuals in production, processing, curing, packaging, marketing and exporting. Also, there are a number of other industries, such as confectionery and sweets that depend on the date palms industry, thus more jobs and more revenue.
Another significant socio economic value of the date palms industry is that it has encouraged desert dwellers to settle down and practice agriculture as opposed to moving around and engaging in clashes and livestock rustling. Previously, desert communities were considered hostile and insecure, but currently they are settled and producing over 10 million tones of the precious fruit annually. In these countries, date palm production has boosted national income thus improving the living conditions of the general population. As countries grow richer on agricultural production, more people are likely to benefit as compared to oil production which often benefits the wealthy few who have land titles and money to buy oil rigs.
The highest amount of date fruits is often consumed during the Holy Month of Ramadan globally. The fruit is mentioned in the Koran and thus the Islamic community has a religious connection to it. Also, during the fasting period it is considered an asset due to its high energy content. The date fruits have a capacity of up to 3000 calories per kilogram and this is among the highest in all foods (Greiner, 1998). Otherwise, it was historically lauded by the ancient religions that considered it symbolic in their communion with heavenly powers.
Challenges of the Date Palms Industry
In all the ten top producers of date palms in the world, three challenges stand out significantly. These are pests and diseases, inadequate skilled labor and insufficient capacity for processing the fruits in readiness for exporting. Other major constraints are lack of research, climate changes, and market limitations. While these countries have all prioritized date palms production and exportation, they are yet to deal effectively with these problems as discussed below.
Pests and Diseases
Just like the rest of the agricultural industry, the date palms industry is heavily riddled with problems of pest and disease control (Mahmoudi et el., 2008). The farmers sometimes are exposed and experience severe losses due to pests and diseases and especially the Red Palm Weevil that causes extensive damage to palm groves. This results in significant damage to the crop and thus extremely low yields if any at all. As scientists try to come up with ways to eliminate this menace, farmers remain at risk of experiencing tremendous losses in the industry.
Inadequate Skilled Labor
Date palms take a relatively long time to grow and mature into a productive plant with a full capacity to be fruitful for years on end. Before they mature, however, they need a lot of care including cutting the offshoots for planting. If this is not done well and carefully then the trees are at risk of not being as fruitful as they should be. Another challenge in managing date palms is in caring for them and protecting them against pests and diseases. This also needs some amount of skill that is often lacking as most plantations are run locally by untrained personnel and farmhands.
Insufficient Processing Capacity
Some of the date palms producing countries have such high yields that they are unable to process all of it for exportation (Sawaya, 2000). This leaves the farmers with most of their produce to sell cheaply to the local market or export illegally to their neighboring states for processing and exportation. It is for a reason that the countries do not have the commitment to expand their processing industries or build more to satisfy the large date palms production that they have.
Lack Of Research
Agriculture requires constant research to come up with more productive and more resistant strains of crop. While there are several agricultural research facilities worldwide, none of them has focused its attention to this very important cash crop. The date palms have been left to adapt to the environment and suffer their fate of pests and diseases without trying to modify them and make them stronger and with a better chance of survival (University of Delaware, 2004). Also, research would have been able to create strains of the crop that do not need such extreme climatic conditions and can thus be grown in the tropics as well. This would further enlarge the industry and create more produce for the market.
Date palms are very specific in their required conditions for growth. The trees need to be able to access water regularly so that the roots can soak it up for the rest of the plant (Zohary & Hopf, 2000). Also, the fruits need a prolonged summer heat with very low humidity in order to ripen well. With the changes in climate, however, these conditions are being threatened and thus the trees may not be able to yield good fruit in the same high quality and quantity as before (United Nations Development Program, 2004).
Some people grow the date palms, but are unable to sell it due to the fact that most local markets are already flooded with the product. The cost of processing and packaging for exportation on the other hand is also seemingly too steep for some small scale farmers and thus they are unable to sell their produce at all.
The research will involve interviews with stakeholders in the date palms industry in the UAE. First, we will need to collect information on how much date fruits are being exported annually and to which specific destinations. Also, we will need information on how many date palm trees are there in the country and possibly find out how expensive or cheap it is to run these plantations as well as the average realized profit margins. Another important information will be which industries the data palm industry is partnering with locally in terms of product modification and manufacture of sweets, confectioneries, baking products and any other items from date palm derivatives.
Considering how large the country is and how wide spread the date palm plantations are, it would be much easier to conduct the research through the use of secondary resources with regards to information about the cultivars (Williams, 2008). All the major ones are well established and thus information on them can be easily found online and in business publications. Thus, this part of the research will involve the business websites and online journals as well as publications.
The information required from the government can also be found online in the economic journals as released by the government annually. This is where we will get information on how many tones of date fruits are being exported on an annual basis and to which countries do they go. The local industries can also be contacted through their websites to provide information on what business is like for them and which local industries they are partnering with to improve the date palm industry. This will also involve primary research as the required information may not be readily available on the company websites and online journals or articles.
Lastly, the study will obtain primary research by interviewing the local citizens in order to find out just what they think about the date palms industry in the UAE and what should be done to improve the situation and prevent it from deteriorating as it supports a large portion of the population as well boosts some aspects of the tourism industry as the staple exotic fruit of the Arabic world that is sought after by foreigners.
The collected information will then be analyzed and represented in the form of charts and graphs as it will be comparing the date palms industry’s performance and growth potential in the UAE with the rest of the world to establish the industry is doing in a global scale. Considering that this country is just one out of the top ten date palm producers in the world, detail is a key component of the study as the minor details may be the distinguishing factors between good performance and better performance.