Few people outside the Middle East know that Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter, is also the largest date producer with more than 400 varieties growing in the kingdom.

 

Most of the kingdom's annual production of over 700,000 tonnes is consumed locally or sent to Muslim countries as food aid. A small percentage is exported in bulk.

 

Bateel, a firm that produces gourmet dates and date products, is determined to change that.

 

"Our philosophy is to make dates to Saudi what chocolates are to Switzerland and cheese is to France," said Muntasir Fadah, country manager for the wholly-Saudi owned company which has date boutiques all over the Middle East and Malaysia and plans for more in Japan, Indonesia and Europe.

 

"Our philosophy is to make dates to Saudi what chocolates are to Switzerland and cheese is to France" 

Muntasir Fadah,
Saudi manager, Bateel

"We want to present this very Saudi product in a way that appeals to the gourmet lovers of the world."

 

Dates are a staple food of the Arabian Peninsula, where the fruit is also revered due to its mention in the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

 

Many nutritionists say dates are a perfect food as they are low in fat, high in energy and rich in minerals and vitamins.

 

Cultural connotations

 

In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, dates have important cultural connotations concerning generosity, plenty and gratitude.

 

Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam,
also produces the most dates

The Beduin Arabs lived off the date palm for centuries before the oil boom transformed the Gulf and the tree is highly respected in the region.

 

According to the Quran, the Virgin Mary, suffering from the pangs of childbirth during her delivery of Jesus, is told to eat dates. Moreover, Muslims around the world break their fast during the month of Ramadan with dates as it was something that Islam's Messenger Muhammad would usually do.

   

This popular fruit, called "tamr" in Arabic, is normally sold fresh or dried from huge piles stacked at vendors or in stores. That was until Bateel came to the market.

 

Luxury dates are not a new concept in the kingdom, which has more than 30 date factories with an annual production of over 35,000 tonnes but few are adding as much value to the fruit as Bateel or marketing it abroad as aggressively.

 

Other firms in the Middle East and the United States have also been selling luxury date products for years.

 

'Piece of Switzerland'

 

Bateel, which means young palm shoot, was established 15

years ago by members of the prominent Sudeiry family using dates from their private farm in al-Ghat, a central area with an ideal climate and soil for growing dates.

 

The mention of dates in the Quran
has given the fruit a reverence

According to Bateel's general manager Ata Atmar, the company's founder and director was inspired to open date boutiques while shopping for chocolates at a Swiss airport.

 

"He heard a woman saying how happy she was to be taking a piece of Switzerland back with her and decided there and then to create a similar concept for Saudi Arabia," he said.

   

The Bateel farm produces 22 types of date, which go through a rigorous ripening and sterilisation process before being elegantly displayed in temperature-controlled vitrines.

 

In addition to the basic fruit, Bateel also sells dates stuffed with candied lemon and pineapple peel as well as almonds and marzipan.

 

And for sheer decadence, there are dates dipped in Belgian chocolate, date cookies, date conserves and even non-alcoholic date champagne.

 

Arabian touch

 

Bateel's boutiques are modelled on the finest European chocolatiers, but with a distinctly Arabian touch.

 

In addition to the customary cardboard boxes, clients can pick up plush custom-made "boites" inlaid with fake mother-of-pearl containers depicting an ancient cartographers' map of Arabia.

 

Sales of  dates peak during the 
month-long fast of Ramadan

The shop also provides special velvet boxes with Valentine, Christmas and Easter themes, although these are not displayed in Saudi Arabia, which does not acknowledge non-Muslim feasts.

 

The special production process and accompanying finery comes at a hefty price - a kilogramme of basic Bateel dates retails for $24, which is at least three times the price of the best quality dates sold in supermarkets.

 

Despite the cost and competition, Atmar said the company has been growing at between 30 and 40% a year for the past four years and became profitable in 2002.

 

He refused to disclose figures but said Bateel was so successful that the directors have had to fend off several take-over bids.

 

"We might even go public, not for funds, but just to give the Bateel name a bigger profile," he added.

 

The firm is planning to expand in Europe this year by establishing date coffee shops where patrons can enjoy this typical Arab combination in traditional Arab surroundings.

 

"In Saudi, the oil has always gone out and the Starbucks come in," Atmar said, referring to the US-based international coffee shop chain.

 

"We in Bateel like to think we've succeeded in reversing that using another typical Saudi product."