A date with Arabic history

Saudi Arabia is famous for its oil, but a local company is striving to ensure the desert kingdom gains renown for another, sweeter product which has been cultivated here since the beginning of time.

    Dates are a staple food of the Arabian Peninsula

    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" 


    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."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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