Liwa Date Festival 2019: Everything you need to know

The festival returns for another year on Wednesday, and we've got you sorted on everything from how to get there to what to see

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It's that time of year again: the time where thousands of farmers from across the region descend on Abu Dhabi for a very special date(s).

Terrible puns aside, the 15th annual Liwa Date Festival returns on July 17 for another 10 days packed full of cultural and date-related events and competitions. It's also a great opportunity to learn about Emirati customs and traditions, and to discover locals industries and handicrafts. Where else in the world can you attend a date beauty contest, after all?

Each year, an estimated 2,500 thousand farmers descend on the Al Dhafra region in pursuit of their share of a multi-million dirham prize pool. But that number pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands (around 700,000, to be exact) of visitors who come from near and far to take in the event as spectators.

Here's everything you need to know about this year's ode to the humble fruit:

Where is it?

The festival is held each year in Liwa, in the Al Dhafra region, right on the border between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. The traditional fruit has been cultivated here for 5,000 years.

It's a fair trek – about two and a half hours from Abu Dhabi and three and a half from Dubai – but the scenery you're surrounded by in the Empty Quarter more than makes up for it.

When is it?

The festival takes place over the course of ten years each year, and for 2019, it runs from July 17 to July 27. It's held late in the day, from 4pm to 10pm, so at least while being out in the scorching desert, you'll miss the height of the summer sun.

How much does it cost to enter?

It's free to enter, but if you want to buy some of the luscious fruit on offer, bring some cash.

Liwa, United Arab Emirates, July 20, 2017:    Fatima al Hameli, an Emirati woman, at the traditional souq during the Liwa Date Festival in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi on July 20, 2017. The festival runs from July 19th to 29th. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Anna Zacharias
Section: News

Who will be there?

Mostly farmers keen to take advantage of the big cash prizes on offer, but there are also plenty of locals checking out the wares, and others keen to get a closer look at traditional Bedouin life. It's an experience for everyone.

What can I do there?

Well for one, it's simply a great place to escape the city and explore the more down-to-earth side of the UAE, surrounded by the seemingly contradictory landscapes of lush farmland and bulbous sand dunes. It's a side of the country people simply don't get to experience anywhere else: the simplicity of Bedouin life is an interesting glimpse into the past – while observing a practice steeped in such history is an eye-opener of how aspects of the agriculture industry work here.

There are also a bunch of fun events and activities held over the 10 days, so it's a good idea to tie in your visit with a competition or event highlight.

What should I see?

Last year, the Liwa Date Festival prize pot totalled Dh6.25 million, so there's a lot at stake across the various competitions held over the 10 days for the farmers in attendance.

While we haven't got an updated schedule for this year yet, if previous years are anything to go by, this is our pick of what to see at this year's festival:

Al Ratab Beauty Competition

Competition rules are simple, only Al Ratab dates – half-ripe dates – can be submitted for evaluation. Produce must be from this year and harvested locally.

The varieties of Al Ratab are vast. Khallas, the most common variety of the dates in the region are very popular among Emiratis, but do not have much of a demand outside the Middle East. Its rough peel can mislead the uninitiated into thinking the fruit has gone bad, Mussallam Al Ameri, chief executive of Al Foah, a date company that describes itself as the largest in the world, told The National last year.

“Big dark dates such as Lulus, Kunaizi and Farths are more in demand internationally because Europeans think having sweet dates might cause diabetes or harm their teeth, which isn’t true. In fact, dates have natural fructose which is a healthy sugar. They are known to strengthen bones and teeth,” he said.

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., July 18, 2018.  First day of the 2018 Liwa Date Festival. --  Saif Al Mazrouei (6) poses for a souvenir photo beside the heaviest date fruit clumps of the festival.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani

Traditional Market 

One of the undisputed highlights of  the festival is the rambling souk, which is held to shed light on Emirati heritage and the country's cultural legacy. Within the market you'll find a buzzing souk full of traditional products: date palms, sweets made from dates, Jumar (the milky-white inner of the palm tree heart), as well as Bedouin arts and crafts and Al Sadu (a traditional form of weaving).

One important thing to pay attention to here is the Emirati women's vital role in the Bedouin economy; they inherit the craft techniques from their mothers and grandmothers, and then preserve them for years to come. Visitors should also observe the unity between the families and the tribal solidarity.

Liwa, United Arab Emirates, July 20, 2017:    General view of Rashed Abdullah farm in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi on July 20, 2017. Abdullah was the winner of the largest date branch for the Liwa Date Festival which runs from July 19th to 29th. The winning branch weighed in at 106.5kg. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Anna Zacharias
Section: News

Model Farm Competition

This competition celebrates the most hygienic farms in Liwa. Each year, over 100 farms take place, vying for over Dh500,000 in prizes. An assembled jury selects five farms from the eastern section of Liwa, and another five farms from the western section, and the winner of each section takes out the top prize. The runners-up take away smaller prize packets.

This award is held to encourage farmers to improve the quality of their products, to restore their old buildings, and maintain good hygienic practises, materials and soil quality. Visitors can visit these farms, too.

Fruit Basket Competition

This is the perfect spot for tourists and locals alike to learn a bit more about Emirati agricultural processes. The Fruit Basket Competition includes varieties of fruit that are locally produced (not dates though). It's held to improve the quality of local fruit production, and includes a prize pot of around Dh100,000.

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., July 18, 2018.  First day of the 2018 Liwa Date Festival. --  The heaviest date fruit clumps of the festival.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani

Heaviest Branch Competition

This is measured by a simple criterion: weight. And perhaps it's an usual time in life where the fatter, the better. Last year, the award went to a branch weighing 97.1 kilograms. In 2017,the winning entry weighed 106kg.

Best Mangoes and/or Best Lemon Competition

Well, it does about what it says on the tin: a prize for the best locally produced mangoes or lemon. Head along if you're stone or citrus fruit inclined.

Best Heritage Model

This really has nothing to do with fruit or farming at all, but it's a bit of fun nonetheless. Participants are invited to create an art work measuring between 1x1 metre and 2x2 metres, that efficiently shows an aspect of Emirati heritage. Participants are judged on the natural materials used in their work, the number of heritage pieces used in the work, the harmony of the materials, and the representation of an aspect of the old way of life.

The Children’s Village 

There's plenty for children to see and do while the rest of the family are off ogling fruit. There's generally a diverse schedule of activities for children of all ages.

In previous years, the children's programme has included a theatre performances, cultural activities, storytelling, and art workshops.

Children will be able to learn about Emirati heritage, the history of the Emirates and about the significance of the palm tree and the date.

Instagram Competition

There's no official word on whether this is back for 2019 or not, but in previous years you could win prizes without having to grow a fruit at all – all you needed was a smartphone.

All you had to do was post a picture on Instagram around the central themes of  the festival – nature and scenery of the area, heritage sites in Liwa, the festival itself etc – and use the provided hashtag.

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