All roads lead to Liwa this weekend for a date festival with Dh6.25 million in prizes up for grabs.
An estimated 2,500 farmers will be battling it out in date competitions, model farm contests and an award for the best fruit basket as the festival enters its 14th year.
The festival seeks to preserve the UAE’s cultural heritage, attract tourists and improve the lives of date farmers, many of whom face financial hardships owing to rising costs.
Under the patronage of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, the annual event seeks to promote the cultivation of the finest varieties of dates and give companies and farmers a platform to share healthy, sustainable agricultural methods for producing high quality dates.
Organisers say this year’s fruit basket competition is already heating up with more entrants than ever before – indicating that date farmers are increasingly keen to grow and sell a variety of produce, seemingly in a bid to diversify their income.
To encourage the trend, organisers raised this year's prize for best fruit basket to a staggering Dh400,000, from Dh100,000. They hope the increase will also help support Emirati farmers to develop their lands, offering them greater financial stability.
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, said Mussallam Al Ameri, chief executive of Al Foah, a date company that describes itself as the largest in the world.
“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.
Date prices have increased because of international demand, which should encourage farmers to stick with their craft, despite financial hardships, and keep growing them, Mr Al Ameri said.
Family rivalry plays out at Liwa Date Festival
Watch: Fast facts about the Liwa Date Festival in UAE
Heaviest branch, another competition held during the festival, is measured by a simple criterion: weight. But in most competitions the judging takes a panel of judges hours. This year's award went to a branch weighing 97.1 kilograms. Last year the winning entry weighed 106kg. Some farmers felt the reduced rain this year caused the decrease.
Last year’s event attracted about 700,000 visitors and this year’s has already brought many from far and wide, among them was an American resident dressed in traditional Emirati clothes and who insisted on speaking only Arabic.
Mike’s enthusiasm and love for Emirati culture and heritage led him to visit the festival on its opening night.
Visitors to the festival can experience a glimpse of the Bedouin lifestyle and buy traditional Emirati handicrafts.
A children’s village will also keep little ones entertained with cultural activities, performances, storytelling and art workshops.