Family rivalry plays out at Liwa Date Festival

Nephew finally beats his uncle for the heaviest branch as thousands turn out for Liwa Date Festival in Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafrah region

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After five years of second best, Rashed Abdulla can now say he is the number one.

He is one of thousands participating in the country's largest annual farmer's market, the Liwa Date Festival.

Taking place at the fringe of the Empty Quarter, an estimated 2,500 farmers have descended on the remote oasis town to compete for a total of Dh5.2 million in prizes. No less than 60,000 dates in six varieties are expected to be presented for the judges to inspect. The festival will continue until July 29, opento the public daily from 4pm until 10pm.

Mr Abdulla has won many of these prizes. But the most elusive prize has always been just out of his reach: the heaviest branch.

This year he won with a 106kg branch that hangs in pride of place at the Liwa Festival. For the past seven years he has placed second. For five of those years, he had lost to his uncle, Ali Al Mehri.

But since the age of 20, Mr Abdulla has been studying with his uncle. Ali, age 70, was raised in a time when the palm was the difference between life and death: its branches were used for shelter, its fruit provided food.

Mr Al Mehri placed eighth this year and his wife placed fifth. Mr Abdulla credits his win to Mr Al Mehri who he introduces as "the big palm engineer with 70 years of expertise".

Mr Abdulla defers to Al Mehri in all things, but has been waiting patiently for this victory. Every year his prized tree, a shallel palm, grew taller and every year its branches got heavier. The first branch he entered weighed 70kg.

His majlis is an air-conditioned super-tent that tells the story of past victories and near wins. Its walls are covered with giant cheques for awards: Dh180,000 for best farm (2016), Dh75,000 for second-best dabbas dates, Dh150,000 for best mixed dates (2014), Dh40,000 for second-largest branch (2014).

There are about a dozen cheques in all. He has won in most categories and starts to explain each cheque but then tires and waves at a wall plastered with five great cheques. "They're all second place," he said.

A single palm, however, is worth its weight in gold. One kilogram of dates sells for an average of Dh30. Nonetheless, Mr Abdulla is so prolific at the festival that it doubles his farm's annual income. He averages Dh150,000 to Dh200,000 in prize money each year. "It's a bonus," he said.

Mr Abdulla is at his farm every day but works full-time for Adnoc in Madinat Zayed, about 20 minutes up the road from his hometown of Liwa.

The majlis betrays Mr Abdulla's personality. A meticulous person with both palms and hospitality, he does not just serve coffee. He has two coffee grinders, as well as a juicer and avocados, so that he can offer guests the freshest coffee. The majlis is cosy rather than grandiose, so that conversation can flow.

"I don't just do dates," said Mr Abdulla. "I finished my masters six months ago and I'm going to the UK to start my PhD."

"Every year he's a winner in different categories," said Mansour Ibrahim Al Mansouri, a festival judge and head of the Abu Dhabi Farmers' Production. He has a good farm, and he has the knowledge on how to handle the palm."

Heaviest branch is measured by a simple criteria: weight. However in most competitions, the judging takes a panel of judges hours. Dates varieties include lulu, khalas, dabbas, khunaizi, bu ma'an, farth and this year's newcomer: the shishi date. Appearance is not everything.

Judges grade dates according to both their quality, but also dedicate 30 per cent to the farm. Dates with traces of pesticides are disqualified. As the UAE moves to brand its dates overseas, a growing emphasis has been placed on organic farming and sustainable irrigation.

In the last two years, hot weather has seen dates ripen early. Judges are encouraging farmers to grow varieties that will be commercially viable and require less irrigation. "Water now is very important," said Mr Al Mansouri. "I am looking for varities with very high tolerance for the heat."

The popularity of farming has put added pressure on the water tables in the last 15 years, said Mr Al Mehri.

"Now it's very salty," he said. "There are so many farms."

The festival has succeeded in drawing many young men into farming. On a Thursday night in Liwa, the exhibition hall is filled with teenagers elbowing each other before the announcement of the best dabbas, a date that grows
best in the dry oasis air.

Who will win next year? "Only God can know," said Mr Al Mehri.

"Maybe me," chipped in Mr Abdulla.