The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has built a worldwide reputation for effecting seemingly miraculous transformations. Former fishing villages have been turned into avant-garde cities; the sea gives us the water that flows from our taps and irrigates our gardens; and thanks to desalination technology, swathes of the once-arid desert have been turned green or converted into fertile arable land.
It took determination and foresight on the part of the UAE’s rulers to combat summer’s unforgiving temperatures, scarce rainfall and sandy soil to grow the kind of produce my generation had never seen let alone tasted, and which is taken for granted in other parts of the world.
I still remember when families would hoard rare imported tinned peaches to be opened for special occasions such as weddings; young boys would swim far out to sea to ask cruise-ship passengers to throw down juicy oranges.
Credit for phenomenal advances in the agricultural sector must go to one of the UAE’s founding fathers Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, whose upbringing in the oasis town of Al-Ain inspired his lifelong love of nature’s gifts.
Sheikh Zayed laid the groundwork by constructing dams, planting mangrove trees, levelling sand dunes, revitalizing traditional systems of irrigation, and embracing desalination when it was still considered revolutionary. He was the driving force behind a massive experimental fruit farm on Sir Bani Yas Island, which bore various experimental farming research stations.
It took determination and foresight on the part of the UAE’s rulers to combat summer’s unforgiving temperatures, scarce rainfall and sandy soilKhalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
The UAE today exports fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. One of the most exciting and innovative developments is the commercial use of hydroponics, whereby plants, vegetables, varieties of fruit and even rice can be grown solely in water infused with minerals and nutrients, without soil. Not only does this method conserve precious water, which can be reused, but plants grow at a faster rate, and because they can be stacked, they do not need as much land.
Crops are extensively grown in climate-controlled greenhouses and fibre-matted tunnels. Until recently, wheat was seen as a step too far, but a research station in Al-Ain is studying 100 types of wheat - most grown from seeds imported from Mexico - to discover which varieties are most adaptable to the climate. Foreign consultants generally take a negative view of the feasibility of growing wheat in commercial quantities, but the UAE’s agriculturists are not about to give up.
A mainstay of the population’s diet during the first half of the 20th century was energy-giving dates, packed with vitamins and also used to feed camels and goats. Date palms have been cultivated throughout the region for thousands of years; without them, it is doubtful whether our ancestors would have survived.
The leaves and fronds were used to make homes, small fishing boats, baskets and mats. The tree’s outer layer was turned into rope and sacks, while the wood itself was crafted to produce furniture, storage chests and tent supports. Whether fresh, dried or conserved as jam, the fruit provided sustenance throughout the year, hence why dates are held in high regard by Emiratis, and are offered to guests as a symbol of hospitality.
Some 95 percent of the world’s dates are grown in the Middle East. Nowadays, the UAE is high on the list of date exporters, along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with over 44 million date palms producing almost 200 different varieties of fruit.
The largest date-processing company in the country, Al-Foah, has announced plans to launch a “chain of date concept stores worldwide to promote the consumption of branded dates and increase awareness of UAE dates,” as well as such derivatives as juices, date bars, date chocolates, jams, cakes and ice-creams. A highlight on the date farmers’ calendar is the annual Liwa Dates Festival, where they can win awards for the healthiest and tastiest fruit.
Fish also loom large in the UAE in terms of domestic consumption and exports. Besides indigenous species, the country now boasts salmon farms and uses state-of-the-art methods to grow caviar-producing sturgeons. To increase dwindling populations of some of our favorites due to over-fishing, some 50,000 are being nurtured by the Dubai Fishermen Co-op Association.
For its part, Abu Dhabi is encouraging the introduction of aquaculture farms to ensure the availability of the five species – hammour, cobia, qabit, yellow-fin tuna and abalone – in greatest demand.
In my youth, if someone had suggested that the UAE would one day export flowers to Holland, I might have advised them to see a doctor. In the early 2000s, horticultural farms were indeed exporting roses and chrysanthemums to The Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, although exports slowed due to increased domestic demand.
Dubai has emerged as a hub for the import and export of flowers. With a floor area of 100,000 square meters, and a cold storage facility covering 34,000 square meters, the Dubai Flower Centre is capable of handling 150,000 tons of flowers at any given time.
There is also growing demand for organic food, as highlighted by The National in June based on the results of a survey conducted by a UAE university, which read: “Consumers are willing to pay higher prices for certified organic food and that increases with age as they become more health conscious.” Organic farms are expanding in sync with burgeoning consumer demand. This is an area calling out for greater investment.
Sheikh Zayed famously said: “Give me agriculture, and I will give you civilization.” If he were with us today, I think he would be proud of the great strides his country has made in that direction. Food self-sufficiency may always be unreachable, but after all, this is the UAE. You never know!
Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group - one of the most successful conglomerates in the Gulf. Al Habtoor is renowned for his knowledge and views on international political affairs; his philanthropic activity; his efforts to promote peace; and he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad. Writing extensively on both local and international politics, he publishes regular articles in the media and has released a number of books. Al-Habtoor began his career as an employee of a local UAE construction firm and in 1970 established his own company, Al Habtoor Engineering. The UAE Federation, which united the seven emirates under the one flag for the first time, was founded in 1971 and this inspired him to undertake a series of innovative construction projects – all of which proved highly successful.