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Firm strives to put its food on the world's platter

Gulf News

Saudi Arabia is famous for its oil, but a Saudi firm is striving to ensure the desert kingdom become renowned for another, sweeter product cultivated here since the beginning of time.

Few people outside the Middle East know that Saudi Arabia, the world's big-gest 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 Montasser 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.

"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 revered due to its mention in 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.

In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, dates have important cultural connotations concerning generosity, plenty and gratitude. The Bedouin 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 Holy Quran, God ordered the Virgin Mary to eat dates as she was giving birth to Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) broke his fast during the month of Ramadan on dates.

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.

According to Bateel's general manager Ata Atmar, the company's fou-nder 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.