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Dubai ports feed global appetite for dates

December 31, 2012 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
  • Dubai's mix of old and new shipping continues to help date trade thrive
  • Emirate imports 250,000 tons of dates annually from neighboring countries
  • Traditional wooden dhows still used to transport dates before transfer to shipping containers

(CNN) -- Dates have been an integral part of the culture and identity of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since ancient times.

In the past four decades, production has increased nearly a hundredfold with dates carefully harvested by hand from more than 40 million palm trees across the country.

The UAE is currently the world's fifth largest producer of dates, but it's not just homegrown fruit that you will find in the country's souks.

Around 250,000 tons are imported every year -- mostly from Saudi Arabia and Iraq -- arriving on wooden dhows at small, traditional ports like Dubai's Al Hamriya.

Infographic: Gateway to the Gulf

Jebel Ali's 2,000-ton workhorses
Dubai dhows still key for trade
Dubai's global trade gateway

The old-fashioned sailing vessels remain an integral part of trade in the emirate enabling the fast and efficient transport of dates and other foodstuffs, says Khaldoun Asmar, CEO of Barari Group.

"We have dhows starting from 200 tons up to 2,000 tons," says Asmar, whose company handles up to 80,000 tons of dates every year.

"[They] are very strong and fast-moving and can go and come within two, three, four days maximum. So it's easy in terms of moving around. You load fast and you discharge fast," Asmar said.

"We export to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka ... We cover the whole area really and we cover the Middle East, plus we cover Australia, Canada and the U.S."

At Al Hamriya, box after box of dates is unloaded from the dhows onto metal shipping containers which are taken by truck to Dubai's main shipping hub, Jebel Ali Port.

"Jebel Ali is very important to us because it is connected to the world," Asmar says. "We are bringing dates from all over the world, we store it here in Dubai and we re-export again to the rest of the world."

Quiz: Destination Dubai

Dubai is not only a center for re-export, it's a key hub for the whole of the Middle East, says Mohammed Al Muallem, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of DP World.

Lots of cargo comes through containers and ends up in warehouses in Dubai, he says, which are then visited by traders from across the region.

"They come and see their products in the warehouses and they basically say, 'I want this to be delivered to a certain areas that don't have ports.' And then what happens is that they use dhows that can go in shallow water to deliver to any location, any area," Al Muallem said.

All of which makes for a happy mix of old and new, helping Dubai sustain the links with its mercantile past while feeding a global appetite for the region's much-loved traditional fruit.

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