They set the benchmark with the world's biggest steel plate, piled high with dates. And last night, as the Liwa date festival drew to a triumphant close, organisers were celebrating breaking all kinds of records - and promising next year's event will be "the biggest in the world". The number of competitors bidding to show off their wares more than tripled from last year to 10,000, while the number of visitors rose to 180,000, four and a half times higher than the 40,000 who had been expected.
Meanwhile a new record was set for the biggest single branch of dates by a mystery entrant whose fruit weighed in at a staggering 82kg, beating last year's 68kg winning entry. "The festival has been bigger and better than ever and exceeded all expectations," said Ahmed al Dhaheri, a member of the festival committee. "We are delighted with the results of all our planning. On the first day alone we saw 10,000 visitors and over the 17 days, we have welcomed 180,000 through the gates, the highest number we have ever had.
"More than 10,000 farmers entered date competitions, which was more than treble the 3,000 who entered last year and next year we hope to double that number again by opening the contests to the whole of the Emirates instead of just the Western Region. "We could see 20,000 farmers bringing the best of their produce here. Together with this year's entry in the Guinness World of Records, this will open the gates of the international market to us.
"Everyone will know what Liwa is all about. Most people have never heard of us but after this festival, they will come to visit us from across the world and understand more about the date production industry and what this region represents. "We can only go forward from here and next year will be better than ever." The past 17 days have seen tens of thousands of dates changing hands in auctions, trade deals and contests.
Last night an estimated Dh4 million was being given away in prize money to the winners of various categories of date competitions, including the most beautiful presentation, the largest azj and the best dabbas, abu maan, salvation, distinct and variety dates. About 7,000 plates of the bite-sized fruit were entered in the Mazayin al Ratb contests to find the best producers in Liwa, which contributes half of the 760,000 tonnes of dates grown every year in the UAE.
Awards were also being handed out for the best model date farms. Judges used a stringent set of criteria, which included a 40 per cent score on the form and size of the fruit, 30 per cent based on its lack of defects and 30 per cent for cleanliness. The winner of the biggest branch, who beat 280 other farmers but had not been named as of last night, walked away with a Dh100,000 cash prize. Up to 60 baskets of dates were sold in daily auctions, with Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Khalid snapping up all 52 baskets sold on Friday for Dh160,000.
A mass wedding last week, organised for the first time as part of the festival, saw 340 bridegrooms tying the knot. The Dh5 million bill was paid by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. But the event which drew the eyes of the world to the oasis in the desert was the record-breaking steel platter of ratb, or half-ripe, dates unveiled last Thursday. The dish, measuring 10.06m by 2.03m, earned the region an entry in the Guinness World of Records for the biggest steel plate on the planet.
The crowning glory of the festival has proved so popular that organisers have received numerous offers to buy it - including one Dh4 million bid. "There have been companies and individuals offering to buy it, some more serious than others," said Mr Dhaheri. "In fact there have been so many approaches that I cannot even remember the gentleman who offered Dh4 million - but we will never sell it as it is the pride of the Emirates.
"We will keep it in storage and put it on display every year as part of the festival. "It has inspired us to think of other ways we might be able to enter the Guinness World of Records next year but we cannot reveal too much at present as we do not want to put all our dates in one basket." Sheikh Mohammed toured the stands at the festival on Friday and praised its efforts to improve date quality production and increase the number of date palm plantations, reported WAM, the Government news agency.
"Date palm trees were the main source of food for our ancestors," he said. "Even today dates are still a major component of our national food security. "The success of this festival is yet another testimony to the correctness of the vision of the late Sheikh Zayed regarding the importance of agro-investments." The 240 exhibitors at the event included 145 traders promoting family arts and craft businesses, who were being judged for a separate handicrafts competition by the firm Made in the UAE.
The Liwa festival began four years ago as a simple one-day event to promote the produce of the region, but now includes poetry nights, lectures on agriculture and the date palm industry and a children's marquee. Organisers were celebrating last night with a finale dinner. They will take a month's break before heading back to the drawing board in September to start planning next year's extravaganza.
"I am already starting to worry about next year as the challenge is to go even bigger and better," said Mr Dhaheri. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org ends