LIWA // Adorned with baskets of bigger and tastier dates than last year, the seventh Liwa Date Festival began yesterday with almost 500 farmers participating in the first day of the competition.
Faray Rashed Obeid Al Mansouri was one of the 10 judges who spent the day considering the Dabbas dates on show, sorted into baskets along four long rows in the judging room. "They've really improved since last year," he said. "Many of them are larger in size."
Today the panel will look at local mangoes, while tomorrow will be the turn of Khalas dates. "Every day, we will have a different category of the fruits and next week will be the lemons," said Mr Al Mansouri.
Away from the judging area, a heritage room featured about 20 pictures of Sheikh Zayed, the late President, visiting agricultural sites in Liwa, Delma Island and other parts of the UAE.
As the Ruler of the Western Region, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, toured the festival's shops and admired the dates, about 30 Emirati men sang and performed the traditional Emirati folk dance Al Ayyalah.
Obeid Al Mazrouei, the festival's director, accompanied Sheikh Hamdan during the tour of the facilities. "He was very happy by what he saw," said Mr Al Mazrouei. "From the first day, I noticed a lot more potential than last year," he said. "And although it is a week day, more people have visited compared to last year, no less than 2,000."
By 2pm, bushels of dates were still arriving at the festival. "There are no less than 500 baskets of dates today from around 500 farms in Liwa," said Mr Al Mazrouei.
"Year after year, we notice the quality of dates is improving, people have more knowledge on the fruits and they are taking more care of them."
All dates must be locally produced and no fully ripe dates are accepted. Participants must also bring proof of farm ownership when registering with the festival; each farmer can only participate in two categories except for Al Nukhba, which is open for all.
The judges will visit winning farms, to check that they are suitably hygienic, that their trees are well-kept, and that they use the approved water-saving irrigation methods.
Participants have to enter 4-6kg in most categories, and 2-4kg in the Al Nukhba category. Varieties include Al Khuneizi, Al Khalas, Al Dabbas, Bou Maan, Al Farth, Al Nukhba, and the heaviest bushel of dates. A prize pot of Dh4million will be distributed to the best 15 entrants in each category.
"There is definitely a better quality of dates this year," said Mr Mansouri. "Especially for the Al Khalas category, people are being more cautious with their fruits."
Nearby, Hussein Omar, a judge at every festival for the past seven years, weighed about 30 bushels of dates. The heaviest was 84.5kg, he said.
"They all come from Liwa and we're really seeing more people attend the festival, participate and more attention is being put on dates," he said. "It's great."
Further down, a traditional souq housed 160 shops of homemade crafts, perfumes, clothes and curtains, all designed by Emirati women.
"It's my first time participating this year," said Dabya Al Flasse, an Emirati shopkeeper who lives in Abu Dhabi. "I make everything myself and it's such a pleasure to take part in this festival."