x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

An old English drink that came to be the king of iftar tables

Just how did an imported beverage become virtually synonymous with breaking the fast in the UAE?

At the heart of a pleasant little park, where industry once boomed, stands a strange but colourful monument. This is not your typical memorial to a war hero or philanthropic do-gooder.

This celebratory sculpture depicts raspberries, grapes and black currants - all larger than life, all sitting at the base of a huge bottle.

What is being commemorated is the birthplace of a beverage; specifically, a mixed fruit cordial, best known to the world as Vimto.

But how has a blood-coloured beverage, born in Britain's industrial north more than a century ago, managed to become a regular iftar A-lister across the Arab world? Vimto, which originated from Granby Row, in Manchester, has become Ramadan's regular accompaniment.

I recently asked one of my classes at Zayed University, what drink do you associate with Ramadan? All, without hesitation, replied: Vimto.

The drink's seasonal popularity in the region is palpable, confirmed by even a cursory glance at online search statistics. Entering the term Vimto into Google trends and running a report for any Gulf nation reveals a huge annual Ramadan spike. After Ramadan, the term's search volume drops back to a flat line, reflecting the beverage's return to relative online obscurity.

Similarly, sales data routinely confirm Vimto's extreme Ramadan spike. In 2011, the UK soft drinks group Nichols, Vimto's makers, posted a 39 per cent rise in profits, a hike they attributed to a surge in shipments to the Middle East in the run up to Ramadan. Other business reports suggest that more than half of Vimto's annual sales are made during the Ramadan period.

There is a joke in the UAE that goes: when will Ramadan end? When the Vimto runs out. But it is probably more accurate to say: when will the Vimto run out? When Ramadan ends.

Vimto's seasonal popularity is clearly attested by its in-store ubiquity. You will be challenged to find any supermarket in the Gulf that has not given Vimto a prominent placement in the run-up to Ramadan. My local supermarket in Abu Dhabi has erected its own monument to Vimto in the form of a Vimto Tower, or Burj Al Banafsajee (purple tower).

This structure, a magnificent feat of retail engineering, is impossible to miss; a two-metre edifice of Vimto bottles arrests the attention of every shopper entering the store. Such intense and prominent placement is typically reserved for new products. But Vimto, an old favourite, gets special treatment during the holy month.

The drink first arrived on the Arabian peninsula in 1928, when Abdulla Aujan & Brothers, Saudi commodity traders, expanded into beverages and acquired the exclusive rights to import and distribute Vimto. The fact that the drink has been in the region for so long perhaps adds to its wide-scale acceptance. Vimto, after all, is not one of those brands that only arrived in pursuit of oil wealth. The drink was well established at least a decade before the exploitation of oil began.

Although not a newcomer (wafid, as Emiratis often refer to a foreigner), Vimto is still unmistakably foreign. For one thing, the Arabic alphabet has no letter V. But perhaps this adds to the beverage's cachet, making it obviously foreign and thereby special, exotic and appealing.

Another factor in Vimto's regional success may stem from the beverage's roots in the temperance movement. Temperance was a popular social movement advocating restrictions on and in some cases the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Vimto was initially concocted as a healthy alternative to liquor. And back in 1908, when it was first served in the UK's temperance bars, it was known as Vim Tonic, accentuating its purported health properties. Vimto's early association with the temperance movement and its health-promoting claims probably boosted the drink's appeal in a region where the consumption of alcohol is prohibited.

Vimto's regional popularity must also, to a large extent, be attributed to the power of advertising. Messages and images have been skilfully crafted to shape and influence consumer behaviours. I am against the commercialisation of religious occasions. But Vimto, with its temperance roots, deserves its annual moment in the sun.

Given Vimto's current market dominance, it is hard to see how any other beverage could displace it as the drink king of the iftar table.

 

Justin Thomas is an assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi