x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A date with destiny for UAE's fruit growers at Liwa festival

Pride of UAE produce goes on display at annual celebration.

Different varieties of mangoes and lemons on display on the second day of the date festival.
Different varieties of mangoes and lemons on display on the second day of the date festival.

ABU DHABI // Dhababa Al Mansoori received envious looks from other competitors when she entered the tent with a basket of lumpy lemons.

Ms Al Masoori hoped her orange-lemon hybrid would impress judges at the Liwa Date Festival as it did neighbours in Madinat Zayed.

"I mean, it's sweet. Sour and sweet," she explained to registrars as she placed the lemons on the counter. "It's something new. Delicious."

Her garden is full of these horticultural creations.

"I feel they are my children," said Ms Al Mansoori, a banker.

This unexpected mix of the ordinary is a hallmark of the eighth annual Liwa Date Festival.

Farmers and tourists walked down red carpets between displays on military aircraft and date palm scientists in a chilled, giant tent with Wi-Fi connection at the edge of the Empty Quarter.

At a time when most of the country goes into hiding from the heat, the oasis town of Liwa comes alive when its dates ripen.

This year's festival has 48 date merchants and 160 handicraft shops in a traditional market where sadu weaving is sold alongside tinsel camel tack from China.

Friday had 100 mango and 76 lemon entries in local and foreign categories - quadruple and nearly double last year's numbers respectively.

"This year we focus more on the quality," said Obaid Al Mazrouei, the festival director. "This will give a sign that we can grow everything, not only dates."

The mango and lemon categories have a first prize of Dh25,000 out of a total of Dh4.2 million in prize money on offer.

Yesterday's hopefuls included Mohammed Al Qubaisi, 21, who presented lemons and mangoes on behalf of his grandfather.

The retired farmer and pearl diver is 95 years old and won two prizes worth Dh15,000 in 2011 with last- minute entries.

"Last year he just collected what was around the farm," said Mr Al Qubaisi. "This year is different."

But he is up against Ras Al Khaimah's mango magnate Mohammed Khalfan Mohammed, a man of a rumoured 1,000 trees and 50 mango varieties who cleaned up at last year's competition and is a public favourite.

"Fantastic mangoes," said Saif Rashed, a RAK artist selling palm-frond furniture at the festival. "They are the mangoes of an engineer. A farming engineer.

"He's the boss. Not just for RAK, for the whole UAE."

The decision will rest with a panel of "doctors and engineers" who sampled each basket to test for fibre, pulp, juiciness, sweetness and acidity.

"This year's taste and size reveals a higher quality," said Dr Ahmed El Shiekh, a judge and fruit expert from the Ministry of Environment and Water. "There's more cultivators and more variety within cultivators."

All entries must be ripe and clean, Dr El Sheikh said as he picked up a fruit.

"This one, how can I evaluate it?" he said, frowning. "It's a rock."

Winners of the mango and lemon categories will be announced today after farm inspections, which account for half the grading.

Mansoor Al Mazrouei, of Madinat Zayed, won Dh50,000 and defended his title of the heaviest adj branch with a winning entry of 112 kilograms, besting his record of 96kg last year.

Sulhan Saeed Al Mazrouei won Dh125,000 for the best Al Dabbas variety of dates.

The competition continues until July 18.