The skylarks sing as they swoop and swerve in the predawn sky around date palm trees. More than two hundred miles away from the clamor of Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, my friend Yunus and I hit the main road and race the rising sun towards the carts and bids and boxes and auctions of the Unaizah Date Festival, the second-largest date extravaganza in the entire world.
Most storylines about the Saudi Arabia center around the Kingdom’s deep social conservatism, vast oil wealth, or geopolitical machinations in the greater Middle East. Yet to understand a country looking to modernize its economy and re-engineer its society all while retaining traditional power structures, the Unaizah date market helps bring things into focus.
Since 1980, the date festival has grown into its present form, a 70-day auction in late summer, generating as much as $300 million through the sale of thousands of tons of dates. This year marked the debut of Unaizah’s brand new festival grounds, the results of extensive investments totaling over $100 million in local money—a 2.5 million square foot complex arranged around a 37,000-square foot central plaza. The plaza can stock up to 9,000 date-carts, which, in turn, carry an awful lot of dates.
It is hard to travel the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for long without consuming dates: lush pods of sugar and fiber wrapped around a slender (and easily avoided) seed. They come in blacks and yellows and reds and browns, enjoyed fresh or packed together until the huddled mass of fruit starts to caramelize into a single molten mass.
Dates have long been a part of the land that now forms the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where for centuries Bedouin nomads were fueled by the calories of the sugary fruit as they travelled back and forth across the Arabian Peninsula. A millennium and some centuries ago, the Prophet Muhammad exhorted Muslims in the month of Ramadan to “Break your fast with a date, for it is purifying.”
The organizers of the date festival have created perhaps the most efficient free market in the entire Kingdom
Today, a date palm sits at the heart of the official emblem of Saudi Arabia, with two crossed swords guarding the symbol for the Kingdom’s heritage.
Since the unification of the Kingdom in 1932, however, Saudi Arabia has derived the overwhelming majority of its wealth from a very different set of natural resources. Vast reserves of oil and natural gas have fueled decades of economic development schemes, filled a bloated government bureaucracy with (mostly male) Saudi citizens, brought in millions of foreign workers, and propelled the country to the ranks of the world’s G-20 major economies.
As a result, the Saudi government is often at the mercy of global energy markets. Plummeting prices over the past three years have sent the economy into a tailspin. Economic headwinds have, in turn, spurred on a high-profile effort to reconfigure the Saudi economy around a more diversified export base and an innovative private sector; this project is known as Saudi Vision 2030.
As renowned as Saudi dates are worldwide, they’re unlikely to turn the economic tide in the Kingdom. Yet this has not discouraged the organizers of Onaizah Date Festival, who have created what is likely the most efficient free market in the entire Kingdom. And it’s a tasty one, too.