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The Israeli-Saudi date war

Saudi merchants claim that Israel is selling Saudi dates in Europe under an Israeli label, but Israeli growers dismiss the accusations, saying that the products could never be confused.
A man counts Saudi riyal during the Festival of Dates in Buraidah, north of Riyadh September 1, 2012. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: FOOD SOCIETY) - RTR37D1Q

Israel and Saudi Arabia share many regional interests, including the war against Islamic extremism and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But it would be a mistake to think that these commonalities change the Saudi discourse on Israel.

About two months ago, a story ran in the Saudi media claiming that Israel “steals” dates grown in Saudi Arabia. According to the reporting, Israel obtains the dates by way of a third party and sells them in Europe under an Israeli label. This serious accusation has come from not only Saudi merchants but also a representative of the royal family, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al-Saud, governor of the Al-Qassim region, one of the most important date-growing regions in the country.

Another top official with the Saudi date industry in the Al-Qassim region told Al-Monitor Nov. 2 that he is convinced Saudi dates do pass through Israeli hands. According to the official, Al-Qassim's dates are internationally renowned for their high quality and organic cultivation. Date traders from neighboring countries who come to Al-Qassim and purchase the dates end up selling them to many countries, including Israel, in what he describes as "commercial corruption."

Though the Saudis have not filed an official complaint about the theft to any international authorities, their grievance should not be taken lightly. The desert kingdom takes the date industry very seriously. The fruit is considered a national symbol, and a senior official in the date industry once claimed that economically, the date in Saudi Arabia is second in importance only to petroleum.

Annual date production in Saudi Arabia is estimated in excess of 1 million tons, and the number of date palms in the country is thought to be about 23 million. Saudi exports to Europe have expanded over the past few years, largely due to dates from the “Medina” variety. According to Saudi sources, the exporters of these dates are mostly target Muslim communities across the continent. The average price for these Saudi dates in the European markets comes to approximately $1,650 per ton, whereas Israeli dates sell for $4,000 on average.

“There is a discrepancy in the prices because we’re talking about different products,” Ofri Dimentman, manager of date exports for the Mehadrin company, explains to Al-Monitor. “The price for a ton of Israeli Medjool dates, which is considered to be a high quality variety and therefore more desirable, can go as high as $6,000. In contrast, the Noor variety of dates sells for $3,000, and the Halawi variety sells for $1,600 per ton. Meanwhile, the price for the Saudi product, which is not considered to be of especially high quality, is relatively lower.” This opinion is common among Saudi businessmen.

While Saudi dates are struggling, Israeli dates are an international success. According to date growers, Israel produced some 38,000 tons of dates last year, of which 20,000 tons were exported. “The Israeli product is known for its quality, and is in high demand overseas. We have been increasing our exports every year for the past 15 years,” said Moshe Brokental, chairman of the Fruits Department at the Plants Production and Marketing Board.

There is consensus within the Israeli date industry that the Saudi claims about “stolen dates” are unfounded. “Because of the growing demand overseas, especially for the Medjool variety, Israel actually suffers from a shortage of dates for export. The variety doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia, certainly not in sufficient quantities for export,” said one senior official in the date export industry. "I think that this is more a matter of respect and national pride than purely a commercial issue."

As someone who has been active in the date market for the past 13 years, Dimentman also believes that the Saudi claims are “baseless.” He said, “I see no reason for an Israeli exporter to replace a carton of dates with a Saudi product. Israel has a reputation in overseas markets as the country exporting the best varieties, whereas the quality of the Saudi variety is low. Therefore, it would be a mistake to ‘steal’ the Saudi product and stick an Israeli label on it."

Brokental is also convinced that Israeli merchants aren’t selling Saudi produce overseas, saying, “Our system is well organized and regimented. Something like that could never happen.”

On the other hand, Michal Yaari, an authority on Saudi Arabia, estimates that there is some basis for these claims. “The Saudis aren’t paranoid. They don’t complain about something for no reason,'' she said. “We must take the Saudi policy into consideration. When they have complaints about Israeli behavior, they respond in a concrete manner. That is why I believe that there is a kernel of truth here. I don’t know who exactly stole their dates, but I believe that they are acting on the basis of information in their possession.”

The Saudi complaints are the latest in a string of issues bothering Israeli date exporters. There is a growing threat of international boycotts against Israel, particularly in Europe but also in the Far East, with an emphasis on India.

“We can really feel the pro-Palestinian lobby in Europe,” Dimentman said. “Last season, the Mehadrin company exported 6,000 tons of dates to Europe. Merchants and wholesalers there have no problem purchasing Israeli products. On the other hand, as soon as thugs walk into stores and start overturning shelves, that’s when the problems start, as far as we are concerned, and these things have happened. To continue succeeding in Europe, most Israeli date exporters keep a low profile. They don’t make public statements about the quantity of their exports, because those statements could later be used against them.”

Brokental is also keenly aware of the threat of a boycott. According to him, the good news is that the date market has not felt the impact of it for now. The bad news is that this can change at any moment. “It is no secret that there have been a few problems with our date exports, but the problems are far more severe in other branches of the agricultural industry,” he said. “For example, mango exports to Europe faced serious problems last summer because of the anti-Israel mood during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Luckily for us, a new channel opened up in Russia, which really helped the growers. The state of the date market is stable for now, but the growers are aware that the situation could change at any given moment.”

Brokental expects a promising new player to enter the regional date market and insists that the newcomer should be watched closely. “The Palestinians living in the Jericho region have planted lots of date palms, and now they are starting to bear fruit. We’re talking about almost 2,500 acres. That’s a serious crop,” he said.

The international success of Israel’s date crop is not threatened by Saudi grievances. On the contrary, it serves as further proof of Israeli innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. In the current Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia would have a much easier time cooperating on military and political affairs through their leaders. Economic cooperation seems to be much more difficult to achieve.

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