Gulf Pulse

Yemen’s farmers brace for slow pomegranate season

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Article Summary
Harvest season for pomegranates has kicked off in Saada amid fears of how a Saudi ban on importing the fruit will affect farmers, exporters and markets.

SAADA, Yemen — Farmers in Yemen’s Saada province, bordering Saudi Arabia, began harvesting pomegranates in late July amid a Saudi ban on the import of the crop. On the one hand, farmers fear the ban will lead to a price drop on local markets, but on the other, traders hope the lower prices will encourage more people to buy the fruit. Saudi Arabia is the biggest market for Yemeni pomegranates.

Saudi Arabia declared a “temporary” ban on the import of fresh pomegranates from Yemen in December 2018. At the time, Sanad al-Harbi, director-general of the Saudi Environment Ministry's Livestock Risk Assessment Department, explaining the reason for the ban, asserted, “Proven pesticide residues [found in pomegranates from Saada] exceeded the global limit.”

Ahmed Shaafal, director of al-Erteqaa, the central market in Saada city, told Al-Monitor that exporters had begun sending trucks carrying pomegranates to the Wadia border crossing at Marib, only to be told that the ban remained in effect.

“About 10 trucks of pomegranates at the Wadia crossing were banned [from entering Saudi Arabia] under the pretext [of excessive pesticides],” Shafaal said. “Truck drivers were told by Saudi authorities that pomegranates are banned this year.”

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Shaafal believes the ban is “politically motivated.” One farmer in the town of Dahyan told Al-Monitor that he doubted the ban was the result of pesticides, or pesticides alone, noting that Saada is a stronghold of the Houthis, the Shiite rebels against whom the Saudis intervened in the Yemeni civil war in March 2015, and that most residents are loyal to the Houthis. It is thus possible that the Saudis do not want the Houthis or Houthi-supporting farmers to profit from the sale of their produce in Saudi Arabia. A number of economic restrictions have been imposed in an attempt to dry up sources of funding supporting the Houthis to weaken their military operations.

It also appears that bottom-line economics and supply and demand might be a major factor behind the pomegranate ban. Al-Monitor found several Saudi websites citing Saudi pomegranate growers in the Baha region, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, calling on authorities to regulate the import of Yemeni pomegranates. As far back as September 2014, before Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemeni conflict, Mubasher, a Saudi economic news website, reported that the aim behind regulating the import of foreign pomegranates was “to support local produce, as Yemeni pomegranates are sweeping al-Baha markets and selling at competitive prices, which has led to a decline in the demand for local pomegranates.” According to one source, the price of Yemeni pomegranate could also sometimes be lower, not simply competitive, making them more desirable than the locally grown fruit.

Shaafal, noting that Yemeni farmers and traders will be negatively affected by the ban, said Saudi importers had reminded him that they will also suffer. “Their companies are practically at a standstill,” Shaafal explained.

Growing pomegranates for export is the main source of income in northern Saada province, one of Yemen’s main agricultural regions, producing a variety of fruits, including apples, oranges and grapes.

According to statistics released in 2011, the most recent available from the Agriculture and Irrigation Office in Saada province, pomegranate trees in Saada covered some 1,700 hectares, producing some 60,000 tons of fruit. Al-Monitor contacted the office director, Ali Ashiyab, for more recent figures, but he did not respond to questions asked by phone and in writing. The office's website ceased publishing data of all kinds in 2014.

The khazimi pomegranate, whose production is concentrated in Saada, is known for its high quality, which allows its export at high prices to Saudi Arabia. The high demand for the khazimi variety also means that it sells at high prices in Yemen. That said, amid the Saudi ban, local prices for it might well fall, due to oversupply. Laiysi pomegranates, another variety found in Saada, is only sold domestically. According to Shaafal, before the pomegranate ban, after the fruit entered Saudi Arabia some of it would be further exported to Dubai, Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey through Saudi markets. 

Mohammed Muqbel grows khazimi pomegranates in the town of Dahyan. Muqbel, who harvested 3,000 baskets of pomegranates last year, had expected a yield of 2,000 baskets from this year's harvest. A lack of sufficient rainwater left farmers dependent on groundwater this past year, leading to a shortage for irrigation.

As for the Saudi ban, Muqbel told Al-Monitor that most of the pesticides he uses in cultivating his crop are made or imported from Saudi Arabia. He and other farmers claim that they know how to properly use the substances and therefore do not exceed the limit imposed by the Saudis.

The Dhahban Market for Fruits in Sanaa is an export hub for khazimi pomegranates and for distribution to provincial cities in Yemen. Farmers bring their produce to the market to sell to exporters, who then ship it on to Saudi Arabia.

When Al-Monitor visited the market in late July, only a few vendors were selling khazimis, with a basket costing 20,000 Yemeni rials ($35 at black market rates), which is quite a high price. A single basket typically contains 30-35 pieces of fruit.

Maher Jaber, a supervisor at the Dhahban market, explained that when exported to Saudi Arabia, two baskets of pomegranates would be divided into three cartons. “Each carton is sold in Saudi at 200 Saudi riyals [about $53], including transfer fees and others,” he said. “Two baskets of pomegranates are bought in Sanaa at 100 Saudi riyal [about $27].”

Jaber said that while exporters to Saudi Arabia will be hurt by the pomegranate ban, he believes Yemenis will benefit by selling and buying khazimis at reduced prices.

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Found in: Economy and trade

Naseh Shaker is a freelance journalist based in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. His bylines appear on Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, Press TV and The New Arab. He has reported from war-ravaged cities on war crimes, especially when children come under attack.

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