At dawn in Unaiza, the golden-brown dates – the stars of the festival – arrive at the marketplace to the sound of a town crier announcing trading open.
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Farmers, traders and consumers wend their way through piles of the fruit stacked on metal carts at the annual seasonal market, where 280,000 kilograms of dates are sold each day.
The festival, which organizers say is one of the largest in the world, is held at the town in the central Qassim region, one of the most conservative parts of the country.
Besides being the world’s top oil exporter Saudi Arabia is also a leading producer of dates. The Qassim region is famed for its Sukkari dates, which auctioneer Abdulaziz al-Falwa says can vary in price from 5 riyals ($1.33) for 3 kilograms to up to 700 riyals($186.66), depending on the quality.
Falwa is one of dozens of auctioneers selling the prized dates that are later exported worldwide.
Due to COVID-19, last year’s festival had no international visitors but still exported to around 50 countries.
“This year, we hope to reach 60,” said Abdelrahman Mohammed al-Qudeiri, the festival’s head of exports, who estimated they will send 20,000 tons abroad this year.
“Unaiza dates are the best in the world,” he said, splitting a date in half to show off its high quality – shiny, yellow and full of moisture – before eating it. “Just the right amount of sweetness.”
Saudi Arabia has more than 30 million palm trees that produce 1.4 million tons of dates annually, according to the National Center for Palms and Dates (NCPD).