The date fruit is among the sweetest around and is especially popular in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where it is grown in large quantities. The date fruit also has a significant role in Islamic faith. Rich in fibres, minerals and vitamins, dates are traditionally served at iftar tables to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Dates – which comes in hundreds of varieties – also play a significant role in the economy of many of the countries along the Fertile Crescent. In 2016, the global trade in dates, either fresh or dried, reached $1.4 billion, a five-fold increase since 2001. Moreover, in 2012-2016, the trade in dates increased at an average rate of 14%.
In fact, in 2016 the combined exports of dates from the MENA region totalled $1.12 billion, accounting for 77% of the global exports.
Tunisia is the world’s biggest exporter of dates in value. In 2016 it exported around $227 million worth of dates or 16% of global exports. Iran ($209m), the United Arab Emirates ($160m) and Saudi Arabia ($142m) are other large exporters with exports of dates.
However, in terms of volume, Iraq is the biggest exporter of dates, with more than 321,000 tons. The UAE is ranked second with around 276,000 tons, while Iran is ranked third, exporting 209,000 tons.
The world’s biggest importer of dates is India. In 2016, it imported $211m worth of the fruit. The UAE and Morocco are also key markets, with imports valued at $119m and $96m respectively.
However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Egypt is the largest producer of dates in world with around 17% of global production. Despite its large production, Egypt accounts for less than 3% world exports of dates. At 15% Iran is the second-biggest producer of dates and Saudi Arabia is ranked third, accounting for 14% of production.
According to ITC’s Export Potential Map the markets with greatest potential for date exports in the MENA region are the UAE and Morocco. The combined untapped import potential is estimated to be worth more $235m. This represents opportunities for dates producing countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, who can benefit from zero tariffs under the Greater Arab Free Trade Area agreement.