A desert country where temperatures touch 50C may not seem the most obvious choice as an international hub for the movement of one of the most delicate commodities in the world. Yet the UAE’s role in the transport of flowers is growing so rapidly that people in the business are calling it the gateway to the region and beyond.
The flower market in Dubai is increasing by about nine per cent a year, and it is estimated that at least 200,000 rose stems are brought into the emirate every week.
And Ali Al Jallaf, Vice-President of the Cargo Unit at Dubai Airports, says the future looks even rosier. “The number of hotels is growing and their flower designers are competing with each other,” he says.
As well as the cut flower market, the industry is being boosted by massive municipal greening programmes across the Middle East, which all require ground cover plants, seeds, grass and trees.
Many of these goods are coming through the Dh1.1 billion purpose-built Dubai Flower Centre – opened less than four years ago but already establishing itself as the only facility that can store flowers and plants for onward transit in the Middle East.
Previously, flower-laden cargo aircraft would fly over Dubai to countries such as Holland, then fly back for redistribution because there was nowhere in the Middle East with facilities to store them.
Dubai Flower Centre has trained staff to get flowers off a plane and into storage in under 15 minutes using temperature-controlled vehicles, and its laboratories have staff and equipment to check whether the plants are healthy. To enhance the industry further Dubai needs to first attract more investors; and secondly, find an international partner to set up a horticultural training college in the emirate.
“We need to educate the investors to invest in this industry,” says Al Jallaf. “It is worth billions and billions of US dollars and investors need to know about such potential,” he adds.
At present the business of actually growing flowers is relatively small in the UAE. “People say: ‘It is too hot to grow flowers in Dubai,’ but with new technological processes you can grow flowers anywhere. There are farms in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, but as yet the culture is not to grow flowers here,” he says. “However, we know the demand for flowers will increase and we want to encourage people to grow them.
“Five years ago I knew nothing about flowers, but when I studied the business I discovered how difficult the process of producing flowers and getting them to the customer in a good condition is. So many people are involved: the farmer, the technician producing the seeds, the designer, the people who transport them, the sellers. We want the Dubai Flower Centre to be the start of opening up a new market for the region.”
Reflecting this process, the third International Plants Expo Middle East (IPM Dubai) will be held at Airport Expo Dubai next month, with the opening ceremony being performed by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the Chairman of Dubai Airports.
The growth of the horticultural business in Dubai has not come about by accident. Al Jallaf, whose favourite flower is the rose, has taken delegations to Asia, China, South Africa, across the GCC, Latin America, India and elsewhere to sell the idea of Dubai as a flower hub. “More and more companies are keen to make their base here, because of our location,” he says.
Sabina Dillen, department manager of German company Messe Essen, which is co-organising the trade fair, agrees. “Dubai offers a fantastic opportunity for flower producers. The industry also covers new technologies, processes for irrigation and so on,” she says.
However big the industry grows, flowers are more than just a commodity. At the business level, Al Jallaf says: “The flower trade is unique because it involves exchange. For example, the orchid comes mainly from Asia but is hard to grow in Europe. Roses, which grow in Europe, are bought by Asia.”
On a personal level, our relationship with flowers is more complex. “We use them to show appreciation, to give thanks, to ask for forgiveness, to make our ladies happy. When you look at flowers, your heart opens. That is why so many people are involved in this business around the world,” he says.
His travels have also given him an insight that may not have occurred to most of us. “When I visit farms, particularly in Africa, it is mainly women who work in this industry. So these are ladies in one country making ladies in another happy,” he says.
It is a lovely, multi-billion dollar thought to hold on to.
International Plants Expo Middle East will take place at Airport Expo Dubai from March 4 to 6. For details log on to www.ipm-dubai.com
Making Dubai Beautiful
The greening of Dubai is moving on schedule, with eight per cent of the urban area of the emirate planned for landscaping. It will be a gradual process: 1.4 per cent was green by last year, which will grow to 3.7 per cent by 2011.
Engineer Hana Al Zarouni of the Public Parks and Horticulture Department, Dubai Municipality, says they are doing all they can to “make Dubai the most attractive city for visitors”. Last year, the department grew 28 million plants from seeds in its nurseries, plus 235,000 indigenous plants. “We are increasing our production by 30 per cent to 40 per cent each year. “We will have many nurseries in the future, and will add a capacity for 70 million more flowers each year,” she said.
Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all seen a recent increase in public works to establish green areas. Dubai Municipality plans to undertake 109 landscape and “beautification” projects worth Dh463 million in 2008.
Visitors to the annual International Plants Expo Middle East has been growing. Here is a percentage number of visitors country-wise to last year’s event:
GCC, Middle East and Iran
South East Asia and Far East
Rest of the world
Road ahead looks rosy for the UAE