Rise of the Red Gold: How Dubai emerged as a global hub for saffron

With an asking price of Dh20per gram, the thin red threads are worth the yellow metal in its weight in gold



By Anjana Sankar; Visuals: M Sajjad

Published: Tue 30 Aug 2022, 8:28 PM

Last updated: Fri 2 Sep 2022, 5:02 PM

It is noon and the summer sun is scorching down on the narrow alleys of Deira’s Spice Souq, a relic of Dubai’s early history. The jumble-mumble of streets packed with shops on either side are heaving with the aromatic smell of spices.

Inside a box-sized shop chock-full of sacks of ebony-black pearls of pepper, golden-yellow turmeric powder, purple-tinted dried rose buds, and chocolate brown cinnamon sticks, Qamar Shahzad is busy catering to a bunch of European visitors who look eager to trace the lanes back to Dubai’s modest past and its rich spice trade.

Oblivious to the cacophony around him, the Pakistani trader holds a pinch of crimson red saffron between his thumb and index finger and asks his customers to have a closer look at the Red Gold that has caught the fancy of many a king and their queens. "This is the best buy. Better than buying gold," he says, prodding them to buy a 10-gram packet. With an asking price of Dh20per gram, the thin red threads are worth the yellow metal in its weight in gold.

The quest for saffron dates back centuries as one of the most sought-after spices. Cleopatra used it in her bath to enhance her beauty. Alexander the Great believed it could heal wounds. Seafaring Arab traders had crossed the Indian Ocean to make a fortune by trading in spices from India’s southernmost state of Kerala.

The sea route was the Arabs' best-kept secret for a long time, and spices like cardamom, cloves and pepper were flowing into the European market through the Arab traders. It is indeed the lure of the spices that set Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama on a voyage to discover the land of spices. When he and his crew set foot on the port of Kozhikode (Calicut) on May 20, 1498, they said they came to look for Christians and spices.

In ancient times as well as now, saffron was used for its aroma as well as medicinal properties. The spice is widely used in the preparation of food and drinks in cultures spread across Asia, Africa, Middle East, Europe and the Americas. It was used in ancient times to cure bubonic plagues, smallpox and stomach upsets. In many cultures, saffron is believed to enhance beauty and fairness.

How Dubai became a spice hub

The emergence of Dubai from a small fishing hamlet to an international business and trading hub may seem like the stuff of Arabian fables. But the small settlement of around 800 people from the Baniyas tribe on the edge of the Arabian Gulf coast in the early 19th century, who were later joined by the nomadic tribes of the Middle East called Bedouins, were an intrinsic part of the Silk Road.

Its evolution as a trading hub dates back to 4,000 years ago as the findings from the Saruq Al Hadid archaeological site, 70 km south of Dubai, reveal. Ancient maps displayed at the Shindagha Heritage Village reveal Dubai’s trade links with Egypt, Iraq, Oman, Bahrain, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 1820, Britain negotiated a maritime truce with a local ruler that opened up new trade routes and Dubai started to establish itself as a trading hub connecting countries around the world. By 1930, Dubai was a bustling trade hub and the growth story gained momentum with the discovery of oil in 1966.

With the completion of Port Rashid, the world’s largest deep-water harbour, built in the 1960s, and Port Jebel Ali, the world’s largest man-made harbour in the 1980s, the establishment of Dubai as the gateway between East and West trade routes was complete.

How it all began

Though the earliest spice Souq took shape in the 1850s, new shops began to pop up one by one as many Iranian and Arab merchants poured into Dubai in the 1970s.

Mustafa Sajjadi is one of the oldest traders in the Souq. He was just 20 when he came to Dubai in 1967 to join his grandfather, who was already a trader in Dubai. “It was a different world. There were hardly six shops selling spices. There was no electricity or running water,” Sajjadi, now 75, reminisced, his eyes shrinking into a pouch of wrinkles.

“Some traders from Iran, India and Africa used to bring bags full of saffron and sell it in Deira. A gram of saffron cost one Indian rupee at that time,” he said.

Over the years, the price of saffron rose. So did Sajjadi’s fortunes. “I have three shops now. My cousins and other family members run the shops,” said Sajjadi.

A walk through the Spice Souq will reveal several such success stories. Abdullah Asad, fondly called Abdu or Gyahi mard (which in Farsi translates to herbal man), also says he made it big starting as a porter in the Souq, and earned Dh 2.

“There were many traders who sold spices on the kerb by bringing them on their bicycles. Emiratis and some Indians bought saffron from them. Now, the Souq is one of the biggest spice hubs in the Gulf,” said Asad.

Ali Raza, another Iranian trader says the Souq attracts tourists from all over the world because it is unique in its history. “You can see shiny new towers if you travel all over the world. But you will not a spice souq like this,” said Raza who opened his shop 30 years ago, following in the footsteps of his uncles.

“The roads and architecture may change. People may change. Dubai may change. But the unique thing about spices is that they never change. They smelled the same in the 1960s and now in 2022.”

Catering to the global market

Once catering to locals and UAE expats, today, the Souq with an estimated 200-plus shops, is one of the largest spice hubs globally. In 2020, the UAE exported saffron worth $7.96 million, according to Trend Economy that tracks imports and exports of commodities. World imports of saffron exceeded $237 million in the same year.

Razak Hussain, who works at Saffron Hafez, a shop that sells saffron exclusively, said Dubai is re-exporting saffron to countries in Europe, Middle East and Asia. “China, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Pakistan are some of the biggest buyers,” he said. “We also export to London, Singapore and countries in Europe.”

He said 90% of saffron available in the souq comes from Iran. “Though Kashmiri and Spanish saffron is of good quality, they are not easily available.”

Iran is the biggest exporter of saffron, accounting for 90% of world supplies. According to its Ministry of Agriculture, the country exported $108 million worth of saffron in 2021. Most of Iran's saffron is being exported to several countries, including China, UAE, Hong Kong and Spain, where it is re-exported to other markets.

Vying with the Iranian saffron for market share is the saffron from Afghanistan, which is also one of the biggest producers of the coveted spice. In 2020, Afghanistan exported $45.4M in saffron, making it the third largest exporter in the world. Abdul Karim, who runs the Herat Safron in the Spice Souq, said competition is tough. “Afghan saffron is of top quality. But dwindling production and lack of air corridor is affecting exports.”

His company, which he claims is one of the biggest producers and exports of saffron from Afghanistan, exports up to 350 kilos of saffron to Dubai. “From here, we re-export to countries like US, Canada, Turkey, Germany and more,” he said.

According to Abdul Rashid, another trader, the world-famous Kashmiri saffron is the most difficult to source in the local market as saffron production in the valley has declined drastically. “Kashmiri saffron is the best quality. But the local consumption in India is very high. Also, imports are on the decline.”

According to the Department of Agriculture in Kashmir, the production of Kashmiri saffron has dwindled by 65% over the past two decades from 16 metric tonnes to 5.6 metric tonnes.

Traders said US sanctions on Iran have prompted many countries to use intermediaries and then re-export to Europe from places like Dubai.

Mohammed Abdulla, an Iranian trader, said the Chinese are the biggest buyers in Dubai as saffron is a quintessential ingredient in many of their dishes. “The spice has made its way into the Gulf cuisine and hence, has many customers in countries like Oman and Bahrain. Europeans also use saffron to colour their desserts,” he said.

A kilo of saffron may vary anywhere between Dh4,000 to Dh8,000 depending on the quality. A gram of saffron will cost between Dh15 to Dh25 locally. In the international market, the current selling price of premium quality saffron per kilo is above $1,400.

Why is saffron so expensive

Saffron has been the most expensive spice for thousands of years. The king of spices matches the price of gold in its value in weight. In the world food market, it is more expensive than black pepper, truffle, or even caviar.

The main reason for its hefty price is because it is a labour-intensive process to extract the spice. Saffron is a purple flower (Crocus Sativus) that only blooms seasonally. Only the stigma (plural stigmata) or the pollen-germinating part at the end of the red pistil is used. There are only three stigmata in each saffron flower.

As many as 170,000 flowers have to be handpicked to create just one pound of saffron. The flowers are very delicate, and you need to hand-pluck them to remove the stigma. It takes about 370 to 470 hours of labour to harvest one pound of saffron. Once the stigmata (and their red pistils) have been separated from the plant, they are dried to preserve their colour and flavour.

Fake vs real

The $20 billion herb and spice industry is, however, threatened by gangs and fraudsters who sell fake and counterfeit products. In April this year, an operation by Spanish authorities busted a criminal network that fraudulently sold powdered gardenia extract, claiming it was high quality saffron. More than 2,000kg of the material was seized, valued at more than €750,000 (over Dh2.6 million).

A recent study by the European Union found that 11% of saffron available in Europe is fake. Qamar Shahzad said counterfeit saffron can be identified by dropping saffron sticks in a glass of water. The original saffron will maintain its colour even after the water turns crimson. The sticks will also sink to the bottom if they are fake, whereas real saffron sticks float on the surface.

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