Abu Dhabi's $million eggs: John Irish reports from the Gulf on a new sturgeon breeding initiative in the UAE.

Author:Irish, John
Position:Bin Salem Group and United Food Technologies

ABU DHABI IS fast becoming synonymous with high society. The glitz and glamour of Formula 1 motor racing is on its way. The Louvre and Guggenheim museums have agreed to showcase their finest works of art on Saadiyat Island's Cultural District. The Emirates Palace hotel now proudly overlooks the capital's corniche, highlighting the opulence the city yearns. Within its doors lies arguably the greatest symbol of wealth, the region's first caviar bar. But while visitors relax savouring the finest Iranian beluga, by 2008 Abu Dhabi may no longer need to look across the Gulf for its supplies.

A local/German joint venture of the Bin Salem Group and United Food Technologies (UFT) will begin work in June on construction of the Gulf's first indoor fish breeding and caviar-producing farm next to Abu Dhabi International Airport. "We have all the permits, the ground is purchased and we have started the tendering process to select a contractor," says UFT chairman Christoph Hartung.

Initially launched last May, the Bin Salem Group is the primary investor in the $54m plant. UFT completed the marketing and the feasibility study on the 61,000sq m facility. To be built in two phases, production of the first 16 tonnes a year (t/y) of the high-end Osetra caviar will begin in December. The plant's second wing will take the ultimate capacity to 32t/y by February 2008 and 693 t/y of sturgeon meat (the source of caviar) by 2009. "The market is extremely encouraging in the region," says Hartung. "We estimate the demand across the region to be about 40 tons a year."

Hartung's optimism underlines the volte-face in global perceptions of farmed sturgeon. In the past, there was a certain snootiness surrounding the homegrown product, with producers struggling to sell it. The situation has gradually changed since the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) put sturgeon on its list in 1998. According to environmental group Caviar Emptor, overfishing and pollution has resulted in a 90% drop in beluga from the Caspian since 1986, while Russian osetra and sevruga are facing extinction.

CITES reacted last January by halting the global export of all wild caviar from sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Sea, which saw prices of Iranian osetra, the only legally sold wild caviar, rocket to over $300 an ounce.

The shortage of wild caviar and the ensuing price hike has been acutely felt in the Gulf. Until 2001, caviar flowed from Iran, Russian and...

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