• Hilary McCormack

A date safari in Al-Qassim

Updated: Sep 10

"A family with dates will never be hungry."

Freshly picked dates.

If you want to taste some of the most delicious Arabic dates in the Middle East region, then you need to head three hours north of Riyadh to the province of Al-Qassim.


The Province of Qassim.

The Al-Qassim province is one of the thirteen provinces of Saudi Arabia. It is also known as the Emirate of Al-Qassim and it is located at the heart of the country near the geographic center of the Arabian Peninsula. This province is home to a population of 1,370,727 spread over a vast 58,046 km², encompassing a wealth of agricultural assets and more than 8 million palm trees.


Going north, the golden arches of McDonald's is the half way point

On this trip, my friend and I were aiming for Unayzah, or officially we should say the Governorate of Unayzah. It lies south of the province’s capital Buraydah and is the second-largest city in Al-Qassim Province, with a population of 163,729 (2010 census).


Driving into Unayzah we were immediately struck by the nicely laid out, clean, and orderly streets of this city. And the endless date palm trees.


The palm-lined city of Unayzah.

Unayzah also had its own airport, which is one of the twenty-six main airports dotted around the Kingdom. Since this was a slightly longer drive for a weekend excursion, we planned to stay overnight, and the first order of business was to check in to our hotel, which was called Al Malfa Resort, set on its own little green plateau, which looked down on acres of date palm groves on either side. It was a good deal at 400 SAR per person for a comfortable ensuite bedroom and healthy, traditional breakfast.


Al Malfa Resort.

The building itself was a traditional low-rise building design with extravagant colored windows and doors to compliment a tan-colored palate on the walls and ornate white trim. It is pretty, attractive, and welcoming.


Al Malfa Hotel.
A home movie in the garden.

Our main target this weekend was to see the annual Date Festival, a 95-day event that starts in August each year. So after a little studying of the map, we set off to find Onaizah Dates Market.


The marketplace was only ten minutes away from where we were staying. Followed by an easy effort from me, “the Navigator, we arrived at our location. It was late in the evening, and there were not many people around. We soon discovered that the main part of the day begins at 6 am and finished at 8 am. So, after an interesting exchange in pidgin Arabic and pidgin English, we all sat down for some refreshing Arabic coffee and our first taste of the local dates. When our coffee was finished and our thirst replete, we agreed with our new hospitable friends to return early the following morning.


Al Bassam Heritage House Museum.

And then we set off for Al Bassam Heritage House Museum, which was open and only a short distance away. Here we found another lovely building preserved and used today as a sort of antiques and flea market by the local community.

Local antique and flea market.

It was a vibrant place, with many shopping for local antiques. We met Mohammed, an accomplished local artist who had a small stall full of beautiful hand-painted items, and other stallholders selling lots of exciting and very affordable treasures.



A hand-painted repurposed bottle

We emptied our wallets and then retreated for dinner in a local restaurant called Al Romansiah, which served a huge menu of local delicacies at affordable prices. Late that evening we returned to our hotel with full tummies following an even fuller first day that was action-packed and satisfying in terms of new experiences. We settled in the lush green garden to enjoy some fresh juice as we listened to the cicadas and observe some inquisitive passing desert hedgehogs. Sadly my own pictures didn’t do this cute little critter any justice, so here is an image I got off the internet. Al Malfa Resort has a breeding pair that live in their hedgerows.



Day two started early; we got up at 5 am just before the sun was up and made our way back to the date market. This is what we found.

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Farmers, traders and auctioneers in action.

A bustling marketplace and a hive of activity by traders and auctioneers. Plenty of friendly locals who were eager to tell us all about the proceedings. We were invited for Arabic coffee, presented with an English version of the Koran, and gifted more dates than we could possibly eat ourselves. Thankfully we have many friends back in Riyadh who will be more than happy to help out on that score.


The facts

  • Saudi export to almost 60 countries each year, and this number is growing.

  • Saudi produces 25% of the worlds dates

  • Onaizah Dates Market and the Buraidah Date Festival are the largest date festivals in the world

The very best dates sell for over $1K per 4 kg box.

There are more than 300 varieties grown in Saudi Arabia.

When the market started to draw to a close, we then moved on to take a close look at one of the many local farms. We found Alturki's farm shop and palm groves on the ring road in the center of town. Here we got to see and buy more local fresh produce.


Farming the dates.
Locally foraged greens.

There was so much to see and to do in Unayzah; it is a great weekend or long weekend trip. Before we left, we also visited Talent Gardens to see a bird aviary and its tea rooms. Talent Gardens is great for kids as they can feed the birds while Mum and Dad can relax and have tea and dates in the cool garden areas. The entrance fee is 75 SAR per person. Some other worthwhile spots to visit include Rasheed Dome Market and Aloqilat Museum.


If you have read this far in my post, you probably feel exhausted, as we were at the end of all that sightseeing, but we drove home high on feel-good endorphins.

A new friend giving me advice on where to go next, with a curious little rubbernecker looking on.

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