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Saudi fisheries feeds a desert kingdom quality seafood fare fit for royalty.

Saudi Fisheries Feeds a Desert Kingdom Quality Seafood Fare Fit for Royalty

From the oil-rich sands of Dammam on the Arabian Gulf to the high-lying desert floor of furturistic capital city Riyadh...from old-world Gizan in the deep southwest to beautiful Jeddah on the Red Sea, fish is abundantly available to consumers throughout Saudi Arabia. A great peninsula surrounded by water teeming with life, the diverse native species range from exotic parrotfish to sea bream, snapper, trevallies, grouper, shrimp and lobster.

The Kingdom's retail stores and marketplaces are well supplied with seafare variety from near and far - but this was not always so. Barely more than a decade ago folks living in the vast inland reaches of the 2.4-million-sq.-km. country were about as likely to partake in fish dishes as they were to see snow fall. And in an arid climate where extreme summer heat can reach 130 [degrees] F, while rarely dipping below 45 [degrees] in the so-called winter, that wasn't very likely.

But then in 1980, by royal decree and some 100-million riyals (US$ 27-million at the time), Saudi Fisheries Company (SFC) was born - making many things possible. The shares issued were 40% government-owned and 60% privately held. Soon the firm will mark its 10th anniversary, and there is much to celebrate.

SFC is like no other seafood organization in the world as it is actively involved in literally every stage of harvesting, production, marketing and merchandising. The outfit owns and operates its own catching fleet, processing factories, cold stores, trucking line and even retail shops.

"We had to become the most thoroughly integrated company in the world of fishing," explains Dr. Nasser Othman Al Saleh, general manager. "We do everything. Still, we aren't doing anything more than handling fish."

Handling fish, indeed!

The modest doctor, who holds a Ph.D. in economic development from Durham University in the United Kingdom as well as a B.A. in agribusiness from California's Fresno State, is the architect of a system of food distribution that was formerly unknown in the Gulf region. He started from scratch in a makeshift office far from the more familiar Ministry of Agriculture and Water setting where he was previously. There he began the building of a team that would soon graduate from managing a small operation that peddled meager catches from a few chartered wooden boats. Today SFC's modern trawler fleet and factories serve a still expanding nationwide network of 30 retail stores moving more than 20,000 tons of locally produced and imported fish and shrimp annually. It sells more than that to the domestic wholesale market, and exports surplus to boot.

"We've succeeded in creating an industry that employs about 1,500 people," he tells the chief editor of Quick Frozen Foods International (QFFI) while motoring through the remnant haze of a sand storm that kicked up the night before from the Rub al Khali desert quarter. En route to a shop situated at the Dammam vegetable auction place, the mode of transportation is an LTD Crown Victoria whose air conditioner is busy working overtime. Outside it's a very humid 95 [degrees] F.

Arriving at our destination, and exiting the comfortable Ford's confines into the blazing sun, the doctor observes: "It's relatively cool now, believe it or not. Summer is over for us - but perhaps not for you. You will get used to our climate soon enough, though."

A stroll around the open market stalls offers a chance to take in the traditional way of Saudi wholesale and retail food merchandising. High-stacked crates of vegetables and fruits imported from every fertile corner of the world dominate the colorful scene. The air is aromatic with the odors of spices, coffee, tea and other pleasing smells. On the perimeter are small shops selling live chickens and livestock which are hand-picked by customers for slaughter. The air here is not so aromatic, as a light wind sends upward a gust of plucked feathers.

"That's the old way of doing things," says Dr. Nasser. "Now, follow me and you will see the new way."

Entering a free-standing Saudi Fisheries Co. outlet provides a sharp contrast from the scruffy butcher shops nearby. This store is immaculate in every way, as are each of the SFC units visited by this reporter throughout the Kingdom. Fresh fillets, gutted and scaled fish, and shrimp are neatly displayed from a series of Italian-made Oscartielle merchandising cases. A well-endowed Craig-Nicol frozen food reach-in cabinet contains everything from Spanish mackerel and emperor to grouper and imported valued-added products such as stuffed plaice and seafood pasta.

The premises gleam with stainless steel and a high degree of cleanliness and personal hygiene found in few fish shops anywhere in the world. In the processing room all equipment is mobile, enabling sanitation crews to easily guard against dirt accumulation. Nothing is fixed except the German floor tiles, which, by the way, cost five times as much as regular tiles due to their anti-odor absorption qualities.

"It took us time to learn the all important small details of properly selling fish," says the doctor. "We made our share of mistakes along the way, but they were always learned from."

Inspecting the shop, nothing looks askew to this observer. But the doctor's more discerning eyes spot some paperwork left atop a customer suggestion box. "This is not your office," he intones to the store manager. "Put it in its proper place at once, and don't let me see it there again!"

"Yes, sir," replies the Indian national, "Right away, sir." Smartly attired in a spotless blue and white uniform, clean apron and rubber boots, he scurries off with the few misplaced papers.

It turns out that the doctor has more than one reason to want this station to be kept free and clear of clutter. "This is our most important consultant," he remarks, placing both hands upon the locked suggestion box. "You will find them in all our shops. Every month we get hundreds of letters from our customers, which I personally open and read before my key staff members."

Not only does this exercise help management better understand and respond to customer needs, but it also provides lively copy for a "Mail Box" column that SFC publishes in a newspaper that is distributed at store level. Found among the letters printed in a recent issue were calls for bone-free hamour fish, a separate section for women shoppers, smaller sizes of canned caviar, and complimentary Arabic coffee and tea for those waiting to have orders filled.

"Our job is to upgrade people's taste," informs the general manager as we drive toward company headquarters. "We had to open our own shops because there was no infrastructure here that could merchandise quality-processed fish in a proper environment that would guarantee product integrity. But things have come a long way. Now our concept is being imitated, to a degree, by others. By one count there are as many as 250 shops trying to copy us. And that's OK, because everybody benefits as a result."

One has to remember that Saudi Fisheries Co. was established by the government to better exploit the country's seafish resources and modernize supporting industries around it. Not all of the fleet's catch can possibly be marketed by SFC's retail and catering arms. As a matter of fact, almost half is sold at the wholesale level. So, the overall sales operation should theoretically be stimulated by competition, thus in turn boosting purchases from the company's wholesale division.

Obviously SFC is doing something right. One of the first firms in the country to go public, its stock was trading at SR 481 ($128) a share recently. Annual dividends of 15% have been paid for the past seven consecutive years.

Net profits in 1988 amounted to SR 33.1-million ($8.8-million) on over SR 192-million ($51-million) in revenues. The biggest buyer and distributor of fish in the Middle East, its exports were put at $26-million. ("I only wish I had more shrimp to sell overseas," laments Dr. Nasser. "We'd like to export more.") With fish trade reported to be up five-fold and domestic production hitting 16,615 tons, per capita consumption of seafood has reached 4 kg. in the Kingdom.

"So, we're off to a respectable start. Presently we're moving 60 tons a day," says the general manager as he escorts this reporter into his tastefully-decorated office. The theme is decidedly fishy with touches of nautical design. On one wall is this pearl of wisdom: "The two happiest days in the life of a boatman - the day he buys it and the day he sells it."

Near his helm-of-a-desk is a carved work of art bearing the ancient Chinese maxim that SFC lives by: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime."

"Youth Movement"

The general manager fashioned his capable executive team from a disparate pool of raw talent. With no established domestic fishery management professionals to draw from, he was faced with the challenge of building from the ground up and developing skills through on-the-job training. QFFI had the opportunity to meet eight members of the SFC braintrust, most of whom represent the "youth movement" that is beginning to steer many of the Kingdom's new enterprises.

Dr. Nasser's task in assembling the right mix was not easy in the early 1980's, a time when the oil boom-fueled construction frenzy predisposed most of the national labor force. Money was being made hand over fist in other sectors, and college graduates had little trouble finding high-status jobs.

But this situation was adeptly used to the advantage of Saudi Fisheries Co. as it forced the general manager to look beyond traditional sources to staff upper management positions. One favorable result is that Suleiman S. Al Sarraf, a college dropout, was hired on as an entry-level clerk. The ambitious young man busied himself in learning the ropes of the business by going to sea, working in the processing plant and buying and selling at auction. Hard work paid off and today, as deputy general manager of operations, he ranks No. 2 in the company.

The enthusiastic businessman's commanding can-do attitude neatly dovetails with the high energy of Dr. Nasser. With an office television monitor constantly flicking images of the adjacent Dammam factory's production progress, Mr. Suleiman is very much in his element overseeing the outfit's day-to-day activities. Between frequent phone calls from suppliers and SFC lieutenants, QFFI interviews the animated executive.

"Sorry about the interruptions," he apologizes. "It's just that the catches have been greater than anticipated. Usually when the winds come up between October and December we expect to get less tonnage, but that hasn't been the case lately."

So the deputy G.M. has had his work cut out in coordinating trawler landings with production schedules and distribution logistics. "We can't catch what we really want," he explains. "We have to sell what we have when we have it. So I'm telling our boats to bring in anything edible."

While this policy may contrast with the market-driven philosophy increasingly espoused in the seafood industry, the makeup of harvests from the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea gives SFC little choice in the matter. It's impossible to plan production to suit current market fancies or gear up for block mechanization when a typical three-hour trawl nets every species on the chart (plus a few that aren't there), which amounts to over 30 species. Actually, local waters contain some 180 varieties of fish. So, with the exception of shrimp, of which some 35,000 tons are landed annually from the Gulf alone, there is generally no such thing as goin fishing off Arabia for large quantities of a specific species.

But SFC has managed to make the best of the situation, successfully introducing formerly unpopular fish fare to consumers.

Not long ago, for example, red snapper or Indian mackerel couldn't be given away in the home market. Catches of the latter, which are especially heavy during dark moon phases, began loading up the cold stores. To move the oversupply SFC launched a major marketing push through its shops.

"We began filleting fish that was previously sold whole. We lowered prices and offered bonuses to our retailers to stimulate sales," advises Mr. Suleiman. "Shark is selling well among laborers now, but in 1980 nobody bought it."

Catfish used to be a throw-away item not worth the trouble of landing. But today the heads-off market has grown so well that imports have to be brought in from Taiwan to satisfy demand. Parrotfish and tuna are also flying high, with the price of the former doubling due to demand in both domestic and foreign markets.

"The days when a kilo of parrotfish sold for only one riyal (about 26-cents) are gone forever," according to the deputy general manager. "Now when it's unavailable people will pay any price to get it. As Saudis become greater seafood eaters, prices of popular species have risen with demand. We used to pay three riyals per kilo for in-season grouper (April-May). Today the rate is 13 riyals. Indian mackerel has gone from 1.5 riyals to 4.5, while snapper is fetching six riyals."

Shrimp prices, on the other hand, have dropped due to greater supplies made available by SFC's fleet. The per kilo rate has fallen 50% in the last 14 years, down from 50 riyals to 25. Furthermore, the aggregate price of fish has actually declined 10 to 11 riyals per kilogram during the last year.

Mr. Suleiman believes that the time is ripe for the Saudi seafood consumer to be earnestly introduced to value-added frozen products. A few such items are already packed for SFC under private label contract abroad, and imports from Birds Eye, Findus, Emborg and other brand name foreign producers are prominently displayed in supermarket cases throughout the Kingdom. But customers of same tend to largely be Westerners from the expatriate community.

"It may take a few years to get Saudi consumers used to the idea of buying value-added fish products," he explains, "but they will ultimately be customers and we want to be their preferred supplier when that time comes. Meanwhile, hotels and caterers are ready for it now. So we're seriously exploring production possibilities."

Down the road the deputy general manager envisions Saudi Fisheries Company as an exporter of greater importance beyond the Gulf countries. "In Egypt there are over 200 hotels in the market for upscale items," he notes. "And we're already especially active in selling commodities to Morocco, Greece and Spain. Plus we are sending fresh fish and shrimp to New York and Boston, but unfortunately our quantities are limited."

At the moment, exports account for only 8% of total volume. Wholesale tonnage is greatest, representing 48% of the market, while retail takes a 44% share.

Heading up the wholesale division is Kamil Saadah, a Palestinian whose resume includes the profession of sheep herder in Jordan. Dr. Nasser apparently thought that such experience was kindred enough to seafood handling to hire him when originally setting up SFC a decade ago.

"We've progressed quite a bit," says Mr. Kamil. "To keep up with demand we've gone from one shift to four or five. Our shops now accept credit cards and our 11 mobile vans deliver fish on a cash-and-carry basis to remote villages not served by retailers."

More than 500 catering accounts including hotels, hospitals, schools and restaurants are serviced by the wholesale division, as are major supermarket chains such as Safeway. Overall tonnage moved in 1988 hit 10,475, worth almost 120.45 million riyals ($32.1 million).

While the wholesale division is still No. 1 in earnings, the retail segment is coming on strong as new shops are regularly added. Mastermind of the 30-unit national operation is Ahmad M. Al-Amoudi, whose credentials before joining SFC included a stint as a currency changer. From the volatile world of exchange rates to the even more unpredictable business of selling fish, the youthful executive has seen his share of excitement.

Mr. Ahmad explains the logistics of his operation, which involve trucking product from Dammam to a distribution depot in Riyadh, and from Gizan to Jeddah and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Popular fresh species from the Gulf are air-expressed from Damman to Jeddah, while Red Sea varieties are flown from Gizan to Dammam. Some five tons are generally shipped this way three times a week.

Territorial sales contributions break down as such: eastern region (Dammam), 30%; central (Riyadh and north), 35%; western and southern (Jeddah and Gizan), 35%.

Outlets are ideally situated opposite or inside shopping centers or supermarkets, explains the retail operations manager. Free-standing units in residential neighborhoods must be no less than 100 square meters in size, while those operating in vegetable markets occupy a minimum of 90 square meters.

While SFC is endeavoring to Saudinize its payroll to a greater extent, almost all of its shops are managed and staffed by overseas personnel - mainly Indians. This hardly hurts the bottom line, as foreign labor from developing countries costs only about one-third that of domestic help.

Undergoing a stringent training program is mandatory before anyone is allowed to work at retail. Here's a rundown of the "fish school" curriculum: three months of on-hands factory production; one month of cutting and cleaning skills; two weeks of fish handling techniques; two weeks of quality control inspection procedure; one week of shop training.

"Rest assured that by the time we place a man to work with the public he has mastered all aspects of merchandising seafood," says Mr. Ahmad.

This reporter will soon get a chance to make calls on the company's top money-making shops in Riyadh and Jeddah, but first a briefing is in order from Musaid A. Al-Faiz, deputy general manager of marketing.

Having studied in the United States at the University of Georgia and in Louisiana, he is well versed in micro-marketing strategies.

"Finding the various niches and segmenting them, that's what we're doing," he advises. "There are 12 million Saudi consumers with different tastes that we are trying to reach, but there are also another 5 million or so non-citizens here who are potential customers."

As for the Saudis, those living in the peninsula's midlands tend to prefer Spanish mackerel and white pomfret, while Jeddah residents are keen on grouper, shrimp and parrotfish.

Mr. Musaid notes that Saudis account for 60% of all sales. Just a few years ago, however, they represented only 40%. "In that time we've managed to lure more away from local markets where they used to do their shopping," says the marketing man.

As for catering to the many nationalities living in Arabia, here is a synopsis of who likes what: Egyptians enjoy tilapia and grey mullet; Mediterranean natives (Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians) and Jordanians are partial to red mullet; Koreans, Filipinos and Thais are wild about milk fish; Gulf citizens and Southeast Asians prefer pomfret.

Shrimp, of course, is regarded as "white gold," appealing to a universal palate. The most popular variety is Penaeus indicus, although pinks from the Red Sea's deeper waters are the gourmet's choice. Said to be tastier than whites, they are not to be confused with the hard shell, larger-headed Argentine pink variety.

Let's Eat

All set for a restful night's sleep at the Hotel Oberoi, it seems wise to first take a light meal at the Al Bustan coffee shop. But such is not to be. It seems that the eatery is sponsoring a week-long U.S. Food Festival, and this is opening night.

A waiter wearing blue jeans, a checked shirt, cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat points out the barbecue pit specials: steak, salmon, roast beef and hamburgers. No chance of getting any hummus with tahina, fillet of hamra or chicken kebbeh this evening.

Lunch the following day serves up a cornucopia of local fare, however. Dr. Nasser has invited a small party to his villa for a feast of Saudi and international cuisine that begins with an appetizer of fresh dates and concludes with an indiscribably delicious egg custard dessert. The piece de resistance is succulent whole lamb, which has been slaughtered especially for the occasion. Plenty of rice, vegetables, shrimp and assorted fish are also plated. And as soon as one portion is eaten, an ever attentive domestic servant immediately replaces it.

One begins to understand why most Saudis break from work for several hours to take lunch before returning to the job. And while the typical menu may not be as grand as the one enjoyed at this particular sitting, variety is never lacking. People in this Kingdom like to eat a wholesome helping with family or friends in the afternoon as lunch is the biggest meal consumed during a long work day that often stretches to 7 or 8 p.m.

With the sumptuous banquet over, the time has come to beat a path to Dhahran to catch a 40-minute flight west to Riyadh in the Central Province. The capital could be described as the greatest sand castle city that oil revenues ever built. An architect's dream, its landscape is lotted with futuristic-styled Ministry buildings housing the bureaucratic mechanisms of government and finance.

Transplanted, verdant green palm trees grace each side of the 40-kilometer super-highway ride from King Khaled International Airport - where the spectacular indoor water fountain is an aqua delight - to the urban center. It's on to the Inter-Continental Hotel, which sports a deser-tan external hue that blends with the natural surroundings beyond the hot steel, glass, marble and concrete that is home to 1.2-million inhabitants and seven SFC outlets that feed their fish fancies.

Before Saudi Fisheries set up shop, people in this land-locked community were accustomed to eating seafood only on Mondays because that was the one time a week it was delivered, explains Nasser Al-Jameel, Riyadh branch manager. Now scores of species are shipped in from both coasts on a daily basis.

Unannounced drop-ins on several stores finds everything in order. The busiest unit, which takes in from 12,000 ($3,200) to 15,000 riyals ($4,000) per day, will generally gross more than twice that amount on weekends. The typical 120-square-meter outlet, in comparison, averages under 8,000 riyals daily.

While frozens account for just slightly more than 5% of tonnage moved, high-value items multiply its contribution to profits. Lobster tails, for instance, go for the equivalent of $21.86 a kilo, while crab legs fetch $20.

Noting that foreigners are fond of all kinds of FF - from grouper fish heads that are popular with Filipinos to value-added recipe dishes that appeal to North Americans and Europeans - Mr. Nasser admits that a hard selling job remains to be done to convince Saudis of the category's merits.

"Since their only experience with freezing comes from unprofessional home-freezing experiments, they have trouble wanting to buy a product whose production date stamp indicates it is several months old. They figure it will taste like the meat or vegetables they place in their own freezer to keep from spoiling," explains the branch manager.

Another perception problem, he adds, stems from supermarkets selling mishandled frozens that have suffered thermal abuse somewhere along the cold chain - often at refrigerated warehouses where temperatures are at times allowed to rise at night in order to reduce electricity consumption.

Also, there's plenty of inferior frozen seafood that comes into distribution duty-free from local Arab countries. A good deal of shrimp is reportedly being repacked in neighbor states and transported to Saudi Arabia as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) product. Add to that the 120,000 tons of fish - 90% of which is frozen - that enters the Kingdom from elsewhere around the world, and one begins to get a feel for the quantity of non-SFC product that is in the marketplace.

Quality control concerns notwithstanding, it's clear that educating consumers about the advantages of frozens is the main challenge confronting seafood retailers out to increase business. An old man at Riyadh's busiest SFC outlet underscores the point: "What is this?" he asks in Arabic, pointing to a lobster in a merchandising case. The delectable shellfish species is a brand new sight for the landlubber's eyes.

"Yes," Mr. Nasser shakes his head. "We've got a lot of teaching to do, especially with our inland customers who are not traditional fish eaters."

Next Stop: Gizan

It takes less than two hours to fly by jet from Riyadh to Gizan, but upon touching down in the nation's southernmost city it becomes clear that the traveler has gone back many years in time. Still far behind the modernity of the north, this is a place deeply set in old ways. Its citizens dress differently, eat differently and, one is told, even think differently.

Perched on the shores of the Red Sea just above the Yemen Arab Republic border, the harbor town is a crossroads between the first and third worlds. And it also happens to be the center of SFC's second most important base of production.

Driving to the hotel is a real challenge as pedestrians not only tend to use the streets as sidewalks, but are apt to push carts or accompany beasts of burden through vehicular traffic without benefit of warning. Even a New York taxi driver would be put to the test here.

Ahmed Taresh Al-Shamsi, who managed the Gizan operation for several years before assuming his present role of assistant fleet manager in Dammam, is on hand to show QFFI around. A morning tour of the factory coincides with the unloading of some 15-tons of fish. Up to 20-tons of assorted species are processed here daily, with fillet output averaging between 300-and 400-kilos. The Red Sea, it is learned, is the source of more fish for SFC than is the Gulf, which is richer in shrimp supplies.

Mr. Ahmed notes that in addition to receiving landings from trawlers in Gizan, the plant relies on catches from a flotilla of small boats. "There are many coral reefs and low-depth areas that can't be reached by the larger vessels," he explains. "So it's often the little guy who brings in the big, 120- to 160-kg groupers."

Taking the Plunge

The ornamental fish business is a relatively new venture for SFC. In order to fully appreciate its potential, this reporter decides to take the plunge into the warm depths with three Sri Lankan divers who make the tricky job of snaring reef fish look easy.

"What's the heavy steel spike that you're strapping to your belt used for?," QFFI asks the lead diver. "Is it added weight to help stay at the bottom of these salty waters?"

"No. It's for shark protection ... just in case," he smiles. "Maybe you should have it, because sharks are attracted to light skin. And one measuring eight meters washed up on the beach just yesterday."

"Well, I'll take care to stick pretty close to the boat. Thanks, just the same," comes the concerned reply.

The Farasan Islands are in the distance, and beyond the horizon lies Ethiopia and the east coast of Africa.

Teamwork, good lungs and fast hands are the tools of the successful reef fish diver's trade. One man stalks the prey, then chases it toward an awaiting partner whose hand-net swoops down on the target. A third man brings the delicate prize to the surface where a floating plastic pail will contain it in salt-water until it's time to shove off.

The average day's catch yields about 30 fish ranging from exotic yellow angels and striped sergeant majors to Picasso triggerfish and citron gobies. They will fetch wholesale prices of about 50 to 60 riyals per piece, while retail pet shops can easily get 100 to 120 riyals for some species. At the moment the fish are sent to Bahrain where elaborate facilities exist for handling and forwarding them to markets around the globe. However, SFC plans to soon build an aquarium in Gizan so that it can run the entire operation. Trans-shipment by air will be via Jeddah.

A few hours in the blue-green underwater world makes for a ravenous appetite, so the boat's captain serves up a roll filled with melted butter and sugar to hold us over. Just the right thing to replace energy lost to the salty sea. The treat tastes surprisingly good, considering it was wrapped in yesterday's newspaper.

Sailing back to port, there's no delay at the Coast Guard station as its personnel are familiar with the crew. But clearing security dockside is another matter as a very serious, machinegun-toting soldier scrutinizes this reporter's passport.

Mr. Ahmed haggles with the military man, assuring him that the documents are in order. And so they are. After a few minutes we receive the signal to proceed.

"They have to be very strict here," explains the assistant fleet manager, "because we're so close to Yemen."

The question is posed: "Who are they looking for, Iranian agents?"

"Would-be infiltrators of any kind," is the response, "as well as smugglers."

It's past noon now, time to eat again. Crevally is ordered at the Sinbad Restaurant. It's grilled to order for the foreigner, while fried up for his Saudi hosts. After sampling the latter, it must be admitted that this is the tastier way of preparing Red Sea fish. A hardy lunch is consumed in preparation for a 250-km drive north to a small fishing village called Al Qahmah.

On the Road Again

The road is long and dusty as we zoom through 30 or so small towns en route to our destination. One comes upon desert and more desert after exiting Gizan; then rocky hills rise into mountains. Numerous wadis are seen, their dry river beds and adjacent palm trees marking an oasis beneath. Always the Red Sea laps not far away to the west.

The sand is blowing, and the sky a hazy gray. Dunes resemble snow drifts, some covering old junked cars that litter the wayside.

At first glance one wouldn't know it, but this is farm country. Mounds of surplus flour, piled at intermittent spots along the highway, are bound for export markets. A record 3.2-million tons of wheat was harvested in 1988, of which only one-fourth was consumed domestically.

This is the route to Jeddah that SFC refrigerated trucks take daily to move fish to the masses. Traffic slows and comes to a halt at a red light not far from an overhead sign warning: "Inhabited Area." An old man gets out of his car to ask for directions. His shoulder holster is stuffed with a long-handled pistol.

The signal flashes green and we're off, barreling past ancient stone ruins flanked by the contemporary rusted ruins of an abandoned playground for children.

Sheep, monkey, rabbit, falcon, fox and, of course, camel, are among the native animals of these parts. We see small caravans of the latter, plus a domesticated cow or two rambling about. These days, it seems, the life of a desert camel is a lot easier than it used to be. Rather than be burdened with heavy cargo, they're more likely to carry jockeys at local race tracks. Some are used to grind wheat or are tapped for milk. Others help Saudis maintain a Bedouin lifestyle, if only on weekends.

At 120-km-per-hour a beeper alarm sounds inside the car. Then the driver's pedal hits the metal and the speedometer surges to 160-km. Not to worry, though, he's a very skilled wheelman and we've got to reach Al Qahmah before dark in order to see trap fishermen ply their trade. Good thing camels are not our means of transportation!

Boasting a 1,320-km coastline, much of the Kingdom's fisheries remain underutilized. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that annual catches could be in the area of 500,000 tons, so SFC is making efforts to throw a wider net. Egyptian artisanal fishermen have been brought in to better exploit the near-shore resources.

An outgoing tide forces a rolled-up pants, barefoot walk through black muck to reach an anchored motorboat offshore. All aboard and all but silhouetted against the setting sun, the pilot wastes no time in casting off. Just a short distance out a great green tortoise dodges the oncoming craft, diving below the surf.

Three cages are pulled from the bottom and checked, each containing a wide variety of species. Normally they are left alone for a few days before being emptied. In that time the large wire-mesh traps have accommodated hundreds of fish, almost all of which remain alive during their captivity. Cut bait lures them into the prison through a small hole. And it's much easier to get in than get out.

"The production has been pretty good," reports Mr. Ahmed over tea and tobacco at the fishermen's quarters. They invite the visitors to break bread and try some of the day's catch, but it's getting late.

On the journey back this reporter closes his eyes for a minute or two. It's dark outside and for a split second, caught between slumber and consciousness, what is before the headlights doesn't seem to be Saudi Arabia. The driver is gearing up as the blaring cassette player shifts from the English language rock lyrics of George Michael's "Careless Whisper" to the vintage disco beat of the Bee Gees' "Saturday Night Fever."

Actually it is Saturday night, but in this country the weekend happens to fall on Thursdays and Fridays.

Back in Gizan, the streets have been flooded by a thunder storm. It's the first rain this reporter has seen since landing in Saudi about a week earlier. Lights in the marketplace flicker low from overworked on-site generators that are called into action after the electric power is cut. One supermarket's frozen food case is covered with some sort of a "mini-roof" to keep products from defrosting. Looks like they've been through this before.

We're a long, long way from Riyadh!

Mr. Ahmed has a street vendor whip up some gyro sandwiches which we take back to the SFC villa to eat. Washed down with bottles of R.C. Cola (no beer is to be had in this strict Islamic society), they're delicious.

A Gem Called Jeddah

No trip to the Kingdom is complete without Jeddah on the agenda. Less than an hour's flight from Gizan, it could be a world away. The crown jewel of Saudi cities was just a sleepy port 20 years ago, explains Sae'ed Al Ghamdi, who is the SFC branch manager for this area.

Driving along the corniche (seaside boulevard) in a Mercedes is like taking a rolling tour through an outdoor museum of art. Hundreds of beautiful statues and sculptures grace the environment thanks to artists from throughout the Arab world who have carved poetic statements on a grand scale. At night towering geysers of light-bathed water can be seen as far away as Mecca, some 65-kilometers to the east. Yet with all this modern monumental magnificence, the old town has not been shunted aside. Lively souqs (bazaars) are still operating amidst well-preserved historical buildings hundreds of years old.

Mr. Sae'ed advises that his office is responsible for 136 major accounts. Saudi Fisheries operates five company-owned shops in Jeddah, the most successful of which grosses SR 1.3-million ($346,666) a month and handles 800 to 1,000 transactions per day. Outside the city proper it runs seven units, including two in Mecca and one in Medina. All totaled, average weekly receipts are SR 700,000 ($186,666).

As a seaport (where traffic, incidentally, picked up appreciably during the long Iran-Iraq war that threatened Gulf shipping), the locals have always had an affinity for fresh fish. Frozens are nonetheless marketed very aggressively at all levels, accounting for about 20% of total sales. Special merchandising techniques employed include the positioning of giant, cartoon fish character displays next to retail cabinets. They proclaim: "Buy SR 15 worth of these frozen items and you get a free 3.5-oz. can of tuna or sardines. Buy SR 30 worth and get a free 7-oz. can of picnic shrimp."

Another placard, reading: "Local and Imported Frozen Fish for Wholesale," alerts customers that large quantities may be purchased at reduced prices.

"People here eat fish about twice a week," informs Ahmed A. Bakhashwin, assistant branch manager and head of retail operations. "They're already in the habit. So our task is to get them to buy more of the stock that we have on hand. If a big crevally catch is landed, we'll give one kilo away with every four purchased. Similar incentives are offered when introducing relatively unknown varieties."

"We also boost sales by running promotions such as `Red Snapper Week,' in which recipes and premiums are given to customers," adds Ghassan A. Al-Suwayied, regional marketing manager. "And to think that at one time the only way we could get rid of this species was to export it. Now the local market has been stimulated to the point where we don't have enough snapper to satisfy demand."

Looking Ahead

Yes, Dr. Nasser Othman Al-Saleh's team has come a long way in bringing the best fish the world has to offer to the far reaches of a desert kingdom. But there's lots more on the drawing board including plans for greater penetration of small villages and highway rest-stops, plus the introduction of a value-added frozen line. There are a few dream projects too, such as the development of a fast food take-out restaurant franchise and a tuna processing industry.

PHOTO : Dr. Nasser Othman Al Saleh (r), general manager of Saudi Fisheries Co., and John M. Saulnier, chief editor of Quick Frozen Foods International, stand before the painting of an Arabian fisherman that symbolizes the essence of the largest fully integrated seafood concern in the Middle East.

PHOTO : Retail outlets operated by Saudi Fisheries Co., spotless from inside to outside, exhibit a high degree of hygiene rarely found at seafood shops anywhere in the world.

PHOTO : Kamil Saadah's wholesale division is SFC's biggest money maker, moving some 10,475 tons in the Kingdom last year valued at SR 120.45 million.

PHOTO : Modern highway and air transportation networks make it possible for Ahmad M. Al-Amoudi, retail operations manager, to guarantee delivery of fresh and frozen fish daily to 30 shops scattered throughout a large, 2.4-million-sq.-km. country.

PHOTO : SFC's modern production lines are capable of turning out as many as 80 different seafod items. The capacity for shrimp grading is 500 kg per hour.

PHOTO : A factory worker holds a good-sized brown spotted grouper that represents just one of about 180 varieties of fish that are landed from Arabia's bountiful waters.

PHOTO : Nasser Al-Jameel, Riyadh branch manager of SFC, reports that much work has to be done to convince Saudi consumers that frozen fish is an acceptable alternative to fresh when the latter is unavailable.

PHOTO : Ahmed Taresh Al-Shamsi, assistant fleet manager, observes processing at the Gizan plant. On the day of QFFI's visit some 15-tons of fish were unloaded from trawlers.

PHOTO : A Sri Lankan reef fish diver shows off a yellow angel he has netted in the Red Sea between Gizan and the Farasan Islands.

PHOTO : Skilled Egyptian artisanal trap fishermen are utilized by SFC to exploit near-shore resources of the Red Sea.

PHOTO : Sae'ed Al Ghamdi, Jeddah branch manager, looks over a recent issue of Quick Frozen Foods International magazine.

PHOTO : Inspecting a well-stocked frozen food cabinet at SFC's busiest shop in Jeddah is Ahmed A. Bakhashwin.

PHOTO : A government inspector scrutinizes expiration dates stamped on frozen seafood being sold at the Jeddah auction by an independent dealer. SFC both buys and sells at this market, which takes place most mornings beginning at 4:30 A.M.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:QFFI's Global Seafood Magazine; includes related articles; A From-the-Field Report
Author:Saulnier, John M.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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