Dairy Food in the UAE

Dairy Food in the UAE

by Philip Iddison


There is an abundant selection of dairy products both in the traditional suq and the modern supermarket in the United Arab Emirates. The products are both locally produced and imported. The substantial immigrant population, chiefly from other Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent, has an important role in ensuring this diversity but it is notable that the Emirati nationals have a long standing tradition of dairy product consumption. They have absorbed the new choices made available by the recent wealth in what is now a cosmopolitan and modern country.

Milk and milk products have been a major component of diet in the UAE since the domestication of stock in prehistoric times. Goat and sheep bones are recorded from archaeological sites dating before 4,000 BC. Whilst these may have been the remains of wild animals, contemporary accounts [1] of bedouin tribesmen taking wild ibex into captivity indicate the ease with which wild stock could be domesticated and the probable antiquity of dairy practices in the region.  Dairy products were the second most important source of protein in the diet after fish.

Past and present dairy resources and products in the neighbouring countries are also pertinent as the concept of sovereign states is recent in Arabia and historically populations were relatively mobile.  Sea trade was well established providing contacts with all the areas around the Gulf, the subcontinent to the east and Africa to the west.  It has been suggested that a milk product, possibly a cheese, was being imported in pottery storage vessels from the Harrapan civilisation in the Indus valley at the end of the third millennium BC [2].  Other evidence of milk processing is unlikely to be positively identified due to the simplicity of equipment and its ephemeral nature [3].

Milk from goats and camels and to a lesser extent sheep and cattle was available to the population before oil revenues spurred recent development.  The recent proliferation of dairy farms, dairies and the ready availability of milk products is therefore a natural development.  The traditional and modern dairy practices of the country are reviewed in this paper and a glossary of dairy products from the past and present is included.

Prehistory of Dairy in the UAE

In the pre-development era the population derived its food from a number of sources [4] of which herding and associated dairy farming was one of the principal activities.  The country has diverse terrain ranging from flat coastal plains through sand desert and gravel plains to mountains.  The population’s economic activities reflected this diversity.  As a simple model the population can be divided into three main groups with associated dairy food resources.  Each dairy resource had particular attributes and restrictions on the production of dairy products.

Haleeb Al Jamal - Camel’s Milk -

The domestication of the camel is thought to have been achieved in the second millennium BC. Camel’s milk was a staple food for the bedouin and enabled small populations to occupy and make economic use of the extensive desert regions.  The close association between camel and man gave the bedouin the freedom to travel extensively in the arid conditions of the Arabian interior.  Their lifestyle, traditions and survival skills are of great antiquity but survive in very limited forms today.

The camel’s physical adaptation and ability to adjust it’s metabolism to the sparse vegetation and limited water supplies in the desert is quite extraordinary.  One of these adaptations is the ability to dilute it’s milk when in a dehydrated state [5].  This is thought to ensure an adequate water supply to the suckling calf when there are no alternate supplies.

Practically all human consumption of camel’s milk is in the raw state as a fresh drink, haleeb. Commercial dairies in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Mauritania have started to pasteurise and package camel milk but no initiative on these lines has yet been started in the UAE.  Historically there was little need to process the milk as most consumption was by owners and herdsmen. With a lactation lasting up to 18 months in a two year reproductive cycle, permanent milk availability from a modestly sized herd was ensured [6]. Camels were milked into a bowl supported on the milker’s knee with the foot resting on the other knee, a finely balanced position.  Traditional milking bowls from Oman were made of basket work with an external covering of goat hide. The baskets were made from the fibre of a palm tree, Nannorrhops ritchieana, which are rot proof.  Daily milk yields vary from as little as 2 Kg to nearly 14 Kg. for animals under station management in Saudi Arabia with supplemented feed. Average yields are about 5 litres per day.

There are technical difficulties in processing camel’s milk into yoghurt, butter and cheese which have only recently been resolved [7].   This inability to process camel’s milk was not a serious problem for desert bedouin who had to move regularly with their herd to find pasture.  Some societies in other camel rearing regions prepare a soured milk product but this does not seem to have been the case in the UAE.

Camel’s milk varies in taste according to the pasture or feed and is generally more salty and acidic to the palate compared to the milk of other ruminants.  It can also be the sweetest milk.

Travellers were entitled to satisfy their thirst with camel milk if they came across a milch camel, but presumably only if you were traveling in friendly tribe’s territory.  Milch camels generally have the udder covered with a cloth bag to prevent the calf suckling at will if the camel is to be milked for human consumption.

Interest in camel rearing is now chiefly concentrated on breeding racing camels as their traditional use as food supply and transport animals is now redundant in the UAE.  However this does ensure that camel milk continues to be available for human consumption.  In the 1990’s it is still quite common for a UAE family to keep a camel for milk in the family compound [8].

Haleeb Ghanam, Haleeb Kharouf - Goat’s and Sheep’s Milk - Plain, Mountain and Oasis

In the north and east of the country the gravel plains with sparse vegetation and adjacent mountain ranges with a perennial water supply ensured a more settled existence and the potential for greater agricultural diversity.

Goats and sheep were ideally suited to the oases and the mountain terrain in the east of the country where daily access to water supplies was possible.  Sheep and goats are recorded at fifth millennium sites in Oman. The sheep were probably introduced from the Mesopotamian cultures to the north through well established trade links.  Wild relatives of the goat are still present in the area [9].  As noted above the mechanism for their domestication could have been quite simple.  Archaeological sites produce many arrow heads implying a hunting subsistence but this does not preclude the use of domestic animals.  The wild prey provided meat whilst the domestic animals provided the reliable source of dairy products and other useful secondary products such as hair and dung.

In recent times there appears to have been little differentiation between the milk of sheep and goats [10].  Some milk was consumed raw but this was not the preferred fresh milk; camel or cow’s milk was the first choice.  Most of this milk was processed into laban, raab, labneh, chami, dihn/zibda, samn and kami/bathith [11] for immediate consumption or storage and commercial purposes.  With the mechanisation of water supplies and ready availability of locally grown fodder, sheep and goat herds have increased and spread across the country in recent years. This has put additional pressure on the remaining natural vegetation which is seen as a free resource by the herdsmen, many of whom are now immigrant labour.  Production now seems to be concentrated on the meat market which places a premium on Emirati reared meat and in particular sheep production seems to be exclusively for meat.  A visit to a local market will however turn up some traditional milk products.

Haleeb Baqar - Cow’s Milk - Coastal Entrepot and Oasis

The coastal trading towns of the UAE have a long history which is recorded by archaeological research and sparse texts.   The Shimal settlements of the third millennium BC were trading with Mesopotamia and the Indus valley cultures to the north and east respectively.  Julfar was an important medieval city which traded with China, Thailand and East Africa.

>Members of Bos species are recorded from the fifth millennium, probably introduced from Mesopotamia.  However until the recent development era, cows seem to have been a relative rarity.   Oxen were used principally as beast of burden; for instance to draw well water and would have had a secondary role as milk providers.  An account of a merchant family in Dubai in the 1920’s and 30’s records [12] that cows were kept to provide fresh milk for drinking and also for the preparation of laban, dihn/zibda and samn within the household. The cows were kept in the home compound, foraging on local desert plants supplemented by over-ripe dates and dried sardines.  The quality of the milk must have been variable but Easa Al-Gurg attributes his survival to this key resource at a period when the Gulf economies had been devastated by the collapse of the natural pearl market.

The establishment of processing plants and dairy farms which started on a small scale in the 1970’s has developed to satisfy practically every demand even though the population has increased substantially [13].   Initial investment was in reverse processing plants which converted imported dried milk and butter into a range of products, milk, cream, and yoghurt.  This is still an important sector of the local dairy industry.  The second stage of development brought the introduction of new dairy breeds which could cope with the climatic extremes and produce economic and consistent milk supplies to develop dairy product ranges. This second stage is now reaching maturity with market expansion being largely concentrated on widening product ranges to challenge a diverse import market [14]. Both these aspects are illustrated in the glossary of products which follows.

Traditional Milk Processing

Milk was processed in a number of ways to create products with desirable characteristics such as texture, taste and storage properties.  The processing methods used in the UAE were ideally suited to the resources of small tribal units using basic equipment.

Fresh camel’s milk was considered to be already ‘cooked’ if it was still at the temperature of the camel’s udder.

The simplest processing was to heat the milk, a desirable objective in the mountains where temperatures can approach freezing point in the winter.  An ingenious method was used in Oman.  Selected round stones were heated in the fire and dropped directly into the milking bowl.   This method has been in recorded use since Roman times [15] and is economical and requires no specialised implements.  Hot milk was spiced with ginger, cardamom, fenugreek seed or saffron.

Milk was kept in animal skin bags, usually goatskins, for short term storage.  In the typical summer temperatures of 30 to 48 degrees Centigrade, initial fermentation or conversion to laban, a yoghurt type product, was ensured by the build up of residues from previous batches with attendant bacteria.  Storage bags were carefully selected and maintained to guarantee this process.   There was no way to sterilise these storage bags.

The laban was consumed fresh and also made into three further products; labneh a strained and thickened product; chami a cooked and reduced soft cheese; and dihn or zibda, fresh butter.   All these products had a limited storage life.  Chami was a favourite breakfast dish and zibda was eaten with flat bread and the excellent local honey. Zibda was made by churning the laban in a goatskin, sigga, which was hung by a wooden tripod and rocked back and forth.  Air was blown into the bag at regular intervals to ensure that it stayed inflated.  The butter was collected and the liquid residue was either consumed as a drink, sharab, or may have been processed to a form of low-fat kami.   Lizard skin bags were used to store zibda.

Again these products could be processed further to avoid waste as they had limited storage capabilities.  There are a few references to cheese, jibna.  This was probably labneh or chami which had been strained to reduce the moisture content to promote slightly longer storage.  Zibda was converted to samn, clarified butter.   This was a very important product as it could be stored for long periods and thus was an article of barter or commerce.  It is still available in the traditional markets, usually sold in re-cycled Vimto bottles [16]. Goatskins were used in the past to store and transport samn.

Kami was prepared from chami or labneh flattened and pressed into small thin cakes and dried in the sun.  The end product varies from broken granules to solid cakes, all rock hard and with a long storage life.  This was a useful store food which was eaten directly, crumbled into dishes or pounded with water to make a form of fat-free milk.  Like samn this artisanal product is still available in the traditional markets.

Imported Dairy Products

A large range of imported dairy products is available to the very cosmopolitan population of the UAE. Judging by the typical supermarket shelf, particularly popular products are butter and ghee, dried milk powder and a range of cheeses.   Dried milk powder was an early introduction and was ideally suited to the very basic storage and transport conditions which prevailed until development.  Ghee has effectively replaced samn.

The selection of Middle Eastern cheeses is particularly good.  Local factories are now producing cheeses matching those of foreign origin. Most Middle Eastern cheeses are soft and relatively fresh. This reflects the climatic conditions which are generally unsuitable for maturing cheese.  They are often kept in brine, oil or whey as a means of preservation.  They are eaten directly as breakfast and mezze food as well as being used in cooked dishes.  Unsalted cheeses are used in sweets such as ataif, a Ramadan favourite made by deep frying pancakes stuffed with cheese or nuts.

There are few matured cheeses, shankleesh and mish being the main examples and rumi and kashkawan are semi-matured.

The pasta filata technique is used in the preparation of a number of these cheeses from northern Arabia such as majouleh, halloumi, and mushalal.  The curd is kneaded in hot water, usually by hand producing a stringy or resilient texture and often a very characteristic shape.

Many of the cheeses have to be rinsed or even soaked before consumption to reduce the salt and enable the generally mild flavour to be appreciated.

Use of Dairy Products

The overwhelming use of dairy products is as primary food for direct consumption and this has always been the case.   Studies in Gulf countries amongst national families show that there is a strong belief in the nutritional value of dairy food and also a strong sense of these being traditional foods. There has been an acceptance of imported products and modern packaging and some long established imports such as Nido brand milk powder have achieved icon status.

The traditional culinary repertoire consisted of robust dishes making good use of a limited scope of resources. Dairy products had a role in these dishes; nearly half the recipes in a book of substantially traditional UAE recipes contain at least one dairy product [17]. Additionally until the import of cooking oils became established in the 1970’s, the main cooking fat medium was samn which would have been used for the substantial part of the cuisine which involves frying. A frequent use for butter or samn is as a liquid garnish on savoury and sweet dishes.

Colostrum was a valued product, a dessert, alelbah, was made from cow or goat colostrum in Bahrain.  It was sweetened and spiced with cardamom and nigella seed.


Coconut milk does not have a significant role in Emirati cuisine although the coconut palm is regularly planted in coastal areas.  This is not the case in neighbouring Oman where the influence of a once extensive empire including the East African littoral is noticeable.  Coconut milk is a favoured cooking medium for savoury dishes which are often well spiced and also appears in many sweet dishes.

As noted above the use of samn as a cooking medium is declining due to the availability of cooking oils and also a perception of the health benefits associated with low cholesterol diet.


The pattern of dairy consumption in the UAE has probably changed little from the prehistoric era of the Umm al Nar and Shimal settlements of the third millennium BC until the discovery of oil as a major natural resource in the 1960’s.  People kept their own stock and had daily access to milk and straightforward techniques to prepare dairy produce.  As a result dairy products formed a prime component of diet and an article of local commerce.

Over the last three decades the availability of cold storage for importing, merchandising and home storage of products and the consolidation of dairy farming into large commercial units is having a long term effect on the consumption patterns of dairy products. The quantity and range of chilled dairy products in the local supermarkets and neighbourhood stores is broadening choice and making some traditional products obsolete. Samn has been replaced by ghee a similar product originating from the sub-continent.   Imported dried milk powder has replaced kami as a storage product that can be reconstituted to a form of milk.

At present the traditional products are still available in modest quantities in the local markets but the young generation who have had no exposure to these old products are unlikely to want, know how to use or be able to produce them in the future.

Glossary of Dairy Products in the UAE

This glossary details the dairy products currently available in the UAE, locally produced and imported together with some products that are in the process of being consigned to history.   Items which originate outside the Middle East region such as icecream and dried milk powder have not been included. A table giving some details of nutritional composition is attached.


Fresh white salted/unsalted cheese shaped by cloth wrapping into blocks of about 500 gm. with rounded corners, made from cow's milk and originating in the Lebanon.  Production has spread to other countries and it is produced in several forms, salted hard versions for eating and minimum salt versions which melt readily for cooking.  The low salt type is used for sweets, the salt being soaked out first. The cheese is firm with a slightly crumbly texture and a mild flavour.


Cypriot cheese which is an import to the UAE markets.  It is a medium fat soft cheese similar to halloumi.

arrish, arishi

A soft white cheese shaped into short cylinders with striated sides originating from Egypt. Low fat versions are made from skimmed milk.   Versions are also prepared from the whey and precipitated proteins derived from making other cheeses such as shankleesh or halloumi. The flavour is mild strengthening with time and it has a quite dense crumbly texture.  Also seen as a prepacked block cheese.  Eaten fresh and also mixed with chopped vegetables or pickles to make a dip.


Another name for sharab laban, probably from north Arabia or Turkey.


This cheese is shaped in soft round cakes 10 cm. in diameter, off-white in colour and with a creamy paste. It is unsalted and has a very mild taste.  For eating fresh as it does not melt on cooking.  Baladi means local.


White cheese with a firm and dense paste, small voids well distributed, salty, strong mature flavour, possibly a sheep’s milk cheese, country of origin unknown.


A Northern Emirates word for the sun-dried product of either laban or chami.


White cheese with a dense smooth paste similar to feta, medium strength acidic flavour, now locally manufactured.


Laban cooked to a thickened consistency like curds, used as a breakfast food with bread and also to accompany dried dates.

domyati, dombiati, dammieta

A white cheese from Egypt packaged in cuboidal half kilo blocks, made from cow’s or buffalo milk.   Salty, mild flavoured soft cheese with crevices in the dense paste.  Unusually the salt is added before coagulation to control adverse bacteriological activity.   Eaten fresh drizzled with olive oil and sliced cucumbers, tomatoes and flat bread.  It can be matured under brine, darkening in colour and improving in flavour.


This well-known cheese is popular and widely available in the middle east, loose as well as pre-packed.




Another popular import from Cyprus, 1,000 tons are exported annually to Arab countries. A similar cheese, hellim, is made in the Lebanon and Syria.  In Cyprus the cheeses were traditionally prepared from sheep and goat’s milk and after a minimum of 40 days in brine were considered to be ripe. Modern industrial production uses sheep’s, goat and cow’s milk and the cheeses are not ripened.   The cheeses are produced by the pasta filata technique and are moulded into a flattish block with a pronounced central fold.  Dried mint is sometimes included in this fold and the individual cheeses are vacuum packed with a little whey.  The high protein content ensures that this cheese does not melt when cooked making it ideal for grilling or frying as a mezze dish.

halloumi lite

This cheese is a recent arrival in the supermarket cold cabinet.  Fat content is stated to be 8%, presumably quoted as a solids ratio.   The reduction in fat results in a chewier cheese but there is little effect on the taste compared to halloumi.

istanbuli (jibna istanbuli)

A vacuum packed half kilo rectangular block of this traditional cheese from Syria.  It proved to be a fresh white cheese packed in whey, quite dense texture, with a slightly acid taste and it was lightly seasoned with nigella seeds, habbat suda.   It was an import from Izmir in Turkey. I have not seen this name used in Turkey and assume it is an export name.

jadala suria

Another name for majouleh indicating an origin in Syria.


The general word for cheese in Arabic often applied to local cheeses.

jibna beydah

Generic term for the soft white cheeses produced throughout the Arab world from a variety of milk for immediate consumption.  In the Gulf countries sheep and goat’s milk were traditionally used and a crude form of rennet was prepared from the stomach of a suckling lamb.

kami - the UAE name for sun dried yoghourt.  It costs 10 to 20 Dirhams a kilo depending on quality, some is in small flattened cakes 1-2 inches in diameter, some is in granular pieces of varying size. It is hard and has a slightly musty aroma vaguely reminiscent of cheese.


An acid-curd cheese traditionally made from skimmed cow's or buffalo milk in small scale local production. It is the most common cheese made in Egypt and Sudan.  The curd was allowed to coagulate naturally as the cream separated before being drained and pressed on reed mats and salted.  Eaten fresh at breakfast or ripened in brine

kashta - milk cooked with flour to form a thick cream for use in desserts.  It is a north Arabian ingredient, used in restaurant desserts and not available commercially.

kashkawan, kaskrawali

A semi hard cheese in a flat disc shape about 20 cm. diameter and 500 gm. in weight, originating from Syria or Lebanon, pale straw colour with no rind, semi mature flavour improving with time in the fridge if not in a sealed container, rather stringy when cooked so best grated.

kubrosi, kubrost

A white cheese in the shape of a truncated cone with striations on the curved surface.  Medium firm paste, a touch of salt and a mild flavour. Grills quite well and does not melt.

laban - soured milk or yoghourt, an important element of the Arab diet.  It used to be produced by storing milk overnight in a goatskin bag used regularly for the purpose by the Bedouin. It has a short storage life becoming more sharply flavoured with age.  The word is used fairly loosely in the UAE to mean products with different consistencies. It can be like yoghourt as we are used to in the West with solid texture and it can also refer to a product of drinking consistency.

laban dahareej

Strained yoghourt formed into balls and dried enough to maintain their shape when stored in oil.   They are served as a mezze dish with some of the storage oil drizzled over the top. Sold in jars in a number of variations made by rolling the balls in further flavourings, plain, with chilli pepper, mint, sumac etc.

laban khad - buttermilk, correctly the liquid left after yoghourt has been churned to make zibdeh/samn, but also referring to a yoghourt drink.

labneh - strained or thickened yoghourt, similar to a cream cheese.  This is best eaten with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh flat bread, khubz. It can be used with limitations as a substitute for cream and sour cream.

majouleh, majdouli

A string cheese from north Arabia where the curd strings are grouped together and formed into a hank about 15 cm. long, kept in brine it has a rubbery texture and is salty and mild flavoured


The Omani name for mushalal, made from sheep's milk, hard and salty.


An Egyptian cheese, originally a grey salty peasant cheese with a very strong flavour. Fresh cheese curds and prepared cheeses such as arrish/domyati were poured into an earthenware crock (ballas) with some milk, salt, flavourings and a starter from a previous batch of mish.  This was left to mature for one year, pasteurised and packed for consumption or distribution.  There was a wide range of flavourings, sesame seed cake, milk solids from samn preparation, fenugreek, chilli/paprika, anise, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, thyme, nigella, etc. to taste.

It is usually encountered as a crumbled mass of curds in whey, generally pale red brown in colour but with some pure white curds.  Red chilli pepper flakes betray the hot flavour which is also very salty. These seem to be prepared by the local dairies, imported mish misri from Egypt is also available and has a smoother more uniform consistency.  The cheese has a strong spicey fragrance and is usually available in supermarkets in strong and milder forms depending on the chilli content.


Small rock hard marbles of cheese and salt, an Iranian product seen in Dubai spice suq.

mushalal, style='jibna mushalal, shilal

Another string cheese originating in Syria, the long curds left unbroken and ingeniously twisted into small bundle, usually with nigella seeds incorporated, salty and best rinsed before eating, a good breakfast cheese.

nabulsi, nabolghi

A white brined cheese, originally from Nablus in the West Bank, prepared from sheep or goat’s milk. The curds are pressed in small portions in cheese cloth and may be boiled in brine containing a mix of mastic gum and mahaleb to help preserve the cheese and improve its flavour and texture.

Samples purchased in the UAE were of Syrian origin and were white flat small tablets of dried folded roughly rectangular curd with salt crystals on the surface.  Eaten thus they were very salty and with a chalky texture and flavour.  After soaking in water for 24 hours, the paste had expanded to a creamey texture.   Still quite salty and with a chalky flavour. It melts when cooked. This cheese is particularly used for sweet dishes.  The heavy salting is a long term preservative which is removed by repeated soakings.

raab, rob

The name in the Northern Emirates for a drink prepared from laban and water, similar to sharab laban. Elsewhere in the UAE it is referred to as laban.

rumi, roomy

An Egyptian cheddar style cheese (rumi means Roman or Western), often sold in pre-sliced packets.  The paste is firm and pale orange in colour, it has a full mature flavour and crumbly texture.  Usually contains black peppercorns scattered rather infrequently through the paste.

samn - clarified butter, the fresh butter is heated with flour and herbs or spices to remove the curds and impart a flavour, in this form it will keep without refrigeration for long periods.  It was an important article of commerce and is still produced on a small scale locally.

shankleesh, changlish

Well strained sheep’s yoghourt is de-fatted or fresh cottage cheese is salted and rolled into balls and dried thoroughly. These are stored until the paste darkens and a surface mould has developed.  This is scraped off, the ball is coated with melted butter and then rolled in za'atar, thyme. It has quite a firm consistency but crumbles under the knife.  The paste is pale brick red with spots of small white curds and it has a piquant salty flavour, one almost suspects the inclusion of a little chilli. This cheese is from Syria and Lebanon and is served as a mezze by slicing the cheese and drizzling olive oil over it. Sold in jars under oil and also loose or in vacuum packs. A country version style='shankleesh baladi is also available and is very similar with a softer, more mixed paste with more chili flakes and inclusions of za’atar coating.


The word means drink and is applied to the buttermilk left after the churning to make zibda.

sharab laban - is yoghourt diluted with water and slightly salted to make a drink, ground fenugreek seed is used to flavour a version recently introduced into the local market, see also raab.


Fresh white cheese from Egypt with a soft creamy paste, moderately salted and with a well developed slightly acid taste.


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Composition of Middle Eastern Dairy Products

Product Fats
(chiefly lactose)
Kcal/100 gm.
Camel 2.9-5.5 2.0-5.4 3.4-5.5 - - 101
Goat 4.0-5.0 3.4-4.3 4.0-7.1 0.7 - -
Sheep 5.0-8.0 4.0-7.0 4.0-5.0 0.9 - -
Cow 4.0-5.2 2.8-3.6 4.5-4.6 0.7 - -
Kami 20 50.0 - - 3.0 -
Laban 3.2 3.6 2.0 0.7 - 50
Labneh 10.0 6.6-13.0 1.0 1.6 - 154
Samn 90.2 0.3 - 0.1 - 813
Akawi - 19.1 - - - -
Arrish - 17.6 - - - -
Baladi - 12.2 - - - -
Domyati 23.4 21.1 - 2.6 - 511
Halloumi 24.0 19.0 - 5.0 3.0 -
Kareish 6.0 17.0 - 6.0 4.5 122
Mish 2.7-11.0 9.7-12.6 3.1 11.9 11.5 150
Nabulsi 24.0 16.0 - 16.0 - 288
Shankleesh 5.6 35.0 3.0 12.2 - 215

Animal, Milk Product and Human Statistics for the UAE

  Camels Cattle Goats Sheep Humans
Population (no.) 39,416 15,803 198,142 73,159 250,000
Percentage milking (%) - 36 46 42 N/A
Milk production (Kg.) 6,716,353 2,605,495 4,093,025 1,890,419 N/A
1992 (Abu Dhabi Emirate only
Population (no.) 155,071 7,686 605,873 2,300,000
Milk production (Kg.) - 18,465,000 - N/A

The 1976 statistics represent a pre-oil development picture of dairy use.  Total milk production from all sources was 15,300 tonnes of which 3,500 tonnes was recorded as being processed in some way.  The balance presumably was either drunk as fresh milk by humans or stock.

Processed dairy products and home consumption were recorded as:

zibda wa samn butter and ghee 246 tonnes (78% consumed by owner/household)

laban khadr fresh curd drink 598 tonnes (96% consumed by owner/household)

yaqat (jareed) yoghurt  109 tonnes  (94% consumed by  owner/household)

other products 7 tonnes   (84% consumed by  owner/household)

By 1992, only milk production on commercial dairy farms was being registered with no records available for milk production other than cow’s.  There had been a fifteenfold increase in productivity per head.

Dairy Food in the UAE

by Philip Iddison


The history of dairy produce in the United Arab Emirates is reviewed from the prehistoric period to the present day using archaeological research and published accounts of the history and culture of the region.  The different animals used as sources of milk and the traditional methods of consuming and processing dairy products are discussed.  The role of imports and the culinary uses of dairy produce are briefly detailed. The substitutes and modern replacements for traditional dairy produce are also examined.

Government statistics on dairy produce clearly show that a significant change has taken place in the local dairy production and consumption patterns over the last three decades as the country has developed.  Private dairy farming and consumption of home produce has declined.  A dairy industry with modern marketing methods has been created to satisfy a tenfold increase in population. As a result traditional products are in decline.

A glossary of traditional Arabian dairy products is attached together with a table of basic nutritional information on a selection of these products.

OXSYMP99.DOC 5966 WORDS (excluding abstract)   23/7/99



[1]  Hobbs recounts from his travels with the Ma’aza tribe of Egypt in the early 80’s the capture of a young ibex which would be “introduced to the hunter’s herd to be reared as a goat”.

[2] Gouin

[3] See later for processing equipment and contrast the firm evidence for processing of dates to produce date syrup, dibis, as early as the second millennium BC in the Gulf.

[4] Heard-Bey

[5] An ability shared only with humans and cattle amongst the mammals.

[6] It has been estimated that the nutritional needs of a human would be met by between 3 and 8 milch camels, Wilson.

[7] FAO Study by Ramet.

[8] Heard-Bey

[9] The Arabian tahr, a small goat-like ungulate may still survive in the Hajar mountains of Oman and was hunted in the UAE until recent times.

[10] In a personal communication, William Lancaster states that the inhabitants of Ras Al Khaimah still make little differentiation between goats and sheep, they are more often identified by their colour eg. bir aswad are black coated sheep or goats.  This attitude also applies to their milk which is often  mixed for consumption or processing.

[11] See Glossary.

[12] Easa  Saleh  Al-Gurg’s family lived in Lingah on the Persian side of the Gulf until they emigrated to Dubai in the 1920’s and may have brought the tradition with them.

[13] The milk production statistics appended show the change in nature of the local dairy industry over the last two decades.

[14] Recently introduced products are laban flavoured with ground fenugreek seed and date flavoured milk.

[15]  The method is mentioned in Pliny, Dioscorides and others.

[16] Vimto is a fruit cordial drink, originally from the north of England, now locally packaged in Saudi Arabia.   I have never met anyone who has admitted to drinking this product and although it is on the local supermarket shelves, I still wonder where all the empty Vimto bottles come from.

[17] In Al-Ansari’s book, 48% of the recipes have a dairy product and in a further 27%oil as a cooking medium is used. Comparative figures for Saudi cuisine are similar.


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