Caviar makes itself at home in the oil-rich UAE desert

Far away from the Caspian Sea, sturgeon are raised in ponds cooled in the heart of the Gulf desert of Abu Dhabi, carrying in their wombs a form of black gold strange to these countries - caviar.

Production of the desert-grown caviar will begin later this year and by 2012, consumers in the oil-rich Gulf region will begin savouring the "food of the kings".

"Abu Dhabi is an ideal location for distribution of the world's growing markets for high-quality caviar and sturgeon fillet. In fact, in the UAE alone, demand is around 14 tonnes per year," said Robert Harper, Group Commercial Director at the Royal Caviar Company.

The first stock of fish was brought in to the United Arab Emirates from Germany and the factory, which will breed its own fish in future, aims eventually to produce 35 tonnes of caviar per year.

In the 50,000-square-metre (538,000 square feet) factory, in the Abu Dhabi's industrial zone, special equipment is used to clean water using a biological filtration system with a semi-automated feeding system.

The group also plans to finally produce its own fish food.

In another room, technicians in lab coats in carefully place the anaesthetised female fish on a marble slab, where she undergoes an ultrasound test to check for the presence of caviar, the results of which could either show no eggs, white eggs or the precious black caviar eggs.

"In this micro-environment, the sturgeon has no natural predators, and its mortality rate is extremely low," says Harper. "Caviar lovers can enjoy legally and ethically produced caviar."

Meanwhile, Ahmad al-Dhaheri, CEO of Bin Salem Holding group, which owns the The Royal Caviar Company, told reporters: "The sturgeon are threatened with extinction in its natural habitat in the Caspian Sea and by producing it here, we are helping protect this species of fish."

The waste water will be used to water green areas in the desert emirate of Abu Dhabi, said Dhaheri.

The project costs $115 million, according to the chief financial officer of the parent company, Michel Nassour.

The UAE-made caviar will be sold at prices between four and six dollars per gram, said Harper, similar to the prices of Caspian Sea caviar.

The factory will also produce up to 700 tonnes of fresh and smoked sturgeon meat every year.

"Genuine" caviar is prized worldwide as a luxurious and highly expensive product due to the scarcity of the sturgeon and the long time it takes to the fish to carry the sought-after black eggs.

A sturgeon does not yield caviar until after four-and-a-half years, when its weight reaches around 10 kilogrammes, one-tenth of which would be pure caviar, said Christoph Hartung, chairman of United Food Technologies, the German partner in the project.

"The caviar of the desert will be excellent," said Hartung.

The finest caviar comes from the Caspian Sea, where Iran is a leading producer.

Russia, the world's second-largest official producer of caviar, banned the harvest of sturgeon caviar in 2006 to help fight overfishing. Caviar production resumed in specially designed farms in 2010.

The Abu Dhabi-based factory, which began operations in 2008, currently has nearly 18 tonnes of fish with 124 more tonnes to arrive this year.

They will give birth to what the company says is the "first generation of local" sturgeon in the Emirati capital, which sits on almost eight percent of the world's reserves of oil - the country's other black gold.

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