Editor's viewpoint

Gulfood: The whole world eyes a slice of the Middle Eastern pie

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Gulfood: The whole world eyes a slice of the Middle Eastern pie

Related tags United arab emirates Middle east

FoodNavigator was among the hordes at Gulfood in Dubai this week, joining a huge international crowd, which squeezed its way past stands from 110 countries over the past four days.

The show’s organisers claim that it is the biggest food and drink trade show in the world, and it is certainly enormous, with 4,200 exhibitors at this year’s edition, and a rumoured waiting list of more than 1,000. A ninth hall was added this year, a giant marquee set up in the car park of Dubai’s World Trade Centre. Some large multinationals had relatively small booths – and there were plenty of shoebox-sized spaces – but several told me that they were just glad to be there, considering the demand for a place.

There is no doubt that the international food industry is looking to the Middle East region as a promising market, and Dubai in particular, with its large foreign population and ostentatious show of wealth, has food company executives’ mouths watering at the prospect of a slice of the pie.

But there are challenges in the Middle East too. Like so many other parts of the world, it’s an area that’s seen its economy take a major hit in recent years, and expats have left the region in droves. And while many firms may be looking at the UAE as a way into the market, Saudi Arabia, which is still the largest food importer in the region, is very closed to foreign influence.

That said, an executive from Hershey told me that the market there is coveted by international firms because ​it is so closed.

“People have nothing to do but TV and shopping and eating,”​ he said.

The show also featured large national pavilions from countries that export huge quantities of food to Gulf states, including a very strong presence from Spain, which has close historic (and current) ties with the region – Qatari Sheikh  Abdullah Ben Nasser Al-Thani reportedly commissioned a €400m palace just outside Marbella in 2011.

The world’s best…and innovation too

Nations were showcasing the best of the best of their food traditions: Think Spanish and Italian olive oils and cured meats, French cheeses, Brazilian beef, Russian and Eastern European caviar. However, there were some big trends in processed foods and ingredients too.

Global companies zeroed in on the Middle Eastern consumer’s preference for sweeter foods and beverages, fruity flavours – especially mango – and bright orange colours. Non-alcoholic malt beverages were also a major focus for ingredient firms, with multinationals like Symrise, Wild and Doehler all showcasing their capabilities in the beer-like and soft drink sides of the category.

I have visited food trade shows on three continents during the five years that I’ve been covering the industry, and this was by far the most international in terms of both attendees and exhibitors – a real global meeting of the market. Companies told me time and again that this was a show where business gets done. Decision makers were out in force, and contracts were signed.

On the back of this year’s success, next year’s show is tipped to be extended to five days.

Look out for more reports from Gulfood on FoodNavigator over the coming days.

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