Trade Mission: Irish Food in the UAE & Saudi Arabia
The Middle East is heavily reliant on food imports due to the limited agricultural resources in the desert. It is estimated that GCC countries import up to 90% of the food they consume! With Ireland exporting 90% of the food we produce, this is a huge opportunity for Ireland’s world renowned food and drink.
A recent ministerial led trade mission to the UAE and Saudi Arabia saw existing commercial partnerships strengthened through 15 customer meetings with existing and new customers in the Middle East. With many Irish producers not having met their customer’s in-person since before the pandemic began, this created new challenges in understanding what the consumer in the GCC wants in a life post-pandemic.
Research studies have been carried out with consumers in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia since the onset of the pandemic with these two priority markets making up over half of Ireland’s exports to the Middle East in 2021 (“Irish Food Board | Bord Bia”, 2022). The aim of these studies was to understand how consumer behaviour has been changed throughout the pandemic. From this research we have identified some of the following opportunities for Irish food and drink in the Middle East.
- Country of Origin
Middle Eastern consumers are becoming increasingly more conscious on the origin of the foods they consume (Bord Bia, 2021). With the region relying mostly on imported food, food origin is often seen to be called out on supermarket shelves. From research conducted by Bord Bia in relation to understanding the post-pandemic consumer, it was found that 60% of adults surveyed in the UAE consider sustainability when purchasing their food (“Global Sustainability Insights UAE”, 2022). Following on from this, 78% of these adults surveyed also believed that price was a barrier to purchasing sustainably produced food (“Global Sustainability Insights UAE”, 2022). The situation in Saudi Arabia was similar to that in the UAE, whereby 4 in 10 consumers stated that they do consider the environmental impact of the food they are purchasing, with 51% of these consumers making an effort to reduce food waste (Bord Bia, n.d.). Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are in the early stages of their sustainability journeys compared to European countries. Saudi’s Vision 2030 outlines the Kingdom’s strategic objectives until 2030, with sustainability being the overall focus of the strategy (Saudi Vision 2030, n.d.). The behaviour indicated by consumers surveyed may be quite aspirational at this stage given that sustainability is not common practice day to day. However, that being said, we have seen both the UAE and KSA implement change very quickly so it is likely that they could easily catch up with European countries in relation to sustainable practices.
- Health Conscious Consumers
No different to the rest of the world, consumers in the Middle East have shifted towards healthier eating since the onset of the pandemic. Consumers are increasingly leaning towards healthier food choices with a growing interest in natural produce. According to research with Saudi consumers, 86% stated that they are making an effort to eat as healthy as possible (Bord Bia, n.d.). Despite best efforts, 80% of these consumers also stated that convenience factors can get in the way of healthy eating. Functional foods have also seen an increased interest in the Middle East in the past 2 years. It is estimated that the Middle Eastern kombucha market was valued at US $75mn last year and is expected to grow to $232m by 2025. Products known to boost the immune system such as yoghurt and laban increased in popularity and are expected to grow, even after the pandemic (Bord Bia, 2021).
- QSR in Saudi Arabia
Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) are seen in Saudi consumers’ everyday lifestyle. The food service channel within KSA is expanding rapidly and is expected to continue growing at a rate of 8.9% annually until 2026 (Bord Bia, 2021). With this level of growth within the QSR channel, it is seen that establishments are transitioning towards more premium products, suggesting a growing opportunity for Irish suppliers.
In 2021, Bord Bia conducted a market research study into the QSR channel in KSA to have a better understanding of where the opportunity lies for Irish producers. This research looked at both the QSR and Fast Casual (FC) sectors, both of which are hugely popular in the major cities in Saudi. One major opportunity identified throughout this research was the increased competitive advantage for Irish suppliers within the FC sector where quality, grass-fed and hormone free products were called out on menus (Bord Bia, 2021).
During the recent trade mission to the Middle East, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue T.D. engaged in conversations with the Saudi Food and Drug Authority, they agreed in principle to lift the current restriction that Irish beef exports must come from cattle slaughtered before they are 30 months old. The uplift will significantly expand market access for Irish meat in Saudi Arabia and also raises the possibility of access to poultry produce in the future. This will result in a greater choice for buyers in Saudi Arabia looking for a premium quality beef product providing greater choice on menus for the end consumer.
Overall, the opportunity for Irish food and drink to serve consumer needs in the region looks promising, especially for those who can speak to consumer trends around sustainability, health and premiumisation.
Irish Food Board | Bord Bia. (2022). Retrieved 4 April 2022, from https://www.bordbiaperformanceandprospects.com/index.cfm
Bord Bia. (2021). Future Proofing Toolkit UAE 2020.
Global Sustainability Insights UAE. (2022). Retrieved 4 April 2022, from https://www.bordbia.ie/industry/insights/global-sustainability-insights/uae/
Bord Bia. COVID-19 INDICATORS Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Vision 2030. Retrieved from https://www.vision2030.gov.sa/media/rc0b5oy1/saudi_vision203.pdf
Bord Bia. (2021). Saudi Arabia Foodservice Trends & Opportunities.