Approximately 85% of all food in the UAE is imported.
This is no surprise when you consider the growth of the country has been fueled by an expat population, which in turn has meant the country’s locally produced food supply has not been able to keep pace due to the arid climatic conditions. In addition, the tastes of a global marketplace vary greatly and the UAE caters to citizens of most of the world’s countries.
Unfortunately for many expat residents, the urban myth of ‘the Dubai stone’ is far from fiction. Similarly, the local population has enjoyed decades of affluence after centuries of frugality. Waistlines in the UAE have grown to become the 10th largest in the world (WHO Data on Prevalence of Overweight (BMI ≥ 25kg/m2) 2014). A 2015 study, also by the WHO, found 15.1% of school aged children in Abu Dhabi to be obese.
An important contributor to UAE obesity is the sedentary lifestyle of many UAE residents. The temperature is often unfavourable and the summer sun is so hot that it is dangerous to be in its glare for extended periods of time. The UAE is not naturally able to facilitate pedestrian activities. Have car; will drive.
The majority of expats bring eating habits with them so someone from the UK, who may walk to work, walk to the shop, walk a dog in the park, will consume the calories for an active person but become an inactive one themselves. Food and lack of exercise has made the UAE fat, but whilst exercise is not easy to come by, a change of diet is.
The UK’s Strength
One of the UK’s exporting strengths is food and beverage. UK confectionery has long been popular in the UAE, partly due to the 100,000+ strong British community here, but mainly due to its quality. Sweets imported from the UK fetch a premium on UAE supermarket shelves.
But, there has been a shift in mindset of late toward a fresher more healthy diet. This change in attitude has prompted the operators of Carrefour (one of the largest supermarket chains in the region) to invest AED300m in a new facility purposely built to handle fresh produce and meat. The company behind it, Majid Al Futtaim, states the centre can handle 100,000 orders per day, which makes the centre doubly important given the increase in confidence locally of ordering groceries online.
Packaging and Visibility
The interest in healthier products is growing but in the UAE we are some way behind the UK. For example, food in the UAE is not bound by the traffic light rating system. In fact, the only labelling constant is that all labels must have an Arabic version of the ingredients; in some cases this label is placed over the English language ingredient list. This makes food packaging design in the UAE very important.
Packaging is one of the advantages organic/free-from foods have in the UAE. Organic products generally highlight their ingredients and the growing understanding in the region that healthier options are available mean consumers are able to identify organic options more quickly. Such is the growing demand from supermarket chains in the UAE, that half of the BCB’s recent food and drink enquiries have been from organic or free-from producers in the UK. Producers in the UK are aware of the UAE’s growing healthier-food market.
It is not only the direct to consumer market that is seeing this shift. A study by Nielsen showed that 92% of UAE residents are willing to pay more for food that is organic or fortified with fibre and vitamins. This willingness to spend has attracted the food service industry and the UAE is witnessing the growth of a trend in healthy eateries.
In addition to supermarkets and restaurants adapting to consumer demand, The UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, in 2017, stopped imports of fruit and vegetables from a number of countries due to an impermissible amount of pesticides used in production.
If your company produces organic or free-from foods and has the capacity to expand overseas, the UAE has a growing organic foods market for you to enter which is being supported at government level. Please email me if you have any questions.