As is traditional with Dubai shows, Gulfood 2016 was bigger and better than ever before, with 90,000 visitors and more than 5,000 exhibitors (and one world-record-beating 550kg bag of rice). But unlike some exhibitions, where all the sound and fury signifies, if not nothing, then very little, there was an intensity to this year’s show which suggested most participants were taking it very, very seriously.
Global jitters drive food trade
It’s not hard to see why – the global economy is stuttering, and businesses everywhere are working ever-harder just to keep things going. And in the Middle East the double-whammy of falling oil prices and a strong US dollar (to which most regional currencies are tied) has hit local investment and priced out international players – while at the same time making imports from many regions more attractive.
But the region’s markets are still an attractive prospect, particularly for Russian firms which have seen their exports decimated by sanctions in the west – and western firms which had been exporting to Russia. Hence the Russian pavilion, a first for Gulfood, with a prime location in the show – and brisk interest from visitors.
Western exports are also shifting – US beef exporters are fortunate that Egypt was ready to pick up the slack when Russia stopped taking American beef livers, leaving the African country with 80% of the US beef offal market. But other sectors are having to work harder to replace their lost markets.
Another unfamiliar sight was the New Zealand pavilion – while not new to the show, the country hasn’t had a formal national presence at the show in 10 years. But its F&B trade with the GCC is worth US$2.7bn a year, and regional markets are increasingly important for its premium meat exports – how could it stay away?
Looking beyond the Middle East
And it’s not just about the immediate region – again and again a common thread was the importance of visitors from Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. Always a significant part of Gulfood’s audience, the increasingly difficult prospect of obtaining European visas has now made the Dubai show the default venue for buyers from an ever-wider range of countries – and exhibitors are planning accordingly.
Local producers, particularly from Dubai, are taking full advantage of this trend, with the deals referenced at the show being for Ethiopia, Nigeria, Malaysia and India, rather than the US, the UK or Germany. While the wealthy consumers of Europe and the US are still attractive, red tape and high costs can make them hard to reach – in contrast to increasingly-affluent shoppers in Africa and Asia, for whom the Dubai brand is also glamorous and aspirational.
Last year’s Gulfood was not lacking for visitors or buzz – but this year’s edition was on another level (in my personal experience of many Dubai trade shows, I have never seen anything like the first three days of the 2016 show). It will be fascinating to see where the show goes from here.