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Middle East's largest food congress starts in Dubai, highlights imports

(Xinhua)

09:44, February 20, 2012

DUBAI, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- The four-day Gulfood fair and exhibition, which runs in its 17th edition, is bringing together some 3,800 exhibitors from 88 countries with 65,000 trade visitors being expected, as the Gulf Arab region's dependency on food imports increases constantly.

Opened Sunday, the Gulfood, which runs through Feb. 21, also hosts a sideline conference where experts from multinational companies discuss the development and challenges of the food industry in the Middle East.

In her opening speech to the conference, United Arab Emirates ( UAE) Minister of Foreign Trade Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi said that " the Gulf Arab region imports 90 percent of its food needed from abroad."

Due to the humid and hot climate in the Gulf region, especially during the period from May to September, and the vastly deserted surface, the oil-rich sheikhdoms are not able to produce enough food for themselves.

Meanwhile, "The Gulf's population is on track to surpass the 50- million mark by 2020 from the current 40.6 million. By this time, the food consumption level would have reached 51.5 million tons after a compound annual growth rate of 4.6 percent," Lubna said.

"As for the UAE, we can expect our food imports to jump to around 8.4 billion U.S. dollars by 2020. Driving this surge is our growing population, which will increase its food consumption by 5. 4 percent annually from 7.8 million tons in 2011 to 9.7 million tons in 2015. And then there are the 10 million tourists and 50 million transit passengers who visit us annually and add to our national food requirements," she added.

The region's strong dependency means big business opportunities for global food giants like Switzerland's Nestle or British-Dutch Unilever group.

"The food market is the most global market of all segments," Eelco Camminga, vice president of Unilever's Middle East, South Africa and Pakistan branch, told Xinhua, "Almost all dishes appear in all regions."

But local Arab firms are increasingly trying to rival the Western dominance in the market, such as Saudi Arabian diary food producer Almarai and the UAE's Masafi Mineral Water Company.

"Local firms are growing, but for the future I see no replacement for the import of food in the region," said Austin Dias, marketing manager at Saudi Masterbaker Limited in Dammam, which imports nine tenths of its ingredients from the United States.

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