Comment: Changing Saudi palates

Simon Blazeby on the internationalisation of diet

Reed Sunaidi Exhibitions director Simon Blazeby.
Reed Sunaidi Exhibitions director Simon Blazeby.

Saudis’ palates are a’changing: our guest columnist talks about the internationalisation of dietary preferences in the kingdom, which is undergoing an F&B boom

The Saudi food and beverage industry is in the midst of a boom. A growing population, increased consumer spending and significant public sector investment in new malls, restaurants and hotels is contributing to higher food consumption demands.

Food sales in the Kingdom account for around half of the domestic retail market and are expected to be worth almost US $70bn by 2016. Despite being the largest F&B market in the GCC, the Kingdom relies heavily on imports to meet its growing consumption requirements.

But consumption patterns in the Kingdom are also changing as Saudis’ dietary habits shift away from traditional Arabic cuisine to more international flavours. Globalisation and urbanisation are modernising lifestyles and altering spending habits, resulting in people demanding different types of food and becoming more adventurous in their dining choices.

Over the last decade Saudi Arabia’s food scene has become more varied as it incorporates influences from around the world in its supermarkets and restaurants. The lifestyle changes that accompany economic development also herald a more frenetic pace of life which is leading to an increased demand for convenience food.

Also, with entertainment in the Kingdom being quite limited, dining out has become a popular social pastime. While Arabic cuisine still dominates in Saudi Arabia, there is now a lot more choice of cuisine served by fine and casual dining restaurants and fast food chains. Italian, Japanese and US outlets can be found in almost every major city.

Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning hospitality sector has played a major part in the internationalisation of dietary preferences in the Kingdom. According to the Travel & Tourism Economic Impact Report, published by the World Travel & Tourism Council, the total contribution of travel and tourism to the country’s GDP in 2012 was 5.2%, which is forecast to rise by 6.7% in 2013 before sustaining a 4% per annum growth to be valued at US $52.9bn (SAR 198.4bn) in 2023.

Industry consultant Business Monitor International predicts Saudi Arabia will welcome 15.8 million tourists by 2014, 2.8 million more than in 2010. This growth in visitors will not only increase demand for accommodation, but for F&B services.

Jeddah, in particular, is benefiting from its gateway position to Mecca and Medina, attracting visitors from all over the world. This is reflected in its multicultural choices offering everything from sushi to Indonesian, Italian and Lebanese food.

In Riyadh, the capital city and seat of government, the growth in foreign business travellers is seeing top hotel operators introduce more international dining facilities.

Recently, Al Faisaliah Hotel, a Rosewood hotel and Riyadh’s most patronised five-star property, opened La Cucina led by Italian chef Marco De Vincentis, who previously worked in a number of Michelin-starred international restaurants. The venue is proving a popular destination for business lunches among the city’s government ministers and business elite.

While the fine dining scene in Saudi Arabia is still developing, casual dining restaurants are one of the fastest growing segments in its restaurant industry.

Almost all the major international casual dining brands have established a presence in the Saudi market, while several other chains have either signed up for franchising or are in the planning phase. Among the top international casual dining restaurant chains currently present in Saudi Arabia are Applebee’s, Outback Steak House, Chilis and TGI Fridays.

Being one of the largest economies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia provides a lucrative platform for F&B investment, which is why the first Foodex Saudi 2013 attracted the participation of some of the world’s biggest players.

Under the patronage of the Ministry of Agriculture KSA, the event took place from December 8-11, 2013, where over 300 companies from 27 countries showcased their products including top international brands like Almarai, Pepsi, Mars and Prego.

With food consumption demand expected to grow by 2.6% until 2016, companies that keep their fingers on the pulse of Saudis’ changing dietary preferences, look set to reap significant dividends.

Simon Blazeby is director of Reed Sunaidi Exhibitions, which is a joint venture partnership between Reed Exhibitions and Saudi organiser Sunaidi Expo. Based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Foodex Saudi is one if its events, which featured 300 exhibitors at its inaugural launch.

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