Skip to main content

It has been described as ‘The Olympics of the Business World’, and is expected to host 25 million visitors. For New Zealand exporters Expo 2020 in Dubai is a unique opportunity to showcase products and services to the world – the ideal launchpad for entering the Middle East market. ExporterToday editor Glenn Baker went to the Gulf Opportunities Showcase held in Auckland on October 24th to learn more about the expo and the market.

In late October, NZTE and ExportNZ hosted the Gulf Opportunities Showcase in Auckland’s Cordis Hotel. It was a mind-opener for all those gathered there.

ExporterToday joined the large number of export firms and trade specialists to learn how to capitalise on one of the most spectacular and ambitious expo events ever staged anywhere in the world. It all kicks off in October 2020, and runs for six months.

A brand new district (District 2020) has been created in Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, to accommodate Expo 2020 – the first ‘World Expo’ to be held in the region and an event that, as Clayton Kimpton, New Zealand’s commissioner-general to Expo 2020, explained to the Showcase audience, was not just a trade show, but an opportunity to talk about New Zealand to the entire planet.

Built over 438 hectares, with 180 participating nations (the New Zealand Government has committed $53.4 million to Expo 2020 and our stand will be located in the expo’s sustainability sector) and an expected 25 million visitors (70 percent from outside the UAE), it’s a showcase on a grand scale.

Kimpton encouraged audience members to participate – the invitation is out there; now is the time to register your interest. A good place to start, he said, is by visiting

The next Showcase speaker – the trade commissioner for the UAE and Qatar, Kevin McKenna – described how the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is now starting to see itself as the “leaders of solutions to the world’s problems”.

“They take this very seriously and they are very passionate about it. They want Dubai and Abu Dhabi to be a meeting point of ideas and thoughts around the future.”

Dubai has been referred to as ‘Singapore on steroids’, said McKenna. “It’s a hub for goods, services, people, capital and thinking. They build the infrastructure around that future thinking.

“Expo 2020 is going to bring huge opportunity,” he added. “But with those opportunities there will be challenges. Dubai already has tough competition, but with all those countries descending on the Expo, the competition is going to get even tougher.”

You can’t wing this Expo, McKenna stressed. “You can’t get on a plane tonight and hop off tomorrow in Dubai and say – ‘OK, take me to a distributor’. There’ll be a hundred other companies from all over the world chasing that same distributor.”

But the good news, he added, is that the big deals are not necessarily done with local companies.

With the Emirates being such a melting pot, the biggest F&B deals are generally done with other countries – with the trade shows serving as platforms for connecting.

“So when you come to Expo 2020, your focus will not necessarily be on the Middle East, you’ll be exposed to a lot of companies from a lot of other countries.”

McKenna explained the three main activities that NZTE is undertaking to leverage business in the Middle East in the run-up to Expo 2020 – namely trade shows, customer support programmes and trade missions (which can be Ministerial-led).

Then it was the turn of Glidepath’s Sir Ken Stevens and Orion Health’s Sam Armory, representing two well-established businesses in the Middle East region, to share their thoughts on the opportunities there.

Sir Ken’s company has designed baggage systems for many of the world’s airports, as well as Kelly Tarlton-style ‘power walks’ at multiple attractions and World Expos including Brisbane, Seoul and Beijing. He said Glidepath’s association with expos has yielded many fruitful connections for the company over the years, and sparked many opportunities for sales.

His tips for companies looking to be involved in Expo 2020 in to be well prepared and to approach it with a planned strategy.

“If you decide to participate you have to do a really good sell job on your management team, outlining all the pros and cons. And make sure you get buy-in from the very highest level.”

Do your homework on potential buyers too, he advised, and understand the culture of the market and the differences and nuances that market requires.

Sam Armory, GM Middle East and Africa for Orion Health, provided an excellent description of the business culture in the UAE. He describes a region that is going through a wave of innovation.

“The Saudis love to be first, or at least a close second, and there is a lot of money being spent on healthcare and education,” he said, “as well as renewable energy and aerospace.”

Armory acknowledged that there are a number of regional challenges to get to grips with – not least of which the 11-hour time difference, the cultural differences and the language barrier.

“But these challenges will be reduced as you spend time up there.”

Spend some time researching the market before you board a plane for the UAE he said.

“Visit trade events – there are lots of exciting places where you can showcase your technology.

There is even a Minister of Artificial Intelligence there – which reflects the UAE’s focus on technology.”

Other tips? Dress for success – wear a tie and make an effort. Drink the tea; don’t be discouraged by delays in deals. Embrace the differences – don’t be surprised if Emiratis interrupt a meeting to go off to pray. They will come back.

Being a tech company from New Zealand is also seen as a real positive, said Armory. “They see us as the Switzerland of healthcare IT. We’re a neutral country, they want to work with us. We’re different to US or UK companies – we come in with a different approach. We do a proof of concept; show them how it works in their own environment. They know we’re there not to just sign deals and walk away. We’re there to be a long-term trusted partner.”


More opportunities

NZTE Beachhead advisor Graham Hamilton has worked in the region for 42 years and seen massive changes take place in that time. People now have higher incomes and spend more on food in the Gulf region’s modern supermarkets, he said.

In the F&B sector he said the biggest change has been in the amount of food processed locally.

“In the 70s 95 percent of food was imported. Now there is quite a vibrant food production industry where they buy in raw materials and re-process them into added-value items,” he told the audience. There’s also a degree of repacking going on.”

“The Saudis have been well educated by the municipalities and food protection authorities about the date-coding of products – so every product sold in the Middle East and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) must have a production expiry date.”

Local production therefore means better expiry dates as there is no 40 days shipping time to factor in.

“Today about 80 percent of what’s sold in the supermarkets has a ‘made in GCC’ label on it,” he reported. “There’re also retailers manufacturing their own label.”

Hamilton sees a wide range of opportunities in the Gulf region – particularly in high-value meat products, as well as in agri-tech. He’s seen massive growth in dairy production, the fresh poultry market, vegetable and salad production, and hydroponics (a result of the decreasing amount of ground water).

“You may even be surprised to learn that they require three million tonnes of hay up there per year to feed livestock.”

His advice for Kiwi companies eyeing up the Gulf region is to go into the market with samples and understand what your competitors’ products are.

“Spend time meeting people who’re in the business; do a lot of blind tasting and comparative work.

And have people on the ground in the market, he said, “who’re young and energetic and really know your product”.

“The best research I can suggest for F&B firms is to go to the souk. A souk is the marketplace on the streets where you can talk to the real consumers and learn a lot.”


Addressing perceptions

To provide the Showcase audience with an accurate overview of how society’s changing in the UAE, Middle East Beachheads advisor and Emirati Nuha Safar shared some interesting statistics and observations – particularly around the rise of females in the workplace.

Seventy percent of university graduates across the UAE are now female; females occupy approximately 60 percent of public sector roles; there are nine female cabinet ministers, as well as a female head of the UAE equivalent to our Parliament.

“I’m proud to have lived in this phase of my life, where we have broken so many glass ceilings,” said Safar, adding that gender pay equality is next on her agenda.

As for the food and beverage market, she says Emiratis generally look for environmentally-friendly products with healthy ingredients. They can prefer organically grown products and are conscious of price discounts and cautious when it comes to plastic packaging. They also prefer basic, no-frills packaging over ‘fancy packaging’.

There’re no surprises when it comes to Saudi perceptions of New Zealand, however. Safar said we are known for quality products, but only associated with dairy and meat. As for agritech and technology in general – that’s not a sector Saudis associate with this country, she said.


Final words

The Showcase was wrapped up with a panel discussion based on questions supplied by the audience – which produced more great snippets of information to assist Kiwi exporters targeting the Gulf region.

These include:

  • Get on the ground up there as often as you can – three or four trips over a six-month period is recommended.
  • For players in the FMCG sector, it’s important to witness Emirati families out shopping in the weekend. This is the busiest shopping period, and you’ll find the experience enlightening.
  • The UAE is unique for its payday peaks and troughs, which impacts on demand.
  • Meet importers and distributors in person – get to know them, visit their families and their facilities.
  • Get a local SIM card for your phone because Emiratis are reluctant to call a New Zealand number. A lot of communication in the UAE also happens on WhatsApp Messenger.
  • Fridays are a ‘no-business’ day. The official weekend in the UAE is Friday and Saturday.
  • Rather than set up your own business in the UAE it may be better to work with a local partner, or partners, who understand the local culture.
  • Don’t form a partner relationship based on a ‘first date’ – go on a few more dates before making the decision to work (or not work) with them.
  • English is widely spoken within the business community in the UAE. No need to learn Arabic.


Photo: An artist’s impression of the New Zealand Pavilion at Expo 2020.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


Dishing up export possibilities

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

What’s mine is not yours

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

25 countries… and counting

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012