Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Market Profile

Market Overview:

The Middle East regional market covers the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC-6) members Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. Despite the recent declines in U.S. export values, the UAE and Saudi Arabia remains the 15th and 20th largest markets respectively from the U.S. for consumer foods and are frequently in the top 20 of most major processed food export categories.  Their import share is well over 82% of the regions total, although food products may be transiting through the Emirates into other GCC and/or Middle Eastern markets.

Private consumer spending is being weighed down by the 5% Value Added tax (VAT) and rising living costs as a result of higher electricity tariffs and gasoline prices introduced in 2018.  For businesses, levies on expatriate labor and rising input costs pose additional challenges.  While on the monetary policy side, the expected three rate hikes in the U.S. this year will translate into higher interest rates in Saudi given the U.S. dollar peg - this would raise the cost of borrowing for businesses and consumers alike.

The U.S. has Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with two of the six GCC-6 countries.  The U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement (FTA) entered into force on August 1, 2006.  Bahrain is the first U.S. FTA partner on the Arabian Peninsula and the third FTA partner among Arab countries (Jordan and Morocco are the others).  The U.S.-Oman FTA, which went into force on January 1, 2009, significantly opened U.S. trade with Oman in goods and services by eliminating most tariff and nontariff barriers.  Under the market access provisions of the FTA, almost all consumer and industrial goods and 87% of all agricultural tariff lines were given duty-free access.  Both countries agreed to phase out all tariffs on the remaining eligible goods by 2019.

U.S. exports of consumer food products to the GCC-6 members decreased 3% to nearly US$1.7 billion in 2018.  This partner group is a solid importer of U.S. processed foods, totaling just over US$1.1 billion in 2018, a decline of 5% from the same period in the prior year.  Top U.S. processed food exports to the region in 2018 included:

  • Food Preparations
  • Processed/Prepared Dairy Products
  • Fats and Oils
  • Condiments and Sauces
  • Snack Foods
  • Processed Vegetables and Pulses
  • Chocolate and Confectionery
  • Non-Alcoholic Beverages

The GCC confers special trade and investment privileges to member countries. Processed food products manufactured in any of these countries can be exported to other GCC countries duty-free.  The GCC formally instituted its Customs Union over a decade ago.  A 5% across-the-board common external tariff now applies to most imported food and agricultural products that enter from non-GCC suppliers.  In 2018 they began applying an additional 5% value added tax (VAT).  So effectively the cost of importing to a buyer has now doubled, and also limits consumer spending.   

Opportunities and Challenges in the GCC-6 Region

The advantages for U.S. exporters of consumer ready food products to the region are numerous.  They include:

  • A high quality image of U.S. products.
  • High regional per capita incomes.
  • Broad familiarity with U.S. culture.
  • There is an increasing interest in U.S. products, as well as an increasing number of tourists to Bahrain, Oman and the U.A.E. in particular; and a U.S. military presence in Kuwait and Qatar.
  • There are also consistently low tariffs and relatively transparent import procedures. 

The challenges in the region for U.S. exporters are also apparent:  

  • There is significant competition from producers in European Union (EU), Asia, Australia, New Zealand and, increasingly, from local and regional processors.
  • There is also the large Indian subcontinent population with easy access to "home grown" products and modest income.
  • U.S. goods are viewed as those with a higher price, one in part caused by higher freight rates for U.S. foods compared to other regional suppliers.
  • Importers often want to start with small quantities and consolidate shipments, and often find there is a lack of interest from some U.S. exporters who are not willing to entertain small orders, as well as meet local labeling requirements.

The Gulf Cooperation Council-5, (the aforementioned less Saudi Arabia), countries covered by USDA’s Office of Agricultural Affairs, OAA, in Dubai, hereinafter referred to as “Post” are a relatively homogeneous group of small nations with a total population of just over 22.9 million.  Energy is the main source of revenue and per capita income levels are high.  All GCC 5 countries experienced economic growth in 2018.  

Among the GCC-5 countries, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) with its larger population, larger influx of tourists and businessmen coupled with its vibrant re-export activities is the largest market for food products, followed by Kuwait.  Within the U.A.E., Dubai is the country’s commercial center and the region’s trade hub.  Efficient infrastructure (sea, land and air ports), large free trade zones and a strong business orientation make Dubai an important commercial center in the Middle East.  Dubai derives sizable revenue from the re-export business and invests heavily in infrastructure, while luring foreign investment and buyers.  Other countries in the region and other Emirates in the UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi, the capital, are following Dubai’s lead and model to improve their infrastructure and attract business interests.  

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