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UK cheese sales buck trend in F&B exports to the GCC

The amount of cheese sent from the UK to the GCC was up by almost half cheese stall market Creative Commons/Stefan Palčo
Appetite for British cheese in the Gulf is growing, while exports of whisky were down by almost 19%
  • Cheese exports to GCC up by half
  • F&B exports from UK down 7%
  • UK ministers upbeat on FTA

British cheese continues to grow in popularity with regional consumers, but it could not prevent total food and drink exports from the UK to the GCC declining in 2023.

Exports were down by almost 7 percent year on year to £816 million ($1 billion).

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attributed the drop in exports to a slowdown in the post-Covid recovery, although they stressed the figures had not yet been adjusted for inflation.

The greatest drop was in exports of whisky, which fell by more than 18 percent on 2022 figures.

The amount of cheese sent to the region was up by almost half, according to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Overseas Trade Statistics.

The UAE took the lion’s share of UK exports, worth £420 million, although this remained down around 4 percent year on year, with neighbouring Saudi Arabia claiming £221 million (down 8 percent).

Oliver Christian, trade commissioner for the Middle East and Pakistan, remained upbeat. 

Figures are above 2019 levels and Christian pointed towards the huge diversification efforts going on in Saudi Arabia as a potential opportunity for UK food and drink exporters.

“Saudi is going to be a huge growth market for us,” he said.

Free trade agreements

The UK and GCC countries finished the sixth round of negotiations on a free trade agreement on February 9, with “good progress” made on the draft treaty text.

If a free trade agreement is implemented, the number of tariffs on UK exports will be reduced or removed altogether on products including cereals, which face tariffs up to 25 percent, chocolate (up to 15 percent), baking products (12 percent), sweet biscuits (10 percent) and smoked salmon (5 percent).

“We hope this will give consumers here an even better value product that also supports our suppliers and our farmers and our producers in the UK,” Christian said.

Greg Hands MP, the UK minister of state for trade policy, is travelling to the Middle East to attend the 13th World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference next week in Abu Dhabi, where further news on the free trade agreement is expected to be revealed.

The UK is currently participating in Gulfood in Dubai, the largest conference and exhibition dedicated to the food and beverage sector, with 78 companies on its government stand and more than 100 across the wider UK delegation.

The UK exports to 220 countries across the world, with the industry valued at £25 billion.

The UAE’s food and beverage sector generated more than $16 billion in retail sales in 2023, including fresh and packaged food, according to data from Euromonitor.

Consumer spending on food through ecommerce channels reached over $1 billion last year and is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 9.5 percent between 2023 and 2027.

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