Ana I. Sánchez, agriculture and food journalist


The leading importer of food in the Persian Gulf and one of the area’s largest markets, with a population of 32 million. It is currently ranked fifth among the non-EU countries to which Spain exports fresh fruit and vegetables, after Brazil, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Canada. In the last five years, sales to Saudi Arabia have grown threefold and are now twenty times higher than those achieved a decade ago. Last year, volume increased by 17% to 53,791 tons and value was up by 14% to 55.2 million euros.

Despite these impressive percentages, fruit and vegetable exports to Saudi Arabia account for a mere 0.4% of all national exports, which totalled 12.6 million tons in 2017, valued at 12,704 million euros. According to data released by the Spanish Federation of Associations of Producers and Exporters of Fruits, Vegetables, Flowers and Live Plants (FEPEX), the European Union, led by Germany, is still the main destination for almost all Spanish exports, taking in 93%, while sales outside the community market totalled just 830,642 tons worth 944 million euros.

Nevertheless, FEPEX figures show that non-EU countries performed well during last year, growing by 4% in volume and 3% in value, while there was almost no YOY variation in the European Union, with very minor overall growth of just 0.5% and 1%.

There is no question that this was helped by an upward trend in countries like Saudi Arabia, particularly in 2014. “In 2013, shipments to Saudi Arabia equalled 17,137 tons with a value of 17.6 million euros; in 2014 this grew by 81% in volume to 31,043 tons and by 46% in value, to 25.8 million euros”, explained Begoña Jiménez, International Relations and Communication Director at FEPEX.

“In 2015, compared to 2014, exports grew by 30% in volume and 70% in value to 40,619 tons, worth 44 million euros. In 2016, compared to 2015, exports grew by a further 13% in volume and 10% in value to 45,963 tons and 48.3 million euros”, she added, highlighting the double-digit growth in trade with this country in the last five years.

Spain is also the number-two fruit and vegetable supplier to European Union countries, behind Italy and the Netherlands, respectively. However, it is ranked ninth among the countries exporting to the Arab market, which is led by Egypt, followed in order of importance by the United Arab Emirates, China, Jordan, the Netherlands, India, Australia and Turkey. When it comes to fruit, Egypt is also top of the list, while Spain comes in tenth after South Africa, the United States, the Philippines, India, Ecuador, Turkey, Italy and Chile.

In terms of species, citrus fruit and national apples are the EU’s top fruit exports to the Saudi market. In fact, citrus fruit sales in 2017, weighing 18,231 tons and worth 17 million euros, accounted for 97% of the total exported by European community countries. Spanish apple exports to Saudi Arabia totalled 9,542 tons and were worth 11.3 million euros. The third-most-important product destined for Saudi Arabia from Spain is lettuce. Last year it reached 8,874 tons, worth 8.8 million euros.

“Other products with significant volumes were apricots, with 4,192 tons and 5 million euros; onions, with 3,796 tons and 3 million euros, and cabbages with 2,264 tons and 3 million euros”, said Begoña Jiménez from FEPEX.

“Spanish products have a very good reputation, very similar to other EU products received by the country. In the case of Spain, importers are impressed by the professionalism, product quality and flexibility of national exporters compared to those in other countries with far more rigid production processes”, said Juan Balerdi, a market analyst at the Spanish Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

Juan Balerdi says that the growing demand for these products in Saudi Arabia is due to several factors: a booming local and expat population, the healthy eating trend, and changing tastes and food preferences supported by a higher income per capita, which enables people to choose higher quality imports rather than local produce.

“Added to this is the region’s dry climate, which, coupled with a lack of water sources, hinders the development of local fruit and vegetable production, thus increasing local dependency on imports”, explained the analyst.

According to data provided by Juan Balerdi, Saudi Arabia produces just above 3.2 million tons of fruit and vegetables, 57% of which are vegetables. It thus spends more than 2,200 million dollars a year on imports to meet internal demand, the equivalent of 1,790 million euros. “That’s why the government is encouraging local producers to invest in other countries with competitive advantages for producing these foods”, said Juan Balerdi.

Moreover, EU countries are gaining ground as fruit and vegetable suppliers to the Saudi market, in spite of the competition. In fact, in the last five years alone, exports have doubled from 84,528 tons in 2013 to 170,491 in 2017, with a value of almost 175 million euros. Spain, which ranks second, is nevertheless the fastest-growing country in the last five years, increasing exports by 210%. Ahead of Spain is Italy which, with 56,309 tons and an improvement of 113%, is finding it difficult to hold onto the top spot. The Netherlands, with 27,521 tons, and France, with 19,386, are the third and fourth export countries, having grown by 45% and 19%, respectively.

As well as Saudi Arabia, Spain is making progress with fruit and vegetable exports to other third countries, with significant improvements to 208% to Canada, 80% to Morocco, 67% to the United Arab Emirates and 64% to Brazil during the period. However, Saudi Arabia stands out from these countries, not only because of the superior improvement in volume, but also because of the sustained, progressive growth, year after year, evidence the excellent trade relationship between these countries.

Broken down by autonomous regions, although Andalusia produces and exports more fruit and vegetables than any other region, it is ranked fifth when it comes to trade with this country in the Persian Gulf. At the top of the list comes the Valencian Community, which leads sales with 39%, followed by Murcia, Catalonia and Extremadura. However, Andalusian exports to Saudi Arabia seem to be on the up and, in 2017, they doubled in value from 3 million to 6 million euros. According to figures published by the Extenda Business Promotion Network office in Dubai, sales of citrus fruits soared by 77% to 3.1 million euros compared to 2016, while stone fruit sales improved by 64% and persimmon exports tripled.

The Saudi market is proving interesting to companies like Unica Group, Spain’s number one fruit and vegetable exporter, which started doing business in Saudi Arabia in 2017. “We started with some sea and air shipments, mainly fresh peppers”, said Business Development manager Diego Calderón, who agreed that the market has a lot of potential.

When it comes to trade regulations, Extenda Dubai says that the requirements are strict. “First you need a visa, which is issued based on a letter of invitation to the company sent by a company or a person from Saudi Arabia, and that’s before you can even visit the country to sound out the market”, he explained. In addition to this, there are tariffs on imported food products, generally 5%, as well as non-tariff-related obstacles to trade, such as health and phytosanitary certificates.

Despite the barriers against entry and current competition, Saudi Arabia is nevertheless a very attractive market. “It is a net importer of fruit and vegetables, making it a business opportunity for Spanish industry”, says Juan Barlerdi, who underlined that the Great Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), a free trade agreement among Arab states, makes it difficult for Spain and other Community countries to flourish in the zone.

The Extenda Business Promotion Network office in Dubai says that food imports into Saudi Arabia account for 65% of total consumption in the Persian Gulf region and 15% of all acquisitions from foreign countries. The Saudi market is also “one of the most extensive in the zone, with an annual growth rate of 3.3% and a very young population that is quick to adopt Western trends and lifestyle habits, including food”. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, food sales are growing at a pace of 6% per year, and over 60 billion euros worth of food will be consumed in 2018.