Italy was the guest of honour recently at the Middle East food sector's biggest event of the year, Gulfood in Dubai. The Italian companies taking part have not failed to spot a big opportunity knocking.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) imports more than 80% of its food, making it a springboard to south-east Asian markets. Its position is also of strategic importance because it can be used for 're-exports' to Iran, which is subject to increasingly strict international sanctions because of its nuclear programme.
''The UAE spends around $3 billion to import 80 per cent of its food requirements,'' said UAE Foreign Trade Minister Sheik Lubna Al Qasimi. ''Imports will reach 8.4 billion in 2020, with an annual growth of 5.4 per cent up until 2015." This estimate could actually be conservative, with Issa Al Ghurair, the president of the company of the same name, saying the real figure might be twice as high. ''Demand could grow by as much as 10 per cent because it does not just depend on the domestic market, but also on the market over the border," he explained.
"The sanctions introduced against Iran have opened prospects for re-exportation.
''Italian exports have been growing constantly in recent years and were up 28.4% in the first 10 months of 2011".
Confectionary producer Antonelli has been doing business in the Gulf area for more than 10 years. Its range of brands is continually expanding and now includes canned products, mainly tomatoes, sauces and legumes.
Cirio also sees its presence on the UAE market growing, despite some difficulties caused by the locals' lack of knowledge of certain products.
Other companies have reported the same problem.
''Quality is not as well appreciated as it should be,'' said Pino Cipolla, export director of olive oil producer Pietro Coricelli. A spokesman for Pasta Garofalo agreed.
''In areas where pasta is eaten, it is completely overcooked, so it is difficult to justify the price of a type of pasta that you cannot overcook,'' he said. Food and beverages account for most of Italy's exports to the region, although related businesses do well, too, with sales booming of products such as pizza ovens and equipment to make coffee and pasta.