Saudi Arabia Market Trends & Culture Changes 2022

Change and transformation

Heading back from her latest Gulf trip our Founder Victoria reflects on her recent trip out to Saudi Arabia and the seismic changes that are happening in the country currently.

If you had told me 5 years ago that I would be travelling as frequently as I am to Saudi Arabia and loving it, then I wouldn’t have believed it! It is a far cry from my first visit back in 2017 when I was chaperoned by a male support for my meetings and wasn’t able to really do anything beyond having business meetings with men and staying in a compound.

Fast forward and in 2022 I can move around freely in the major cities, without an abaya (the traditional black dress most women wear in Saudi Arabia) and even use a mixed gym and eat out in places where designated Families and Singles (by which they meant Males not Females) sections are a thing of the past.

Plus, whilst the majority of who I am meeting are male this is not exclusively the case and this trip has seen me meet several impressive ladies who are really shaking up the Food and drink industry in particular.

Every time I come back, even when it is just a few months apart I can sense, see and feel the changes as the country moves to a destination where its young local population want to stay (or return back to after further education overseas) and there is a desire to attract more and more visitors facilitated by the easy online Tourism visa many nationalities can now apply for.

This time I took the opportunity to visit both Riyadh and Jeddah and spend time visiting retail and health outlets as well as buzzing around the cities having meetings with retailers, distributors, speciality health clinics, sports nutrition experts and more.

So where are the major changes happening?

Female empowerment is shifting the consumer buying behaviour

With more women entering the workplace this has evidently had an impact in several ways.

Firstly, it has given Women a greater level of purchasing power. In doing so this has seen a surge in consumerism, particularly with goods that have carved out a strong digital marketing presence. Influencer marketing is particularly effective in this market and brands seeking to enter the market should not ignore the power that this channel has on this young demographic.

Another factor has been changing social habits and the ability to being outside the home more freely. As a Muslim country when worktime ends there is an influx of young single female Saudis heading out instead of home and enjoying a multitude of food and drinks together with friends in a way they never could before. Coffee shops and restaurants in the Kingdom are certainly benefitting from this as I witnessed first-hand in an upmarket low carb coffee shop in Riyadh. With many working Saudis opting to dine out more often, spend in this channel is increasing. For brands and suppliers in the food service and HORECA sectors this also presents more opportunities than before and exponentially so since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Convenience over cooking

Whilst the Arab nation is known for its bulk buying habits and this is still present, there has been some changes to this. Of course, the average Saudi family is much larger than in Europe and this should not be overlooked. Having said that as modern working life picks back up post Covid and a return to the offices occurs then convenience when it comes to food and drink consumption is king.

Whether this is via lunchtime meals delivered direct to workers in offices via Apps or a much easier to prepare evening meal than previously, habits are certainly changing here which is driving popularity in certain specific food categories such as ready meals and food to go sections.

Saudization is another factor having a major impact on the economy and the working population. As part of a government led initiative, this refers to the percentage of Saudi nationals working within a particular company or job function. These numbers are continuously increasing and ensuring job opportunities to the local people, with equally a drive to see more females in the workplace too. Coupled with the introduction of an Expat tax a few years ago then this has led to and been a driving factor in the balance between Expats and native population being heavily weighted in the latter amongst the 35 million citizens. A completely reverse situation of what you will find in other countries like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. What you also need to bear in mind with your marketing approach in these markets as a result.

A drive for local manufacturing

Over 80% of food is imported into the Kingdom

Over 80% of food is imported into the Kingdom and the country, like most across the arid Middle East, relies on developed import network to feed its nation. However, along with Saudization, there is another Vision 2030 drive to decrease reliance on external global supply chains and become more self- sustained. As such the government is financially incentivising companies based in the territory to seek and invest in local manufacturing infrastructure.

One such example given my one of the contacts was a project they become involved in to reinvigorate the use of dates. Seen as out of fashion, or outdated(!), by the younger generation, this contact set about incorporating dates into the production of more attractive modern day food stuff. By finding ways to make the date trendy or relevant to the young this helps to keep the date farms in business and not seeing threatened decline.

With this drive and incentives to encourage more local production this is a factor brand and suppliers should bear in mind when considering if entering this market could be a good business decision.

All in all, it was another incredibly insightful trip to the Kingdom with lots of changes to bear in mind if you are considering entering or expanding into this territory as an export market.

Anyone who knows me or has had a meeting with me knows I am an avid note taker (usually not legible to anyone else but me!) As a parting cue here are some of my favourite notes taken from the twenty plus meetings, I managed to squeeze into my trip from those I had the privilege to meet:

  • ‘A good distributor doesn’t mean you need to be good at brand building.’

  • ‘ We are the Kingdom’s best kept secret.’

  • ‘Begin with the challenges and clear category gaps in this market. Be the solution provider for these and then you can really win here.’ 

  • ‘It doesn’t get any easier. Instead, you will just get better and better.’

Finally, thanks to everyone who I met on this trip. From those who were happy to connect face to face after the pandemic hiatus to those new people who kindly gave up their time to see me, this British lady with a backpack full of samples! To finally the random encounter of the guy who helped me recharge my phone when it died in his shop and offered me a free protein strawberry ice-cream whilst I waited for the taxi! Until next time Saudi, you’ve been as incredible as always!

If you’d like more information on the Saudi Arabia market you can check out our other blog posts dedicated to the Pharmacies of Saudi Arabia or more general information on the health and wellness market in the Gulf.  If you are looking for more personalised advice and support on how to successfully work in Saudi Arabia, please contact us.

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