Interest in plant-based eating has grown dramatically in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over the past five years, with new products arriving on supermarket shelves and menus every month. According to Global Data the value of meat-substitute products in the UAE rose from $8.2m to $12m in 2019 and is predicted to reach $15m in 2023. Many vegan brands familiar in the West are now available in the UAE such as Beyond Burger, Meatless Farm, Impossible Burger, V-Bites, Violife and Quorn.
Divyesh Bhatia is the Co-founder of Vegarian, a Dubai-based vegan food distribution operation in the Middle East, South East Asia and the UK. He partners with vegan brands across Europe, helping them grow their businesses by supplying their products to retailers and foodservice companies, and handling distribution, logistics, warehousing and sales and marketing. Vegarian’s current portfolio includes Meatless Farm, VFC, Mr Freed, and Fellow Creatures. He explains: “When a plant-based company is looking for someone on the ground I’m here to help them distribute and promote and their products, whether for retail or foodservice. We have contacts with the relevant retailers, hotels, restaurants, and cafes. I act as a partner on the ground who represents their best interests and helps grow their brand.”
The UAE’s interest in plant-based food is driven by several factors. Due to limited arable land, climate issues and water shortages, around 90% of food is imported, with produce coming from South Africa, India, Europe and beyond. The market is heavily influenced by dietary trends overseas.
The UAE’s unusual demographic lends itself to an openness to different foods. With a population of 9.8m, around 90% of inhabitants are expats. The community is multicultural including many Europeans and South Asians who bring their culture and food preferences. South Asians bring a tradition of vegetarian cooking, with around 35% of people in India estimated to be vegetarian and many more avoiding meat on certain days.
The most populous city, Dubai, is a popular destination for social-media-influencing visitors, whose posts enhance its reputation as a foodie destination. There are more than 150 vegan-friendly restaurants in the city. This includes fully vegan places like Seva, Bounty Beets and Soul Sante. In addition, Emirates airline has recently announced a multimillion-dollar investment to improve vegan options in its onboard catering.
Divyesh Bhatia explains that interest in plant-based food is driven largely by health and environmental concerns: “I’ve noticed a change in attitude since the pandemic started. People want a healthier diet. Many consumers are taking a more conscious approach in what they choose to eat. People are aware of the links between Covid and animal agriculture, and that eating meat can cause health problems. There is also a strong interest in sustainability and there are initiatives from the government and retailers to support sustainable choices, such the banning single use plastics. The government is also supporting the manufacture of cell-based meats and non-dairy cheese.”
A recent example of this is government support from the Ministry of Economy’s NextGen FDI initiative, which is enabling the development of a new production facility for animal-free dairy in Abu Dhabi. The innovative US/Australian company Change Foods will be scaling up production of animal-free casein milk protein at the plant. This will speed up the production of dairy-alternatives that are bio-identical to their dairy equivalent, resulting in more realistic vegan cheese in shops.
Divyesh Bhatia points out that making vegan food appealing to non-vegans is crucial for the success of the sector: “There are not so many pure vegans here, but plenty of consumers who are leaning towards being flexitarian. One of the tasks for us is educating local consumers. In the past there has been a stigma around vegan food. People didn’t expect to like it. That’s why whenever we onboard new products we are very selective regarding quality. We are always looking to bring in new products to fill gaps in the market. For example, we don’t yet have enough vegan creams and plant-based honey alternatives. Consumers here like variety and to try new things so we would love to see new innovative products.”
For brands looking to enter the UAE market Divyesh Bhatia is keen to point out that just like everywhere else, price is an important factor: “When people hear about Dubai and expats they assume that everyone wants luxury brands. But contrary to popular belief consumers are price sensitive. I tell potential brands that we want to price products close to the non-vegan counterparts. For example, we are working with Fellow Creatures who produce vegan Swiss chocolate and we explained our thinking to their team when signing them and priced it in the range of other non-vegan chocolates. We want everybody to try it so we set a price that will encourage consumers to take a chance to explore vegan and plant-based options.”
As demand grows and plant-based food scales up, he is optimistic about the future growth of sector: “When products become more appealing because they taste great and are a reasonable price retailers and restaurants really take an interest. In terms of eating out – in the last six months we’ve seen a lot of chains adding plant-based options and several new plant-based restaurants. That is a big indicator of how consumer tastes are changing, and it is very nice to see as someone who supplies solely vegan and plant-based products in the UAE.”