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Article: Exploring Saudi Arabia

Paul Reed, February 2020

As a country with a ferociously hot climate, Saudi Arabia relies heavily on imports to maintain its food supplies. The country also faces a looming demographic imbalance, in which a top-heavy population can rely less and less on the resources and tax revenues of the young.

Exploring Saudi Arabia

Saudi now has to cope with a rapidly accumulating burden of disease related to population aging, westernised diets and more sedentary lifestyles. Sharp increases in cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis and other age-associated conditions, as well as surging levels of obesity and diabetes all give cause for alarm. 

“Around 57% of men and 41% of women are overweight or obese in Saudi, and around 38 million adults are living with diabetes.”

All of these trends, as well as cultural shifts such as the growing presence of women as wage earners and western social media influences, are opening up opportunities for the nutritional-health market.

However, companies looking to cash in on a new wave of health consciousness in Saudi Arabia must negotiate carefully around a number of challenges to growth, such as stringent regulation of health claims for foods and a government that strongly encourages health maintenance through basic dietary adjustments, rather than through nutritional supplements. 

A sliver of hope exists though, in the form of a draft report from the Saudi Food and Drug Authority. In ‘Requirements for Health Supplements’, the SFDA recently proposed a new, less stringent registration requirement for registering natural herbal and health products which don’t have any medicinal activity. A change in the regulations could bring new opportunities to nutritional companies offering these types of products.

While the current regulations may present some issues, we believe market contenders should pay close attention to niche categories, such as young body-conscious consumers, gym-goers, people who want to lose weight and wealthier Saudis who favour premium western brands. Other groups to target could include those with a determined health need such as a vitamin D deficiency or problems with digestive health. Of course, the swelling ranks of the aging will also be looking for preventative health measures to keep them fit and well. Given Saudi Arabia’s current preoccupation with health and healthy eating in particular, the prospects for growth in nutrition health products look strong. According to one recent study, for example, 22% of Saudis already take nutritional supplements. The regulatory system may take some time to catch up with its counterparts in Europe or the US. In the meantime, manufacturers may have to stick to relatively generic health claims, avoiding more ambitious territory such as explicit disease-risk reduction statements.

All the fundamentals are in place for dynamic growth of nutritional health products in Saudi Arabia. With the right informed and targeted strategies, international players can both profit from that growth and foster it for the long term.

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