Arab Regions as a Potential Market for Malaysian Tropical Fruits

Arab Regions as a Potential Market for Malaysian Tropical Fruits

Published: 2022.08.31
Accepted: 2022.08.23
11
Economic and Social Science Research Centre, Malaysian Agriculture Research and Development Institute (MARDI)
Former Director
Strategic Planning and Innovation Management Centre, Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)
Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)
Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI)

ABSTRACT

The Arab region represents 23 countries with more than 400 million people. This region is an emerging market for agricultural products that include rice, fruits, and vegetables. Malaysia aspires to expand the export of its tropical fruits to this market. A team of researchers from Malaysia conducted a study in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman recently to understand the market scenario and analyze the competitiveness of Malaysia's tropical fruits. The study revealed that the competition for tropical fruits in the Arab region is very stiff, as many countries export the same commodity to the same market. The market of tropical fruits in the Arab region is diversified in terms of price, variety of fruits, and product presentation. The same commodity is sold at higher prices than others because it is imported from different countries. Some items are sold fresh, while the others have been processed or minimally processed. Malaysia's tropical fruits, including pineapple, watermelon, and papaya, are well accepted by consumers in that region. Malaysia also exported other commodities, such as guava, jack fruit, star fruits, and rambutan, which indicate they have a great potential to be marketed in this region. Malaysia needs strategies to enhance Arab consumers' awareness of tropical fruits from Malaysia. Malaysia also needs to export products that meet the consumers' needs in terms of physical characteristics and offers a competitive price.

Keywords: Malaysian export fruits, market intelligence, Arab countries, competitiveness, gain export

INTRODUCTION

Arab regions are countries where most people speak Arabic (Arabic-speaking countries). It covers the area from the Atlantic Ocean near northern Africa east to the Arabian Sea. Its northern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, while the southern part faces the Indian Ocean. The term "Arab" often connotes the Arabian Peninsula, but the more significant (and more populous) part of the Arab World is North Africa. Most of these countries are in the Northern, Western, and Eastern Africa. UNESCO identifies 23 Arab countries with a population of more than 400 million.

The Arab region is an emerging market of agricultural products that includes rice, fruits, and vegetables. Given that the area is extremely hot and humid, the regions obtained tropical fruits from other parts of the world, especially from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the world's 11th largest tropical fruit importer. The United Arab Emirates imports tropical fruits valued at more than US$260.00 million, Qatar (US$49.60 million), and Oman US$53.00 million in 2021.

Malaysia takes the opportunity from the enormous population of the Arab region to expand its export of tropical fruits. Malaysia started to export its tropical fruits to Arab countries in the early 2000. Malaysia focused its markets on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the political cooperation of six countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The GCC is better known among the world economies for having a more dynamic and politically stable market compared to other Arab countries. Since 2008, United Arab Emirates has become one of Malaysia's largest trading partners among the GCC countries, with a total trade of around Dirham 21.6 billion (US$5.88 billion). Therefore, Malaysia aspires to expand its tropical fruits market to the Arab regions. Malaysia and the GCC signed the negotiations and a free trade agreement (FTA) in 2011. The agreement's implementation between Malaysia and the GCC was delayed due to several issues such as political uncertainty (Arab Spring), the global financial crisis, and falling oil prices.

The Malaysian government intends to resume the FTA cooperation in the interest of the economy. Furthermore, in line with the government's intention to expand the market for agricultural products in the GCC countries, a study to assess the potential of the fruit market was conducted in the UAE, Oman, and Qatar. Findings from this study are essential to obtain market intelligence information and enable the government to determine the direction and strategy in order to properly market fruits to the Arab region.

TROPICAL FRUITS EXPORT

Global trade in tropical fruits has expanded to reach an aggregate export volume of nearly 8 million tons in 2019. Trade in tropical fruits generates substantial income for smallholder producers and significant earnings for many producing countries, including Malaysia. In addition, strong demand growth in key importing countries has supported great investments in productivity improvements and area expansion in supplying countries.

 In 2020, tropical fruits were the world's 25th most traded product, with a total trade of US$14.9 billion. Between 2019 and 2020, the exports of tropical fruits decreased by 1.55%, from US$15.2 billion to US$14.9 billion. Export volumes of fresh tropical fruits have displayed the most rapid average annual growth rates among internationally traded food commodities. They are supported by low or non-tariff barriers in many countries. Advances in transportation, trade agreements, and shifting consumer preferences favoring these fruits have supported the trade growth. In 2018, the average tariff for tropical fruits was 16%, making it the 163rd lowest tariff using the HS4 product classification. The countries with the lowest taxes include Mauritius (0%), the United Arab Emirates (0%), Hong Kong (0%), Kuwait (0%), and Oman (0%).

 Malaysia is one of the exporters of tropical fruits in the world. Malaysia exports more than 600,000 tons of tropical fruits to the world markets. The major export destinations for Malaysia's tropical fruits are Singapore, China, and the Arab countries, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Malaysia plans to expand its fruit export markets to the UAE, Oman, and Qatar. The diversification of export markets will enhance the fruit industry and increase Malaysia's revenue. 

Socioeconomic Profile of Selected Arab Countries

In general, most Arab countries are developed and prosperous. They have an abundance of resources, especially petroleum and natural gas. Some countries are booming because they are tourist destinations. As a result, the local people received a higher income and had high purchasing power. At the same time, many foreign workers, especially from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South East Asia, live and work there, bringing together their culture and eating habits.

 A study was carried out to assess the potential market of tropical fruits from Malaysia in the UAE, Oman, and Qatar. A group of researchers recently visited Dubai, Muscat, and Doha, these countries' capital cities. Consumer preferences and behaviors were obtained through a market survey conducted in 14 selected supermarkets and other retail market premises. Product observation was also carried out at the supermarkets, wet markets, fruit stalls, and grocery stores where tropical fruits are marketed. The survey was conducted in three market categories: premium, mid-range supermarket, and wet markets, and the researchers interviewed the importers, wholesalers, and supermarket managers. The study aims to evaluate the tropical fruit market scenario in these countries. The researchers collected information on the type of fruits marketed in these countries, the price offered by sellers, and the packaging and promotion carried out by supermarkets to appeal to consumers to buy tropical fruits.

United Arab Emirates

For nearly four decades, the UAE has transformed rapidly from a traditional Arab country to a metropolitan country with the sophistication of world-class infrastructure. The UAE was established in December 1971 from a coalition of seven federations: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, and Umm Al Quwain (Karim, 2011). Among the primary sources of the UAE's economy are oil, petroleum, and natural gas, especially in Abu Dhabi and other regions. At the same time, Dubai is known for its tourism, business, import, export, transshipment, and services activities. Dubai is the hub of entry and exit of Arab countries for all international trade. 

Qatar

Qatar is a country located in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula next to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. Known as the wealthiest country in the world, in 2017 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Qatar's economic resources are from petroleum, oil, and natural gas, which account for 50% of gross domestic product (GDP), 85% of export earnings and 70% of government revenue (Economy Watch, 2020). Qatar is one of the wealthiest economies in the world based on GDP per capita, ranking between 5th  and 7th  in world rankings for 2015 and 2016 according to data compiled by the World Bank, United Nations, and IMF.

Oman

The country of Oman is located on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula in West Asia and is an essential route to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Oman shares borders with the UAE in the northwest, Saudi Arabia in the west, and Yemen in the southwest. Its strategic position makes this traditional Arab country a fast-developing country. It is categorized as a high-income country and listed as one of the 70 most peaceful countries in the world (Staff, 2018). Oman's economic resources are oil and petroleum, and gas revenues which account for 45% of GDP, services (38.5%), manufacturing (16.6%), and agriculture and fisheries (1.3%).

Since the establishment of GCC until the COVID-19 global pandemic, the countries had posted strong annual growth and fiscal surplus, with UAE remaining the most diversified economy in the region with GDP growth of 3.1% in 2021 (rebound) after the recession -6% in 2020. Among the six GCC countries, the UAE is the second highest GDP country after Saudi Arabia, followed by Qatar. Oman was ranked 5th. In 2020, the UAE's GDP amounted to US$359 billion, Qatar's US$146.4 billion, and Oman's US$72.1 billion. In contrast, Qatar had the highest per capita income among GCC countries, with an income of US$124,130 annually, followed by UAE (US$75,300) and Oman (US$41,230). Qatar's small population makes the country's per capita income the highest among GCC countries, even in the world (Milken Institute, 2020).

Regarding purchasing power parity (PPP), Qatar has the highest purchasing power per individual. Consumers in Qatar can afford to spend a total of US$93,251 per year to meet their needs and wants. The other GCC countries are between US$ 31,117 (Oman) and US$ 66,766 (UAE). This position shows that, in general, the GCC countries have high incomes and purchasing power and open up tremendous business opportunities to countries that export quality foodstuffs, including tropical fruits.

POTENTIAL OF MALAYSIA’S TROPICAL FRUITS

Malaysia has exported fruits to more than 13 countries in the Arab region. They are the Arab Republic of Yemen, the Arab Republic of Syria, the UAE, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Egypt, and Bahrain. The fruits exported to the Arab region include pineapple, watermelon, papaya, and jackfruit. Pineapple is the most widely exported commodity comprising the MD2, N36, and Josapine varieties.

Exports of tropical fruits from Malaysia to the Arab region, particularly to GCC countries, decreased by 21.6%, from US$3.34 million (2018) to the previous year, US$ 4.265 million (2017). However, in 2021, total exports rose by 35.7%, from US$2.88 million (2020) to US$3.91 million in 2021 (Figure 1). UAE has become Malaysia’s major export destination in GCC countries, with a total share of more than 80%. The average value of fruit exports to the UAE increased by 48.6%, from US$2.153 million in 2020 to US$3.199 million in 2021. The main exports include pineapple, watermelon, starfruit, and jackfruit.

From the aspect of export compliance, especially the sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, the Arab region is among the markets that are easy to enter because it sets minimum requirements. No special treatment is required to export fresh products. However, the products must be free from any plant diseases and pests. Exporters also need to comply with protocol standards such as providing a phytosanitary certificate, sales invoices, packaging list, exporting license, phytosanitary certificate, certificate of origin, certificate of conformity, export permit, bill of landing, and customs form No 2.

Watermelon

Watermelon is one of the most prominent imported tropical fruits by the UAE, Qatar and Oman. In 2018, the UAE imported watermelon valued at more than US$31.40 million, while Qatar (US$14.88 million) and Oman (US$2.16 million). Watermelon exporting countries to the UAE include Iran, Australia, Brazil, China, Jordan, Malaysia, and others. Malaysia was ranked 17th  in the watermelon market in the UAE. Malaysia exported more than 1,414 tons of watermelon valued at more than US$927,140 to the UAE in 2018. However, the quantity of watermelon exported to the UAE has dropped to 1,158 tons in 2020, valued at US$707,436.00. The severe competition from other exporting countries has reduced the price of watermelon in the UAE.

The suppliers of watermelons have increased due to increased demand from consumers in the Arab region. In 2016, only nine countries exported watermelon to the UAE. The number of exporters has increased to 18 countries in 2020. The same situation occurs in Qatar and Oman. The number of exporters has increased because they saw the business opportunity from these marketplaces. The exported fruits have different quality and market prices. For example, watermelon from Iran is sold at US$0.61/kg, while watermelon from Spain is sold at US$8.44/kg. This situation shows that the fruit exported to the Arab region has a diverse market segment. Surveys among consumers in all three countries show that consumers generally prefer sweet melons (have a sweetness index of 10-12 Brix), have a crunchy texture, and are seedless. Honeydew is also widely marketed in the UAE, Oman, and Qatar. This commodity is imported from many countries such as Australia, Iran, and Morocco. This commodity is also very popular with consumers and has a high demand. The higher consumer demand in these countries provides an excellent opportunity for Malaysia to explore the honeydew market in the Arab region.

Pineapple

Pineapple is one of the most traded tropical fruits in the UAE. The UAE imported more than 59,836 tons of pineapples valued at more than US$48.06 million in 2020. More than 25 exporters from all over the world are exporting pineapple to UAE that reflected a severe competition in this industry. The Philippines dominates the UAE's pineapple export market, leaving Malaysia in third place. A new competitor for pineapple in the UAE market is Indonesia. Malaysia exported more than 551.19 tons of pineapples valued at more than US$321,726.00 in 2020.

In contrast, the Philippines exported more than 227,511 tons of pineapples valued at more than US$17.213 million. Malaysia and the Philippines exported the same variety of pineapple, the MD2. In addition, Malaysia also exported the Josapine variety, which is smaller in size. Generally, the price of pineapples from Malaysia is lower than that of the Philippines. Malaysia's pineapples are sold at US$0.583 per kilogram, compared to the Philippines (US$0.75/kg). Since both countries offer the same variety of pineapple, which is the MD2, Malaysia has a better competitive advantage in marketing pineapple in this region.

Papaya 

Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India are the leading exporters of papaya to the UAE. These are the competitors of Malaysia's papaya in the Arab region. These countries generally exported small fruits, while Malaysia exported long and oval fruits. The competitiveness of Malaysia's papaya has deteriorated due to the collapse of the papaya industry in Malaysia since 2006. Despite the blooming papaya business, the Malaysian papaya industry was devastated in 2006 by papaya dieback disease, which affected approximately 800 hectares of papaya farms. Malaysia only exported more than 2,644 tons of papaya in 2020, valued at more than US$80,036.00. In comparison, Malaysia exported the same commodity for more than 29,400 tons, valued at more than US$774,250 in 2015. Malaysia still has the potential to compete in marketing papaya by exporting more and better quality papaya. 

Oman and Qatar are two emerging markets for tropical fruits. In general, the importation of tropical fruits in these countries are still low. For example, Qatar only imported pineapples valued around US$5.0 million in 2020, while Oman imported the same commodity valued about US$2.9 million. The value of Malaysia's fruit exports to Oman and Qatar is also low, less than 1% compared to exports to the UAE. Overall, fruit exports to Oman and Qatar have shown an increase from year to year since 2012. Watermelon and jackfruit are the favorite fruits for consumers in both countries because they indicate an increase in quantity and value. The value of pineapple exports to Qatar has increased from US$5,000.00 in 2012 to US$17,966.00 in 2018, an increase of more than 259.3% in 6 years. The export value of watermelon has increased from US$21,714.00 in 2012 to more than US$30,814.00 in 2017, an increase of more than 41.6% in 5 years. Oman and Qatar obtained their tropical fruits from Dubai, UAE. Dubai is the largest port in the Arab region and receives agricultural products from all over the world. Dubai is a trading hub in the Middle East. High trade to Dubai makes transportation costs cheaper. Fruits exported to Dubai are re-exported to other Arab regions. 

Malaysia plans to promote its tropical fruits to importers from Oman and Qatar. Malaysia carried out many trade missions and promotions in these two countries. Since Oman and Qatar have many sources of tropical fruits, Malaysia is optimistic that it can increase its market share by exporting the products directly to these markets. The record shows that the variety of fruits exported to Qatar has increased over time. For example, Malaysia only exported five fruits: watermelon, pineapple, mangosteen, rambutan, and jack fruit in 2012. The number increased to seven fruits, including papaya, guava, mango, star fruits, and langsat, in 2013. In 2014, Malaysia exported eleven varieties of fruit: watermelon, banana, papaya, guava, mango, mangosteen, rambutan, star fruit, jack fruit, langsat, and sapodilla. Statistics also show that the quantity and value of the fruits exported to these two countries increased yearly. This report shows that both countries are potential new markets for Malaysia's tropical fruits.

CONSUMER PREFERENCES FOR TROPICAL FRUITS

The competition in marketing tropical fruits in the Arab region is very severe. Many countries exported their products to these potential markets. Flooded products enable consumers to choose the best products that suit their tastes and needs. In contrast, the fierce competition has lowered the price of the products.

Pineapple and watermelon are the most popular tropical fruits in the Arab region. Consumers purchased fresh and minimally processed fruits. Minimally processed fruits refer to cut fruits and packed in a small container. The fruit is processed into fresh juice and sold in premium markets such as hotels, restaurants, and industrial consumers. Market observation shows that pineapples in these markets come from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. Intense competition keeps market prices lower and puts pressure on exporters. For example, pineapple prices in the UAE are higher than in Oman. Pineapples from the Philippines are sold at US$2.16/kg. While in Oman, the Philippines pineapple is priced at US$0.42/kg. Pineapples from different countries are also at different prices. For example, pineapple from Uganda is sold at US$4.13/kg, compared to Sri Lanka (US$3.25/kg). Comparison of prices offered by countries helps the researchers to evaluate the competitiveness of fruits from Malaysia. The market price of the fruit varies according to the exporting countries and the marketplace.

Sensory and preference test by consumers in these countries indicates that in general, consumers in the Arab regions prefer fruits with the following characteristics:

Fruits

Physical characteristics

Watermelon

  • Medium size of weight between 1.5 kg and 3 kg
  • Round or oval fruit shape
  • Crunchy flesh
  • Red flesh
  • Juicy flesh
  • No or less seed
  • Sweet flesh

Pineapple

  • Medium size of weight between 1.5 kg and 2.5kg
  • Has large crown
  • Sweet flesh (Sweetness of between 11.7 and 15.2 Brix)

Jackfruit

  • Crunchy flesh
  • Sweet flesh

Honeydew

  • Medium size of weight between 700 gm and 1kg
  • Crunchy flesh
  • Sweet flesh

CHALLENGES FACED BY EXPORTERS

Arab countries have rich people and a population with high purchasing power. The high socioeconomic opens up opportunities for many countries to export tropical fruits into those countries. However, among the challenges that need to be overcome by exporters from Malaysia are as follows: 

  • Very high transportation costs. Air transport charges are high and reduce the competitiveness of Malaysian fruits in the Arab market. Malaysia depends on the transportation system offered by airlines from Qatar, UAE, Oman, and Malaysia. Transportation by sea is cheaper. However, the time taken to ship the commodity is longer, making it difficult for exporters. Generally, transport by sea takes 9-20 days, compared to airplanes which take less than a day. High transportation costs reduce the competitiveness of fruits from Malaysia compared to other exporting countries closer to the Arab region, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
  • Exporters also experience shortages of supply, especially during certain seasons. Tropical fruits are seasonal and have limited time. During the fruit season, the price is low, and it is time to export to the Arab region. The demand for fruit fluctuates following the climatic season. For example, the demand for watermelons is higher in the summer. The limited supply causes high farm prices because exporters compete with sellers in the domestic market.
  • Tropical fruits are perishable and easily damaged if handling is not done correctly. Therefore, exporters must export fruit at the right maturity so that the quality of the fruit is always guaranteed and meets consumers' tastes. For example, if the pineapple is exported at a low maturity index, the fruit will be sour and unpopular to consumers. On the other hand, if it is shipped at the advanced maturity index, the fruit will overripe and spoil quickly. This situation will be detrimental to sellers in the retail market.

 Arab countries adopt a policy of free trade. As such, competition for tropical fruits market is high as many Asian countries try to take the opportunity to market their products to the region. Therefore, Malaysia needs to determine the right marketing strategy to ensure that the competitiveness of fruits is always high compared to competing countries. Malaysia must deliver quality products at competitive prices and at the right time. Organic fruits produced by farms that adopt good agricultural practices, packaging technology, and product information are among the marketing approaches Malaysia can implement.

CONCLUSION

The Arab region is a new and potential market for tropical fruits from Malaysia. These countries have broad trade policies and encourage multilateral trade. Malaysia also has good diplomatic relations and has entered into trade agreements that facilitate business dealings between the two countries. These countries also have long experience in doing business with Malaysia. For example, Qatar is the third largest trading partner with Malaysia for trade in electrical, electronic, and processed food products. This scenario further facilitates the expansion of the market for agricultural products, including tropical fruits. Malaysia can be the market leader for Qatar because products from competitor countries are still lacking. Market expansion into the Arab region must have the support of the government. The government should provide incentives and encourage more products to be exported to the region. For example, the government should reduce export charges at ports and enter into smart partnerships with transport companies to reduce transportation costs and thus increase the competitiveness of tropical fruits in the Arab region

REFERENCES

Economy Watch. (2020). Qatar Economy. Retrieved 20 July 2022 from http://www.economywatch.com/world_economy/qatar

Karim, S. (2011). The Battle of Dubai, The United Arab Emirates and the U.S.-Iran Cold War. The Carnegie Papers. Carnegie Endowment Publication Department : Washington. Retrieved from  https://carnegieendowment.org/files/dubai_iran.pdf

Milken Institute (2020). Global Opportunity Index 2020: Focus on the GCC Countries. Retrieved 20 July 2022 from https://milkeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/reports-pdf/Global%20Opportunity%20Index%202020%20Report_0.pdf

Trademap. (2020). Trade Database. Retrieved 20 July 2022 from https://www.trademap.org/Index.aspx

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