Matthew Johnstone and his wife Kathryn miss Cadbury's Double Deckers. And they struggle to find Green & Black's chocolate. But the list of UK grocery lines these British ex-pats cannot buy from supermarkets in Dubai seems very short. "British foods are appearing on the shelves here every month," says Matthew. "We've started to refer to Dubai as Surrey in the Sun."
The Johnstones do most of their shopping in high-end retailer Spinneys, known for its British goods. But this is no niche. Across town, the 64,000 sq ft M&S store in the Festival Waterfront Centre is one of five in the UAE and nine in the Gulf region.
Now Waitrose is making a move. With Waitrose own-label goods already selling well in Spinneys, the pair are in talks to re-brand some of Spinneys' stores as Waitrose outlets. Even Sainsbury's is rumoured to be looking at making a return to the Middle East, after pulling out in 2001.
The Middle Eastern market is clearly hot for British products. UK food and drink exports to the Gulf Co-operation Council members - Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman - totalled £228m in 2007, according to Food from Britain, up 13% on the previous year. This figure could be much higher, with many brands exported into the GCC via the grey market.
It's still small beer, however. The GCC grocery food and drink market is worth $18.1bn, and UK companies want a bigger slice of it.
While cupboard staples such as Vimto, Weetabix and United Biscuits' HobNobs have long been available, the floodgates are opening. But how does a small manufacturer go about entering such a vast and strange market?
Last month, more than 40 British suppliers flew to Dubai with Food from Britain to talk to local retailers and distributors at Gulfood, an international food fair. Among them were Clipper Teas, AG Barr, Dale Farm and Tryton Foods.
The growing number of Brits incorporated in Dubai's ex-pat population only partly explains such a growing demand for British food and drink brands. Britain's heritage and reputation for quality are also factors, according to store managers, who say a premium can be commanded on any British product because of the trust it brings. In addition, Arabs - known for their sweet tooth - are crazy about products such as Walkers Nonsuch Toffees, already in various Arab countries and about to be launched in Yemen and Iraq.
The market is attractive because of its comparatively low tariff regime. While other markets such as India are intent on protecting their borders from Western influence, the GCC import tax of only 5% reads like a 'Welcome' sign. UK manufacturers large and small can see the potential of the Gulf region.
It's by no means a shoe-in selling in this market, however, with cultural and operational differences to overcome. To start with, individual store managers have complete autonomy over what appears on shelves and category management is in its infancy. A UAE supermarket may typically stock about 50,000 SKUs compared with half that in Britain. In a brand-dominated market, the emphasis appears to be on catering for all eventualities.
The retail outlets market themselves to local communities so each individual store in a chain may become renowned for stocking specific lines. Three different Spinneys will have three different layouts and stock entirely different ranges. In fact, retail brands don't have any bearing on store formats. Lulu, for example, has a 250,000 sq ft hypermarket next to a Carrefour in the Al-Bashar neighbourhood that is as modern and well stocked as any Tesco. Across town, it has several small run-down stores, not unlike Dubai's independents with their lack of cohesion on shelves and cluttered aisles.
Furthermore, retail businesses don't appear to be margin-led as they are in the UK. They act more like real-estate agents, making their money largely through listing and gondola fees. As a result, products are often listed in local supermarkets even if they aren't great sellers, just because the brand owner is willing to pay 'rent' according to Thorsten Hartmann, director of Imes Consulting Group, a business consultancy whose expertise and contacts stretch across 15 Middle Eastern markets.
In Dubai City, Brits are likely to be seen shopping at the Choithrams in Jumeirah, which was once home to the majority of the British ex-pat population, and the store has retained its reputation for selling goods from the UK. Store manager Lalit Bhojwani says 50% of the offer is imported and 30% of the 45,000 SKUs are from Britain. "I want to increase my range of yoghurts for babies, cheeses, biscuits and frozen fruit and veg, which we're selling more of all the time," says Bhojwani. "If I like the look of a product at Gulfood and strike a deal, the product can be on my shelf in two weeks."
Any manufacturers currently fighting for UK supermarket listings for months may be astonished at how easy the listing process seems here. Bhojwani rents out one metre of ambient shelf for 700 UAE dirhams (£96), a metre of chilled shelving for 1,000 dirhams and a gondola for 4,000 dirhams.
Finding a reliable distributor is the main hurdle brands must clear. Indeed, a wander around the British pavilion at Gulfood reveals that many brand owners looking for initial exposure already know the risks of getting in with the 'wrong kind' of distributor. "Some retailers here have their own UK consolidator who will help you get listings in other supermarkets as well as their own," says one, "but they only get involved in listings. Brand management, merchandising, promotions, gondola displays, are all yours to worry about." Other manufacturers say they fear their brand being "butchered" if there is nobody here to look after their products long-term.
Tudor Rose is an importer and distributor in more than 85 markets for brands such as Cadbury, Branston and Mr Kipling. Commercial director Mark Townsend says the company not only helps with logistics and routes to market but can also assist with brand strategy and marketing. "We try to be brand builders but there are consolidators at home that just want to buy everything at the cheapest price, ship it all over and sell it with no thought of investment in the brand."
Birmingham-based consolidator CPT, with a turnover of £4.5m, distances itself from such accusations. CPT fills containers with 4,000 cases of products including John West tuna, Lucozade and Oxo, worth a retail value of £40,000 per container. On arrival here, the company sells the goods to all major supermarkets and retailers.
General manager Ian Sharpe admits CPT used to be a "grey market consolidator" but says the company has changed its ways. "Our business model was too unsafe, too fragile. Anyone could come and cut you out of the loop by accepting tighter margins. Plus it wasn't a very reliable way of sourcing the same products consistently. Now we're officially appointed by manufacturers and price everything properly. It's in our interests that products are properly displayed on shelves."
Nevertheless, says Townsend, the advice to clients that Tudor Rose offers on issues such as package labelling, for example, can be invaluable. "In this part of the world, retail listings require a best-before end date as they do in the UK but also a production date as well as references to any pork or alcohol," he says. "Cadbury and Kipling cakes are sold in chillers here so we'll freeze them on the way over. That knowledge is important from the outset, then once the brand is on shelf we'll work with the retailer to promote it."
Such careful brand management is hailed as the "correct way" of exporting by brand owners working in the Middle Eastern. Dairy Crest sells 50,000 tonnes of product per year in the UAE at a retail value of £250,000. It is working with Tudor Rose to move into Saudi Arabia in the next 18 months where the company's business development manager Jake Kersey says it could sell £2m worth a year.
A day spent visiting the supermarkets in Dubai - Choithrams, Spinneys, Lulu and some of the many independents and 'bagalas' or mini-markets, reveals that many British brands are already well exposed to the market here. But Hartmann says 60% of the suppliers whose products are being exported don't know their brands are here. Products are sent out in huge batches by UK wholesalers and distributors and placed on shelf with no thought of branding, price positioning or marketing. "We do product checks with UK food suppliers who tell us they have 'no presence' in the UAE, Oman or Saudi Arabia. When we tell them they are wrong they're shocked."
Tryton Foods, owner of the Aunt Bessie's brand, is a case in point. "Aunt Bessie's is only now starting to get really good distribution in the UK," says business manager Richard Firth, "so we're only playing at the export market - or so we thought. It turns out we're listed in every single retailer here but we didn't know."
Because the products are being sent to the Middle East by a third party, Firth admits to being "completely in the dark" about sales and volumes. "We're really frustrated, we're commanding acres of chilled shelf space but can't get any data. We don't know who is selling it or if they are delivering at the correct temperature." Firth is determined to legitimise future exports here.
Gourmet's Choice, a Scottish salmon producer admits that it does not know where its products end up. "We sell to hotels through Dubai distributors but which hotels I'm not sure," says MD Maurice Sutherland.
"We're also established in Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. We want to know more about our end user and their perceptions so we plan to recruit someone to take care of this ."
Elsewhere among the other exhibiting manufacturers there is a mixture of confidence and hope. Clipper Tea sales manager Michael Evans has exported his organic tea to Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and is in the Middle East for the first time. "I've spoken to the hot beverage buyers from Choithrams and Spinneys," he says.
Meanwhile, Tangerine confectionery export manager David Kelly is 95% confident he has secured a deal in the Emirates thanks to Gulfood and is now eyeing Saudi Arabia. Which sweeties are their favourites? "They love our marshmallows." n