As Saudi Arabia was entering a period of rapid development during the 1970s, one of the biggest challenges that businesses faced was establishing contacts with other entrepreneurs both inside and outside the Kingdom. Today numerous international exhibitions are routinely held in Saudi Arabia, making it easy for businessmen from all over the world to meet Saudi distributors and prospective partners. Likewise, the exhibitions provide the Saudi private sector a global showcase to market their products and services. In addition, Saudi businessmen now participate in numerous overseas exhibitions.
Modern exhibition centers provide the Saudi Arabian private sector a venue to market their products and services. Over the past 15 to 20 years, such shows have played a viable role in the growth of the Saudi private sector. A case in point was the participation of 37 Saudi companies at an auto parts trade fair in Lebanon last year. "Saudi Arabia was one of 28 countries exhibiting, including the industrialized nations, and participated on equal footing," said Dr. Akram Masri, director of Riyadh Exhibition Co. Ltd.
In March, a large delegation of businessmen led by Saudi Minister of Commerce Osama Faqih participated at an international exhibition in Cairo, Egypt. Saudi Arabia is the biggest Arab investor in Egypt, with 383 projects in such sectors as industry, tourism and agriculture. Minister Faqih noted that Saudi Arabia's attendance at the exhibition provided him and the other businessmen an opportunity to meet personally with a large number of their Egyptian counterparts.
Trade shows have brought the strength and savvy of established multinationals to the Kingdom, providing an opportunity for the Saudi private industrial and commercial sectors to learn and grow. While products and services can be seen and tried at trade shows, they also provide an opportunity for business people to meet face-to-face and establish relationships. Many first-time meetings at exhibitions have led to solid joint- venture companies.
The growth of the private sector has, in turn, generated greater demand for trade shows and fueled the exhibition business within Saudi Arabia. Currently three major Saudi exhibition companies and several smaller ones each stage up to 16 shows annually. New exhibitions are being frequently added, and, judging from programs, there is something for everyone.
Long-running shows featuring health, construction and motor vehicles are established favorites. But there is room for new ones, too. Jeddah's Al-Harithy Exhibition Company opens its Leisure Trade Show in May 1998. The show's debut mirrors the intense interest of companies wanting a share of the projected 10 billion U.S. dollar leisure market in Saudi Arabia.
The Jeddah International Exhibition Center (above) is one of the many such facilities established in major urban and economic centers in the Kingdom in recent years.
For the traders, the advantage of participating in trade fairs lies in a single word: Contact. "One contact is all it takes to make the day," said John Wilson, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Attaché to Saudi Arabia. One of the American food suppliers displaying his products in the U.S. pavilion at the Food '98 Technology Exhibition held in Jeddah in February "was elated about making a deal with a Saudi distributor to handle his company's snack foods and sauces," Wilson said.
Many other exhibitors also sealed deals. A total of 5,327 registered trade visitors attended the show, seeking to supply goods and services to a marketplace that imports three billion dollars annually in food and food technology equipment. Twelve American companies participated in the exhibition, along with a host of Saudi firms and others from Great Britain, India, Austria, Pakistan, France, Spain, Thailand, Greece, South Africa, Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey.
Exhibitions appeal to commerce because they serve as a catalyst and a shopping arcade, said David Monk, exhibition manager at Al-Harithy Exhibition Company. It is neutral ground for both the supplier and distributor. Products and equipment displayed on the site provide the distributor a hands-on opportunity to see and use the product and determine if it will appeal to consumers.
For the supplier, trade shows offer a chance to broaden their distribution base by meeting several agents from various regions, adds Dr. Masri. They are also a global showcase for new products, companies and concepts. Plus, exhibitors can take stock of the competition, protect their market share and project their image.
Business enterprises are not the only ones interested in exhibitions. The Food '98 Show attracted 25,000 during the public visit days. For that expo, Al-Harithy divided the hall into two sections, one for traders and distributors, the other for the public. On the public side, families could taste and try food products and related equipment. Suppliers and agents on the other side could talk business.
A wide variety of consumer and industrial goods is displayed at exhibitions held throughout the year in the Kingdom.
Two shows, the Jeddah Motor Show and the Middle East Computing & Business Equipment Exhibition tied for the record for public attendance in Jeddah. About 200,000 attended each show. The high turnout at the auto show underscores the fact that Saudi Arabia is the fifth largest market in the world for vehicles. Auto shows at Jeddah and Dhahran also drew huge crowds, attesting to the fact that the three centers complement one another, exhibition company executives say.
Riyadh's biggest trade show this year was the Printing, Packaging and Plastics Show. This event was so successful that three separate shows are planned for next year. As a planning tool, Riyadh Exhibition has staged shows featuring two or more related industries and kept detailed data on participation. It has been beneficial for picking up trends and scheduling new shows the following year.
Successful exhibitions depend on the demand for the products and services. To assess that demand, exhibition companies monitor the Saudi economy and demographics and conduct research to determine the industrial potential and requirements. Home furnishings, for example, were added to the Riyadh Exhibition Company's calendar three years ago in recognition of the dynamic Saudi consumer market. Dr. Masri said the company took note that 25 percent of the population are of marriageable age. They also observed the rapid rise in the home building industry and the fact that Saudis have a high percentage of disposable income and like to replace home furnishings frequently.
David Monk of Al-Harithy said similar research led to planning the upcoming Saudi Leisure Show, which will showcase leisure, sports, travel, tourism and vacation planning. The show is expected to attract a mix of top international companies in the industry eager to satisfy the young working professionals that comprise a significant portion of the Saudi population. Demand will continue, especially in Riyadh, which is expected to double its population of 3.2 million over the next 10 years.
Al-Harithy Exhibition Company has come a long way since it was formed by Sherif Muwaffak Al-Harithy two decades ago. Since then, the company has organized 150 international and 39 national exhibitions.
The company's Jeddah offices, workshops and storage facilities are in the Jeddah International Exhibition Center, owned by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This office coordinates exhibition arrangements with its offices in London and Washington. The London office contacts the export promotion departments of foreign governments, chambers of commerce and trade associations around the world. It also supervises a worldwide network of sales agents that recruit prospective exhibitors.
In addition to Food '98 and the auto, computer and leisure shows, Al-Harithy's calendar includes exhibitions on Middle East Education and Training; Personal and Corporate Gifts; Watches, Clocks and Timepieces; Electronics, Photography and Home Appliances; Lifestyle; and the Saudi Building Industries, which has five divisions to include a variety of related businesses ranging from heavy equipment to interior decorating, utilities, safety and environment. Al-Harithy has also organized trade shows in Great Britain, Syria, Lebanon and Uzbekistan.
The Kingdom's exhibition companies also organize major events in other countries, such as this one in Morocco, to showcase Saudi Arabian products.
Two years after Al-Harithy was established, the Riyadh Exhibition Center was built. It held its first exhibition 17 years ago. In the early days, the Riyadh company planned about half a dozen shows annually. Over the years it has grown steadily and now employs more than 100 people to organize 16 trade shows and several other smaller events.
Business began increasing more dramatically after the 1991 Arabian Gulf War. In the past three years the Riyadh Exhibition Center has added five new trade shows. In addition to its 16-show annual calendar, the company organizes conferences and seminars held at other venues. It organized and managed Saudi EnviroTech, for example, a conference held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Riyadh.
Last year, the company added a 32,000 square-foot tent site to accommodate the construction trade show. "It was 100 percent sold out. Because of its success, we will schedule it every year now," said Dr. Masri.
The Riyadh Exhibition Company, which also has offices in London and Washington, has expanded its services in recent years. A publications department complete with a four-color separation press publishes a preview magazine, plus a catalog and brochures for each exhibition. The booth set-up design team uses a computer program to design booths, offering considerable creativity and flexibility. Set-up fees include printing logos and signs for the exhibitor. Riyadh Exhibition uses direct mail to market its shows. Its comprehensive data base was built from the visitor cards filled out by trade show attendees over the years.
New trends in the exhibition business revolve around offering additional services like seminars, Masri said. For example, seminars about video-conferences could be scheduled during a health and medical equipment trade fair.
Trade shows on the '99 Riyadh Exhibition calendar will showcase electrical engineering; air conditioning, heating and refrigeration industry; lighting equipment; computers; education; office technology; food, catering, processing and packaging equipment; hotels and restaurants; healthcare and medical equipment; furnishings and interiors; consumer electronics; agriculture and water technology; construction and building-related industries; printing technology and graphics; packaging materials and machinery; plastics technology; leather goods; fashion, textiles and accessories; perfumes, cosmetics and gifts; automobiles; auto tools, parts and accessories.
Specialized exhibitions, such as this one for the construction industry, allow Saudi Arabian businessmen to meet with their foreign counterparts to forge productive partnerships.
The newest of the top three Saudi exhibition companies, the Dhahran International Exhibition Center, was founded in 1985 by a group of leading Saudi businessmen who saw the potential for economic growth in the Eastern Province. The striking, 10 million dollar, modern center covers 81,000 square feet. An open area on the site provides another 108,000 square feet of space. In addition to the business community and a population of three million people in the Eastern Province, it serves the GCC states. State-of-the-art technology characterizes the center. Bilingual communications facilities, computers, fax lines and radio/TV facilities are in place, as well as a restaurant, VIP lounge, press office, mosque and support facilities.
Trade shows held in the Dhahran expo center include an Eid and a Ramadan Fair; Egyptian Products Expo; Saudi Oil, Gas and Petrochemicals; Tourism; Ideal Home Expo: National Consumer Products; Arab Investments & Free Zones; Dhahran International Book Fair; Leather, Cosmetics & Gifts; Computers and Office Technology; Motor Show; National Industries Expo; Gulf Construction; and Food Technology Expo.
Trade shows reached a peak in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s, during the Kingdom's boom years. Today, many believe the country is experiencing another consumer boom. Saudi Arabia has the Arab world's largest economy and is the biggest consumer of foreign goods between Western Europe and Southeast Asia. In recent years, the country has diversified its industrial base and expanded its agricultural sector. Exhibitions have helped to fuel and maintain the growth of the private sector and the dynamics of the marketplace. Judging from the success of past exhibitions and the companies that stage them, it appears that pattern will continue well into the next millennium.