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DUBAI (Kyodo) Companies are capitalizing on the growing popularity of Japanese food, including high-quality fruit and beef, in Dubai, the most populous of the United Arab Emirates.

“Very tender and delicious,” an Arab restaurant manager said after tasting some beef at the Japan pavilion in a Dubai food exhibition in late February.

A conference at the same time hosted by the Japan External Trade Organization for Japanese producers and local restaurant owners and food importers was also lively.

“I feel as if I have struck gold with new business opportunities,” Kuniyasu Funaki, JETRO’s chief executive officer in charge of Dubai and the Middle East and North Africa, said with a smile.

There are about 70 authentic Japanese restaurants in Dubai, one-third of which have opened in the last two years.

“Now is the time to sell Japanese food produce,” said Rabih Zeineddine, sales executive of food importer Fresh Express who attended a tasting party following the conference.

Foreigners account for 80 percent of the United Arab Emirate’s population. In the last five years, its gross domestic product has doubled and food imports have also increased.

Although the global recession has impacted Dubai’s economy, the prospects for its further development as a Middle Eastern business hub are promising.

In 2007, the United Arab Emirate’s imports of agricultural and marine products and food from Japan increased 11.5 percent from the year before.

The Japanese dishes are aimed not only at rich Arabs but also Japanese residents of the United Arab Emirates. At 3,000 people, it is the largest Japanese community in the Middle East. European and American residents and tourists who favor Japanese dishes for their healthiness are likewise targeted.

The Japanese government has been stepping up efforts to export agricultural and marine products and food in recent years, and such exports totaled around ¥430 billion last year. The export target is ¥1 trillion.

“The status of Dubai as a logistics hub will not be diminished so easily,” said Hiroyasu Kobayashi, Japan’s consul general in Dubai.

But there are concerns, including a drastic drop in guests at high-end hotels.

“There was a debate about Dubai during in-house meetings, but now it’s time to plant seeds. We’ll be tackling this problem in the long term,” said Takashi Suzuki, an official of major frozen food company Katokichi Co. who attended the JETRO conference.

Japanese food suppliers face a number of problems, including Islamic dietary laws. A sample of high-grade beef brought to Dubai last fall was found not to be halal.

Another problem concerns pricing. The price of a high-quality apple that sells for ¥300 in Japan soars to about ¥3,000 once air freight costs are included.

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