Saudi Arabia's Almarai Co, the Gulf's largest dairy company by market value, posted a 23.7 percent rise in third-quarter net profit but sales slowed down as swine flu kept pilgrims away from the kingdom.

Third-quarter net profit was 363.4 million riyals ($96.90 million) compared with 293.7 million riyals in the same period last year, the firm said in a statement on the bourse website.

These are good numbers, said Laurent-Patrick Gally of Shuaa Capital. The Dubai-based firm had expected Almarai to post a 22.6 percent rise in third-quarter earnings.

Almarai said operating profit rose 26 percent to 413.9 million riyals. Earnings per share stood at 7.78 riyals at the end of September, up from 6.34 riyals a year earlier.

Sales growth during the third quarter stood at 11.4 percent, down from 16 percent during the second quarter. Analysts had been expecting Almarai's third-quarter sales to be boosted by the minor umra pilgrimage that attracts more than one million visitors from Muslim countries throughout the year.

The umra this year did not attract as many pilgrims as in previous years because of the swine flu pandemic, Gally said.

Savola Group 2050.SE holds a 27.9 percent stake in Almarai.

Almarai shares gained 25.5 percent this year which is below both the 31.5 percent year-to-date rise of the all-share .TASI index and the 29.2 percent rise in the agricultural and food industries index .TAFSI. (Reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky and Souhail Karam; Editing by Jerry Norton)