By REBECCA TORR
AFRICA could be the breadbasket for the GCC - providing valuable water and food supplies to the entire region, a Bahraini expert claimed yesterday.
He said the huge continent could be the answer to the region's prayers, since the Gulf is facing massive water shortages and its harsh climate is unsuitable for large-scale agriculture.
Bahrain Export Development Society chairman Dr Yousef Mashal warned the GCC must take steps to safeguard its food and water security, saying Africa was a major opportunity to do just that.
He pointed out that GCC citizens had already suffered from rising food prices, caused by inflation in exporting countries.
"Food price inflation constitutes a major strategic challenge for the GCC countries as they have rapidly growing populations, but a declining agriculture due to lack of water and arable land," he said at the Strengthening GCC-Africa Co-operation Forum, which concludes at the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel and Spa today.
"GCC food imports cost $10 billion (BD3.78bn) last year, although some Press reports put the figure much higher.
"The rising demand for food imports in the GCC comes at a time when the exportable agricultural surplus worldwide has declined, as food markets are tight and stockpiles declining.
"Many exporting countries like India and Vietnam have implemented export restrictions to supply food to their domestic markets."
Dr Mashal said Bahrain and other countries in the GCC could find solutions by investigating the opportunities of agriculture and food imports from African countries.
"Countries such as Sudan, South Africa, Mozambique, Senegal and Tanzania are rich in water and land," said Dr Mashal, who is also Mashal Group chief executive director.
"A lot of joint ventures can be investigated in agriculture and Bahrain investors can look at buying land and farming it, producing goods, canning or freezing them and importing to Bahrain.
"This will be good for food security and in agro investment."
He said some countries in Africa could offer Bahrain joint ventures in exchange for technology and some might have industries that want to base production in Bahrain to utilise the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement.
"Bahrain is the only country in the region that offers 100 per cent ownership to manufacturers and investors and this can be an exchange for African investors," he said.
Dr Mashal suggested Islamic banks should invest in foreign agriculture and even purchase farmland in Africa.
"Food security should be more important to Islamic banking that real estate," said Dr Mashal.
"Africa has the largest area of green land and water, but it is not utilised.
"Sudan alone can supply food and water for the whole of the GCC.
"We are countries rich in oil and gas, but we are the poorest in food and water and so we will have big problems in the future.
"We are starting to see this already with food exporting countries cutting exports and so we must look at ways to secure our own supplies."
However, he admitted there were higher investment risks in such countries - such as the cost of doing business, red tape, licensing, inspections and corrupt tax and customs administrations.
"Mozambique, Sudan and South Africa could prove to be important destinations of GCC investments as they seek to improve food security," he added.
"However, the infrastructure development required is considerably larger than in the case of developed markets and would need to be accompanied by a comprehensive development strategy."
The three-day economic and investment forum is underway at the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel and Spa under the patronage of Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
It is organised by Crans Montana Forum Middle East, in association with Opec Fund for International Development.The forum draws on African government officials and businesses to network with the GCC region's key bankers and investors to discuss recent developments and business opportunities and to promote foreign direct investment and trade.