The GCC stocks the larder against future food crisis

The National | 11 July 2010

by Theodore Karasik and Wayne James

Until recently, most international media have deemed the financial crisis as the main plague currently affecting the states of the Gulf Co-operation Council – Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – as well as the rest of the world.

Yet scholars and policymakers alike are beginning to understand the framework for a problem that will, if not dealt with, rival that of the global financial crisis: the need for reliable supplies of food.

Since it is a problem pressed upon us by the integration of the global economy, ensuring supplies of healthy food for the GCC’s growing populations will take a global effort to solve. At the same time, GCC states are taking their own initiatives to address the problem.

There is no disputing that a problem does exist. The National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia recently declared that the age of cheap food had come to an end. Sustainable agriculture, it said, may be the only effective solution for the countries of the Gulf to avoid an imminent food crisis that would increase demand for food and cause major increases in food prices worldwide.

Increasingly, the GCC states are taking a fresh look at increasing food production on home soil, but it will take many years and expensive technologies before the region can reach self-sufficiency in any key crop. Meanwhile, the GCC states are rapidly pursuing contracts for the purchase of land from eastern Africa to Vietnam to guarantee ample food supplies.

In the attempts by countries of the region to secure food supplies, there are several strategic implications. By reorganising their bureaucracies to address the issue, these governments are putting themselves in a better position to deal with other security threats. The food crisis has been a catalyst for the region’s governments to re-evaluate their mechanisms for responding to crisis, disaster and shifting economic trends.

The Federal National Council of the UAE has held two meetings to debate a draft order regarding mobilisation in the event of a national food emergency, or any other kind of emergency including the outbreak of war. Like other GCC states, it is taking steps to make sure all residents of the country are protected in the event of such an emergency with a three-month supply of food.

In the past two years, GCC countries have stepped up efforts to ensure their food security. In late 2008, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia came to an agreement with the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari to further integrate the “agriculture and infrastructure” of the two countries.

Besides Pakistan, Vietnam is also emerging as a strategic ally of the GCC states in the fight against a potential food crisis. A high-ranking Vietnamese delegation led by the prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung paid official visits to Qatar and Kuwait last year, during which agreements were reached to deepen trade and co-operation in agriculture. Qatar has also signed agreements with Georgia, and the UAE has signed agreements with Pakistan, Sudan and Cambodia.

In April, Saudi Arabia and Australia signed a memorandum of understanding for buying equity in farms and investing in the production and transport of wheat. In the same month, the kingdom, along with Kuwait and the UAE, hosted delegations from New Zealand to discuss food security.

Beyond their efforts to guarantee their own supplies of food, the Gulf is strategically placed to serve as a hub for the transfer of food all over the world. The region’s ports are ideally situated to serve as transit points for the enormous amounts of food that must be transported to ensure other regions’ food needs are met.

The implications for public policy on the Arabian Peninsula for guaranteeing affordable food supply in the future are extremely important. These governments have seen no other way but to increase subsidies, invest in foreign agriculture and develop new strategies for food storage, which are being implemented by several countries. The issue of land availability for agriculture, although it is not scarce, remains to be addressed.

Dr Theodore Karasik and Dr Wayne James are with the Dubai School of Government

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