Recent acts of solidarity by Turkey and Iran to help Qatar feed its population are important reminders of just how dependent regional states are on food imports. As Sara Fouad Almohamadi explains, the current Gulf dispute has exposed the shortcomings of national food-security policies.

Food insecurity in the Middle East

By Sara Fouad Almohamadi, Associate Fellow at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, Saudi Arabia; Intern at IISS–Middle East

The ongoing dispute between Qatar and a regional bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt has shed light on the pressing issue of food insecurity in the Gulf. Despite long-running efforts to establish viable food-security programmes, these states are heavily reliant on expensive imports and vulnerable to unmanageable shortages.

The decision in early June to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar was accompanied by the suspension of air, sea and land links. Saudi Arabia imposed restrictions on the entry of goods into Qatar’s only land border. These led to instant fears of food shortages and panic buying. They also drew highly politicised and symbolic acts of solidarity from Turkey and Iran, which sent foodstuffs to compensate for the shortage.

Qatar’s unfulfilled ambitions exposed

Due to its scarce water resources and arid land, Qatar imports 90% of its food, 40% of which enters through its border with Saudi Arabia. As one of the world’s richest countries in terms of GDP per capita, Qatar is able to withstand current pressures and secure access to food for the foreseeable future. But the current crisis has exposed its high dependence on imports for basic necessities such as milk, as well as its lack of a clear food-security programme.

Following the 2008 global commodity crisis, Qatar, like many Gulf countries, developed an interest in achieving self-sufficiency, fearing future disruptions in food supply. It introduced the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) in 2009 with the aim of increasing self-sufficiency from 10% to 70% by 2023. Ambitions were lowered to 40–60% in a later edition of the plan, but even that target was not met, and the QNFSP website no longer exists. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for foreign agro-investments, Hassad Food, invests in Australia, Pakistan and Oman, but its investments remain limited and cannot compensate for the need for a national food-security programme.

Food security overlooked in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030

Like many of its GCC counterparts, Saudi Arabia has a desert climate and lacks water resources, leaving it highly dependent on food imports. Despite unveiling its highly ambitious framework for the country’s development, known as Vision 2030, in April 2016, the GCC’s largest and most populous country has also yet to introduce a grand plan for food security.

Riyadh unveiled Vision 2030 and the more detailed National Transformation Program 2020 (NTP) with the purpose of diversifying the economy away from oil while improving the quality of life for Saudi citizens; yet, food security remains unaddressed. Saudi Arabia has historically averted food shortages by managing its dependence on food imports through strategies that the might of its oil economy could afford, but this approach is not necessarily sustainable in the face of lower oil prices.

Due to water scarcity in Saudi Arabia, achieving self-sufficiency is not an option, and ‘food security’ is for the most part about managing its dependence on imports. For example, until the global commodity crisis struck in 2008, most Saudis were probably unaware of the extent to which they depend on foreign countries for rice, which is considered a staple of the national cuisine. The crisis led India, Saudi’s main rice supplier, to ban temporarily all such exports so that it could meet domestic demand. Saudi Arabia granted importers a subsidy of US$267 per tonne to stabilise prices. Although this averted what had the potential to balloon into a large-scale crisis, imports still fell due to a lack of supply (from 960,000 tonnes in 2006 to 915,000 tonnes in 2007) and fell short of the demands of the Saudi market.

Saudi Arabia launched its first project to explore self-sufficiency in the 1970s, following the 1973 oil crisis and threats by the United States to impose a retaliatory food export ban. By the 1990s, Saudi Arabia had managed to become the world’s sixth-largest wheat-exporting country, but production placed a significant strain on water resources and Riyadh eventually decided to phase out the venture.

It was only in 2008, after some trial and error, that the country developed more sustainable domestic policies, including investing in water conservation technologies and introducing varieties of fruit and vegetables better suited to the desert climate. Externally, however, the country continues to rely on its oil-for-food strategy, leaving food security dependent on oil and at the mercy of volatile foreign relations.

Are foreign agro-investments the answer?

The Saudi government announced a number of international agro-investments in countries with higher agricultural potential, such as Sudan, Pakistan, Belarus and Ukraine. The move towards foreign acquisition of farmlands and agro-investments to ensure uninterrupted access to food is undoubtedly a key part of the solution, but it also has important geo-political ramifications.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Sudan is a case in point. With an abundant supply of water and arable land, a favourable climate and its geographical proximity, Sudan has come to be seen as an attractive prospect for Saudi agro-investments. These stood at an estimated US$11 billion in 2016 and are expected to double in the next four years, according to Sudanese Secretary of State Osama Faisal.

This seemingly friendly relationship between Riyadh and Khartoum is relatively new. Until 2014, the Sudanese government had been allied with Tehran, Riyadh’s regional rival. Sudanese–Saudi relations had been severed in the 1990s after Khartoum supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and it was only in 2014 that Sudan redefined its foreign policy to address economic vulnerabilities. But economic pressures continue to inform its foreign-policy positions, and not all of these align with those of the Saudi leadership.

Food security key to political stability

As Thomas Lippman has observed, ‘no product or commodity carries the immediacy or political sensitivity of food’. This has certainly been borne out by the Qatari crisis. While it has the resources to import food from alternative sources and open new trade routes, Doha’s adopted solutions come at a higher cost and are contingent upon the durability of its economy. They are not necessarily sustainable in the long run.

The crisis has raised important questions for policymakers on all sides about the viability of their strategies to insulate themselves from potential disruptions to food supplies. Besides exploring opportunities for agro-investments in countries with healthier political and economic environments, Saudi Arabia – and the rest of the GCC – must utilise all available domestic resources efficiently. 

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