Food Security in the GCC

Qatar, along with the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, is growing visibly worried about food security. In 2009, the government established a task force to devise a national master plan for food security. This year, Qatar flashed the idea of becoming a regional food industry and investment hub through the establishment of an Agricultural City, which would boost domestic food availability and tourism (sic). Such anxieties seem contradictory, given that Qatar is the world’s richest state (on a per capita basis) and has the world’s fifth highest diabetes rate. The country is not financially restricted. Nor is there a problem with food availability. So what’s the fuss?

The answer is simple: Qatar imports 90% of its food (and 98% of its rice and wheat). In an anarchic international system of sovereign states, countries that depend to that extent on international markets for a resource as essential as food are entitled to feel a little insecure. In 2010, Russia, the world’s second biggest wheat exporter, suffered from droughts and decided to ban the export of grains, sending food prices through the roof.

For the GCC states, including Qatar, however, the wake up call was the 2007-2008 global food price crisis. Rising oil prices, increasing demand for biofuels, and trade restrictions drove up food prices. This made the GCC states realise they had no consistent policy or strategy to secure their food supply, either in the short or the long term. To make things worse, in Saudi Arabia, these events coincided with a government decision to phase out wheat production by 2016 after it realised that an ambitious food self-sufficiency policy, dating back to the 1980s, had depleted the country's ground water reserves.

The other GCC states had never had an important domestic agricultural industry to begin with. Their import dependency ranges between 27-83% for vegetables, 55-80% for meat and 96-100% for cereals (in 2006). They are classified by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as suffering from absolute water scarcity. According to the organisation, Kuwait is the worst of the lot, with only 7.6 cubic metres of renewable water resources per capita per year (i.e. 21 litres per day). These figures do not of course include desalination. The GCC states, however, are drawing several times over their natural replenishment rates. As a result, water reserves are becoming saline and depleted. Agriculture, which generally uses groundwater, uses a lion's share of total conventional water use. In Qatar, this share is practically 100%.

The GCC states have the energy resources to desalinate water for municipal use, but with fast growing populations, it would be self-defeating to argue that a significant increase in food self-sufficiency is realistic. Or isn't it?

The Qatari task force (a.k.a. the Qatar National Food Security Programme, or QNFSP), under the patronage of the country's heir apparent, has already announced that by 2023 the country will achieve 70% self-sufficiency in food production. With a current population of 1.7 million and double-digit growth rates (both in terms of economy and demographics), this doesn’t sound very realistic. As if this weren't enough, the QNFSP's solution is like no other: Qatar will use solar energy to desalinate the water needed for the increase in agricultural production. So not only will Qatar solve the food problem, but it plans to do it in an environmentally sound way. No data from presumably ongoing economic feasibility studies of this ‘silver bullet’ solution have been made public, but the QNFSP’s announced goal is to double the amount of Qatari farms (currently in decline), from 1,200 to 3,000. It is not yet clear who or what will take up the challenging task of actually implementing the master plan that the QNFSP is drafting. Given Qatar’s natural gas abundance and low incentives to drop domestic user subsidies, I am personally betting low success rates for the proposed technological fix. Solar desalination indeed makes for nice rhetoric in a country that has the questionable honour of having the world’s highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita and is otherwise doing relatively little – implementation-wise – to mitigate climate change at home.

Nevertheless, it is good that the GCC states are taking a systematic look at food security. Surrounded by countries where governments are falling due to failed economic policies (and their consequences on food prices), official inattention to price inflation would be self-destructive. Not all GCC citizens are filthy rich, as those familiar with the region know. High food prices also make the GCC states less attractive to low-wage migrant workers. As a reaction to the Arab spring, GCC governments have resorted to mainly two kinds of patch solutions: Kuwait and Bahrain have given cash hand-outs and free food rations to nationals, and (as part of a longer trend) at least the UAE has managed to temporarily freeze the consumer prices of major commodities. The GCC states have also begun to plan and debate the need for longer-term strategic food reserves: Abu Dhabi is planning a 6-month reserve and Saudi businesses have called for a similar one.

But it still isn't enough for the pessimists that security analysts tend to be: markets can't be trusted in extreme worst-case scenarios, there is not enough water to feasibly produce food for the entire population domestically, and policies will only help to a limited extent. What else can be done?

In the past few years, foreign agricultural investments, often referred to in the press as land grabbing and food neo-colonialism, have seen a resurgence in popularity, not only among relatively tiny Arab oil states, but also with major rising Asian economies like China and India. Announced (though not yet heavily implemented) leases, purchases and consequent cultivation on other sovereign states’ lands arguably create more questions and problems than they solve. There is an immediate, practical concern over the long-term security of these farms and plantations. But from the investor country’s perspective, the most difficult questions are perhaps the moral ones. Land is in most cases acquired in developing countries, most of which suffer corruption, poverty, human rights violations, malnourishment, and even famine. Nevertheless, the trend is still too recent to evaluate the successes and failures of emerging business "partnerships". At a recent working group meeting on the topic at Georgetown University's Qatar campus, a participant suggested that many of the overseas agro investments, particularly those coming from the smaller GCC states, could well remain empty plots of land, serving more as insurance policies for a rainy day. Or, perhaps better said, for a rainless day.

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This is the first in a two-part series on food security in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The issues covered in this piece are to some extent based on conversations held during a two day working group meeting at the Center for International and Regional Studies, at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. The second essay will discuss the linkages of food security and climate change in the Middle East, and particularly GCC.

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Mari Luomi, PhD, is a post-doctoral fellow at Georgetown University's Center for International and Regional Studies in Doha, Qatar. She is the author of Emissions, CI's monthly analysis of the environment, climate change & the Middle East.