A Growing Issue: 

Food Security in the Gulf

by Zeynep Beyhan

On 16 April 2020, The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held a video meeting to discuss the setting-up of a collective food security system due to the rising fear of a potential food crisis as a result of COVID-19. The Council then announced the approval of Kuwait’s proposal to establish a joint food security network to reduce negative impacts from the pandemic. Historically, food has not been regarded as a security issue in the Gulf since the states there have adequate overseas supplies and the liquid capital to ensure uninterrupted supply. This way of thinking is changing under the cloud of COVID-19 which has highlighted how easy supply chains can be interrupted…and at what cost. The Gulf states are heavily dependent on food importations which, in some cases, make up as much as 85% of the total food consumed by their populations.[1] As a result of this realisation, the Gulf states have been steadily reorienting their security provisions and have included food security as a central aspect.

Food security is rooted in four main pillars: 1. availability, 2. access, 3. utilisation and 4. stability. In this context, Gulf states’ food security consists of the double-edged sword of food availability and stability which are at risk when food import-dependent countries cannot obtain food — even though they can afford it. Gulf states are concerned with possible price and supply shocks, which could render their food security system vulnerable.

Coronavirus is threatening the otherwise positive food security outlook in the Gulf since there is concern about a possible food exportation stoppage as states cool international trade relations and focus inward. Therefore, the entire GCC, including Qatar, has agreed to establish a food network, which includes arrangements at borders and customs posts in order to provide food adequately among the Gulf states.[2]

In addition to the GCC, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) has also expressed their concerns that the Gulf states will likely face food shortage due to border closures, movement restrictions, disruptions in goods transportation.

COVID-19 only poses the most recent food-related challenges to the Gulf and it is interesting to reflect on previous disruptions. In the late 1970s, for instance, a US food embargo was invoked against the oil-producing Arab states in response to the oil embargo.[3] Learning from that experience, the Gulf states pursued local-food production policies and enabled subsides to improve future food supply chains. For instance, the government of Saudi Arabia prioritised its agriculture sector by providing interest-free credit to facilitate its development and lands were distributed to its citizens to cultivate. In another example, in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, the Gulf states were exposed to another negative side of food import dependance as they faced double digit inflation due to increasing consumer prices triggered by high food prices. During that period, roughly one third of inflation was derived from food prices. Following that crisis, the GCC states adopted strategies of purchasing/leasing farmland from abroad — Africa, Australia, Europe, Canada, India etc — and made deep agro-investments. These too, however, are based on the free flow of goods and thus do not secure the supply of food. Ultimately, the combination of rapid population growth — and with it urbanisation — coupled with depleted fresh water stocks plunged the GCC states into a food-dependency cycle countries. Many of the innovations being explored in the region today are based on finding ways to harvest the desert. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is now the world’s largest date producer due to desert cultivation, while Bahrain has an experimental farming facility conducting state of the art research into the matter.

In time, it is likely that all the GCC will ease out of food dependancy in terms of production, but for now they all have to contend with international trade mechanisms. Before the outbreak of coronavirus, GCC food import demand was estimated to be around $53.1 billion (USD).[4] This has meant that food is no longer a question of consumption, it is a question of survival. The root of the problem can only be dealt with on a supranational level and it is an important first step to view food through the prism of security. The second step is to ensure the flow of food no matter the global circumstances and the third is to keep investing in ways to make the desert bloom, fight desertification and bring back autarky to Gulf food production.

12 May 2020

 

[1] Seban Scaria (2019) ‘GCC Food Security: Imports Pose Challange, Saudi and UAE Biggest Consumers,’ Zawya, at ,https://www.zawya.com/mena/en/economy/story/GCC_food_security_Imports_pose_challenge_Saudi_and_UAE_biggest_consumers-ZAWYA20190910132502/>.

[2] ‘Kuwait Calls for Gulf Food Security Network to Provide Basic Supplies,’ Asharq Al-Awsat, 03 April, 2020 at: <https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/2214611/kuwait-calls-gulf-food-security-network-provide-basic-supplies>.

[3] Eckart Woertz (2013) ‘Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East,’ Foreign Affairs, at ,https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2013-10-21/oil-food-global-food-crisis-and-middle-east>.

[4] Tareq Ben Hassen and Hamed El Bilali (2019), ‘Food Security in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries: Challenges and Prospects,’ Journal of Food Security,7:5, pp. 159-169.

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