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The Geo-Economics of Gulf Food Imports

[An irrigated wheat project of Saudi Al Rajhi group in Sudan. Image from author's archive.] [An irrigated wheat project of Saudi Al Rajhi group in Sudan. Image from author's archive.]

What a difference two decades can make. In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia was among the world’s top ten wheat exporters. Now it is among the crop’s top ten importers. The Saudi government’s vision to overcome the geopolitical vulnerability of food import dependence with domestic wheat self-sufficiency lies in tatters due to lack of water. To make matters worse, the global food crisis of 2008 only heightened this sense of vulnerability. The meatification of diets in emerging markets like China, biofuel mandates in developed countries, and increased participation of financial investors in markets for agricultural commodities had caused a demand surge in these products. At the same time, agricultural supply grappled with increased input costs for fuels and fertilizers as well as a string of adverse weather conditions in some producer regions. Export restrictions by food exporters like Russia, Argentina, and Vietnam further exacerbated the crisis. Reduced grain stocks for price stabilization in the United States and the European Union after decades of agricultural deregulation was another factor that contributed to increased prices and market volatility.

The plan B of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries was to seek privileged bilateral access to food, but it was largely unsuccessful. Gulf governments announced massive projects in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, countries that are food insecure and grapple with infrastructural and governance issues. As a matter of fact, most projects never got off the ground. Instead, the focus has shifted toward managing reliance on global food markets by investing in value chains of developed agro markets and strategic storage at home. While the non-oil producing states of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which are heavily dependent on food imports to varying degrees, must contend with the challenges that the 2008 global food crisis has wrought, the Gulf states are, for now, in a privileged position to safeguard food imports because of their endowment with oil revenues.

The MENA is the world’s biggest net-importer of wheat, rice, corn, barley, sugar, and poultry, dwarfing Asian countries that have much larger populations. It is also a substantial importer of palm oil, dry milk, and some soybeans. Food import dependence constitutes a geopolitical vulnerability and the MENA region, particularly the Gulf, is painfully aware of it. During World War I, for instance, hundreds of thousands starved to death in the Levant as a result of the Entente Powers’ naval blockade against the Ottoman Empire. In the Second World War, the Allied Middle East Supply Center (MESC) in Cairo needed to save scarce shipping capacity and ensure food security under wartime conditions. To this end, it embarked on a program of MENA food self-sufficiency that spurred food production in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria and organized food trade to food deficient areas of the region, such as the Gulf and Palestine. Indeed, governments have often used food as a weapon to sway politics. In the 1960s, for instance, the US government halted food aid shipments to Nasserite Egypt in the hope of tempering the country’s revolutionary foreign policy aspirations. It also contemplated food boycotts in retaliation to the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. In a more recent and tragic example, Iraq was on the verge of famine by the mid-1990s as a result of the multilateral UN embargo against the country in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. 

To mitigate such concerns, governments in the region practice the rhetoric of food self-sufficiency with much fanfare, yet with meager results, for there simply is not enough water for such purposes. On the one hand, the region already lost the ability to produce all its required food from renewable water resources in the 1970s, as population growth and dietary changes outstripped production capacity. On the other hand, fossil water that has been sitting in aquifers for millennia has been pumped on a large scale in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, but like oil, it is a non-renewable resource, and hence its use is not sustainable. In the 1970s, for instance, Saudi Arabia launched a wheat self-sufficiency program that has since failed. The program was not only fueled by the geopolitical vulnerability of food import dependence, but also by the profiteering of members of the ruling family and associated business families who were the beneficiaries of these new farming ventures. Faced with the waste of both water and program funds, the Saudi government started to scale back in the 1980s. Between 2008 and 2015, the wheat self-sufficiency program was phased out completely, as the country’s non-renewable fossil water aquifers have been running dry. Desalinated water, which is used for residential water supplies in the Gulf, would be prohibitively expensive for the much larger water needs of agriculture, while the associated brine disposal would constitute an environmental hazard of epic proportions. Not surprisingly, then, the recent plans to plant up to seventy percent of Qatar’s food supplies with desalinated water have gone nowhere and the lead agency, the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), is now defunct.

Wheat has not been the only crop in need of water in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s livestock industry is still going strong and consumes copious amounts of alfalfa and other green fodder. To the surprise of many, the world’s largest integrated dairy farm is not in Texas or Oklahoma, but south of Riyadh. In addition, the rearing of sheep and other animals is fueled by subsidized feedstock imports, making Saudi Arabia the world’s largest barley importer, constituting forty to forty-five percent of internationally traded barley (by volume).

This is not to say that there is no potential for agricultural reform in the Gulf and the wider MENA. The focus can be shifted to more value added crops like fruit and vegetables and their water saving production in greenhouses. Particularly promising could be improved rangeland management and better utilization of “green water” resources. The latter are encapsulated in the soil as a result of rainfall and receive relatively little attention compared to the liquid “blue water” of freshwater lakes, rivers, and aquifers, and its application via improved irrigation efficiency. But at the end of the day, despite such potential for improvement, the region’s import dependence is set to rise alongside population growth and changing diets, which can also have detrimental effects as the high rates of obesity and diabetes in Gulf countries show. The oil for food trade off is the basic reality of food security in the Gulf and the wider MENA region. Food imports there will not diminish and, they are largely funded by oil revenues, either directly in the oil producing states or indirectly in less well endowed countries like Egypt via remittances and transfer payments.

This raises two issues: how will Gulf countries pay for food imports after oil is depleted, or when oil prices are low, as they are now? And what if certain food imports are not readily available anymore due to global market crises or other factors?

The first concern points to the mixed record of economic diversification and inclusive growth in the region. Economies in the MENA are heavily reliant on rent seeking and intraregional recycling of oil rents, with neoliberal agendas only benefitting a small elite. Appealing GDP growth rates in a non-Gulf country like Egypt did not trickle down to the general population throughout the 2000s for example. Intra-country inequality is not exceptionally high by international standards, but intra-regional inequality, particularly between GCC states and other MENA countries is. Hence, inequality compromises access to food and the rentier anomalies of MENA economies have the potential to erode food security in the long run.

The second concern materialized during the 2008 global food crisis when food exporters like Vietnam, Argentina, India, and Russia announced export restrictions out of concern for their own food security. Oil rich MENA countries reacted by seeking privileged bilateral access to food production in order to avoid relying on jittery global markets. Sovereign wealth funds and other state owned entities were the main actors: they were supposed to undertake the investments or provide the private sector with incentives to do so by way of soft loans and political support. In Saudi Arabia, the agribusiness class that had grown big during the wheat bonanza of the 1980s and 1990s hoped for new profitable ventures abroad.

Among the most popular target countries were Sudan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia, the top three recipients of World Food Programme (WFP) food aid, a counterintuitive choice for assuring future food imports. Other investment announcements by Gulf countries included the Philippines, Egypt, Kazakhstan, and countries in East and West Africa. Yet only a few of the Gulf countries’ announced agro-investments have actually seen the light of day. When they did, it was only on a fraction of the announced scale and with uncertain chances of success. Even the Ethiopian Saudi Star venture of well-connected billionaire Al Amoudi has been in dire straits. While sensational media reports have at times formed a fantastical image of these projects, in reality, Gulf project implementation has been stymied by a difficult investment environment, corruption, and lack of necessary infrastructure.

Eight years after their announcement, the much-hyped foreign land acquisitions contribute virtually nothing to Gulf and MENA food imports, which continue to come to a large extent from the temperate grain-livestock complexes in North America, Eurasia, and Australia via markets that have proven to be sufficiently resilient after 2008. However, a seismic shift has occurred in the global food regime over the last two decades: value chains have been increasingly corporatized, the market of packaged foods has expanded in the developing world, and tropical countries have become major suppliers of staple foods, not just of classical export commodities like coffee or sugar. Indonesia and Malaysia stand out for palm oil and Vietnam for rice exports from smallholder farms. Above all there is Brazil. It has developed into a major staple food exporter with the opening of the acidic soils of the northern cerrado savannah to cultivation of corn and soybeans, which are used as fodder for livestock. As a consequence, Brazil’s meat and poultry exports to the MENA increased sixfold between 2001 and 2014.

Mechanized large-scale agriculture as practiced in Brazil has been successful in raising productivity, but it has also been criticized for ecological damage. Many experts have raised questions on whether this model can and should be exported. Even the promoters of a “Green Revolution in Africa” like the Gates Foundation caution that eco-friendly adaptations would need to be focused on smallholders and benefit the wider population.

Much has been said about the role of Gulf agro investments across the African continent and how these might affect its development. Like the MENA, Africa is currently a large net food importer, but the continent has agricultural potential and needs to raise productivity to feed its increasingly urbanizing populations. Urbanization has also produced socio-economic rifts, conflicts over land rights, and fervent political debates about the right strategies moving forward. Foreign investments have made headlines, but domestic factors and domestic investors across Africa play a more important role than is often assumed. The corporatization of value chains in Egypt, the role of diasporic Ethiopians in agro investments in their home country, the de-peasantization of smallholders through the process of urbanization, and the role of mid-sized farmers who aspire to upscale their operations are cases in point. Foreign investments of the Gulf countries and China play a more subdued role in this process compared to Western agro trading companies, specialized investment vehicles, and entrepreneurs who hope to globalize their farming practices.

The seismic shifts in the global food market connect the Gulf and the wider MENA with other world regions and corporate actors in new ways. Relations with Latin America and possibly Africa will increase in geo-economic importance as a result of increasing food import dependence. However, land acquisitions play a minor role in this process compared with investments in the value chains of developed agro markets such as Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Australia, or Europe. Indeed, Gulf countries have invested in food trading houses in these countries, about half a dozen of which dominate the global grain trade. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for example, invested in the IPO of commodity trader Glencore, and the Saudi state-owned company SALIC joined forces with food trader Bunge to take over a majority stake in the former Canadian Wheat Board. Gulf countries have also built up strategic food storage facilities to moderate their exposure to market volatility.

Feeding nine billion people globally by 2050 with sustainable agricultural systems will be a major challenge. Food security issues have gained a strategic dimension the world over. MENA countries will be important actors in unfolding changes, as they provide crucial input factors such as fuels and fertilizers. As the world’s largest food importers they will also be most immediately affected by any failure to make the global food system more sustainable While MENA countries are still rehearsing the rhetoric of food self-sufficiency in populist discourses at home, they are bracing themselves for increased food import dependence and trying to find more efficient ways to interact with the global food system, and this is particularly true of the oil-dependent GCC states. At the same time, Western dominance of the global food system is being challenged by new Asian food trading houses like Noble, Olam, and Wilmar on the consumption side, and emerging agro powers like Brazil and Russia on the production side. It will be a challenge for the Gulf, and for the MENA more broadly, to find a niche in this food regime in transition.

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