Shrinking water resources, growing populations and a shortage of arable land is forcing the Gulf states and other Arab countries to spend millions of dollars to acquire hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland abroad to ensure long-term food security.
From Brazil to Indonesia, Arab states battered by food prices that have doubled in the last year are leading the drive to gobble up vast tracts of agricultural land to ensure a stable food supply for the decades ahead, particularly meat, cereals and vegetables.
"For the Gulf countries ... under current technology, it's impossible to guarantee their food security internally because they lack water resources and arable land," said Mohammed Raouf, programme manager of environmental research with the Gulf Research Centre, a think-tank in Dubai. So land acquisition abroad "is the best policy to follow now".
Lennart Bage, president of the United Nations International Fund for Agriculture Development in Rome, says that land was long considered less important than oil or mineral resources. But now, with food prices having doubled on average from a year ago, "fertile land with access to water has become a strategic asset".
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with limited arable land, have to import most of their food. And the cost of those imports--as high as 80% in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states--has mushroomed from $16bn in 2006 to $20bn in 2007, according to the Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development.
By acquiring farmland abroad, and shipping the produce home, without providing any to the countries where they are operating, the Arab states could cut food prices for their own people by 20%-25% through bypassing world markets. But, critics say, this could have a potentially dangerous backlash for the governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America who are--for now--only too happy to rake in the enormous investments.
Many of the countries whose farmland is being snapped up are already unable to feed their own people amid the global food crisis and it may be just a matter of time before that triggers antigovernment unrest. Agricultural production is simply not keeping pace with the annual 1-2% growth in the world's population.
That could eventually jeopardise the land acquisitions being made by the Arab world. Cambodia is already plagued by land disputes in which small farmers are being turfed off their land tens of thousands, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), warns that the headlong drive by rich food-importing countries to buy up vast tracts of farmland in the world's poorer states risks "creating a neocolonial" agricultural system.
Food supply, a critical problem in the Arab world, is likely to worsen in the years ahead as food prices increase--as they are expected to do--and the Gulf states' population grows. The six GCC states of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE had a combined population of 30m in 2000. That has since risen to 35m and is expected to hit 39m by 2010. So the clock is ticking.
Saudi Arabia is leading the regional race for food security, a new direction for Riyadh's strategic investment abroad. The kingdom, while wealthy beyond measure because of its vast oil reserves, is vulnerable when it comes to food. It is the biggest food buyer in the Gulf, the world's largest importer of barley and one of the five largest purchasers of rice, most of which comes from Asia.
The Saudis tried from the 1970s to become self-sufficient in wheat production, but recently abandoned the programme because it did not have enough water to sustain it. Cereal and dairy farms alone accounted for 85% of the kingdom's water consumption, …