Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Food and the Arab Spring

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Food and the Arab Spring

Article excerpt


The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) stands on the precipice of a food crisis many years in the making but now becoming more urgent as a consequence of the unrest of the Arab Spring. On both the production and consumption sides, the region's food industry has experienced deteriorating parameters over the last decades. There has been a widespread recognition of this on the part of MENA leaders, but they face enormous constraints to increasing harvests and, with the exception of the Gulf oil states, little has been done to address the problem. The Arab Spring threatens to exacerbate this situation by compelling weak governments more attuned to popular demands-both the new and/or transitional governments arising from the protests and older, established governments seeking to keep the opposition at bay-by adopting policies aimed at meeting short-term political requirements rather than adopting economic reforms and infrastructure development, which demand long-term horizons and finance that may not be available. Both market-based and government-directed solutions are in order, but neither can succeed in an atmosphere of instability. The likely absence of a sufficient policy response in the foreseeable future comes as food prices have been rising globally (and may have contributed to the Arab Spring unrest), thereby exacerbating an already difficult food security situation for the MENA region.

The nature of the food crisis differs between countries, with the most critical division between oil-exporting and non-oil economies. Yet virtually all the countries of the region are contending with a food crisis of one kind or another. On the production side, output has been constrained by persistent policy neglect in most countries. Agriculture in the MENA region suffers from low productivity even by the standards of the developing world, from poor utilization of severely limited resources and from urbanization that competes for limited supplies of land and water. Increasingly unfavorable global climatic conditions are likely to exacerbate the situation, both for domestic farming and for the extra-regional exporters MENA heavily relies on to supplement local harvests. On the consumption side, poorly designed social welfare policies have compounded the effect of rapid population growth to increase demand for food faster than domestic food production can be expanded.

Like the rest of the world, the MENA region faces an era of rising food prices as global consumption grows and climactic conditions becomes less reliable. However, the MENA region's non-oil states' populations are especially vulnerable to higher food prices and potential shortages due to their high rates of poverty and heavy reliance on imported food. Moreover, their uncompetitive economies fail to generate sufficient export earnings to cover the rising cost of importing food.


Except for the oil-exporting countries of the Gulf, agriculture is a key component of the MENA economies. On average, it accounted for about nine percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 2000-2004 periods.1 The figure, however, understates the importance of the sector socially and politically. About 45 percent of the region's population is rural, i.e., is employed in agriculture directly or dependent on it through sectors closely related to farming. Thus, a large part of the population is highly sensitive to changes in farm prices and conditions. Moreover, in the most critical countries of the region, farming accounts for a larger proportion of GDP, most notably Egypt (13.5 percent of GDP, 32 percent of the labor force) and Syria (17.6 percent of GDP, 17 percent of the labor force).2 The critical role of agriculture as a source of employment also applies to many of MENA's most important oil-exporting countries. Even though petroleum accounts for the largest portion of output, it provides relatively little employment. Thus, agriculture remains a key source of employment. …

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