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Food Security, A Growing Crisis in the Gulf Region

The Gulf region relies upon foreign sources for 60% of its food supply. Agriculture in this region is declining due to lack of water, while simultaneously the population is increasing. The Gulf region’s ability to provide its citizens with an ample supply of affordable food is an issue of growing concern known as “food security,” and it is the focus of Eckart Woertz’s research.

Eckart Woertz

"The Gulf countries might engage in strategic food deals where stable long term supplies of oil are tied to stable food supplies in smoe form or another ..."

— Eckart Woertz

Woertz, Research Associate with the Oil, Energy and the Middle East Program and PEI, who is visiting this year, is a German economist who heads the Economics Department at the Gulf Research Center (GRC) in Dubai/ UAE, the leading think tank of the Gulf region. His research on food security focuses on questions surrounding ways the Gulf countries use their oil revenues, and the energy issues surrounding food production and transport.

As Eckart explains, “Grain production equals water and in the Gulf, water used for agriculture comes from non-renewable sources deep down beneath the desert (called fossil water). In the cities, the water supply comes from desalinated sea water. Water therefore equals energy, because of the energy required to desalinate it. Desalinated water is not used for agriculture because it is too expensive. However, the fossil water being used for agriculture is rapidly running out.

“At the beginning of the 1990s, Saudi Arabia was the sixth largest wheat producer in the world. Now Saudi Arabia plans to completely phase out wheat-growing by 2016, due to water shortages. It never made sense for this country to grow wheat for export; because wheat growth requires so much water they were basically exporting water when they exported wheat. That’s called ‘virtual water export,’ and it required heavy government subsidization. Therefore, while phasing out wheat growing is not a lost income, it does increase the country’s food dependency.”

Gulf region has more than enough money to buy the imported food they need, notes Woertz. But food security considerations in exporter countries could lead to less available supplies on world markets. When supplier countries to the Gulf like Argentina, Vietnam or Pakistan implemented export restrictions in the wake of global food price hikes in 2008, this rang alarm bells with the Gulf countries. They were looking at a future scenario where they might not be able to secure enough supply at any price on tight global food markets.

Can the Gulf region use its power as the world’s foremost energy suppliers to strike deals for food? Woertz explained, “The Gulf countries might engage in strategic food deals where stable long term supplies of oil are tied to stable food supplies in some form or another. However, instead of interpreting this situation as a possible confrontation, it can be seen as an opening for cooperation between these countries. They need each other. Energy independence for many countries is an illusion, and the Gulf ’s food independence is an illusion. It is time the countries involved recognize this and work together.”