Hunger games: The geopolitics of the GCC’s food insecurity

Hunger games: The geopolitics of the GCC’s food insecurity

Comment: The rift between Qatar and the Saudi-UAE axis brings into sharper focus the intractable issue of food insecurity in the region, writes Amar Diwakar.
6 min read
22 Sep, 2017
The Qatar-Saudi border crossing remains deserted after diplomatic and trade ties were severed [AFP]
It is a matter of concern that "security", as understood by the oil-rich monarchies of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is routinely viewed through the prism of short-termism to tackle existing and emergent threats.

As the bloc undergoes a systemic transformation towards post-oil redistributive forms of governance, a range of new and long-term impacts on regional security - food and water shortages, youth demographic pressures, structural economic deficiencies, a brutal intervention in Yemen, acute ecological degradation - pose invariable challenges to the Gulf and its precarious ruling bargain.

The protracted isolation of Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, is the most recent crisis that particularly stresses the Gulf's enduring lack of food security.

As a food-importing region, the GCC is vulnerable to spikes in global food commodity prices, such as that which occurred in 2008. Its dependence on desalinated water suggests that meeting more of its food needs through domestic production is not a sustainable option.
While its reserves of resource wealth can mitigate the price risk of food imports through energy export financing in the short term, managing this risk in the long term will depend upon successful economic diversification

Furthermore, the fact that domestic production meets only a small proportion of needs yet consumes significant economic resources and monopolises water use, coupled with the region's aridity means that food self-sufficiency is a pipe dream.

GCC food security rests almost entirely upon international trade, where imports account for between 80-90 percent of food consumption. This leaves the Gulf exposed to price risk (volatility of import prices) and supply risk (import disruption).

While its reserves of resource wealth can mitigate the price risk of food imports through energy export financing in the short term, managing this risk in the long term will depend upon successful economic diversification.

Recent events such as the 2011 Arab uprisings, continued instability in Egypt and Syria, threats by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz, and repeated spikes in international food prices have only sharpened these risks.

Supply risks, maritime chokeholds

Geopolitics and geography combine to make supply risk a particular concern for the GCC. The threat of a food embargo following the oil crisis in 1973, and trade sanctions against regional neighbours such as Iran, Libya, and Syria provide stark reminders to Gulf regimes of the extent to which foreign actors can destabilise their food security.

Supplies to the Arabian Peninsula are thus heavily imbued with geopolitical risk. What the Qatar crisis reveals is the extent to which threats to GCC food security can emanate from its own backyard.

The decision in early June to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar was accompanied by the suspension of air, sea and land linkages. This drew highly politicised acts of solidarity from Iran and Turkey, who filled the shortage gap following the blockade.

Consider that Qatar imports as much as 90 percent of its food, 40 percent of which enters through its sole land border with Saudi Arabia. While able to withstand the shortfall financially and secure access to food, the lack of a robust food-security programme becomes glaring.
[Click to enlarge]

When considering geopolitical risks, the Arabian Peninsula stands out as a region encircled by a high degree of maritime chokepoint pressure to the continuous movement of goods in the world - the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab to the West, the Strait of Hormuz to the East, and the Turkish Straits in the North.

As a recent study by Chatham House finds, rather than closure of land borders, the greatest threat to food-importers come from a reliance on trade chokepoints. As the report warns, "a serious interruption at one or more of these chokepoints could conceivably lead to supply shortfalls and price spikes, with systemic consequences that could reach beyond food markets".

Over a third of grain imports to the MENA region pass through at least one maritime chokepoint for which there is no alternative route. Kuwait imports 98 percent of its cereals, with 95 percent of its maize, wheat and soybean imports passing through at least one chokepoint. Similarly, the UAE imports 95 percent of its cereals, with 94 percent of those imports passing through a chokepoint.

Consequently, exerting control over a maritime chokepoint can become a significant tool of political leverage. Hence, with Qatar's border with Saudi Arabia obstructed, it has become dependent on imports by air and sea. The Strait of Hormuz is fraught with insecurity - 80 percent of Qatar's cereal imports transit through it and 30 percent of its wheat imports come from Russia through the Turkish Straits, heightening its vulnerability to a food security emergency.

Sanctioning of such a punitive tactic of political warfare upon a fellow GCC state serves to illustrate how the region's trade patterns influence each member's behaviour towards one another, and the effects of the current Qatari blockade.

The Saudi-UAE axis possesses the structural advantage of mediating imports into the Gulf - by bringing goods in and then re-exporting them to other states. Food imports then accrue strategic importance: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar import more food from Saudi Arabia and the UAE combined than from any other country.

Edible oil: Not a solution

Despite this ongoing dependence, Gulf states have yet to adequately tackle their food insecurity despite foreign agro-investments, which remain limited. The urgency that underpinned GCC policymaking following the 2008 crisis manifested in the "oil for food" nexus, where the Gulf perceived its food security in alignment with the energy security needs of food-producing African and Asian countries.
Short-term panaceas aside, the looming urgency for a sustainable national food security programme is lost upon even the GCC's largest and most populous country

This led to a plethora of foreign farmland acquisitions, which contributed to restructuring the GCC's international relations with emerging economies. However, as the example of China's "Go Abroad" outward investment strategy shows, bureaucratic quagmires and local resentment should be a warning to the Gulf.

Short-term panaceas aside, the looming urgency for a sustainable national food security programme is lost upon even the GCC's largest and most populous country. Riyadh unveiled Vision 2030 in 2016, and the more detailed National Transformation Program 2020 (NTP) with the purpose of diversifying the economy away from oil while improving the quality of life for Saudi citizens. Yet, food security remained strikingly unaddressed.

While managing dependence on imports, investment in water conservation technologies, and relying on an oil-for-food strategy, food security in the Gulf remains dependent on hydrocarbons and at the mercy of volatile international relations.

To help mitigate the immediate risks caused by maritime chokepoints, states have begun to establish market-oriented strategies to increase self-sufficiency, typically by augmenting stockpiles and improving their food transportation infrastructure.

The Qatar crisis, however, highlights the reality of intractable geopolitical risk in a region where a diplomatic crisis can rapidly transform into a food security crisis.

It raises important questions for GCC policymakers about the viability of their strategies to insulate their populations from supply disruptions - for there is little doubt that the Gulf's vulnerability to maritime chokepoints, exacerbated by climate change, is likely to intensify food insecurity for the foreseeable future. 

Amar Diwakar is a freelance writer and research consultant with Global Risk Intelligence. He holds an MSc in International Politics from SOAS and blogs at Splintered Eye.

Follow him on Twitter: @indignant_sepoy

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.