Food security is high on the agenda for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) this year, with member states convening next month to discuss how a region which imports between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of its nutritional assets can avoid future shortages. This is not a new problem; in 2008 oil prices tumbled by three quarters as bad weather, growing use of biofuels and curbs on farm exports sent food prices higher, giving Gulf states a genuine scare over how long they could continue to rely on imported food.
Now, unrest across the Levant and political troubles in East Africa, where GCC states have been, controversially, buying up large farm estates, upsetting locals, have caused leaders to re-think once more.
Growing populations are also a factor, according to Richard Pavitt, Director of Agra Middle East, the only agricultural trade show in the region. "Approximately 90 per cent of the food requirements are met through imports," he said, "and with the GCC population expected to reach to 50 million by 2020, there is an increased urgency within the region."
Food security issues relate either to pricing volatility or supply interruption. Historically the Gulf states have tried to temper price spikes with subsidies or increases in minimum wages, but worries about inflation and the rising cost of the "welfare state" are limiting how much impact these strategies can now have.
Supply interruption is the greater fear; food deliveries to the Gulf must pass through one or more of three strategic bottlenecks: the Suez Canal, the Mandab Strait into the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Historically, none of these chokepoints have enjoyed extended periods of guaranteed safe passage. Presently, jihadists menace the Suez Canal, the Mandab Strait is troubled by piracy, and access to the Strait of Hormuz depends on relations with Iran. "You can see nervousness about those chokepoints reflected in the security policies of all the Gulf states," observes Chris Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics and a Fellow at Britain's Durham University.
The United States Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, intended as a counter-balance to Iran and staging post for anti-piracy efforts off the Somali coast. In recent months, GCC members have also been fierce supporters of Al-Sisi's military regime in Egypt, with the hope that his crackdown can reduce jihadi activity in the Sinai Peninsula. According to research by Chatham House, 7.5 million tonnes of wheat and coarse grains are shipped from South America, North America and Europe through the Suez Canal each year, all destined for the Gulf. This represents 81 per cent of total imports of these commodities to the GCC states.
Recent months have also seen some attempts at more domestic agriculture production. The Gulf countries are, of course, a long way from blessed with perfect arable conditions. Even in its wettest year, the Arabian Peninsula would need more than twice as much rainfall to meet minimum thresholds for rain-fed cereal production. Ninety-five per cent of the landmass is subject to some form of desertification, with climate change only worsening the problem. High maximum temperatures limit yields dramatically.
Nevertheless, the UAE has redoubled efforts to grow domestically; officials announced a prize for innovation in agriculture recently, with Bill Gates speaking at the event, inspecting over 70 farms to see if they would be suitable for hydroponics.
Desalt Innovation Middle East, a food technology company based in Dubai and working with Emirates University, even claims to have invented "waterproof sand". According to Fahad Hareb, the company's chief executive, it stops water from percolating to the groundwater or to lower soils below where crop roots are. "It also stops the rising effect of groundwater, which brings a lot of salt to the surface and the soil." The invention means that crops need only to be watered for two minutes each day; it has already been used to grow small amounts of alfalfa, tomatoes and other produce.
Qatar has set aside billions to fund a food self-sufficiency project, the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP).
Aquaculture is also in a period of "massive growth", according to local media reports. Fish farm growth is being led by Saudi Arabia and Oman, with the former announcing over $10bn in investment in the sector in December 2013. The UAE also boasts the largest sturgeon fish farm in the world.
Domestic production is growing (fastest in UAE, then Oman), but experts are sceptical about how far even the most futuristic technology can take domestic food production. Saudi Arabia effectively aborted plans to foster large-scale domestic agriculture in 2008, pledging to rely on imports-only by 2016. A programme to grow food in the brutally dry and hot climate had proven too expensive, even with massive oil wealth to deploy.
Some also warn of a hidden and underplayed danger; vulnerability in the desalinisation plants along the Gulf coast. "There's only a few days' supply available in these plants," warns Chris Davidson. "The Gulf states rely completely on them. If you think about what could happen in the event of a military strike, it could be disastrous." A Germany company is believed to be working on an emergency solution for Abu Dhabi, which admits, "The city's water supply is not secure in the event of an emergency." The major engineering project should be finished in 2015.
Many states are also altering their controversial "land grab" strategies, which see large Gulf companies, often with state backing, buying up huge farming estates in the developing world. Media reports suggest that Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania have been amongst the biggest targets for this strategy. In 2009, a report from the US-based Oakland Institute claimed that in a single year, foreign investors bought or leased nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa, an area about the size of France.
"Land grabs in the past have been speculative," argues Richard Reeve, Director of the Sustainable Security Programme at Oxford University, "but it's not been [a] very successful [policy]; they've withdrawn because it's not very practical or safe."
In April 2012, Saudi Star, a company owned by Saudi billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi, acquired 10,000 rice-growing hectares in Ethiopia but an armed group ambushed his employees, leaving five people dead. Human Rights Watch had criticised Saudi Star previously, over allegations of forced displacement affecting thousands of local people. Large-scale land purchases in Egypt have also been affected by the recent Arab Spring, as well as protectionist export tariffs.
With political and security problems to consider in the developing world, GCC states are focussing on purchases in more developed markets. Recent purchases by an Abu Dhabi-based company have been in Serbia, the United States and Spain, and a $400m loan from the Abu Dhabi government to the Serbian farm industry has been reported.
Qatari-based Hassad Food Co., backed by Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), has invested significantly in Australian agriculture and acquired around 250,000 hectares. Some Australians have labelled them "a poster boy" for stepping in to help an ailing industry; some nationalist politicians have objected.
Richard Reeve is sceptical about the "land grab" strategy. "There are other ways to secure food supply," he said, alluding to trade deals. "The solution will probably come from a happy medium; finding a balance between importers with lower risk but higher cost."
And a regional response seems unlikely, given recent rifts. "Gone are the days of collective security; they'll be going it alone," concludes Durham University's Chris Davidson.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.