Being raised by my grandmother, I grew up to her recitations of old Emirati poetry and her narrations of stories from Emirati folklore. Her stories of the past brought with them one of food scarcity, a problem that her generation had to grapple with. She told me how people living along the coastline would trade fish for livestock with inlanders, and that both sources of protein were consumed with the relatively widely available dates.
She also spoke about the long months that men would spend away from their families in their dive and search for pearls, a cornerstone of economic activity at the time. Pearls were exported and food items that could not be grown domestically, like rice, were imported in exchange.
That was food diversity and food security back then. Nowadays, with special dates’ sections in supermarket chains and whole markets for fish and livestock, it is hard to relate to the times of food scarcity my grandmother referred to. Not only that, rice, which was a somewhat luxury food item in her time, is available today in numerous varieties.
Despite the perceived abundance, the Basmati rice variety stands out as the one that is dietarily preferred in the UAE, grown exclusively by India and Pakistan. In fact, those two countries supply more than 70 per cent of all rice imported into the GCC countries, with oil replacing pearls in exchange.
Trading non-food security commodities for ones that are not can be traced back to David Ricardo’s writings in the 19th century. Ricardo’s example was of Britain giving up the cultivation of corn, if need be, and focusing on other commodities or items that Britain can produce or manufacture best and most efficiently. Food security for Britain will be thus driven by international trade and not by domestic production.
Applying the same narrative to the GCC, pearls were first traded for food security, and replaced later on by oil. As for the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), food security commodities, like rice and wheat, were cultivated, in addition to colonial commodities, and then traded to bridge the gap between domestic production and consumption of food necessities.
Such production and trade patterns, shaped over the past 100 years by two world wars and an oil embargo, culminated into today’s food security status for Mena and the GCC.
At the onset of the First World War, a few Mena countries cultivated colonial commodities and exported them as part of a wider trade network under the auspices of the British Empire. This trade network stretched from the region to southwest and east Asia, using ports in the Arabian Peninsula to facilitate the exchange of commodities. During the war, a trade embargo by one power limited overall food availability in Mena and increased dependence on regional food production.
Geopolitical calculations by the opposing power determined where the available food goes, leading to famine in what was known back then as Greater Syria — a food producing region. This eventually led to the establishment, by Britain, of the Middle East Supply Centre in Cairo in order to improve Mena’s food security during the Second World War by better managing the logistics of food distribution, whether sourced from regional production or international imports.
After the war and post-independence, food insecurity factored high into Mena’s thinking, and so did agricultural self-sufficiency policies. This did not last long though, and self-sufficiency policies took a back seat as soon as oil was discovered and exported, with Iraq and Sudan being a case in point.
Since food security was made affordable and accessible by petrodollars, interest in domestic food production, except perhaps for non-oil producers, dwindled with higher oil prices that followed the 1973 oil embargo.
In retaliation to the oil embargo and higher oil prices, at least one international food supplier flirted with the possibility of imposing a food embargo, which would have been detrimental for all Mena countries that rely on such imports for their food security, oil producers included. Even though the food embargo never took place, food prices increased anyway on the back of higher oil prices.
And while oil producers were better equipped to deal with higher food import bills, other Mena countries like Egypt faced a current account crisis. In fact, Egypt had to temporarily lift its bread subsidies because of the high wheat prices before reinstating them to calm “bread riots”.
The looming threat of a food embargo and the 1970s high food prices stressed Mena’s over-dependency on food imports and was behind the reinvigorated self-sufficiency drive in the region. One predominant example is the wheat self-sufficiency programme in Saudi Arabia, which propelled the country, at a certain point in its modern history, into a Top 10 exporter of the commodity.
However, and due to its high costs and water inefficiencies, the self-sufficiency programme was discontinued a couple of years ago.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, and over the past 50 years, other countries in Mena, including Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, and Syria, attained bouts of self-sufficiency in either rice or wheat. Nevertheless, and due to inconsistencies in their agricultural policies and limited availability of irrigated lands, their periods of self-sufficiency were short-lived.
Considering where things stand today, it seems inevitable that food security in Mena and GCC is moving towards further reliance on international trade instead of domestic production. For now, countries with natural resources will be able to foot food import bills.
Meanwhile, other countries with established agricultural sectors and no natural resources, will have to explore possibilities to produce high-value commodities in exchange.
The last thought that I want to leave you with: what will Mena produce and trade for its food security in the future?
Abdulnasser Alshaali is a UAE-based economist.