One part of US President Joe Biden’s regional tour in recent days that got little attention was his announcement in Jeddah that the US will be committing $1 billion in new near-to long-term food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa regions.
While the media and pundits were focused on Biden’s efforts to reconcile with the region’s US allies, there has been a shortage of information on the US President’s food initiative; one which is both timely and strategic.
With the war in Ukraine raging on resulting in a global energy crisis, fuelling inflationary trends across nations and raising the spectre of an imminent food crisis, one cannot avoid but to think about the reverberations that these compounded crises will have on our region.
Already economists are warning that the global economy is heading into a recession at a time when nations in the developing world are facing the added challenges of climate change, water shortages and defaulting on their foreign debts.
With the crisis in Sri Lanka still unfolding, countries in the region should be wary of catching the Sri Lankan syndrome in one way or another. Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq are all vulnerable to acute political, demographic, ecological and geopolitical shifts.
Sri Lanka presents itself as an ideal case study: short-sighted economic policies, the scourge of oligarchic rule, rampant corruption and mismanagement, failing public services, internal power struggle and others. In so many ways Sri Lanka has it all.
The Fragile States Index 2022 includes four Arab countries in the top ten most vulnerable states. They are Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Not one Arab country appears at the bottom of the Index as less vulnerable to conflict or collapse. Close to the top are Egypt, Libya and Iraq.
The index uses indicators across four categories to determine if a state is vulnerable to conflict or collapse. The categories that are assessed include: Cohesion, economic, political, and social. There are 12 different indicators used to determine the vulnerability of the states. These factors include public services, demographic pressures, refugees and internally displaced persons, and security.
But while each of the vulnerable Arab states has to deal with its unique set of challenges; for Libya its primarily political reconciliation while its foreign debt and bulging bureaucracy for Egypt, one thing they all have in common: food insecurity.
For example in 2020, Egypt imported 96.7 per cent of its wheat from five countries, including Russia and Ukraine. Bread is heavily subsidised. Today Egypt has to deal with soaring international prices of wheat and fiscal pressures.
Iraq, Sudan and Algeria are also facing challenges in importing wheat and there are no quick fixes to a problem that is threatening developed and industrialised countries as well. Rising energy costs will be reflected in the prices of imported food stuff and consumers are already feeling it in Jordan, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen.
Iraq’s woes are made even more multifarious by geopolitical issues. Baghdad wants Ankara to release its fair share of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. Drought and climate change have depleted its underwater resources and turned thousands of hectares of agricultural land into barren deserts.
This is why Biden’s initiative must be embraced and built upon as an urgent and crucial matter of national security. There must be an Arab initiative too with plans to defend and expand arable lands, secure innovative solutions to find new sources of water and clean energy and introduce new technologies to farming and agriculture.
The aim should be to double current food produce and agricultural lands within a set period of time through this joint and open fund. It is inconceivable that countries like Egypt and Sudan, with ample water resources and vast lands, are almost net importers of wheat; a strategic food item that is anchored in the two countries’ social stability.
In Jeddah, Arab leaders talked about complementarity as a new regional approach that aims at boosting self-reliance and lessening dependence on outside parties. The regional food fund is one way of moving in that direction.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.