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Abu Dhabi, UAE
When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered an international food crisis, some Middle Eastern importers were hit particularly hard. An economically shattered Lebanon is fighting to avert a bread crisis, war-torn Yemen is already grappling with “alarming heights” of food insecurity, and Egypt, which last year imported 80% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, is capping bread prices to dodge hunger at home.
But elsewhere, in an even more arid part of the region, other countries appeared to be relatively unscathed.
The leaders of Gulf Arab countries – where less than 2% of land is cultivated and 85% of food is imported – seem to have met this food crisis well-prepared. The secret, analysts say, lies in their decades-long strategy for food security and resources to implement it.
Qatar is the 24th most food secure country in the world as of 2021, ranking highest among Gulf Arab states, according to the Global Food Security Index. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain follow respectively. Saudi Arabia, the last among them, ranks at 44.
The Gulf states are located in the most arid parts of the Arabian Peninsula, unfit for wide-ranging agriculture due to high temperatures and water scarcity, the effects of which are increasingly worsened by climate change.
Gulf nations have little choice but to rely on imports, exposing themselves to the vulnerabilities of supply disruptions and price rises.
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While Gulf states have been planning for food security since the 1990s, the wakeup call came in 2008, analysts say, when import bills skyrocketed amid global inflation after that year’s financial crisis. Food supplies hung in the balance after some exporting countries issued export bans to safeguard their own supplies. The shock had “a strong impact on the region’s food and agriculture policy,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Today, Gulf states are taking a different approach toward self-sufficiency, especially after further food security concerns were triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a consistent government security concern given the heat and arid climate,” said Karen Young, senior fellow at Washington’s Middle East Institute. “But now, there are many other options, and more money to pay for alternatives.”
From energy-efficient desalination plants and water-efficient agriculture to increased hydroponic farming that plants directly into nutrient-rich water, and the controversial practice of buying farmland in export-oriented developing countries, Gulf states have been preparing for an emergency – a strategy that served them well in the current crisis.
A strategy that gained popularity and unwelcome attention after 2008 was the purchase of cheap farmland abroad. Saudi Arabia was among the leading Gulf states investing in overseas agriculture in countries like Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia after reducing wheat production by about 12.5% annually in 2008 to save the kingdom’s scarce water supplies. The practice has been criticized by activists for allegedly denying impoverished farmers access to farmland and resources.
Some of these methods can be expensive, and experts question their reliability and sustainability, especially in the wake of a potential globe-spanning food crisis.
“It is not clear that in case of a real global food crisis they could prevent exporting countries from imposing rationing or an export ban even if they own assets in them,” said Steffen Hertog, associate professor at the London School of Economics.
Apart from food security strategies, GCC states are in a much more economically robust position than their Middle East neighbors, analysts say, and so are able to better fend off food supply disruptions.
“Inflation has been more muted in the Gulf, because of tied currencies to the US dollar,” Young told CNN, adding that the recent windfall triggered by rising crude oil prices “is creating a buffer that is keeping these economies and governments in better position.”
Food purchases also comprise a lower proportion of consumer spending for most people in GCC countries compared to other economies in the region, says Young.
The UAE has dedicated an entire ministry to food security, launching a national food security strategy in 2018 that is aimed at placing the country in the Global Food Security Index’s top 10 by 2051.
Planting salt-tolerant superfoods in the desert, building indoor vertical farms and smart greenhouses in the Dubai desert are just some of the UAE’s efforts to boost local production.
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Qatar, which in 2017 was the target of an economic embargo by neighboring countries, launched a national food security strategy that stresses source diversification and contingency planning. Having relied heavily on food imports from neighboring countries, with 400 metric tons of fresh milk and yogurt imported per day through its border with Saudi Arabia, Qatar resorted to building dairy industries in the desert to produce its own milk.
The dairy investments, “while not necessarily competitive without state support, increase the country’s strategic autonomy from its neighbors,” said Hertog.
Food security has been one of primary causes of political unrest in the Middle East, especially in North Africa where the 2011 Arab Spring uprising toppled longstanding regimes.
“The GCC can be buffered from the kinds of inflation that we see in places like Turkey and Egypt,” said Young, “which have pressure on their exchange rate regimes that is pressing up local prices.
“So it’s much less of an economic issue for governments, and certainly less of a political issue for populations.”
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Dubai-based Palestinian-Egyptian Mohamed Sarour knew he had made it as a musician when his tracks were featured in a hit Marvel television series.
Not only was he introducing a relatively new genre of Middle Eastern tunes to an audience of millions, but he also mixed them with classical Arabic songs sung generations ago by giants of the region’s music industry.
The series, “Moon Knight,” stars Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, and May Calamawy. It follows the story of a mild-mannered shop employee who discovers he has dissociative identity disorder and shares a body with mercenary. The first and third episodes heavily feature music from the Arabic trap creations of Sarour, who is known as DJ Kaboo (trap is a subgenre of hip-hop).
The two tracks that were used in the series, “Enta” and “Made in Egypt,” were released years before the show aired. It was Egyptian-American writer and producer Sarah Goher, wife and creative partner to the show’s director Mohamed Diab, who was responsible for many of the music selections for the show, Sarour said.
Kaboo sampled the popular songs “Khosara” by Egyptian Abdel Halim Hafez and the 1952 classic “batwanes beek” by Warda for the music that was featured. “Why can’t I take something from our music library and bring it back to life in a new modern way,” he told CNN. Kaboos’s multicultural crowds in Dubai have prompted him to mix music from different cultures.
Kaboo sees the way that his music was used on the show as a step forward from the stereotypical use of Arabic music in Hollywood movies. “A lot of people didn’t know that there is a new genre called Arab trap.” All eyes are on the Middle East music scene now, but there is work to be done, he says. “The only way for us to export our music to the globe is by us trying to support the local scene first before importing the music scene from abroad.”
By Mohammed Abdelbary