By Eckart Woertz
Syria and Egypt paradigmatically highlight the perils of food insecurity in the Middle East. Oil exports of Egypt, the largest wheat importer of the world, ceased at the end of the 2000’s. Generating enough foreign exchange for food procurement became more difficult and plans for more self-sufficiency have failed in the face of limited water and land resources. The country needs economic diversification and alternative sources of income, but Asian producers are more competitive in mass markets like textiles. Political upheaval has not helped. Tourism has collapsed; Electrolux and a number of other multinationals have temporarily suspended operations. Transfers by oil-rich Gulf countries have become crucial for an economy on life support.
The situation in Syria is worse. Before its civil war it remained a small net-exporter of crude oil, but its overall petroleum balance has turned negative since 2008. Like Iran, it has a lack of refining capacity and needs to import petroleum products like diesel and heating oil. With the war and EU sanctions the situation has aggravated. Economic liberalization in the 2000’s dismantled agricultural support schemes and left farmers vulnerable to an epic drought that lasted from 2006-2011. Many migrated to the cities and put additional strain on the social fabric ahead of Syria’s uprising. Without aid deliveries of the World Food Program the country would face famine today. By October a quarter of all Syrians will rely on food aid, four million inside Syria and 2 million refugees in neighboring countries.
The food import dependence and lack of foreign exchange is all the more worrying as the global food crisis of 2008 has shown a diminished reliability of global food markets. Not only did prices skyrocket, some agricultural exporters like Argentina, Russia, and Vietnam announced export restrictions out of concern for their own food security. Naturally this sent shock waves through the Middle East, which imports a third of globally traded cereals.
The oil rich Gulf countries reacted by announcing investments in farmland abroad to secure privileged bilateral access to food production. Only a fraction of these investments has gotten off the ground, yet they have been controversial as they have been mostly announced in developing countries like Sudan or Pakistan that have severe food security issues themselves. Ill-conceived land investments will not offer equitable solutions to food security concerns of Middle Eastern nations, but rather economic diversification and trade agreements.
Eckart Woertz is senior researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and author of Oil for Food. The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East, available via Oxford Scholarship Online. He can be followed on Twitter @eckartwoertz.
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