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[Research Reports] Food Security Policies in the Gulf Arab Countries

Jun Saito (Associate Senior Researcher, Institute of Developing Economies)
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'Middle East and Africa' Research Group # 8

The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate in timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors' views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

Food Challenges in the Gulf Arab Countries

The Arab countries of the Gulf have worked to expand domestic food production and to secure stable food procurement from overseas in order to respond to increasing food demand due to the unsuitability of their geographical environment for food production and their rapid population growth.

Because many parts of the Arabian Peninsula have arid climates and freshwater resources are limited, arable land is scarce. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics, arable land in Saudi Arabia, which has the largest arable land area among the Gulf Arab countries, accounts for only 3.62 million hectares (ha) or 1.7% of the total land area. Rapid population growth and the accompanying increase in food demand also make food self-sufficiency in the region more difficult. Between 2018 and 2023, the population of the Gulf Arab States is forecast to grow by 2.3% to reach 63.4 million in 2023. As a result, food demand is expected to grow by 3.3% from 51.5 million metric tons (MT) in 2018 to 60.7 million MT in 2023. At the same time, enhanced quality of life changes the quality of food demand. In recent years, the spread of lifestyle-related diseases has become a problem, and health awareness has also increased. Consumer preferences are changing as lifestyles change, and demand for organic foods, packaged foods, and quality foreign foods is also increasing.

Since the Gulf Arab countries depend on imports for about 85% of their total food consumption, the stability of neighboring agricultural product suppliers and the security of land and marine logistics are vital for food security. In recent years, these countries have often been forced to change their distribution routes, for example, through drastic changes in trading partners due to the Syrian Civil War (since 2011) and the severance of diplomatic ties with Qatar (2017-2021), the threat of a Persian Gulf blockade by Iran, and the increased risk in the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait arising from the protracted Yemeni conflict.

Food Security Policies of the Gulf Arab Countries

Recognizing their increasing domestic food demand and limited agricultural production capacity, the Gulf Arab countries have identified food security as an important issue in their economic development plans. Since the founding of each country, solving the food problem has been a priority issue in the long-term economic development plans that have been carried out for many years. Since the latter half of the 2000s, various economic development visions have been planned one after another against a background of abundant oil revenues. In 2018, the UAE released its "National Strategy for Food Security 2051", setting five strategic objectives: (1) facilitation of agribusiness trade; (2) higher-technology food production; (3) reduction of food loss and waste; (4) better food safety and nutrition; and (5) improved food risk/crisis management. In Qatar, the "National Food Security Strategy 2018-2023" was formulated in 2018, and the following four priority issues were identified: (1) strengthening international trade and logistics, (2) promoting self-sufficiency, (3) stockpiling strategic commodities, and (4) fostering domestic markets.

In the UAE in recent years, as a result of the government's agricultural encouragement policy, small-scale farms have been developed in the vicinity of Al Ain, the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border, and the vicinity of the Liwa Oasis. In addition, plant factory companies are expanding, and various herbs such as basil are grown in indoor facilities and supplied mainly to domestic supermarkets primarily for higher-income consumers.

To make up for the shortage of domestic food production in the Gulf Arab countries, it is necessary to procure food from abroad. From 2011 to 2016, net food imports to the Gulf Arab countries increased by 5.2%, but major changes in diplomatic relations, such as the blockade of Qatar, forced them to make major changes in their food procurement routes. The closure by Saudi Arabia of Qatar's only overland route, the Salwa border gate, cut off the 38% of Qatar's food supply imported through this gate. In November 2017, Qatar signed a transport agreement with Iran and Turkey aimed at promoting trilateral trade in food and other goods in order to resolve this issue.

As part of the India-UAE Food Corridor Project announced at the December 2020 UAE-India Food Security Summit, the UAE plans to invest $7 billion over three years in India's food processing sector, and India will preferentially export food to Middle Eastern countries such as the UAE.

Since 2007, when international grain prices soared, the Gulf Arab countries have been investing in agricultural land in Africa and elsewhere abroad. For example, in Kenya, where cultivated land accounts for approximately 10% of the total land area of 58 million ha, agricultural land transactions by overseas investors are estimated to involve 269,000 ha (0.46% of the total area). The majority of these transactions take place on lease or concessions, with most of the land being used for sugar cane crops. Canada is the largest investor at 160,000 ha, followed by Saudi Arabia at 40,000 ha and the UAE at 200 ha.


Given the limitations of domestic food production and the dependence on imported food from foreign countries, the greatest concern for food security in the Gulf Arab countries is instability in the surrounding region. Food procurement in the Gulf Arab countries might be seriously damaged by destruction of food suppliers and logistical disruptions caused by political instability in Iran, Yemen and the Levant, as well as by restrictions on the movement of people, goods, and money due to the deterioration of diplomatic relations among the Gulf Arab countries. Arab countries in the Gulf must therefore pursue multiple approaches, including risk reduction through diversifying investment destinations, suppliers and logistics routes, avoiding unilateral land grabs, and investing in overseas food supply chains.

(The original Japanese version of this paper is dated February 20, 2021.)