In the wake of the global food crisis from 2007-2008, the Gulf countries have been shaken out of their complacency regarding their lack of a sustainable agricultural sector. The dramatic rise in food prices caused an arc of economic instability and social unrest in both developed and developing countries. The Gulf countries are particularly vulnerable to disruptions associated with food production and export due to their dearth of arable land. Because most Gulf countries must import foodstuffs, they view agricultural commodities as essential to their national security. The concern is understandably heightened, because the bulk of these precious commodities pass through the turbulent Strait of Hormoz.
In response, Saudi officials announced a comprehensive plan to produce rice and other staple crops in African nations as diverse as Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethiopia. Rather than adulation, the Saudi initiative generated a bitter outcry amongst many NGOs, distressed that a wealthy developing nation would use as a breadbasket the continent that is not only the poorest, but has difficulties in sustaining its own populace. In order to stave off criticism, Saudi Arabia donated $500 million to the World Food Program in 2008. Saudi Arabia was not the only GCC nation that attempted to meet its food import needs by leasing or buying agricultural land in developing nations – the UAE and Qatar have announced their own ambitious plans as well.
The tendency is to classify all new phenomena into existing conceptual frameworks. There is no question that the cited African nations lack the bargaining power or the global reach of the Saudis or of any other Gulf State. Framing the issue as a neo-liberal colonialist endeavor is certainly unfair if the classification does not fit. The jury is still out as to whether the NGOs correctly assert that this leasing of land is a form of “neo imperialism.” Are these international transactions neo imperialistic simply because they place the resources of an impoverished territory in the de facto hands of the relatively powerful, or because the compensation is fundamentally inadequate in comparison to the benefits given and received? There is also the risk that, if the Gulf nations do not benefit from such contracts, other nations will step in and experience trade benefits in a period of food shortages. Nor are Gulf nations the only pioneers in this effort; India and South Korea did so with varying degrees of success. In fact, South Korea’s land acquisition efforts fueled extensive protests in Madagascar. For a relatively non-biased overview of this issue, see here
Even though the Gulf nations are relatively wealthy, they are still considered developing nations. They are also threatened by a monumental population increase by 2030, which translates into increased food needs. On the other hand, approximately 8 million Ethiopians suffer malnutrition, and Africans will likely experience increased desiccation with global warming. Gulf nations contend that they in fact assist the developing nations’ efforts to enhance their food productivity – a policy that, if true, measurably benefits all stakeholders. There is also a question as to whether investing nations could avoid pejorative labels if they had exclusive purchase rights from independent, local farmers. No simple calculus can solve these complex problems. Few issues are more passion-driven than access to food and wealthy Gulf nations are always sensitive to their public image. Until the parties resolve these pressing food issues, the neo imperialism label could compromise the GCC nations’ collective image.