Qatar depends on imports to meet at least 90 percent of its food needs. So when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates decided on a sudden severing of ties on June 5, they hit Doha where they knew it would hurt.
The closure of Qatar’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, resulted in an immediate run on foodstuffs. With the world’s highest per capita GDP, Qatar was able to take emergency measures to secure food from alternative sources and can afford to pay a high premium on food indefinitely.
The beleaguered citizens of Syria and Yemen have no such recourse.
Food access has consistently been targeted during the six long years of the Syrian civil war. After systematically bombing opposition-controlled bakeries early in the conflict, the Syrian army progressed toward starvation as a military tactic, including in Madaya in 2015 and Aleppo in 2016.
Earlier this year, a Trump administration official declared Yemen to be the biggest food emergency in the world, with 7 million people “unable to survive without food assistance.” An estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s food supply enters the Red Sea port of Al-Hodeida, leading to concerns of catastrophic impacts should the port become a theater of war.
Food deprivation is an explicit violation of international humanitarian law. But there’s a reason it features so prominently in Middle Eastern conflicts: some 65 percent of the region’s population is considered food insecure.
The region faces two fundamental food security challenges. First and most obvious is water scarcity. In the world’s driest region, booming populations have transformed scarcity challenges into scarcity crises.
Since the 1950s, per capita renewable water resources have fallen by 75 percent—principally because of population growth—from 4,000 cubic meters annually to about 1,000 cubic meters annually, and are expected to fall a further 40 percent by 2050. At the local level, the story is even more worrisome. As of 2014, thirteen of 21 Middle Eastern countries faced “absolute water scarcity” (defined as annual renewable water supplies below 500 cubic meters per person, see table) and five more countries faced “water scarcity” (below 1,000 cubic meters per person).
Water scarcity begets food scarcity. Sustainable renewable water usage is already at peak levels. Continued population growth, combined with urbanization, is projected to reduce arable land per capita by as much as two-thirds compared to 1990 levels. Middle East food demand is projected to increase by 70–80 percent in the coming decades. But where will this food come from?
Sudan is thought to have 30 percent (or even 45 percent) of the arable land in the Arab world, leading to hopes once that it could be the breadbasket of the Arab world. But the country suffers from chronic low agricultural yields and fails to meet even its domestic cereal consumption needs.
Regional cereal yields are only about half the global average, so there is certainly scope to significantly increase agricultural yields per unit of water. Improved incentive structures for efficient water usage and modern irrigation techniques could greatly increase yields, especially in Sudan and other countries with sizeable agricultural sectors such as Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey.
But given the scarcity, increased water efficiency can only go so far. The Middle East will need to significantly improve agricultural efficiency simply to avoid falling further behind. In any realistic scenario, the region will become increasingly dependent upon international food imports in the years ahead.
The Arab countries already import roughly half of their wheat, estimated to constitute 37 percent of the region’s caloric consumption. At least half of the region’s countries suffer from cereal import dependency ratios of greater than 80 percent (see table). Statistical projections by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggest that cereal imports to the Middle East will increase from 59 million metric tons in 2010 to 94 million metric tons in 2030 and 141 million metric tons in 2050.
But with this greater dependence on food imports comes greater exposure to price swings in global commodity markets. While the Gulf monarchies have sufficient oil revenues to manage price risks, just as Qatar is managing its current food crisis, the region’s oil-poor countries will become increasingly exposed to both price and quantity risks.
Given a looming threat of this magnitude to the world’s largest bloc of food importers, the need for a coordinated regional response is obvious. But improving food security while becoming more dependent on international imports requires confronting the second major problem bedeviling regional food supplies: the region’s political breakdown.
One could imagine a Middle East food buyers group that increased agricultural productivity in countries such as Morocco, Sudan, and Egypt; supported research for improving arid climate agricultural productivity; improved sharing of food production and consumption data to better anticipate regional food needs; and even pooled resources to reduce commodity prices.
In fact, there is a precedent for such a regional organization. In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, Western oil-importing countries created the International Energy Agency (IEA) to respond to energy supply disruptions and promote alternative forms of energy and information sharing. Not coincidentally, though, the creation of the IEA came during an era of European economic integration, by when the catastrophic continental wars of the early 20th century had been left far behind.
Developmental economist Amartya Sen famously asserted that modern human famine is caused not by nature, but by human folly. The food emergencies in Syria and Yemen, and to a much lesser extent in Qatar, would seem to bear this out. Far from cooperating to address their shared precarious food supply challenges, regional governments seem insistent on weaponizing food insecurity against their political rivals.
But there is little doubt that most, if not all, Middle Eastern countries will face increasingly acute challenges to provide for their citizens’ food and water security. Whether these pressures become pathways toward regional integration depends on whether leaders determine that they ultimately have no choice but to cooperate. Based on the current evidence, for the time being the unfortunate answer seems to be no.