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Farming in Qatar: the portable farm 18, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Qatar currently imports well over 90% of its food from abroad. This is not the most sensible of policies and it is currently being addressed by authorities. This excellent little Al Jazeera clip shows one of the possible futures for Qatar and other countries like it. Here, in a ‘proof of concept’ rather than a profitable business idea to be rolled out, Japanese companies have designed a farm in a shipping container growing lettuces.

Whilst ideas such as this may be a bit far fetched, Qatar is seeking to grow more food in its own borders. This necessitates a closed atmosphere for most of the year and far better water management that is currently available. Saudi Arabia, conversely, after slaving for decades to grow its own food recently decided to scrap these policies for it was just too costly in terms of water.

This desire to secure food resources outwith national borders has led to what many describe as neo-colonial land-grabbing in various poor countries across the world. Originally Qatar, like their neighbors, bought swathes of land in, for example, Sudan. Now, however, Qatar appears to have changed policies and is buying up local food companies instead of just the land. Hassad foods in Qatar has been leading this particular charge. Many see this as a far more acceptable way to secure stronger ties abroad without the negative publicity that comes from directly buying the land out from under often impoverished natives. Yet whether there is actually a difference between the two policies is debatable.

Qatar launches food security programme 17, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia’s agriculture. Mostly without a suitable climate, Saudi grows crops in 1km circles as you can see. However, this practice is soon to be given up for being too water intensive.

The same crop circles are at the center (slightly ‘up’) of this picture. This is to show just how artificial the installations are: they are, quite literally, growing crops in the desert.

The Qatari Emir, Hamad Al Thani, has launched the Qatar National Food Security Programme at the World Summit on Food Security currently being held in Rome, Italy. With over 90% of Qatar’s food being imported, this issue is clearly of pressing importance. The crux of the new plan is to concentrate more on developing Qatar’s indigenous agricultural sector. Al Thani stressed that the harnessing of new technologies which, along with strategic planning and international cooperation is hoped to ” significantly improve the availability and stability of Qatar’s food supplies.”

With the money that Qatar has at the moment and will have for generations to come, it would be foolish to suggest that what amounts to growing produce in the desert will automatically fail. Perhaps these public-private partnerships can devise some clever work-around or new technologies that can breathe new life into Qatar’s agricultural sector. However, the challenge is indeed great. The center of the Qatari peninsula (if not most of the Qatari peninsula)  has long been noted as a particularly harsh, hostile, barren and almost uncultivatable swathe of land. Of course, given enough funds, enough trucks of water and enough laborers from India or Pakistan, the land can be cultivated, but the opportunity cost of this is immense. In addition to the (most likely) huge initial set-up fees of such ventures, the produce produced will have to be (I would imagine) highly subsidized. Such costs do not matter so much now when Qatar is awash in Oil and Gas cash but unless some fairly spectacular advances can be made, such projects will prove to be unfeasible in the long-term.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has been through a fairly similar process. Faced with issues of food security, they sought to subsidise and invest in their own domestic agricultural industry. However, recently they have conceded that in fact such a policy is just not feasible in terms of the water needed to pursue such a goal and they stopped subsidizing farms. Saudi Arabia has, therefore, accepted that it will have to import its food and has gone about buying up swathes of land around the world in what is frequently referred to as neo-colonialism.

Recently, I wrote about how Qatar, after initially pursuing a similar policy, was changing tack somewhat and instead seeking joint ventures with companies in, for example, Sudan. Whilst the end result of crops being exported from (often) poorer countries still results, at least this way Qatar somewhat avoids the stigma of being labeled neo-colonialists and there is arguably more chance that investment in the land in the poorer country may do more good than if the land were solely owned by the richer state.

Given that Qatar clearly has to address this food security conundrum, I think that they should seek their food security in equal, fair and mutually beneficial relationships with companies or if need be governments around the world. Yes, this does sounds all very nice and jolly, but I think there are real gains to be made off the back of a manifestly fair deal. Were Qatar to invest meaningfully in agricultural development in a country, improve its port infrastructure, its road infrastructure etc and guarantee a set level of foreign currency earnings for a country, they could surely obtain cast-iron guarantees of supplies. If Qatar were seen as a partner in development who, of course, wanted grain, but nevertheless developed the surrounding indigenous industries and did not simply pillage produce at a bulk-sale, low price, then were the highly unlikely event of a country turning their back on such a beneficial deal to happen, then there would surely be other countries lined up to take on Qatar’s investment. If the deal was done in an equitable manner, what benefit would a crop-growing country have for rejecting Qatar’s investment in the first place? Overall, not only would Qatar be securing a significant portion of their food security but they would be meaningfully developing a developing country, something that Qatar, ever aware and savvy to the world’s view of such actions, could promote loudly and proudly.

Hat tip for the crop circles: The Oil Drum


Food security article 11, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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My article ‘Answering the Food Security Colonial Conundrum?” was published in the Daily News Egypt. Do go have a read.

Answering the food security colonial conundrum? 7, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Africa, Qatar, The Gulf.
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In international relations the security discourse is often monopolised by those with a myopic view of security as focusing disproportionately on military matters. Other factors be they economic, social or environmental, whilst perhaps considered important, have a tendency of being relegated firmly to the second tier of concerns ahead of the simple, brutish realities of the military balance. This kind of position is taken by those known as classical realists. However, even the staunchest realist might pause for thought if they were to hear that by some estimates the State of Qatar imports around 95% of its food from abroad. This is an exceedingly high figure and highlights the critical level of dependence that Qatar has on its food importers. This situation is repeated to varying degrees across the Arabian Peninsula.

In recent years, states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sought to rectify this situation by buying often huge swathes of land in (usually) developing countries. Billions of dollars and millions of hectares of land have changed hands in countries ranging from Indonesia to Ethiopia and from Pakistan to Cambodia and countless others besides.

Yet it is not just arid, rich Gulf countries that are buying up land abroad. Countries with burgeoning populations such as India, Egypt and China as well as Western private investment banks and institutions are also significantly entering the fray.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a vociferous reaction to these practices. The buying of land to produce foodstuffs primarily (and usually exclusively) for exporting from impoverished countries can be seen as anything from unfair to wrong or even immoral and has been widely dubbed as neo-colonialism. The most egregious example of this occurred when in 2008 Daewoo, a conglomerate from South Korea (GDP per capita $27,000), bought roughly half of the arable land in Madagascar (GDP per capita $1000). This decision contributed to a change in leadership in the African island state and the cancellation of the deal in March this year.

Now it appears that one of the former ‘neo-colonialist’ states, Qatar, has heeded this backlash and is looking to pursue its food security in a different manner. The Qatari Investment Authority has established Hassad Foods with an endowment of $100m to invest in or buy up agricultural companies around the world instead of buying the land. Aside from appearing less ‘neo-colonial’, there are other advantages to this type of programme. By buying up established companies the set-up costs will be less than starting from scratch. Also, from Hassad’s point of view, with the world markets still struggling at the moment, there ought to be some bargains around and, given that food will only ever be needed to a greater degree in the longer term, such investments would appear to be sound.

So far, Hassad has entered into a $68.5m joint venture with an Omani poultry firm and has signed an agreement with Russian grain processing firm PAVA to cultivate land in Sudan. After a modest start, there is potential for the Sudanese joint venture to expand to cultivate up to a quarter of a million acres of land.

Yet one must ask if arrangements such as these are really that much better. Like in the ‘neo-colonial’ arrangement the transport infrastructure and/or the port where the goods will be exported from will be renovated by the importing country. This is, of course, a good thing for the host country. Yet, one must not forget that the foodstuffs produced will still be exported. The international market can and will offer a better price than the domestic one and that is the price at which the food will be sold. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the host country will benefit in terms of food production from this arrangement unless there is some kind of stipulation embedded into the contracts stating that a percentage must be sold domestically.

Indeed, it seems likely that in the newer type of deal (a post-neo-colonial deal?) instead of South Korea or Qatar paying Sudan or Cambodia money directly for their land it will instead go to a private company. Also, could it not be argued that when the deal is at a governmental level there is more scope for provisions for less profitable domestic sales to be included than with two companies both looking to their profit margins as the be all and end all?

Overall, aside from thorny questions to do with territorial rights or sovereignty of the land in question, it appears, therefore, as if there is precious little difference between the neo-colonial and the post-neo-colonial deals.