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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.

Sudan end newspaper censorship 17, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Africa.
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Maybe MEMRI are changing their spots…two interesting stories (and non Middle Eastern/Islam bashing ones at that) in as many days. They report that, bizarrely maturely, newspaper editors in Sudan have come together to say that they will ‘respect’ and ‘act professionally’ towards their country’s institutions. In return, the government have announced that they are ending newspaper censorship. Good for them. Here’s hoping it sticks.

Russia’s contribution to solving Sudan’s problems 25, November 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Russia.
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MIG 29

Russia has agreed to sell 12 MIG-29s to Sudan in a bid to help them overcome the multiple and chronic humanitarian issues they are facing. It is not clear, however, exactly how these supersonic fighter-jets can help out with the near-famine or with the building of new schools or hospitals or villages or houses or with the resettlement of the 2,000,000 people who have been forced to flee since the start of the conflict in 2003.

A corollary of this agreement is that – and i want to make it clear that i am casting no aspersions as to Russia’s motives here – Russia will now (coincidentally) have better access to Sudan’s oil industry. And speaking of large sums of money, whilst some may say that the untold millions of dollars that the Sudanese government spent on these exceedingly useful jets could have been better spent on medicine or food or shelter or something ‘practical’ like that, Russia, no doubt, thought long and hard about this, listened to their conscience and – as ever – came up with (what some people might refer to as) the most morally reprehensible course of action.

The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new 25, February 2008

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The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new.

The Chinese reaction to the criticism of their Sudanese policies has varied widely. Liu Guijin the Chinese special envoy to Africa spoke eloquently to journalists in London last week. In excellent English, he calmly and coherently made the Chinese case. China was indeed trying to help in Darfur through various meetings and other mediums. China only supplies some 8% of the weapons to Sudan, he claimed, and professed confusion as to how stories exaggerating China’s arms exporting deals come about. “Is it a misunderstanding or is it intentional?” he mused. However, he reiterated the fundamental plank of Chinese foreign policy being non-intervention and was clear that China would only go so far in terms of persuasion. This particular example is similar to the Chinese response in front of the Western media as a whole: professional and slick.

This is in stark contrast to the Chinese domestic response to the same crisis, even in the English language news in China. Take Xinhua for example, the Governmental mouth piece. To choose two of their stories covering Sudan and China, one was titled “Sudan’s FM lauds China’s role in solving Darfur issue.” At a press conference with Liu Guikin the Sudanese foreign minister gave a statement as if it was written for him by the Chinese:

“China is using its good relations with Sudan to help it solve the Darfur issue…China is not here to help Sudan in a way that will prompt the Darfur conflict to continue. China is here to help Sudan in issues regarding economic developments. China is here to help build Sudan, and China is engaged in business not only in the oil sector, but also other sector…[Commenting on some Western organizations’ threat to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games] What they should do is to solve the Darfur issue in a right direction, instead of putting more pressure on China.”

It seems that the Sudanese English language newspapers were equally on message, as quoted in Xinhua:

Sudan Vision, the largest English-language daily in terms of circulation, ran an editorial in both English and Chinese, the first of its kind by a newspaper in Sudan.

“Indeed, Chinese leadership and media refused to trail behind Western fabrications on Darfur, and have instead firmly stood in the face of pressures put on it because it is fully aware of Western attempts to capitalize on the African problem to pass its own agendas which did not change since the colonial era,” the independent daily said in the editorial.

“We have every right to mock at the flawed voices attempting tolink the Olympic Games China will host to the Darfur problem. Such cheap attempt will not affect the eligibility of China for hosting this international activity in the best manner,” the editorial said.

“We, too, appreciate China’s repeated call for political dialogue to resolve the Darfur issue, contrary to Western pressures on Sudan,” it said.

“But the way Western countries dealt with the issue, providing Darfur rebels with funds, weapons and political support, made the rebels reluctant to reach peace. Not only that, the West has continued to use rebels as pawn to achieve its target,” said the editorial.


Such flagrant bias would simply not be tolerated in Western media. Indeed, it would surely be treated with the scorn and contempt that it deserves. What is more puzzling is that China appears to realise this, at least to some extent. You don’t see them peddling this kind of insipid and transparent dialogue in the West, not that they could find (one would hope) a Western newspaper to promulgate Beijing’s line in such an obsequious manner.

Victor Mallet of the Financial Times recently wrote an interesting piece tangential to this theme. He suggested that Beijing ought to open up its media to a greater extent, to allow Chinese people to decide the pros and cons for themselves. Then, “its officials and citizens would be better prepared for the onslaught of criticism and political activism likely to be directed at Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies ahead of the Olympic Games.”

Beijing’s cautious, simplistic and anachronistic assumption that such sycophantic reporting is the safer way to proceed to minimise protest and disharmony is sure to backfire.

Firstly, if people do indeed believe such stories in their entirety then, as Mallet points out, they will be shocked and none too happy with the Western media coverage of events in the lead up to the Olympics. This will create a feeling that the Western media and thus the West are unjustly attacking China just as it is about to take centre stage in one of the most significant events in its recent history. Again, one must not underestimate the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese, in terms of the pride with which they take in hosting it and the prestige that they believe will bestowed on China because of it.

Secondly, for those who read such reports with a wry and rueful smile, the Chinese government are doing themselves no favours. Such reporting suggests gullibility on the part of the reader: not a nice assumption to be fostered upon anyone. Disenfranchising swathes of citizens (and it is surely swathes: most people don’t really take these reports seriously?) will only push them to seek more sources of news, something which the Government seeks to keep under control.

Overall, such reports smack of the old days; of absurd communist pre-Perestroika press or even of Comical Ali, where press reporting was decidedly more fiction than fact. And, to reiterate, the Chinese know better: they show that they do in their modern, fluent and professional Western media interviews. They must not think that they can keep – á la King Canute – the tide of free press and free discussion away from their citizens, it is simply not feasible and, in the long run, not advantageous.