The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great revealer and accelerator of major vulnerabilities pertaining to human security all over the world, and the Arabian Peninsula has been no exception. In addition to the challenges to health systems, and to their economic diversification models at large, one of the most salient stress tests the outbreak has represented for the Gulf countries is linked to food security.
Defined at the 1996 World Food Summit as a situation “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food”, food security relies on four pillars: physical availability, economic and physical access, food utilization, and stability over time.
At first glance, food insecurity does not come across as a burning issue for the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, as their wealth usually ensures abundant and stable access to food supplies. In fact, four of them (Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia) are in the top 5 countries in the MENA region and in the top 30 countries worldwide in the 2019 Global Food Security Index.
However, the Gulf region has poor agricultural conditions, that is it is “[an environment] characterized by high temperatures, poor soil quality and low annual rainfall, and regarded as most vulnerable to water scarcity, salinity and climate change”. Having great environment constraints and high demand, the GCC countries import more than 80% of their food. Their main vulnerability thus stems from their extreme dependence on international markets for supplies and this is what the COVID-19 pandemic has come to threaten.
As it began to disrupt the global food system, with restrictions on internal and international movement affecting supply chains, the coronavirus outbreak spurred fears of food insecurity in the Gulf. These find roots in the experience of the 2008 global food crisis, when the Gulf states discovered their vulnerability, “not because they [could not] pay for their food imports, but because countries were not willing to sell”. In late March, these memories were stirred as onions temporarily disappeared from Kuwaiti grocery stores, with the so-called “onion crisis” spreading to Saudi Arabia in April.
Apart from these somewhat anecdotical instances, however, it seems that no major disturbance occurred on Gulf food markets as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, this, too, might have a lot to do with the 2008 global food crisis. Lessons learned from then led the FAO, IFAD, WFP and the World Bank to issue a joint statement urging countries to not give in to “panic-driven policy responses” that would increase stress on international markets, for example. Gulf countries have nevertheless taken targeted measures to address these issues.
The pandemic is forcing a reprioritization of people-centered challenges that Gulf leaders seem to be willing and ready to undertake both at home and abroad. When it comes to food security, they had already ramped up their efforts after the 2008 global food crisis. For instance, the FAO notes that they have significantly reduced risks linked to food security by holding large food reserves. In addition to their enhanced storage capacity, governments increased financial assistance and subsidies to boost local agricultural production. It was, however, quickly established that, because of water scarcity, this would not be sustainable without endangering the environment and that self-sufficiency was an unattainable goal. Consequently, most Gulf countries turned to a diversification of their food suppliers and, crucially, to investments in arable land abroad – in Africa, as well as Europe and the US.
On these bases, some new national initiatives since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak include the formation of a dedicated Food Security Council in the UAE in January and renewed efforts to support farmers and facilitate food imports in Saudi Arabia. To strengthen its food security, Kuwait turned to increased international cooperation and investment in agriculture technology (agri-tech), notably in a start-up based in the UAE, Pure Harvest. As for Qatar, it has arguably found itself in a better situation than many, having drastically increased its domestic output since the beginning of the diplomatic spat with its neighbors in June 2017 and the air, land and sea blockade imposed by them. On this note, it is worth mentioning that at the regional level, the pandemic led to an encouraging cooperation initiative amid the GCC in mid-April, with the six members adopting a Kuwaiti proposal to establish a joint network to protect food supplies.
Going forward, as policymakers in the Gulf look to redefine national security, the spotlight the pandemic has put on these aspects might accelerate other policy changes. On the domestic front, this could include serious budget rebalancing to support mounting investment in research and development pertaining to food and water security. On the international front, this could push them to “strike a balance between fostering a highly diversified pool of food providers while maintaining a strong but more limited pool of strategic agricultural partnerships”. This could be a starting point to inject new, greener energy into traditional cooperation schemes, for instance between Europe and the Gulf.
While Gulf security always encompassed much more than ensuring regime survival and defending the integrity of the territory against potential aggressors, the COVID-19 pandemic comes as a reality check for governments in the region and beyond, urging them to shift their focus onto human-centric dimensions of security. Maintaining food security, in particular, is “a matter of state policy linked to both national security and social stability”.
As they embark on the journey to safeguard their security in an all-encompassing way, Gulf leaders can perhaps find solace in the idea that this is a challenge that is bound to be faced by an increasing number of countries around the world as climate change continues to impact populations. Showing up early to this field as a model of marginal environment having tackled these tests could thus become a new, sustainable, and constructive method to boost their status and influence on the global stage.