The Gulf's food security dilemma

Food security is an important geopolitical consideration for Gulf countries concerned with rising food demand in the face of low production rates and vast imports. In order to maintain food security, imports will remain vital, as well as ensuring the physical security of international and domestic supplies.

By Andrew Francis, RUSI Qatar

The Arab Spring was unleashed in part because of high food prices. But in another part of the Arab world, food security is a major consideration for national security, with low grain stocks and rising world demand leading to price increases and violence in Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East. Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Qatar and Bahrain -  are becoming increasingly concerned about their food security because low production levels, resulting from the regions arid climate, heat, and soil salinity, is combining with rising demand. Indeed, the Gulf population is expected to double between 2000 and 2030[1] and increased tourism and per capita income will lead to food consumption growing at a per capita rate of 2.1 per cent a year between 2011 and 2015.[2]

Because the GCC states are some of the world's most food deficient and water insecure countries, between 60% and 90% of their food is imported.[3] However, this makes them vulnerable to external market influences beyond their control - such as the 2007-2008 world price spikes - and efforts are being made to boost food self-sufficiency. Qatar is leading in this regard and developed the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) which aims to use the latest technology to boost domestic production from 10% to 70% by 2023. Saudi Arabia is also turning to modern technologies such as protected agriculture and drip irrigation to increase crop production. Strategic food reserves are also being developed to cope with price spikes and sudden shortages, with UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain all creating facilities to stockpile staple foods.

However, imports will still be vital to GCC countries because the region's natural climate limitations will limit the growth of certain food stuffs that consumers demand. Moreover, with dietary patterns shifting to meat based diets which require greater levels of water, land and grain to produce, local supply chains will be strained without imports. Agriculture will also continue to rely on inputs from the world market, and if terrorists strike or a natural disaster disrupts production, a country can only rely on its strategic reserves for a short period and will have to turn to the international market to ensure supply. Safeguarding the security of these imports will therefore be vital.

Securing imports

To counter a lack of natural farming resources, many GCC states are investing large sums in untapped land and water resources abroad and re-exporting products back to the Gulf. Abu Dhabi, for example, is developing over 70,000 acres of farmland in Sudan; Saudi Arabia is growing rice in Thailand; while Qatar is investing in agricultural businesses in Kenya, Turkey, Argentina, and Ukraine. However, because many countries in Africa and Central Asia are net food importers and face strong population growth and major water shortages, it is vital that conflict with local farmers is avoided. This can be achieved by making investments mutually beneficial through the provision of business, payments, and job opportunities for locals.[4] Fortunately, GCC states are realising the risks, with Qatar announcing that no more than 40 per cent of produce will be re-exported[5], while the Saudi government has stressed the mutually beneficial nature of its investments.[6]

With imports from traditional supplier states continuing, the GCC will need to be wary of trade disruptions brought about by conflicts in or around supplier states. Indeed, research shows that agricultural production falls dramatically during and after a conflict because farm land is mined or destroyed and markets are disturbed.[7] This should be of concern to the GCC because members are aiming investments and importing from states that have witnessed conflict in recent years such as Iran, Pakistan, Thailand and Sudan. Gulf States will also need to be wary of states refusing to sell food in order to assert their own power, influence the GCC's external policies, or protect their own interests. A recent example comes from Saudi Arabia's ban on exporting fodder and quantities of livestock to Qatar to protect its valuable water reserves. To avoid potential conflicts, the GCC should diversify supplies and avoid shipping food from landlocked Central Asian countries because supplies would need to pass Iran, Afghanistan or Russia and the Caucasus. This would make food vulnerable to geopolitical conflicts like the war in Afghanistan, any future conflict between Russia and Georgia, or an Iranian nuclear impasse.[8]

Economic disparity has driven the growth of pirates who are disrupting maritime supply chains. GCC states will have to pay special attention to piracy around the Horn of Africa if their food imports from Africa are to rise, although perhaps a greater concern is the fact that faster skiffs and modern navigation is allowing Somali pirates to conduct attacks 1,300 miles from the Somali coast. International Maritime Bureau (IMB) statistics show that the majority of attacks are now being conducted along the Yemen-Omani coastline and into the Indian Ocean.[9] This is seriously affecting Arab ships sailing through the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. There are known cases of World Food Programme ships being attacked by Somali pirates[10] and Gulf fishing fleets are at risk of capture, thus increasing insurance premiums for small boat owners and potentially reducing fishing levels. Some insurance companies are also increasing their premiums for ships navigating pirate infested waters and these premiums are being passed on to customers by some companies, raising the price of food.[11]

Terrorists could also disrupt food imports. In recent years terrorists have kept pace with modern navigation technologies and developed efficient tactics to engage a range of maritime targets, including poorly secured oil tankers and port infrastructures. Al-Qa'ida has a presence in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and has demonstrated a capability to successfully attack targets at sea. Examples come from spectacular attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and on the French tanker MV Limburg in 2002. There are also rumours of Al-Qa'ida possessing merchant vessels and they have produced documents similar to a naval manual containing information on how to use limpet mines to attack ships.[12]

The GCC also needs to plan to ensure the security of its food supply through the Strait of Hormuz. A large volume of food from traditional supplier states is transported through the Strait, as well as supplies harvested in Africa and raw agricultural materials. However, with a minimum width of just forty-five kilometres, it is also a major water chokepoint and is located in a neighbourhood rife with political conflict. If the Strait were to close through an oil spill or deliberate attack, then raw commodity and consumer good's prices would dramatically rise.

Iran is located at the heart of the Strait and it is conceivable that it could instigate military efforts to close it and in turn threaten GCC food supplies. It could be tempted to initiate action as a matter of last resort to pre-empt strikes designed at regime change or in retaliation to economic sanctions contributing to internal unrest.[13] According to The Military Balance 2008[14] and GIS maps studied by Caitlin Talmadge[15], Iran possesses the necessary coastal warfare capabilities along the Strait, including several naval bases, pre-surveyed missiles and air defenses on the southern coast of Larak, and a fleet of stealthy Kilo-class submarines. While physically stopping the transit of large tankers would be tough given that their vast size and thick hull make them resilient to many mine and missile attacks, Iran could close the Strait by coordinating the use of mines, Anti-Ship Cruise Missile and air defences to create a trap - mirroring Iraq's use of 1,000 mines off the Kuwait coast in 1991 in order to prevent a US invasion.[16] However, it seems unlikely that Iran would want to close the Strait because it would deprive itself of oil revenue and food imports; potentially invite US intervention; and unless a blatant act of self-defence, the global economic damage could alienate diplomatic supporters such as China.

Securing food at home

Because GCC states are investing large sums in increasing domestic production and strategic food reserves, ensuring the security of food and water within a country's borders is equally vital to food security. There is a threat of terrorists contaminating supplies with biological, chemical, physical or radio nuclear materials, and although contaminating the entire supply chain is unlikely, crucial parts are vulnerable. For example, open field crops and water pipes could be sabotaged, condiments in restaurants contaminated, or food reserves destroyed. Indeed, US security officials have previously warned that Al-Qa'ida militants have studied poisoning public buffet bars with lethal toxins such as ricin and cyanide.[17] Aside from reduced food availability, any attack would reduce confidence in a country's goods, create domestic political instability, and put industries out of business. The major political and economic impact of an attack could even encourage companies or countries to intentionally contaminate food destined for GCC shores - with the trade disruption caused by the contamination of Israeli citrus fruits destined for Europe in 1978 an example.

The final vulnerability discussed is perhaps the regions' most acute because it concerns desalination plants which GCC countries rely heavily upon for potable water and, if damaged, would leave the Gulf States  with an average of only three days of reserves.[18] They could be put offline in a variety of ways including inside sabotage and explosive detonation, but perhaps the biggest threat to these plants comes from an oil spill - whether accidental or as a result of sabotage - because tar balls could damage and/or clog the intakes and put the entire network offline. The Gulf's high volume of both desalination plants and oil facilities makes it particularly vulnerable, with a 300 mile stretch of the UAE coast containing ten tanker ports, three coastal refineries, and forty desalination plants.[19] States could also use oil as a weapon - as per Iraq directing an oil leak towards Saudi's coast in 1991. Since the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, concerns have arisen that some spills might be too big to contain, and to prevent disaster in this and all threats discussed, effective GCC contingency plans are vital.  


Despite commendable efforts in some GCC states to boost domestic food production and increase agricultural efficiency, the region's poor climate and rapid population growth will force GCC states to continue pursuing a policy of food self-reliance. This will leave food and water supplies vulnerable to various security risks including oil spills, piracy, bio terrorism, and overseas conflicts disrupting production. Achieving food security will therefore require an evaluation of all the potential risks and the drawing of effective contingency plans. Indeed, if the Strait of Hormuz is closed, national airlines could airlift supplies or Saudi Arabia and Oman could become emergency entry points. Likewise, effective food safety measures will help prevent, detect, and contain deliberate food contamination, while diversifying supplier states will reduce the risk of overseas conflicts disrupting supplies. Without rationally calculating what food can be produced, what has to be imported, and how the latter can be secured, the GCC will continue to be food insecure.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.  


[1]  Eckert Woertz et al, 'Food Security in the Arabian Peninsula', 14 January 2012,

[2]  Aya Lowe, 'Gulf food security becomes critical as demand grows', 10 July 2011

[3]  Mahendra Shah, "Gulf Cooperation Council food security: balancing the equation", 25 April 2010, and Lowe, "Gulf food security becomes critical as demand grows"

[4] Eckert Woertz, 'Gulf Food Security needs delicate diplomacy', Financial Times, 4 March 2009

[5] Brooke Jones, 'Qatar Moves towards Food Self-Sufficiency', p. 3,

[6] Woertzl, 'Food Security in the Arabian Peninsula'

[7] APCSS, 'Food Security and Political Stability in the Asia-Pacific Region'

[8] Ibid

[9] Derek Baldwin, 'Piracy wave set to hit households in the GCC', Gulf News, 28 August 2011

[10] AFP, 'WFP renews pleas for naval vessels after pirates strike in Somalia", 22 October 2007 and WFP, "Two New Piracy Incidents Underline Threat to WFP Shipments',

[11] Baldwin, 'Piracy wave set to hit households in the GCC'

[12] Vijay Sakhuja, 'Security threats and challenges to maritime supply chains', 2010, pp. 7-8.

[13] Caitlin Talmadge, 'Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz', International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer 2008), pp. 87-8.

[14] IISS, The Military Balance, 2008, pp. 242-244.

[15] Talmadge, 'Closing Time', pp. 87, 104 and 105.

[16] Eugene Gholz, 'Threats to Oil Flows through the Strait of Hormuz', April 2008

[17] 'U.K. Agency Warns of Terrorist Threat to Food Supply', 6 June 2011,

[18] Mohamed A. Dawoud, 'Strategic Water Reserve: New Approach for Old Concept in GCC Countries',

[19] James E. Lovell, 'The threat of intentional oil spills to desalination plants in the Middle East: A US security threat', April 1998, p. 19-21


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