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Chatham House - Regional Instability Threatens Food Security in the Gulf

Regional instability poses the single greatest threat to food security within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, says a new briefing paper, Edible Oil: Food Security in the Gulf.

The GCC countries depend on imports for 80-90% of their food and are surrounded by three maritime ‘choke points’ that could be closed as a result of conflict or political manoeuvres. Nearly all imports must pass through one or more of the Suez Canal, Bab Al Mandab and the Strait of Hormuz.

Most vital to food security is the Suez Canal, through which over 80% of wheat and coarse grain imports pass. 80% of rice also passes through the Strait of Hormuz which Iran has threatened to close. The most vulnerable countries are United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.

The report author, Rob Bailey, Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources, argues that the worst case scenario is conflict in the wider Middle East region that closes multiple choke points for a sustained period.

'All the Gulf countries’ imports from North America, South America, Europe and the Black Sea must pass through the Suez Canal, which militants recently tried to close by firing rocket propelled grenades at a container ship,' said Bailey. 'Were Suez to close, imports would have to be re-routed round the Cape of Good Hope. But were regional conflict to close both Suez and the Strait of Hormuz, then Gulf governments could face real difficulties getting enough food into their countries.'

Faced with these risks, the attraction of food self-sufficiency for Gulf countries is understandable, but acute water scarcity makes this unattainable in practice. Holding strategic cereal reserves is cheaper and more environmentally sustainable, whilst developing ports on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coasts and linking these by rail could diversify import routes.

Summary points and recommendations:

  • Continued instability in Egypt and Syria, threats by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz and repeated spikes in international food prices have sharpened risks to GCC food security.
  • The worst-case scenario is conflict in the wider Middle East and North Africa region that disrupts multiple import routes for a sustained period. GCC governments can hedge supply risks through strategic storage and investments in port and rail infrastructure to create a regional import and transport network.
  • Land-based investments in food-insecure countries with weak governance and poor rural infrastructure do little to manage price or supply risk. Overseas investments are better targeted at existing farm operations in key trade partners.
  • GCC resource wealth mitigates the risk of food price spikes. In the long run, the ability of governments to manage food prices will depend upon successful economic diversification.

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