Two Reviews of Oil for Food

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) and the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research (JNRPR) have published reviews of Oil for Food by Pete W. Moore and Erika Weinthal respectively.

Both reviews are positive, main suggestions relate to:

a) better clarification of the two main driving forces of Gulf agricultural policies: self-sufficiency concerns and patronage politics

b) more extensive discussion of resource curse theories and Dutch disease phenomena

c) richer analysis of agricultural policies in Syria against the backdrop of the drought of the 2000s, misguided water management and rural neglect in the decade before the civil war

Thanks for reading the book and these very helpful suggestions!

Syria is in fact one of my regrets and it would have deserved more discussion, indeed. Raymond Hinnebusch’s edited volume about Syrian agriculture in the 2000s escaped my attention while writing and Francesca de Châtel’s excellent article in Middle Eastern Studies was not yet published.

In later publications I have dealt with Syria more extensively while spending some time at the American University of Beirut. During the 1990s I studied in Syria and worked there as a tourguide, getting to know the country and its people. What’s happening there right now is truly saddening and one can only hope that Syria’s shameful tragedy will end soon. With a rural population share of 40 percent sustainable policies of rural development would need to be an important aspect of any reconstruction effort.

Three New Books about MENA Food Security

Three new books have been published about food security in the Middle East and North Africa: Jane Harrigan’s The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Food Security in the Middle East, edited by Zahra Babar and Suzi Mirgani (Hurst, 2014) and The Politics of Food Security: Asian and Middle Eastern Strategies, edited by Sara Bazoobandi (Gerlach Press, 2014).

Bazoobandi`s book has emanated out of a conference at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore and compares food security strategies in the MENA with Asian countries like South Korea and China. My own article in the volume is about this topic, others deal with urban agriculture, Japan, and modern food systems in the Asia-Pacific. Particularly interesting is an article about Iranian food security by Nikolay Kozhanov who served as attaché at the Russian embassy in Tehran between 2006 and 2009.

Babars’s and Mirgani’s book entails a number of conceptual studies about the impact of supermarkets on food systems, obesity, Gulf agro-investments in Ethiopia or my own article about historic food regimes and the MENA as well as a variety of case studies about countries like Yemen, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. The book is the outcome of one of the superb workshops and collective research efforts at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University in Qatar.

Like Food Security in the Middle East, Jane Harrigan’s book The Political Economy of Arab Food Sovereignty provides an excellent analysis of food security challenges in the MENA. By coining the term “macro food sovereignty” Harrigan describes multiple efforts of MENA governments to gain direct access and political control over food supplies, if necessary by disregarding market rationalities and economic efficiency. Macro food sovereignty is thus different from trade-based approaches to food security as advised by international bodies like the World Bank. It is also different from the original meaning of the term “food sovereignty” that has focused on the micro level and has been used by advocacy groups like La Via Campesina to call for farmers’ control over their livelihoods and production decisions.

Harrigan provides a rich variety of data and does a great job in analyzing the development discourse about MENA food security. She goes beyond domestic agriculture and foreign agro-investments and embeds her analysis of food security in the broader context of economic development, income distribution and food accessibility. Like in her earlier writings her approach is refreshingly unorthodox and challenges prevalent development paradigms.

Harrigan and I had our differences regarding the extent of Gulf agro-investments and a widespread implementation gap of announced projects. My reading of press reports and some earlier entries in the Land Matrix database certainly would be more skeptical. Some of the mentioned examples like the Qatari investments in Kenya or UAE based Abraaj Capital’s investments in Pakistan have never gotten off the ground. In the current version of the Land Matrix they are in fact categorized as failed. There also have not been specific land for oil deals, although land for infrastructure deals have been proposed.

But when reading Harrigan’s book I also find considerable agreement, for example about the need to favor joint equity projects and contract farming over fully owned plantation projects that are much more likely to alienate local populations. We also seem to be in broad agreement that preemptive displacements can be serious threats and that improved social safety nets need to be part and parcel of food security policies in the MENA. In sum this is a great addition to the growing body of literature about food security in the Middle East that is particularly helpful in linking it to the broader development debate.

A Sheikh, Ethiopia and Pitfalls of Journalism

“Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, exported a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen.” This is the remarkable claim of Frederick Kaufman in an article in Harper’s Magazine about the agro-investment of the Saudi billionaire in Ethiopia’s Gambela province.

Mr. Kaufman calls it “the great grain robbery” and alludes to the namesake event in 1972 when the Soviet Union appeared as a large buyer of US grains for its livestock program, bidding up prices to the ire of American consumers.

To put it into perspective: one pound of rice gives about five servings, so 70 pounds make 350 servings. Every Saudi eats a bowl of Ethiopian rice each day according to Mr. Kaufman!

Saudi Arabia imported 1.3 million tons of rice in the trade year 2013/14 according to the US Department of Agriculture and does not have domestic production. This would mean that Ethiopia accounted for the large majority of Saudi rice consumption. As rice constitutes 11 per cent of the calorie intake of Saudis according to the FAO it would also mean that Ethiopia has provided almost a tenth of Saudi Arabia’s dietary needs! An astonishing feat for a country that was the largest food aid recipients of the World Food Program (WFP) in 2012. If true, it would be alarming.

Alas, it does not show in the trade statistics. The PSD database of the US Department of Agriculture has no record of Ethiopian rice exports whatsoever. The COMTRADE based Trade Map database of the International Trade Center not really: In 2012 it reports Ethiopian rice sales of $4,000 to Saudi Arabia out of total exports of $5,000. That is virtually nothing.

Mr. Kaufman does not share the source for his 1 million ton claim. Unfortunately for him, almost three quarters of Saudi rice imports come from India and another 10 percent from Pakistan according to the Trade Map statistics. South Asia is where basmati rice is mainly grown, which the Saudis prefer over the sticky white rice that is grown in South-East Asia and the US. This preference is also why Al Amoudi has tried to introduce basmati cultivation in Ethiopia with the help of Pakistani experts and foremen.

Cereal yields in Ethiopia are around 2 tons per hectare according to the World Bank, on the higher end compared with most other African countries, but considerably below Thailand (3.1 tons) the US (5.9 tons) or Vietnam (5.5 tons). As Al Amoudi has just started his project and is introducing a new crop it is unlikely that he can produce very much above the national average. This would mean that the production of 1 million tons of rice in Ethiopia would require 500,000 hectares of land.

Al Amoudi has a lease for 10,000 hectares. Mr. Kaufman does not tell us from where Al Amoudi might have gotten the other 490,000 hectares. Not to mention that Al Amoudi has considerable production problems and it is unclear at this stage whether his project will succeed.

Mr. Kaufman also does not share with us how Al Amoudi managed to get 1 million tons of rice out of Gambela, a remote province with poor infrastructure and far away from any port. The Indian investor Karuturi who launched farming operations in Gambela as well and is now in serious economic trouble mulled exporting cereals with barges via South Sudan, a very unlikely scenario given the current civil war there. Mr. Kaufman himself describes dirt roads that start right after the airport in Gambela; he also speaks of “pilot rice paddies” without suggesting how one would be able to produce 1 million tons of rice with such limited operations.

In case it has not become clear by now: Mr. Kaufman’s central claim of 1 million tons of Ethiopian rice exports to Saudi Arabia is certifiably bogus. Harper’s does not seem to have a fact-checking department, which is rather surprising for a magazine of that size.

Mr. Kaufman says hat “the terms of the deal have never been released.” This is not exactly true as the lease agreement of September 2009 was posted on a website of the Ethiopian government before taken offline in 2012. For convenience I post it here.

For a 50-year lease of 10,000 ha of land Saudi Star pays 300,000 Ethiopian Birr annually. This is currently equivalent to just $15,321 and the contract does not even make stipulations for inflation adjustment. Al Amoudi has announced that he intends to lease an additional 290,000 ha from the Ethiopian government, but so far 10,000 hectares is what he’s got, to the best of my knowledge.

So with $1.53 per hectare the lease terms are even better than the $7 of Mr. Kaufman’s estimate and considerably lower than the $1,250 per year and hectare that he mentions for Zambia. Zambia is a more mature agricultural market with export outlets towards South Africa, so its land prices should be higher, but Mr. Kaufman is right to wonder how such lease terms come about and whether political backroom deals might have something to do with it.

He has apparently been in the country, if only for a few days, he has met with decision makers and he has visited Al Amoudi’s Saudi Star project. There have been indeed problems on the project as the killing of Pakistani foremen has shown and Ethiopia’s strategy of Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) has been accompanied by grievances and state led resettlements as I point out in Oil for Food.

Mr. Kaufman had a unique chance to tell us something about such problems at the crossroads of subsistence lifestyles, development ambitions, foreign direct investment, political conflict and influence trading. Unfortunately he didn’t. He chose to make bogus claims and tell us a land grab story that is sexy and sells. After all Saudis are authoritarian, religious fanatics who do not let their women drive. Isn’t it perfectly logical to add a neo-colonial land grab to that list? And isn’t that what the reader wants to hear? Including unverified rumors about Mr. Al Amoudi’s alcohol intake, Al Qaeda financing and predatory attitudes of his men?

When reading the article one cannot escape the impression that this is neither a story about Al Amoudi, nor about disenfranchised Ethiopians, but about the author himself – an intrepid Indiana Jones who takes the reader by the hand on a journalistic hit and run mission to the dark heart of Africa. To beef up his credentials, Orientalisms are dropped and suggestive language is used without serving any obvious analytical purpose.

Based on a second hand account he refers to locals who live “in picturesque villages, undisturbed by modernity”, all the while Gambela is increasingly affected by a rather modern civil war in neighboring South Sudan. Corresponding refugee flows are shortly mentioned in a footnote. At no point one gets an idea about the local population and how it has been affected by the Saudi Star project. Mr. Kaufman has apparently not interacted with them. Meanwhile he suggests that the Saudi Star compound with its white barracks and satellite dishes seems to belong to a “Bond villain.” Our hero has to face down “fat black beetles” that attempt to crawl in his bed while spending the night there, remarkably on the invitation of the men of the very “Bond villain.” (It also would appear to me that the villains in Bond movies usually have more assuming residences than white barracks).

Al Amoudi was born in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian mother and a Saudi father and later migrated to Saudi Arabia where he made his money. To call him a “billionaire from Ethiopia” obscures more than it illuminates and it would have been interesting to learn more about Saudi-Ethiopian relations and what role Al Amoudi plays in them. Instead, we jump from Alexander the Great’s quest for the Nile sources to Ethiopia “the khat capital of the world”, only to end up again with Al Amoudi, who is termed a “whisky drinking marauder”, like all the folks of international organizations who hang out at the bar of the Sheraton in Addis, which he owns.

In short, another piece of sensationalist journalism and a disservice to a more sober and credible discussion about land grabs and associated development challenges.

The Water Energy Food Nexus in Drylands

I have just returned from the conference about the Water Food Energy Nexus in Drylands that CIDOB has organized together with the OCP Policy Center in Rabat, King’s College London and Texas A&M University.

Approximately two billion people live in arid countries. One third of the global population will be most affected by water scarcity and climate change. Efficient management of water resources for food and energy production is a developmental challenge that requires holistic approaches. The water-food-energy nexus highlights that food, water and energy security are inextricably linked and that any decision in one of the three sectors has consequences for the other.

Nowhere else this nexus is as evident as in dry lands and in the MENA region in particular. Energy will be required to pump, treat and desalinate water for domestic and agricultural purposes. Water will be required to produce energy. About 1-2 percent of global energy consumption can be attributed to the production of nitrogen fertilizer alone. Such development challenges call for a nexus approach to broaden the analysis from a mere ‘blue water’ focus to the more efficient use of soil moisture (‘green water’) and sustainable policy options.

Tony Allan of King’s College pointed out that the nexus between water, energy, and food was first conceptualized at World Economic Forum 2011, which was then followed by a high profile conference organized by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation (BMZ).

Since the 1980s there have been growing sustainability concerns about the various hydraulic missions that have been undertaken since the 1850s. The constant rise in irrigation since the 1960s coincided with declining food prices – until 2008. Further irrigation growth is unsustainable. There has been a peak of World Bank dam financing in 1980.

As a result the focus has shifted from blue water to green water since the 1990s and the latter’s major role in food and virtual water trade. About 70 percent of global crops are rainfed and rely on green water.

Sustainable intensification, protection of farm livelihoods, supply chain management, waste and consumption issues are crucial in Allan’s view. This was echoed by Brian Chatterton, a farmer and a former Minister of Agriculture of South Australia and Lynn Chatterton, an independent consultant. They complained that farmers have not been at the center of attention of the international agro research establishment, which has focused on higher yields instead of lower costs and ecological factors, which are crucial for farmers. They also deplored a relative neglect of pastoralists in extension services, symbolized in the FAO’s closure of its pasture department.

The Chattertons described the green revolution as an abject failure in dry lands because its application of nitrogen fertilizer relies on reliable rainfalls, yet they were optimistic that yields can be improved without more water and irrigation and pointed out that productivity in Australian drylands is 2-4 times higher than in the MENA region without more water and in similar climatic conditions. In the same vein Kris Dodge of ICARDA demonstrated how adapted seeds and plowing techniques, rain harvesting and supplemental irrigation can improve yields in the MENA.

Existing reporting and accounting rules do not account sufficiently for natural resources like water as inputs as Tony Allan, Martin Keulertz of Purdue University and myself pointed out. Rainfall frequency is often reflected in land prices, at least in developed markets, there are also varying pricing schemes for irrigation water in some countries, yet often water remains external to the economy. In case of damage there are only limited sanctions in place to internalize costs, while its provision as a public good is compromised by limited state capacities that have been weakened after decades of neo-liberal reform.

Thus there is a danger that the nexus is conceptualized in apolitical and technocratic terms, as Harry Verhoeven of Oxford University deplored. Often there is a focus on technical fixes, presumably neutral scientific policy choices and “governance”. Yet politics rather than governance matter in water, energy and food allocation and imply control over people. Such politics entail winners and losers as Verhoeven outlined in a depiction of the political economy of the nexus in the Nile Valley.

Other country examples included Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Qatar, Darfur, USA, Ethiopia, Senegal, Tunisia and Morocco. Bassel Daher of Qatar Foundation demonstrated his nexus tool that shows trade offs between water, food and energy allocation in the case of Qatar and could be applied to other countries. Samer Talozi of the Jordan technology University in Irbid showed that 14 percent of Jordan’s electricity production is used for water treatment and pumping. Holger Hoff of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Potsdam Institute for Climate Research and Rabi Mohtar of Texas A&M outlined latest trends in nexus research and forthcoming conferences and research initiatives. Musa Mckee of SOAS, London showed interlinkages between culture and water, food and energy allocation.

Caroline King of the Ecosystems and Human Development Association (EHDA) made a case for improved green water management, particularly in Yemen and Talal Darwish of the National Center for Remote Sensing (CNRS) in Beirut  showed that the effects of climate change in Lebanon have been mainly in the form of irregular rainfall patterns. Decline of overall rainfalls was relatively benign in comparison.

Gabriele Cassetti of Milan Politecnic introduced the TriNex cooperation platform for nexus related projects between European and Egyptian universities that is funded by a Tempus grant of the European Union. Ansoumana Bodian of the Université Gaston Berger (UGB) showed a model how to investigate the effects of rainfall run-off on water resources in Senegal. Rachid Doukkali of Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II and Omar Aloui of Agroconcept demonstrated changes in water and land use in Morocco and related food security issues. Francis Ghilès of CIDOB discussed recent developments in the natural gas industry in North Africa.

Saqib Mukhtar of Texas A&M described problems of the Texan Ogallala aquifer that are similar to challenges in the MENA: Agriculture in Texas uses 80 percent of groundwater and 35 percent of surface water. 66 percent of all groundwater comes from the Ogallala aquifer that stretches all the ay up to South Dakota. Its current recharge rate only covers about 15 percent of withdrawals. Given the accumulated over-extraction it would require 300-1000 years of recharge to go back to the level of the 1940s when large scale irrigation took off.

Brendan Bromwich who worked for many years for UNEP in Darfur showed unintended consequences of water provision in refugee camps against the backdrop of a society that still relies on wood as primary fuel. The water supplies prompted a brick stone industry that required wood and considerably contributed to deforestation. Hence alternative building materials are needed to safeguard energy and soil resources.

Guy Jobbins of the Overseas Development Institute pointed out that Moroccan subsidies for drip irrigation rather benefit wealthier and literate farmers as ‘urfi land of the poor cannot be mortgaged. He also showed the limits of technical fixes: Drip irrigation improves efficiency, but it has not reduced water consumption in Morocco as it prompted farmers to increase the irrigated area and switch to more commercial but water intensive crops. Rural electrification in Morocco went up from 18 percent to 97 percent between 1995 and 2011 and caused a massive growth in installed pumps and irrigation.

As for climate change Mark Mulligan of KCL departed from the current consensus and argued that African dry lands will possibly receive more rather than less rainfall in the future, which could compensate for the negative effects of higher temperatures on agricultural productivity. Rabi Mohtar of Texas A&M pointed out another often forgotten nexus between energy and water: About 70 percent of the water that is used for unconventional oil and gas production via fracking remains underground and is withdrawn permanently from the hydrological cycle. This could diminish water availability in the long run.

Daniel Yeo of the Global Green Growth Institute in Addis Ababa outlined Ethiopia’s strategy of agricultural led development and the role of its dam program while pointing out cleavages between academic and political mindsets. The latter was also highlighted in the concluding key-note address by H.E. Miguel Moratinos, the former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In sum water, food and energy are inextricably linked via various nexi and should not be regarded separately. However, a purely technocratic approach should be avoided given the importance of political economy issues in allocation procedures.

Chinese Agro-Investments in Africa

Last month I was at a conference about Chinese agro investments in Africa at SAIS/ Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

Deborah Brautigam differentiated five types of such investments: 1) media myths and false reports; 2) former aid projects that have now been privatized; 3) construction contracts; 4) government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and 5) real, current projects.

There are only a few current projects in the category 5) and they target food production for the domestic African market, not for export to China, which would not make commercial sense for logistical reasons.

Like in the case of the Gulf countries there is a certain disconnect with media reports and their inflated numbers about land grabs.

That having said China has recently shown strong interest in food related investments, but they have focused on the trading and food processing sectors with a view of improving food safety and catering to the increasingly diverse diets of the Chinese population.

Among such investments have been Tnuva, the Israeli cheese and consumer foods supplier, US pork producer Smithfield Foods, the UK breakfast brand Weetabix and Australian winemaker Hollick. Chinese grain trader COFCO has recently spent $1.5bn on a stake in a sugar, soyabean and wheat joint venture with Hing Kong based Noble Group.

It seems that China prepares to compete with the Cargills and Nestlés of this world rather than directly gobbling up farmland in the upstream sector. There are some large food processing companies in the Gulf that operate internationally like Kuwait based Americana. Gulf countries have also shown a similar, if more subdued interest in trading companies as I describe in Oil for Food, but compared with China they have arguably less capacities to realize such strategies.

Reply to Thoughtful Review of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal

Jane Harrigan has given a thoughtful critique of Oil for Food in the Middle East Journal, Vol. 68, Issue 1, 2014. She outlines the historical part with the critical supply situation during World War II, the food weapon, the modernization of agriculture in the postwar years and the political economy of food in the Gulf countries. While she deems these parts and the depiction of the failed Sudan breadbasket strategy “fascinating”, she objects to my  “sanguine” account of current Gulf agro-investments.

As I describe the Sudan breadbasket episode of the 1970s as an unmitigated disaster and use it as a cautionary tale for current Gulf endeavors this is not immediately obvious.

Harrigan acknowledges that I acknowledge important concerns in the land grab debate like the threat of disenfranchisement of customary land rights’ holders and limited employment benefits. However she would have liked to see a more extensive discussion of these aspects.

She objects in particular to my sub-chapter “A land grab that wasn’t“ in which I use field work in the Gulf countries and the Sudan to point out that there is a huge disconnect between media reports about land grabs and actual implementation on the ground. I further argue that such misconceptions have sometimes been amplified by well meaning reports of advocacy groups, among them the first version of the Land Matrix by the International Land Coalition (ILC) and a number of think tanks that has used such media reports as data source (p. 144f).

Harrigan does not discuss this criticism of mine or marshals evidence to the contrary. But she argues unperturbed that “ample evidence is now available, especially from the International Land Coalition’s work,” about the threat of foreign agro-investments.

I do not dispute this threat in qualitative terms and discuss it as far as it has materialized, like in Sudan in the 1970s, on some of the Sudanese projects today (e.g. the Merowe Dam) or on the Saudi Star project of Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudi in Ethiopia.

Yet in quantitative terms the threat has been exaggerated as I outline in said sub-chapter, certainly for the Gulf countries, but also for China as the works of Deborah Brautigam and Rural Modernity have shown.

So in a way Harrigan is blaming me for not parroting media reports. It would be better to either hold those accountable who have used them uncritically or show empirical evidence of Gulf agro-investments with said effects that I have failed to mention.

In fact, the ILC and its partners have revised the Land Matrix considerably in the meantime, have gotten rid of many paper projects and paint a more accurate picture now.

The problem of exaggerated quantitative claims and the need for more qualitative studies has recently also been highlighted  by Marc Edelman in a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies about methodological issues of land grab research.

In a way Harrigan seems to be uneasy about the “ample evidence” herself. At the end of her review she suggests that the implementation gap may well exist, but claims that negative effects would still occur in the form of preemptive displacements to empty land for investors.

In Ethiopia and on the earlier rainfed projects in Sudan this seems to have happened indeed as I write in Oil for Food; for the irrigation projects in the north of Sudan the situation is somewhat different. The land along the Nile is in private smallholder ownership and not targeted, while the land on the plateau above the river is formally state owned, barren and only usable for extensive pastoralism as long as no investments in irrigation infrastructure are undertaken.

To suggest a mere announcement or even a formal deal without actual investment would lead to an immediate displacement is rather unrealistic in such cases and tends to overrate coercive capacities and economic incentives on part of local governments. In fact in quite a few cases officials were unable to locate announced project sites and locals were not aware of them. In the cases where nothing is there, what am I supposed to write about?

Harrigan says that the US used the food weapon in retaliation to the formation of OPEC, which is not something that Oil for Food claims, as the height of the food weapon was in the 1970s not in 1960 and it was used or contemplated in retaliation to the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, to rein in Nasser, to entice moderation in the Arab-Israeli conflict and push an already established OPEC to cooperate on global food issues during the World Food Conference 1974. But this is a minor thing.

To sum up, I fail to see how I portray an “unjustifiably rosy” picture of Gulf agro-investors as I discuss on multiple occasions their misguided belief in large scale project designs and their real estate centered mentality, which leads to an obsessive focus on formal land ownership and disinterest in joint equity projects with local stakeholders.

All I try to do is to give a differentiated picture and point out an implementation gap that has even grown since Oil for Food was written. Being “sanguine” is different. Land grabs in Africa seem to be bad business as the plummeting share price of Indian agro-investor Karuturi, the travails of Amoudi in Ethiopia or the Sudanese failures show.

Instead of claiming the counterfactual opposite, Oil for Food tries to find an explanation why so many projects have failed or have not been implemented in the first place. It also tries to consider the importance of local factors, domestic agro-investors and national development plans that outweigh the importance of foreign agro-investors and act in lockstep with them.

Coming back to Ethiopia, its government is equally frustrated, as it has hoped that foreign agro-investments would help kick off an agriculture led modernization. It now considers withdrawing concessions.

If any land investment were bad and threatened food security, these developments would mean an improvement. In the specific cases this might even be true, but overall there cannot be any doubt that more investments are needed given Africa’s declining food production per capita over the last decades.

Hence maybe the solution is somewhere in the middle. This might neither be in line with overtly romantic views of subsistence agriculture nor with hyperbolic profit expectations of 30 percent and more that are peddled by some investors, but a more realistic and sober approach in the land grab debate is needed.

Saudi Agro-Investors Leave Ethiopia

This article on AL Monitor is very important and highlights some of the issues I have dealt with in Oil for Food (ch. 8): Why there has been such a gap between announced agro-investments that have been reported in the media and their actual implementation.

The Saudi government has been reluctant to divulge funds as it fears another agricultural subsidy binge, this time abroad. Investors complain that they cannot meet conditionalities tied to investments and say that they have decided to leave Ethiopia.

Saudis have also become less popular in Ethiopia. There is a political backlash of the ongoing crackdown on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia that has targeted Ethiopians in particular. Ethiopian maids have been accused of practicing witchcraft, a capital crime in Saudi Arabia, and were asked to provide mental health certificates, a stipulation that Ethiopians have regarded as an insult.

Like on the Philippines or in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia’s labor policies do not buy it goodwill abroad which can affect its investment plans. Other problems include lack of infrastructure and overlapping bureaucratic responsibilities in targeted countries.

I am not sure whether the Saudi Agriculture Investors Association in Ethiopia that is mentioned in the article is a very important organization. It does not have a website and a Google search does not reveal any institutional history. The size of the Saudi agro-investment in Ethiopia that its head Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Shahri mentions — $3.47 billion — is almost certainly too high.

A database of the Ethiopian government about foreign agro-investments in the country only mentioned the Saudi Star investment in Gambela of Saudi billionaire Al-Amoudi before it was taken offline in 2012 (see Oil for Food p. 202).

Even this investment has run into trouble as an Ethiopian farm executive told me recently. He said Carterpillars are sitting idle on the parking lot and Pakistani foremen of the project complained to him in a bar that they had not been paid for months.

Al-Amoudi recently acknowledged the problems of Saudi Star to Bloomberg, but said  that “Now we are getting in deeply and I’m going to follow it up myself.”

Let’s wait and see. In 2011 I argued that announced Gulf agro-investments were a “land grab that wasn’t.” If anything the implementation gap has grown. If Gulf countries have put money on the table it has been rather in developed agro markets with the necessary infrastructure like Australia or Argentina.

Saudi Arabia Mulls Water Imports from Sudan

A recent study recommends Saudi Arabia to import water from Sudan.

It was “drafted ahead of the upcoming 6th Riyadh Economic Forum, [and] urged the Ministries of Agriculture, Water and Electricity to approach the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work out international agreements for the import of water and to ensure rights.”

Plans to import water from Egypt, Iraq or the mountains of Turkey go back to the 1950s in Saudi Arabia (see Oil for Food p. 69). In the 1970s a Saudi prince even wanted to tow icebergs from Antarctica.

Such plans never materialized for various reasons. Some of them technical (icebergs melt when transported to lower latitudes……), some of them economic (costs for  water transportation are high), some of them strategic (Saudi Arabia was afraid that a water pipeline form Turkey might be vulnerable to disruptions, preferring desalination instead).

Sudan will have maxed out its allocation quota of the Nile water sharing agreement of 1959 when it will have finished its current dam program towards the mid of the decade (see Oil for Food, ch. 6). The agreement is openly questioned by Ethiopia and other sub-Saharan riparians who do not have any water allotment. Three quarters go to Egypt, one quarter to Sudan.

High leakage losses of 30-40% along the water pipeline that leads from the Gulf to Riyadh do not bode well for any pipeline from Sudan that would span even larger distances. Add Sudan’s lacking infrastructure, notorious corruption and political instability and you might call water transportation the crazy part of the paper. Much more reasonable parts call for a reduction of water subsidies and higher water tariffs.

At the end of the day Gulf food security is about food and hence virtual water trade rather than blue water trade. (See the recent Chatham House report for the food trade case). Ensuring trade routes and the ability to pay for food imports while downsizing domestic agriculture to be able to source blue water supplies locally would be the most realistic approach.

Saudi 7-point plan for agriculture

An interesting article in Arab News, explains some facets of Saudi Arabia’s current agricultural policy.

The state-owned Agricultural Development Fund has launched a seven-point initiative that includes the establishment of an agricultural information center, water conservation in irrigation, the outsourcing of wheat and fodder production, marketing infrastructure for vegetables, fruits and  fish, cooperative insurance for livestock sector, especially poultry and a cattle breeding company.

Minister of Agriculture Balghunaim complains that expansion of vegetables and poultry production has lagged behind. While self-sufficiency in eggs has been achieved, the ratio for poultry is only 42 percent for vegetables85 percent. The Syrian civil war has led to supply disruptions form a traditional supplier, but they can be sourced elsewhere, for example from Morocco in the case of tomatoes as the minister explained.

Articles on Syria’s War Economy and whether Drought has Caused the Syrian Uprising

Jeannie Sowers, John Waterbury and myself have just published an article in Footnote1 about the question whether climate change and the drought from 2006-2011 have caused the Syrian uprising. This explanation has become pretty popular in think tank circles yet it overlooks the crucial role of political economy issues.

Humans have choices. The environment is not just an external variable that transmits itself mechanically into sociopolitical outcomes. Via reaction and adaptation it is quintessentially a human category. The drought certainly did not help, but growing inequalities as a result of economic liberalization in Assad’s crony capitalism were the more important factor.

In another article for openDemocracy.net I take a look at Syria’s war economy and the state of food security in the country: What do Syrians Eat?

Without food aid and imports Syria  would face famine now. I have frankly grown rather tired of all these armchair strategists that are mushrooming all over the place who can only look at the conflict in terms of US strategic interests, weapons systems and the like. It’s the economy stupid and without a political solution and economic recovery the Syrian tragedy will continue regardles who might be a military “victor”.