The Saudi National Prawn Company (NPC) has eyed aquaculture projects in Mauritania of up to $1bn.
To this end it cooperates with the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), which is a subsidiary of the Islamic Development bank (IDB) in Jeddah, and Al-Rajhi International Investment Company (RAII).The Al Rajhi family in turn is a shareholder of NPC.
This is yet just an announcement and one could say that this is the obligatory one billion that such investment announcements like to quote in order to draw attention. But the already existing shrimp farming project of NPC in Al Leith in the south of Jeddah is indeed humungous.
NPC started with a small research unit in 1982 and launched experimental operations in 1987. Today it produces 15,000 tons of shrimps with 2,400 employees on an area of 250 square kilometers.
NPC is owned by the Al Rajhi and Al Sudairi families with the Japanese trading house Sojitz holding a minority stake. The project in the barren landscape of the sabkha salt marshes is the second largest shrimp farm in the world. Its importance was highlighted by King Abdullah who came to its inauguration, with a large reception hall being built on the premise for this purpose.
There are considerable expansion plans for aquafarming in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. NPC has also contemplated to expand on the other side of the red Sea coast in Sudan and East Africa.
What has that to do with Gulf food security? In reality not that much. Shrimps are not part of traditional diets. They are produced for export, mainly to Asia, but also to Europe, mainly London.
NPC experiments with planting algae to be used as fodder. But most of the feedstock is imported fishmeal. Like the large livestock industry, Saudi Arabia imports more than 40 percent of globally traded barley for its sheep and camels, aquafarming is crucially dependent on imported input factors.
Saltwater aquafarming has also less efficient protein conversion rates than herbivorous sweet water fish. Its food security effect would need to come from income generation in the pretty poor Saudi countryside of Al Leith or the hardly more affluent countryside of Mauritania.
Here the jury is still out. There is job creation, but the land needs of aquaculture in Saudi Arabia are not without opponents. Parts of the local population have complained about excessive land allocation and they would like to see more benefits of the project for local communities or access to some of the facilities of the fully integrated site that has its own power station and super market.
To be fair, competing land uses in the barren sabkha salt marshes in the form of agriculture or tourism are limited, but such opposition hints to widespread discontent with land deals and a diffuse feeling in disadvantaged rural areas of being left behind by government policies.