The UAE has launched a new aquaponics projects with the help of the Khalifa Fund. It combines tilapia aquaculture with vegetable hydroponics by using the waste of the fish as fertilizer.
As Saudi Arabia has given up its subsidized wheat program and the dream of cereal self-sufficiency, it tries to attain it in fish. The initiative is led by the Saudi Agricultural Development Fund (SADF).
Currently Saudi Arabia produces 40 percent of its local fish needs and imports the remaining 60 percent.
The initiative will focus on the Red Sea. Like the Gulf coast it is already overfished by all intents and purposes. Not only by Saudi fishermen, but also by international fishing fleets.
Hence, the initiative will need to concentrate on giant fish cultivation projects. One such project already exists with the National Prawn Company (NPC) in Al-Leith, south of Jeddah.
NPC produces shrimps mainly for export, as shrimp is not as popular in the local diet, even though the Hanbali School of law, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, allows their consumption, contrary to the Hanafi School of law
NPC also intends to expand abroad in Mauritania, and -possibly- in East African countries.
While fish farms may alleviate the problem of overfishing, there are potential conflicts with competing land uses (the shrimp projects are in the sabkha salt marshes, not in the open sea) and there are some misgivings about land allocation to such projects among local people as I found out during a consultancy project in 2009.
On the other hand such projects can provide an economic impetus to poor and underdeveloped rural areas along the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.
Like the extensive livestock industry of Saudi Arabia, it imports about 40 percent of globally traded barley, the fish farms rely on imported feedstock and need to import fish meal. Hence, any increase in self-sufficiency in fish will increase import dependence elsewhere.
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.
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.