ABU DHABI: The Gulf states are changing tack in their multi-billion dollar search for food security.
With their farming projects in some of the poorest African nations sometimes arousing local hostility, wealthy Arab investors are turning to those developed countries that comfortably produce more food than they consume.
United Arab Emirates-based agricultural firm Al Dahra has chosen this path in March, buying eight agricultural companies for $400m in Serbia, a major food exporter where public attitudes to foreign-owned farming may be less sensitive.
Projects in Europe, North America and Australasia tend to be more expensive and offer less scope to build vast estates like in Africa. But they also present fewer political problems and less risk for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait which all need to feed growing populations.
For years the Gulf states, dependent on imports for 80 to 90 percent of their food, poured cash into buying tens of thousands of hectares of cheap farmland and other agricultural assets in the developing world, mainly Africa.
They hoped these investments would give them direct access to big food production bases, insulating them from global swings in food prices. But the reality has proved difficult. Some of the African projects have drawn accusations that Arab investors are grabbing land that should be used to feed local people. Bad security and weak infrastructure have plagued some ventures.
Although Gulf companies announced plans to spend billions of dollars, the problems mean many of the projects have not gone ahead, at least not to the point of large-scale food production, said Eckart Woertz, senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. “Rather than greenfield investments in Africa, the focus is more on putting money in already established agro-producers,” said Woertz, author of a book on the subject, Oil for Food.
The Gulf states began investing heavily in farmland overseas around 2008, after bad weather in big food producing nations, growing use of biofuels and curbs on farm exports by some governments sent grain futures markets soaring.
Wealthy Gulf governments never came close to facing food shortages but they did get a fright — especially because the price of oil, their main source of income, briefly tumbled by three-quarters in 2008.
At the same time, expensive programmes to increase food production within the Gulf were running up against the region’s climate and lack of water. Saudi Arabia began to scale back a domestic wheat-growing programme in 2008, planning to rely completely on imports by 2016.
So Gulf states encouraged their companies to buy arable land in the developing world. Al Dahra is typical of that drive; it is a private firm, owned mainly by Abu Dhabi investors, but its mission statement pledges to “partner with the UAE government in realising the strategic food security programme”.
The last few years have demonstrated the limits of the Gulf’s strategy of throwing money at the food security problem, however. Many projects abroad have found themselves vulnerable to capricious policy changes and trends in local politics.
Abu Dhabi investment firm Jenaan has since 2007 accumulated about 160,000 feddans (67,200 hectares) of arable land in Egypt, which is a big importer of wheat. The company originally planned to grow fodder to feed the UAE’s livestock.
But Jenaan was hit by a 300 Egyptian pound ($43) a tonne export tax, and faced other problems such as labour strikes and shortages of diesel to power machinery. This has forced Jenaan to grow wheat instead of fodder, all for consumption within Egypt, said company chairman Mohammad Al Otaiba.
Saudi Arabia-based billionaire Mohammed Al Amoudi faced problems in Ethiopia after his firm Saudi Star acquired about 10,000 hectares in the Gambella region to grow rice. In April 2012 an armed group ambushed Saudi Star employees, leaving five people dead.
Gulf investors say they are sensitive to host nations’ needs and the projects benefit local people by stimulating the economy. But in countries with a history of poverty and famine, it can be hard to escape controversy.
Gulf states are therefore looking more closely at projects in Europe and the United States, where political and policy risks — while not negligible — seem smaller. Details of some projects are not announced, so there is no comprehensive information on the scope of the Gulf investment.
Al Dahra’s investment in Serbia, aimed at developing the companies to grow and process food for export, was said to be the biggest investment in the country’s agriculture for decades. In addition, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, an official aid body, announced a $400m loan to Serbia’s agriculture sector. Apart from the Serbian venture, Al Dahra has been investing elsewhere in Europe and in the Americas, while Jenaan has investments in the United States and Spain.
Hassad Food, the agricultural arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, set up an Australian subsidiary in 2009 with a focus on wheat, barley and livestock.
In June this year Saudi Arabian-owned United Farmers Holding Co acquired Continental Farmers Group, a firm which has farming operations in Poland and Ukraine and produces crops including wheat and maize. United Farmers is jointly held by Saudi Agriculture and Livestock Investment Co, Saudi food producer Almarai and Saudi Grain and Fodder Holding.
Gulf executives and officials insist they will not give up on most of their ventures in the developing world. Jenaan’s Otaiba said he remained optimistic about nations such as Sudan. But future Gulf investment in food security are likely to be more cautious and diversified.