Background and Scope of the Project


Food security is a technical term that relates at both the micro and macro levels to the economic, physical, and social access to sufficient food sources. Food security for a country or a region exists when all or most people within it can regularly access sufficient quantities of nutritious food. Food sovereignty is considered to be more of a political concept, and relates to the ownership of rather than access to food resources. A nation’s food sovereignty is measured by the degree to which it is food self-sufficient, and has possession of an adequate food supply to meet its population’s needs. As one of the most arid regions of the world, the Middle East faces enormous challenges in maintaining both food security and food sovereignty. Some of the countries in the region may be agricultural producers and exporters, and yet demonstrate levels of under-nutrition, hunger, and food insecurity. Other, wealthier states within the region boast higher levels of income and may not face the problems of hungry or malnourished populaces, but still lack self-sufficiency in terms of food production and thus demonstrate low food sovereignty.

The six nations of the Arabian Peninsula began experiencing an increasing “food gap” in the 1970s, due to both their growing population rates as well as a consequence of higher per capita incomes. Oil revenues led to rising incomes which in turn led to changing local consumption patterns. A greater demand for a variety of protein and vegetable sources meant that food self-sufficiency rates within the region began to plummet, and an increasing dependency on food imports became the norm. This lack of ability to maintain self-sufficiency in terms of food production for their local populaces, led many of the GCC governments to consider themselves to be in a precarious or “food insecure” position. As a result, various policy initiatives were launched to develop strategic mechanisms for curbing the dependency on external food supplies.

Domestic agricultural self-sufficiency schemes, especially for cereal cultivation, were undertaken in Saudi Arabia toward the mid-1970s and developed to the extent that by the 1980s the Kingdom was the sixth largest global exporter of wheat. This achievement came at a considerable cost, however. The resultant depletion of non-renewable fossil water which had been used for irrigation purposes, along with other high costs in both financial and environmental terms, led to the conclusion that maintaining domestic cereal production was economically unfeasible and ecologically unsustainable. By the late 1980s Saudi Arabia had begun rolling back its agricultural programs. Such schemes were not attempted on any similar scale in the other GCC states not only due to the lack of available water sources, but also because of a lack of an arable land mass which could be utilized for agricultural purposes.

In the subsequent decades dependence on food imports in the GCC has grown exponentially and in all probability will keep growing as the population increases. There is considerable political concern amongst GCC authorities that food inflation, within the context of the rentier state arrangement, could lead to social unrest and possibly political destabilization. The added fear is that those hardest hit by high food costs, namely the demographically dominant low-income migrant workers, could end up agitating and causing social instability.

The acceleration in food costs since 2006, due largely to high inflation, once again revitalized a region-wide level of concern and interest in addressing the issue of food security. A variety of responses have been taken up by the regional governments, including the launching of programs to address market instability and inflation, investment in domestic agricultural programs using innovative technologies, and the potentially controversial initiatives to develop overseas agricultural investments

Despite the critical regional interest in food security and food sovereignty, there is a dearth of available information on the subject. It is widely acknowledged that there exists a lack of available data on the subject on which to base sound analysis. This scarcity of data and non reliability of data means that academic work on the subject of food security in this region remains limited to non-existent. A scholarly approach to this issue is both valuable and timely, and with that as its goal, CIRS launched a research initiative on Food Security and Food Sovereignty in the Middle East. CIRS held working group meetings to discuss the topic.

The goal of CIRS is to contribute to the existing body of knowledge on food security and food sovereignty in the region through supporting original research on the topic. CIRS will fund empirically-based, original research projects to fill in the existing gap in the literature. Under the broader initiative CIRS will create a scholarly forum for studying the main themes in food security and food sovereignty in the Middle East. Through regular CIRS-sponsored research meetings, CIRS grant awardees will be able to share their research findings with other academics, policymakers, and practitioners. 

Article by Zahra Babar, CIRS Project Manager