Islam in America
America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump. By Lawrence Pintak, I.B. Tauris, 2019, 344 pp.
On the occasion of Muslim Women’s Day in 2018, New York justice activist Faiza Ali tweeted: “Q: What’s the status of Muslim women? A: Fierce.” Her tweet suggests that American Muslim women need to be fierce to confront the misguided assumptions about Islam spread not only by the anti-Muslim right in the United States, but also by the Donald Trump administration and many liberals. Her tweet is featured in Lawrence Pintak’s latest book, America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump, which delivers an informed and timely account of the intensity and fraught relationship between American politics and policy, and Islam and Muslims over the past several decades. By giving voice to a diverse number of Muslims both inside and outside America, the author directly challenges the current xenophobic narrative and explains why it has created problems for the United States overseas.
Pintak draws our attention to the antecedents and price of widespread ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims in part one of his book. He examines how politicians paint a picture of a “Muslim bogeyman,” spurred on by right-wing talk radio and television networks like Fox, as well as many of the counter-Fox networks, who fall into the trap of spreading disinformation for the sake of ratings.
It thus joins a list of important texts on the history and politics of Islam and Muslims in the United States and the world, including Nadia Marzouki’s Islam: An American Religion, Darryl Li’s The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, and Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order, among others.
Pintak also highlights in detail the tolls paid by those targeted in the War on Terror— how they suffer harassment, violence, trolling, racism, Islamophobia, and suspicion. In chapter one of part one, titled Media Codependence, Pintak reviews the history of comments made by then-presidential candidate (and even earlier) Donald Trump about Muslims. By saying “there’s something going on,” or “we don’t know what’s happening,” when referring to Muslim immigration to the United States or the threat of ISIS overseas, Trump cast a wide net of suspicion over all American Muslims and Arab–Americans.
“It was a strategy of innuendo to which it was difficult to respond, casting suspicion without an overt accusation. It left its targets off balance and his political rivals scrambling to show they were even more concerned,” Pintak writes.
Yet, it is his recounting of stories accumulated during an illustrious career as an American foreign correspondent covering the Middle East and South Asia that make for the best moments in the book. One intriguing account is in a chapter aptly titled “The Myth of the Muslim Monolith”, which covers what came to be known as the “Hanafi siege” in 1977, when a group later identified as part of a splinter group of the Nation of Islam took over the headquarters of a Jewish service organization, a mosque, and a government building in Washington, D.C. This was Pintak’s first time covering a story involving Islam and it led him to conclude that, “The siege had more to do with black nationalist politics than religion, but it gave me an early glimpse of a reality that would be woven into my reporting for the next four decades: no one person, group, or sect speaks for Islam.” Challenging reporters and scholars who start sentences with statements such as “Islam is…” or “Muslims are…” is a much-needed antidote in today’s toxic American political and religious climate where generalizations abound.
When it comes to documenting the failings of current American foreign policy, Pintak presents damning evidence of the extent to which the strengthening of dubious U.S. alliances with the Saudis, Israelis, and like-minded allies, combined with the generalized chaos and dysfunction of the U.S. political system, is redounding to the long-term benefit of China, Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
In the case of the former, the chairman of the Karachi Stock Exchange Munir Kamal tells Pintak that China is more important to Pakistan than the United States in the long run due to China’s growing global economic and political power. Pintak also documents Turkey’s rising power, explaining how Saudi efforts to isolate Qatar inadvertently empowered the Turks, whose threatened intervention and troop deployment in Qatar, according to Qatari officials, forestalled a Saudi invasion in 2017. Russia and Iran have also benefitted from recent events at the expense of the United States, exploiting the situation in Syria and effectively winning the war there. Documenting these geopolitical shifts and the plummeting prestige of the United States in the region is among the book’s most important contributions.
Other compelling passages in the book include Pintak’s discussion of Pakistan and his description of Muslim inmates in American prisons. Pintak relates a story a fellow journalist was assigned to cover on how devout Muslims in the Pakistani military refused to battle militants fighting in the name of Islam, telling their lieutenant colonel: “This is not a just war. We cannot fight them.”
This is a story rarely heard by Americans who are regaled with accounts of a close alliance between the United States and the Pakistani military in the fight against Islamic extremism. Pintak reveals the dilemmas faced by Pakistani soldiers who are being asked to kill fellow Pakistani Muslims in the name of the state and its allies abroad. Stories like this could help Americans understand why the so-called War on Terror is impossible to “win”.
Turning to American prisons, the scene is equally complex and just as tragic. Pintak introduces us to Jihad Saafir, a young African–American imam in south Los Angeles who runs a social welfare organization and prison ministry. Saafir discusses the important notion of a form of Islam that both shapes and is deeply influenced by local context: “There’s not one Islam. The thing that they imported is the thing that they imported, but it always changes forms.” This encounter allows Pintak to discuss the reasons for the high rates of conversion to Islam among African–Americans and Hispanics, as well as the fact that many of those conversions take place in prison. It also allows him to push beyond tired American stereotypes about prison conversions to Islam, involving the notion that such conversions either provide meaning and direction to lost souls or serve to radicalize unsuspecting and vulnerable individuals.
Pintak includes intense depictions of the trying contexts in which various forms of Muslim community take shape in prisons. For example, he evocatively describes his visit to a county jail with a volunteer prison imam in the Seattle area named Yahya Malik, where he finds out why inmates convert to Islam.
An inmate in his late thirties wearing a skullcap, who had spent much of his life in prison, told him: “‘Islam gave me a path beyond all this,’ gesturing to the locked door and bulletproof guard station across the hall.” When it was time to pray, “about half the men gathered on the mats. The others, who were not Muslim, had just come to listen.”
When Pintak later asked another inmate why he was there, he smiled and said it was better than sitting in his cell. The prisoners were well informed; one had read about Islam in Indonesia and asked Pintak to discuss the impact of the growing Islamist movement on Indonesian politics. Another, who suffered from flashbacks, had converted after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. After his conversion, the man explained, he had visited Saudi Arabia for several years, during which time he undertook a three-month walking pilgrimage between Medina and Mecca.
It is interesting to juxtapose these encounters with Muslim American prisoners with Pintak’s description of President Trump, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi gathered around a glowing orb in Riyadh in May 2017 to celebrate the launch of a new “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology,” intended to “expose, combat and refute extremist ideology”.
Given Pintak’s skeptical stance vis-à-vis this summit and his attentiveness to the complexities of U.S. relations with Islam and Muslims, it is somewhat surprising to come across references to “violent Muslim extremists” and “fundamentalist Deobandis,” which is the same type of totalizing language that he criticizes at other points in the book. His reference to the “evolution of the [Muslim] religion” is also off-key given that Pintak learned early in his career that, as mentioned above, “no one person, group or sect speaks for Islam.” It would appear that there is no single “Muslim religion” to “evolve”.
Equally surprising is his commitment to the salvific potential of American law. “Efforts to turn the politics of fear into the law of the land,” Pintak writes, “had been consistently confronted by the power of decency and common sense.” Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to uphold the “Muslim ban,” it would appear rather that the politics of fear is often written into the law of the land.
This is, however, an important and timely book. Though U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy tend to be artificially segregated in political science classrooms and in presidential debates, Pintak shows that they are part of the same story. America & Islam challenges reporters, policymakers, and scholars alike to pose new questions about these intriguing connections.
Trash Sorters: Entrepreneurs in Africa
In Abidjan, Johannesburg, Cairo, and other cities in Africa, young men and women make a living from collecting and recycling trash and empty bottles. Entrepreneurs like them are a common feature shaping the experience of communities across Africa, and they represent a unique opportunity for the continent’s policymakers to redesign the way in which we think about our economies.
Growing up in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, I would watch street entrepreneurs pass by my parent’s house—there were tailors, traders, ice cream sellers and also, trash sorters. Whenever I saw women knocking at our gate, I would eagerly run to give them empty bottles collected from our household. They made me think a bit more about the waste economy as they appeared to have clear purpose for the items we discarded. They saw value in what seemed to me to be pure waste.
They would collect the bottles and place them in large bags then lug them onto carts and transport their haul to a central location for sorting. Bottles were sorted according to color and material; green, transparent, and plastic bottles were placed in different batches.
While the collection and sorting of bottles appears to be an informal process, it actually materializes into a clear supply chain mechanism for other women trading peanuts, caramelized grated coconut, and different types of homemade juices from ginger, hibiscus, tamarind, and other local fruits. Peanuts are sold in glass bottles, juices in plastic bottles. This trade did not originate from the rubbish, but was conceived out of an opportunity to collaborate to reduce operating costs while protecting the environment. While for many of us it was not perceived as such, the fact that this supply chain process is still going on means that there is value in it.
So, the waste went from my household and many others to the streets of Abidjan to be used to trade in local commodities. Each woman recycling plastic and glass bottles received her commission from her contribution to the supply chain. And it is this interconnection between different business segments that makes the case for why we should give value to the architects of our economies.
The Business Opportunity
Women were not the only ones interested in the recycling business. Youth, learning from their mothers and sisters, took to the streets to work when the government’s trash collection service was discontinued due to a prolonged strike or had become unreliable due to changes in economic conditions.
I recall the day a young man knocked on our gate with an offer for garbage collection; I was pleased by the idea that people were in charge. The municipality had some issues with the collection process, and soon the pile of rubbish became unbearable for residents who at first self-organized to collect the garbage themselves but could not sustain their efforts or the cost. Once the community agreed to pay for their services, the young men came at regular intervals with rudimentary carts to collect and dispose of the garbage. They would come around the neighborhood streets sorting through trash and dumping the rest in their carts. As they sorted through the bins, they had limited or no tools at their disposal to protect themselves from possible disease. The process in which they engaged presented health risks, but they ploughed through the rubbish to identify elements that could be re-used in the system and resold, hitting gold at times.
For residents, when smelly and overfilled bins are not emptied regularly, they end up contributing to health problems. Yet, these entrepreneurs found an opportunity in addressing the problems created by a temporary failure of the municipality.
Without WhatsApp groups or any other digital tools, there was an agreement to invest in the business of these young men. They found an opportunity in the market and provided a solution. But their solution was not integrated into the mainstream economy. It was perceived as a temporary one while the municipality was looking for its own solutions to the garbage problem.
Nevertheless, this engagement by residents with an alternative solution created a mechanism that had become necessary. In South Africa, for example, it is estimated that trash sorters recycle 80 to 90 percent of plastic and packaging. Their contribution is valued at $53 million in landfill costs that would have otherwise been incurred. The positive health and financial impact on taxpayers is real.
As one reads about the story of trash sorters across the world, it undeniably becomes a narrative of entrepreneurship, one rooted in the heart of the consumer economy in which we thrive. In Indonesia, plastic bottles and food wrappers are complements for fuel in a tofu factory; every day, they boil 2.5 tons of soya beans—from which tofu is made. In Argentina and Chile, cooperatives such as Bella Flor, which operate within and alongside state entities, provide an opportunity for people to do meaningful work in waste management, boost their skills, and improve their livelihoods, all the while contributing to protecting the environment.
Social justice is at the heart of the issue communities are trying to address here. The work trash sorters do is a necessity for the society we created as we are unable to use existing formal mechanisms to cope with urban waste. And there is an opportunity to change the mechanism in which trash sorter-entrepreneurs have to beat the trucks to the bins; there is enough trash for all those that want to dig into it. According to the World Bank, cities will generate 3.4 billion tons a year by 2050, thus creating an opportunity to create pathways to prosperity for many more people. What is required is the acceptance that entrepreneurship in Africa is not only technology-driven. However, trash sorters may need artificial intelligence to advise them on where to get which type of trash in order to maximize their time and resources. Given the level of sophistication in the informal circular economy, the future of waste management in our African cities has already been designed.
The Entrepreneurship Hurdle
Our first challenge is to define what entrepreneurship is in Africa and what solutions can be found to the problems that are identified in the community. We know that agriculture allowed other technologically advanced communities to take full advantage of a strong economic base as means of production improved and moved up the value chain, and the level of sophistication evolved from producing raw materials to finished products.
Entrepreneurs in the United States, India, or China, for example, leaned on the capital made available from industrialists and farmers which transformed local resources connected to local, regional, and global value chains.
Agriculture, manufacturing, and industrialization created jobs, thus providing resources for investments and capital, or personal expenditure for the goods and services produced. And yet, the way Africa defines the role of entrepreneurship is often rooted in our eager aspirations which forgo the work of solidifying the base made from agricultural transformation.
Africans today appear satisfied with their ability to have leapfrogged that evolution with cellphone technology: the ubiquitous use of mobile phones in the continent has created a host of services for the users. One of the most cited is the promise of mobile money to improve the relationship between citizens and financial institutions. While this creates opportunities for technology-driven organizations, it does not solve some of our basic problems in securing better employment for African youth.
We cannot ignore the youth employment challenge while importing technological solutions from parts of the world that developed them on the back of stronger agricultural and manufacturing industries. The jobs that are available in these industries are not yet available for African youth. In essence, by failing to recognize informal entrepreneurs as solution-makers, we run the risk of not accounting for active parts of our economies.
Our economic growth can no longer ignore the fruits of youth’s labor. Measuring economic growth is not enough to determine if the African continent is advancing because these measures do not include the output of the informal economy. Trash sorters come under that category of key business actors that fall under society’s radar not because communities do not value their contribution, but because our economies are designed to account for the systems we wish we had. Although we wish for fully formal economies, most African adults are employed in the informal economy, and many of us buy their services.
From Sorting to Recycling
The second challenge is to work with communities invested in the waste management businesses to become advocates for these young entrepreneurs. The first step here is to change perceptions to consider trash sorting as worthy as any other entrepreneurial job; a starting point could be to have multiple bins in the house while we wait for the formal economy to catch up.
Ultimately, it is the respect for each citizen’s contribution to the society we want to build that determines the way in which we assign value to our fellow compatriots. A trash sorter is an entrepreneur but what value do we attach as a society to their contribution?
The steps to value addition through recycling are achievable if we see their value proposition as a business opportunity. In their own way, these young men and women conceived a business idea out of necessity, like any other entrepreneur. But the economic options offered to their business as it matures have not yet become mainstream.
Had we paused to observe the supply chain management that they had put in place, we could have developed mechanisms to buy their input into recycling plants. But we preferred the traditional large trucks with a logo which collect our rubbish to deposit in landfills.
Integrating People into Waste Management
In South Africa, Vusi Memela starts sorting trash before the cock crows. He and millions of young entrepreneurs across the continent are changing the community’s relationship with trash. Being an entrepreneur starts with an initial investment. For trash sorters, this represents a cart, a bag, and the physical and mental strength to walk around the streets of Johannesburg, or climb the hills of Sandton.
They keep fit by collecting and delivering kilometers away from the source of their trash at a pay of $6 for about 300 kilograms of cartons. However, there are times when a discarded electronic device in workable condition can increase the gains to $100. It is here we have to formulate a larger plan to integrate waste management.
In Guinea, for example, the government is working with small- and medium enterprises in solid waste management in the capital Conakry. The strategy aims at recognizing the private sector’s role in the value chain in which individuals and other groups have invested resources. This collaboration is a potential model of engagement, and the key part is the ability of private actors to create value drawing from community needs, for example, for compost and recycled metal. The opportunity for growth in the sector is enormous as the government recognizes the entrepreneurship gains brought by youth.
From Cairo to Cape Town and Addis Ababa to Dakar, white paper, cardboard boxes, white plastic milk bottles, green glass bottles, and PPC (thick plastic) are valuable. But the value cannot be limited to the informal mechanism. Tapping into the value chain of the recycling business and bringing in Vusi and his peers across the continent as trash sorters/entrepreneurs is a sure bet on employment opportunities. Being a trash sorter is not an end in itself. It is a journey into one of the key business opportunities of the present and future. In our African cities, the same will drive tech entrepreneurs to seek to change the habits of their expected customers. Why is our society not giving Vusi and his peers the same opportunity?
Digital ID and Digital Economy
The young trash sorters of Africa have started a process but like many young entrepreneurs, they cannot succeed in isolation. The market for recycling exists and will continue to grow. Through that growth, experts in recycling with hands-on experience like Vusi can create a pathway for themselves in other sectors of the economy.
Although the current view and definition of the informal sector in business terms excludes millions of hardworking Africans like Vusi from the economy, this can be resolved with technology that not only accounts for the trash collection but also for the individual’s journey into society. Their opportunity in business can be increased with a digital ID. A platform economy requires identification mechanisms for all participants and this could take the form of electronic means of payment and receipt.
But the first step in financial inclusion requires a personal identification process. In the absence of a physical ID document, there could be an opportunity to increase inclusion mechanisms for trash sorters as they register their businesses on a recycling platform. Without a digital ID and an acknowledgment of their contribution to society, informal workers’ pathways to access financial services platforms will be limited. And this is a problem in a world that makes services accessible through platforms. Logging onto the platform is not just about making money. It is about creating a system that allows individuals and their families to access government services such as healthcare and education. The digital economy thrives on opportunities for learning and development.
Ultimately, a digital ID must be more than an identification card; it should be a key to access healthcare and other basic services while unlocking opportunities for small enterprises to grow and create more jobs as the informal economy represents 80 percent of African economic activity.
While we may think that trash sorters need to be taught, we might be surprised by their ability to teach other entrepreneurs about supply chain management and negotiation skills, for example.
Recycling and trash sorters do not necessarily come to mind when Africans think of entrepreneurship, but our ability to start with what we have on the digital platform will go a long way in reshaping the continental marketplace that will unlock opportunities for more young people.
Policy for the Africa We Have
The informal economy, just like unemployment, is here to stay. While the latter is accounted for with policies designed to address joblessness, the former should be our most important focus because our socioeconomic makeup depends on men and women who are entrepreneurs in their communities.
Policymakers ignoring the informal economy are missing an opportunity to provide Africans with tools and options to enhance the kind of work that is delivering food, clothes, art, and most importantly, recycling to our communities. We have aspired to catch up with (Western) economies that formalized their processes and in doing so have left behind those that rise to take our civil servants and other workers to town. In that process, we have ignored the trash sorters who mapped the city according to the municipality schedule for rubbish collection. Those skills and that ability to beat the formal economy can no longer go unnoticed as the majority, like in any democracy, should have a say in how things are run.
For our purpose, Vusi and his peers across the continent represent a force to be reckoned with; they provide a large service to taxpayers. In Johannesburg, South Africa, an estimated six thousand trash sorters allow the municipality to save millions of rands (one dollar is 15 rands) in taxpayers’ money. But the real saving will come when municipalities fully integrate the young entrepreneurs’ skills and knowledge on digital platforms so that others can learn from them.
At the same time, these African youth could benefit from training in accounting and teaching techniques, with the end goal being the integration of their skills in teaching about entrepreneurship in learning institutions.
The final objective is not saving Vusi. It is about taking the Africa we have and showing its potential for all its 1.2 billion people. Trash is treasure in many corners of the continent. We should think about the jobs waiting for young people as we think about the economy that we have in Africa. Our economies in Africa need to account for everyone’s contribution. Starting with the ones that are improving our waste management will take us closer to achieving a community-led socioeconomic transformation.
How Sudan Transitions
Now that the absolute power of autocracy has collapsed in Sudan and the people’s revolution has succeeded in creating a power-sharing mechanism between the Transitional Military Council and the civilian Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the challenge now is for this Sovereign Council to successfully manage the situation until general elections are held in 2022. In the meantime, the council must prevent the repetition of the cultural and ideological warfare of the past that had prevented the country from achieving peace and security.
The Sudanese situation will prove no exception to the tumultuousness that followed the Arab Spring in other countries, which were opened up to new possibilities. It will require patience, perseverance, and purpose to achieve equality, freedom, and social justice.
Despite all the provocations and atrocities committed by anti-revolutionary forces, the demonstrators remained peaceful throughout the uprising. Continuation on the path to peace is the moral parameter that defeated warmongers and the forces of tyranny. With a civilian prime minister forming a diverse and inclusive cabinet, the odds of a successful transition are increasing day by day despite some disappointment and discord among some civil society groups.
While reason now prevails over ideological rifts, political demagogy and partisan politics did initially delay the transition process. However, given the gap between the youth and the older generation, the society of knowledge (or the digital society) appears to have won. They were able to defeat the regime, which the older generations had failed to do for the past thirty years.
All the more critical is that the ousted president and his associates were living in a state of delusion and self-deception while completely underestimating the capability of youth equipped with their digital devices. In a matter of five months, they succeeded in ousting the regime. Of course other factors, including economic conditions, also played a part in accelerating the regime’s collapse.
In fact, the economy was in complete meltdown by the time young Sudanese men and women took to the streets; the currency lost its value by more than 300 percent in just six months, and the inflation rate soared above double digits, bringing the ailing regime to a complete standstill. Former President Omar Al-Bashir found himself increasingly backed into a corner and forced to make piecemeal concessions.
The regime used three tactics to thwart the attempts for democratic change: declaring a state of emergency to allow the army and security apparatus to use lethal means to put down the uprising; reshuffling the government to include the familiar faces of the regime; and finally declaring that Al-Bashir would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Sudanese people. To understand Al-Bashir’s failure, one must trace the evolution of the Sudanese revolution, its key players, and the recommendations for a long-term agenda for a successful transition to a democratic society.
The sociological evolution of this uprising traces back to the days when armed groups formed in the desert far west in Darfur and from the trenches in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, yearning for freedom and social justice. It was a triumphant moment when the youth in the regions of Nyala, Al-Geneina, Blue Nile, and Atbara, the working-class city in the River Nile State in northeastern Sudan, lit the revolutionary torch of change and revived the spirit of the nation on December 19, 2018. This spirit quickly spread from city to city, and this historic moment not only unified the conscience of the nation, but soon became a journey of self-redemption and soul searching.
The slogan that united Sudanese civil society against the regime’s tyranny was, “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!” This was a critical outcry that condemned the policy of division and hate orchestrated for three decades by the regime and its apparatus to suppress voices for change. Citizens in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains had paid the revolutionary premium; they went through the agony of genocide and the destruction of their livelihood.
The genocide in Darfur resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000, the destruction of more than three thousand villages, and the displacement of more than four million people. It destroyed the region’s social fabric, which could take decades to restore. The genocide also damaged the country’s reputation and led to the indictment of Al-Bashir, and expected indictments of at least fifty-two high-ranking officials by the International Court of Justice.
These crimes should not only be seen as the responsibility of the ousted government, but also that of past generations who allowed such crimes to take place. The sacrifices of the people of Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains should not be forgotten in the mist of the political turmoil. It is time to help the victims heal and compensate them both financially and morally.
As rightly said by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the most important priorities for the Sudanese transitional government are peace, social justice, and economic development. During this transition and afterward, respecting human lives and reversing the suffering of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees across the country should be the tool for measuring the success of this transitional government.
The transitional government must also address the increasing discontent from decades of marginalization in Darfur, Kordofan, and eastern Sudan. Among the IDPs and refugee camps, there is an increasing fear that the same elites are applying only cosmetic changes to continue the old tactics of deception and ethnopolitics. It is important that the entire transitional government visit these camps to listen to key stakeholders before taking any steps in the peace process.
Signing settlements with armed movements is necessary, but not entirely sufficient, to have peace. The government should start first with the IDPs and refugees before taking steps to initiate the peace process. If achieving peace is the popular demand, then the government must listen and act. Peace is not about creating positions and rewarding political leaders—that would be a fatal exercise—but about changing the dynamics of the power structure. This means establishing partnerships to empower the rural community and the marginalized sectors of society living in IDP camps and shantytowns.
The Key Players and their Adversaries
The call of the hour is preventing the transitional period from erupting into chaos. In other words, the Sovereign Council must move to stimulate collective action and constructive dialogue to lead the political process to a complete democratic transition. This should lead us to inspect the revolution’s key players, the igniters of the revolution, and the secondary players who are acting on behalf of political parties.
Transitional Military Council
The adversaries of the uprising were led by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which opportunistically shifted its position to wear the hat of the savior of the revolution, before its intentions were revealed in the aftermath of the June 3, 2019 massacre. The TMC was accused of killing dozens of protesters at a sit-in in front of the military headquarters, and dumping their bodies into the River Nile. The public was outraged and the country was shut down in civil disobedience.
After massive demonstrations on June 30 and under public pressure, the TMC retreated and acquiesced to discuss the establishment of a civilian-led government. The TMC was dissolved after the agreement on August 20, 2019, as a result of the Draft Constitutional Declaration to have the Sovereign Council replace it. The Sovereign Council is composed of eleven members— five members of the military appointed by the TMC, five civilians appointed by the FFC, and one jointly appointed member.
Sudanese Professionals Association
Many consider the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) to be the principal actor. The political parties joined in the call for change—after the SPA had laid much of the groundwork—under the umbrella of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, which includes Sudan Call (the Umma Party, the Sudanese Congress Party, the Sudan Liberation Movement, and the Justice and Equality Movement) and the National Consensus Forces (NCF), consisting of the Sudanese Communist Party and the Sudanese Baath Party.
This paradoxical combination of political opportunism and sharply divided political parties overshadowed the advances achieved by the SPA and Sudanese youth. There are sixteen trade unions comprising the SPA, seventeen political and armed groups in Sudan Call and eleven political entities forming the NCF. There are twenty-nine political entities that do not belong to any group. Most youth do not belong to any established political force and are skeptical that the above-mentioned armed and political parties can manage the transition. Unlike the older generations who want to reap their fruit of long struggle against Al-Bashir, the country’s youth are keen to replace the old political system with more effective institutions without diminishing the role of the state in providing safety nets.
The Rapid Support Forces
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary outfit, and their leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, played a critical role in bringing about political change in Sudan, and many have commended Hemeti’s role in regime change. However, a lack of experience and his recent history as a tool of the ousted regime will always constrain his ambition to govern the country.
The RSF was created by the old regime to be loyal and quell dissidence because the government was not eager to settle the prolonged wars on Sudan’s peripheries. No organization or politician should make the mistake of supporting the RSF in their efforts to govern; doing so would push the country toward brinkmanship politics that could tip the country to civil war. True, the RSF has the means to seize power, but it is impossible for it to govern. Ruling a country like Sudan is challenging; it is too big to govern by force and the country is deeply politicized, beset by disparate armed groups, and burdened by an economic crisis.
Sudan needs collective wisdom to be governed. The best course of action for the RSF is to integrate into the Armed Forces and protect the transition. The alternative is for it not to be part of Sudan’s future. The course of action for the armed groups following a peace agreement should be disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Overall, the Armed Forces should be gradually reduced after the peace process concludes. With peace established in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, there will be no need to have a standing army of 400,000 men. Resources should be directed to the development and restructuring of the army into smaller and more robust units to safeguard the peace.
The Egyptian influence
Egypt and Sudan have had historical ties that were marked by people-to-people exchanges, which have moved beyond the legacies of the colonial era. The relationship should be built on safeguarding mutual interests.
Egypt followed a cautious, wait-and-see approach as the events unfolded in Khartoum, but public opinion in Sudan has interpreted this negatively. The previous regime had repeatedly asked Egypt to expel members of the Sudanese opposition and armed groups from its territory. While the government in Egypt refused these requests on more than one occasion, it nevertheless preferred to see the continued survival of Sudan’s political institutions, particularly the army.
Egypt’s primary concern is to maintain stability on its southern border, and to avoid the kind of chaos and insecurity that exists in eastern Libya today. Egypt’s best move is to invest in boosting economic relations and strengthening peopleto-people ties in order to build trust and move beyond the current distrust. It is important that Egypt supports the civilian transition government and advises its partners in the region to refrain from interfering in a country that is already on the brink of chaos.
The youth and grassroots mobilization
Sudanese youth, who had been deprived of their democratic rights and oppressed for nearly three decades, have risen up to challenge the entrenched autocratic system. This is the country’s third popular revolution since its independence in 1956, when it embarked on a painful journey to establish national identity and a government for the people.
The 2019 revolution is unique compared to similar movements in 1964 and 1985 because it is youth-led and not affiliated with any political parties. It was triggered through social media, with a blue Facebook profile image representing peace for Sudan and a hashtag #BlueforSudan. The ousted regime had encountered many existential threats, but this one was a fatal vortex that felled the autocracy. The regime lost its central nervous system when its military machine was rendered ineffective in the face of young people armed with social media. The youth’s mobilization tactics were robust and challenged the regime’s propaganda, fabrication, and distortion of facts. The youth uprising was a social movement that broke away from older generations in its genuine wish for change. It departed from the old politics of division and opportunism by the rentier elites who were interested in seizing the state.
The new generation is non-ideological and deeply believes in the universal values of inclusivity and tolerance. Slogans of freedom, peace, and social justice were the mottos of the revolution in the face of the autocratic norms of oppression. The regime as always played for time to allow the revolutionary wave to pass, but this was not effective this time. The youth were organized and mobilized to push for accountability, peace, and job opportunities. Given the weakness of the political parties, they filled the political vacuum and are now shaping the future.
The international community
Sudan has been a focus of the international community for three decades, which has acknowledged that the region cannot afford to see another fractured country like Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Sudan is too big to be ignored, which is why the neighboring countries of Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt, and South Sudan collectively pushed harder for the Draft Constitutional Declaration to administer and manage the transitional phase.
The international community mounted pressure, particularly from Ethiopia, to bring the parties together. For example, the African Union invoked tenets of its charter to downgrade Sudan’s membership status until the TMC transferred power to a civilian government. African mediation used two tracks: one track was led by an African Union team, and the other by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who on October 10 won the Nobel Peace Prize for peace initiatives on his own country’s border with Eritrea. Ahmed put forward a proposal honoring the previous agreement between the FFC and the TMC, in which the FFC would form a civilian government led by a prime minister it would appoint. They were given 77 percent representation in the legislative branch. The point of contention was in the composition of the Sovereign Council.
Meanwhile, the international community led by the Troika (the United States, the UK, and Norway), the EU, and some permanent members of the United Nations Security Council called for a civilian-led transition and holding accountable those who commit atrocities in Sudan. The EU strongly predicated any economic aid to Sudan on a civilian-led transition, a policy which has borne fruit. It is now clear that the Sudanese people were not ready to roll back the clock to succumb to military rule again. The June 30 protest led by the youth, the SPA, and the FFC was a major demonstration after the successful call for civil disobedience on June 9.
The international community must stand behind them and ensure that the deep divisions among regional powers, which overshadowed peaceful settlements in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, do not (re)surface when it comes to Sudan. Instead, they should work toward Sudan’s long-term stability, strengthen its institutions to share the benefits, and address the challenges together.
Revolution and Long-Term Agenda
To overcome some of these challenges, the forces of change need to manage the transitional process to empower an inclusive civilian-led government with wider representation, moving beyond the Nile River Belt. In the meantime, the process of regime change through popular uprising is in itself an educational tool for the public to practice the politics of governing. This process inevitably leads to a bigger debate on the quality of leadership; meritocracy-based governance should be the cornerstone to rebuild institutions.
Equally important, these new institutions must have a mandate to control political behavior by determining the rules of the game, the strategies, checks and balances, and reward systems, to which politicians must adhere. The accountability of the leadership will pave the road to creating a healthy environment and robust democratic institutions.
Call for a New Brand of Leadership
In Sudan, not all leaders are corrupt, but corrupt regimes breed corrupt leadership. There is an opportunity for a new political system to cultivate and harvest quality leadership from this young generation of activists. This is not without its challenges, however, as Sudan faces a national crisis in its multiplicity of political divisions based on familial, political, ideological, tribal, and regional affiliations. The fragmentation has increased political animosity and has bred incompetent, ineffective, and corrupt leadership.
In the past few decades, politics became the profession du jour of those who have no profession. The previous regime encouraged degenerate leadership types, but like a plague, they must be removed. The autocracy produced a leadership of high school dropouts, and kleptocrats who had ascended to the highest positions on the political ladder. For this morally bankrupt leadership, politics and public office is not a call for duty or service, but a job and political opportunity for self-enrichment. These types of leaders’ ingrained criminal attitudes and behaviors should not be a part of Sudan’s future political fabric.
Nobel laureate George Akerlof once said that in the absence of information in the market, the bad cars (lemons) chase out the good cars (peaches). In Sudan, we have political lemons; good leaders were chased out and we were left with the mediocre. The current political leadership is not acceptable. Some leaders have occupied the political space for the last three decades or more. Their hold on power becomes a function of how far the leader is willing to indulge the country in politics of division.
To counter this, there should be a new set of public standards and litmus tests to determine who should be trusted to lead the nation as it moves forward; providing public service should be understood as a sense of duty and responsibility. Public service is a noble purpose, it should not be associated with criminality and ineptness. Today, the most capable people have fled the political scene due to decades of negative stigma. This plague needs to be addressed before the political process is to be initiated in order to have full democratic institutions, and before the capable members of society return to political life.
The modernization of Sudan’s political environment requires that more than 124 political and rebel movements be consolidated into five or six major entities led by competent leaders who will move the country forward. In order to create this momentum, the country needs a real vibrant civil society and think tanks to enrich the policy debate on critical issues such as reforming labor laws, the pension system, education, healthcare, judiciary, security, agriculture, and government administration.
Applying these reforms will require professionalization or technocratization of politics and policies. Technocrats should lead the reform based on evidence and away from politics to put the country on the path to success. Civil society will set the agenda and participate as stakeholders to enrich and improve the policy process and its outcomes.
So many countries started on the path to successful revolution but were thwarted by political division and distrust. As long as the Sudanese people remain united against all forms of division and gerrymandering, the blue symbol of the revolution, reflecting the beauty of the Nile River, will outlast the political maneuvers of the remnants of the old political class.
The militants in the government have attempted many times to derail healthy political discourse. To ensure their efforts are thwarted, the new transitional government’s role is to build consensus to ensure the political process leads to an elected government. The transitional government should set the foundation for the separation of powers so that future elected governments have the capacity to generate policies without sharing power with non-elected bodies. In addition, there is an urgent need to have a national covenant to consolidate the political processes. This would ensure that no party is allowed to invest resources to create non-democratic regimes though military coups, or turn to violence and tribal domination.
The adequate safeguarding of these principles requires educating the public to recognize that democratic procedures and institutions are the most essential elements for governing collectively in a society recovering from civil wars and genocide. All are subjected to the mechanism of conflict resolution in accordance with specific laws, procedures, and institutions established to govern.
Civil society is essential for political society to implement its values. It is important to encourage the creation of social, cultural, and political associations to advance dialogue and for society to move beyond elections to a truly pluralistic society with effective policy debate. It goes beyond the formal political institutions in shaping agendas and influencing the decision makers. It is incumbent upon society to put a high value on the core institutions of a democratic society, including political parties, elections, electoral rules, and political leadership.
For three decades, civil liberties were curtailed in Sudan. The state discriminated against its citizens based on regional, tribal, and geographical categories, especially in Darfur.. The state allowed forces from the National Intelligence and Security Service and the RSF to have free reign to commit crimes, while independent civil associations were banned.
Ninety percent of the population is living in poverty or relative poverty, which means that democracy will have no value to the common man if the trickle-down economy ceases to work. Therefore, society’s endorsement of the political system must be contingent upon the capacity of the system to provide opportunities to advance. No one is demanding free handouts, but allowing for equal opportunity is essential.
The transitional government, and the one which succeeds it, should ensure equitable access and rights to education and healthcare. Economically, marginalized areas must be given priority access to education, healthcare, and opportunities to open businesses. All historical injustices must be addressed to chart a new beginning which entails the retirement of old political classes responsible for these atrocities and injustices.
Uphold the rule of law
During this transition, the state must uphold the rule of law. All citizens should be equal in receiving legal guarantees for freedoms and independent association. In the meantime, the leadership of the ousted regime should be held accountable for the war crimes they have committed. All the actors complicit in the crimes in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains should be brought to justice. The people of Darfur must be guaranteed their day in court with those who committed genocide, perhaps in the International Criminal Court.
The transitional government must also begin a process to establish a commission to investigate corruption cases and refer them to court. Asset recovery at home and abroad is a priority—as of today, some are still looting the country’s resources. Many from the old regime are transferring assets they looted through corruption. Punishing these kleptocrats and those guilty of genocide for their crimes helps the nation heal. Therefore, an independent judicial system, supported by civil society, becomes all the more necessary to advance the rule of law and establish a new political culture.
Reconfiguration of autocratic institutions
The previous regime departed from the norms of other similar autocratic regimes, such as having hierarchical institutions, by destroying the bureaucracy and creating parallel institutions to protect themselves from accountability. The regime created multiple armies, a web of security apparatuses, and quasi-government economic institutions exempt from constraints and owned by individuals. The central bank did not function independently and was a lending arm to the Ministry of Finance. The army, the most hierarchical organization today, is an institution led by generals who lost their professional standards because they were recruited through the political process. The most important criterion for appointing officials was loyalty, which was the regime’s way of keeping institutions away from the control of adversaries.
The civilian and military leaders were more interested in business deals and promotions, or using their status to enrich themselves rather than developing the nation. A great number of the military rank-and-file is incompetent and corrupt. They lost their standards by dealing in the money market. This is why a rudimentary force such as the RSF has taken over military garrisons and armaments, including the military airbases.
This all forms a considerable challenge for the new government, which now must realign the military institutions and restructure them to perform their basic functions. Some actors in the bureaucracy, particularly in the army, should not be allowed any authority or influence that could lead to destabilizing the democratic state. The RSF and the rebel armies should be integrated into the Sudanese Army and their institutions should be reconfigured.
A civilian-led government should have greater institutional, symbolic, and absorptive capacities than military leaders to advance the agenda for democratic transition. For the civilian leadership to advance, all forms of military presence in cities and villages should disappear. Only the police force with a minimal security presence should be allowed. This will give the political society room to flourish and give the leadership the capacity to rebuild the state.
Previously, the outgoing regime represented by the TMC worked to derail the transition process. The civilian leadership needs the support of the key players and stakeholders domestically and internationally to thwart the military leaders who aim to split and undermine it. The revolution was initiated by civilians, and they should lead the transition to undo the dictatorship and create an enabling environment of healthy and inclusive dialogue to resolve the critical issues they inherited from the previous non-democratic state.
It cannot be stressed enough that the unity of the Sudanese people toward the common purpose will be key for a complete civilian-led transition. Dialogue with all regional countries is a must for a new beginning. All are looking for a Sudan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.
Toward Arab Food Security
As a whole, the Arab World doesn’t produce enough food to feed its growing populace. One by one, each Arab country faces a different set of limitations, including natural resource endowment and production constraints, which impact the ability of nations to weather food-price shocks. Arab states are facing increasing demand for food and water due to population growth, urbanization, and the expansion of the middle class. Many governments are also grappling with instability following the 2011 upheavals and multiple crises in the last decade, which caused new challenges for governance, provoked more external intervention, and prompted widespread internal discontent.
The drivers, mechanisms, and impacts of food security need to be explored. Moreover, researchers must study the internal, regional, and global dynamics at play and provide some recommendations as to how Arab governments might deal with challenges that will influence food prices and resource endowment in the water-energy-food nexus, both in the short term and in a longer time frame.
The future security of Arab states will depend on navigating multiple regional conflicts and competitions, internal upheavals, and extremist movements that fuel regional instability. It will also depend on addressing new non-traditional security threats, particularly to the water-energy-food nexus. This will require, in turn, a new analysis of these threats, followed by the development of innovative strategies and approaches.
Political Stability and Food Security
The link between food and political stability, which plays out on three levels, has been a recurrent theme in analyzing the dynamics of change in the contemporary Arab World, particularly following the oil price increases of the 1970s. Internally, food has played a key role in the stability of governments. A set of policies has emerged over the years, including providing food subsidies, adopting programs to introduce micro-nutrients, and placating farmers through policies that encourage higher outputs or certain crop selections through fixing crop prices and facilitating access to loans, seeds, and fertilizers. In many cases, governments have attempted large-scale agricultural and water fixes to increase and regulate possible food production. These projects have ranged from dams in many nations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to more localized projects such as the water distribution Toshka projects in Egypt. The region has also seen massive projects such as the Gezira irrigation scheme in Sudan and Saudi wheat-growing efforts.
Rioting against reduced government food subsidies have long been a focal point of social unrest in the region, building a culture of subsidy sacrosanctity that has planted fear in the hearts of those in office. This was an important issue in International Monetary Fund (IMF) negotiations going back to, for example, the Egyptian and Jordanian IMF talks in the 1970s.
Regionally, the water, energy, and food nexus has been a factor in inter-Arab, Middle Eastern, and African geopolitics, with Arab nationalists calling for deeper regional economic integration and enhanced food security, joined by some intergovernmental efforts through the League of Arab States. For example, in the 1970s Sudan was labeled the “breadbasket of the Arab world,” and more recently Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari agricultural projects have been established in Sudan. Nearby Egypt has profound concerns about Ethiopia’s Renaissance We see that the politics behind water control have been paramount in geopolitical relations through much of the last century and this one as well. Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon have been affected by Israeli water projects—a source of tensions in the 1950s and 1960s—which eventually escalated into the 1967 war. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have had water issues, and recently the United States intervened militarily to protect the Mosul Dam from an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attack. Food supplies to Qatar have become an issue in the past three years during the Gulf country’s conflict with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt.
Finally, the complexities of international politics add another dimension to food security in the Middle East. Witness the long history of U.S. food donations to countries in the region and the impact of political disagreements with recipients (such as Egypt) who in response, during the Cold War, sought the support of the Soviet Union. Other examples are the withholding of Western assistance to Egypt’s High Dam, the Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq, and the recurring deployment of food supplies in response to emergency situations in the region— in many cases through the United Nations World Food Programme.
2011 and Food Crises in the Region
Many argue, using historical data, that increases in food prices contributed to the 2011 region-wide upheavals. Earlier, in 2007 and the first half of 2008, a sharp rise in food and agricultural commodity prices triggered serious food security concerns. These increasing prices led to a rise in malnutrition and poverty, and not just in Arab countries.
In 2009, the World Bank noted that despite energy and commodity prices falling, the relaxation of export bans, and the weakening of the global economy in the second half of 2008, many of the factors underlying food price volatility had not been affected and would likely continue.
While the 2007–2008 regional food crisis led to a high dependency on imported food, this trend has become more intense in the post-2011 context as it had been many years in the making. In terms of both production and consumption, the regional food industry has become increasingly stretched over the last decade. The insecurity is at the individual consumer level due to high rates of poverty, which in turn expose vulnerable groups to further privations and malnutrition. Weak food security plays out on a macro, or national, level when countries become more exposed to external pressures and governments lose their ability to meet the demands of their citizens.
The region faces a unique set of challenges that contribute to deficits in both water and food. Sinking water tables, limited rainfall, and desertification all lead to a water deficit. Limited water resources, diminishing arable land, negative effects of climate change, and slowing global productivity growth rates for major cereals also constrain agricultural output. Poor public policy and “thin” international cereal markets (i.e. limited numbers of sellers and buyers, often paired with price volatility) can exacerbate these challenges as well.
Since Arab countries are the largest net importers of cereal in the world, there is a heavy reliance on imported calories in Middle Eastern nations, which exposes governments to severe swings in agricultural commodity prices. This vulnerability will likely be exacerbated in coming years due to high population growth, income growth (which leads to demand for more diverse diets), and increased urbanization driving higher food demand, together with political volatility.
While many countries in the region have experienced demographic transitions to lower population growth, the United Nations Development Programme reports that the momentum from earlier periods of rapid population growth “will remain a powerful force into the region’s future and ensure large population increments for many years”. In contrast to its present population of around 360 million (up from 128 million in 1970), the region’s projected population for 2050 is a daunting 600 million. Many of the lowest income MENA countries will experience the largest population growth in the next two decades, including Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. This population increase can be expected to further strain supplies of power, food, and water.
Pre-existing and continuing regional food insecurity is further exacerbated by the political instability experienced within several Arab countries over the last decade. Many Middle Eastern governments tend to be reactive to popular demands rather than taking on longer-term infrastructure development and economic reforms that are more likely to provide strategic stability. In an effort to counter public unrest and other consequences of rising food prices, many governments in the region have attempted to offer a range of subsidies, wage increases, and other benefits. These efforts have been met with mixed results and too often have led to macroeconomic imbalances.
Instability in Food Prices
Global and local food price patterns create vulnerability to food-price shocks and often result in macro and micro side-effects. Globally, food prices rose above the general rate of inflation in the first half of the 2010s. This volatility meant more economic risks for producers and importers. Rising international prices and marked fluctuations often lead to upward pressure on national and household budgets in the region. These pressures are modulated by domestic As an indicative example, the prices of cereal and sugar, two principal commodities, face high degrees of volatility, yet they account for more than half of caloric consumption per capita. The fact that more than half the sugar consumed in the Arab World is imported increases the risk of volatility.
Subsidies have become a typical first line reaction of many Arab governments seeking to combat food-related challenges, yet they are often ineffective and can have huge social and fiscal costs. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that in the 2018/19 fiscal year, the Egyptian government allocated $4.8 billion for food and bread subsidy schemes, with half earmarked for bread subsidies alone. In contrast, these funds could have been directed toward strategic investments in agricultural infrastructure (modernizing the irrigation system), or health and education initiatives that would have addressed long-term challenges such as population growth and illiteracy. Blanket subsidy programs are mostly inefficient at helping the poorest individuals and families because they are bestowed on the entire population, regardless of need—too often encouraging waste, despite recent improvements in targeting lower income groups.
Gulf countries, while heavily reliant on food imports, have strong fiscal balances, meaning they are less exposed to price risk. However, export bans and other trade restrictions can lead to quantity risks. In times of inflated global food prices, some Gulf countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are able to use fiscal surpluses to build up reserve stocks and offer subsidies. However, this mitigation is only possible when oil prices are high. Increasing uncertainty around oil reserves, slackening demand for oil, and climate change are set to complicate matters for Gulf countries in the coming decades.
The Impact of Price Shocks on Arab Economies
IMF data from 2008 indicates that on a macro level, in the lead up to the 2011 uprisings, inflation in Arab nations increased at more than twice the world inflation rate of previous years. Inflation can be accelerated by high energy and food prices, which in turn negatively impact trade balances. Again, the common response to these increased prices from Arab governments has been to counter with new subsidies; however, we have seen that such actions often add to the strain on already stretched fiscal balances.
In the past, a number of non-oil exporting or oil-poor countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen, have raised salaries in the public sector, implemented direct cash transfers to the poor, increased bread subsidies, and lifted tariffs on basic food commodities in efforts to combat food price shocks. However, without comparable increases in revenues, these measures are not sustainable. Meanwhile, oil-producing Arab countries, due to their dependence on one major source of revenue, are more likely to be impacted if declines in oil prices shrink trade surpluses, government revenues, foreign exchange earnings, and investment options. This has an almost immediate knock-on effect in the other non-oil producing Arab countries.
At the microeconomic level, the 2008 price shock made poverty both more widespread and more severe, and this trend has only increased in the decade since. The first Arab Multidimensional Poverty Report in 2017 found that across ten Arab countries, on average 13.4 percent of the population lives in poverty. In some countries, the poverty level is over 30 percent. The World Bank estimated in 2009 that a 30 percent food price increase would result in a twelve percentage point increase in poverty in Egypt. The high proportions of populations living close to the poverty line intersects with the high rates of population growth in the region, meaning that although the percentage of those defined as living below the poverty line is not changing, the absolute number of poor defined by this standard is rising.
These poorer segments of society are more concentrated in rural areas and urban slums, as well as in families in which the head of the household is not educated. These segments, as well as small-scale and marginal farmers, the rural landless, and the urban poor, are most likely to be negatively impacted by food prices. Price shocks can pull those living close to the poverty line under and drive them to demonstrate against their governments or take more extreme actions.
The poor are often the hardest hit by price shocks because they spend a higher portion of their income on food and hence are more vulnerable to price shocks. In Egypt, for example, the lowest 50 percent of the population spends more than half of their income on food—with 20 percent going to food staples such as wheat, cooking oil, and sugar. In Morocco, the poorest 50 percent of the population spends 60 percent of their earnings on food. When food prices increase (or subsidies are reduced), the impact on household spending can be significant and persistent even after prices re-stabilize. Spending on education and health is impacted early, which can reduce future productivity, not to mention quality of life.
Food Prices’ Impact on Health and Nutrition
The effect of food shortfalls and bad nutrition on local populations is massive. Low birth weights; maternal malnutrition; child undernutrition; anaemia; and micronutrient deficiencies of vitamin A, iodine, and iron all conflate to balloon child mortality rates. Researchers have also seen weakened learning, lower IQs, and higher teenage delinquency as a result of poor nutritional levels. This repositions the issue of food security to be central to human security, human rights, and the need to empower even the poorest people with knowledge that The examination, then, of food security at the nutritional level is critical in many Arab countries. While an individual may get enough calories, he/she may also be food insecure if their diet does not provide the nutrition and vitamins required for a healthy lifestyle. Pregnant women, children, and those without education are most impacted by nutritional food insecurity.
Recommendations for a Secure Food Future
Access to food and water has moved to the center of non-traditional security threats facing Arab states and communities. This requires significant changes in priorities, strategies, and tools. In parallel, more attention must be given to the significant work undertaken in recent years to find how countries in the region can better address their food and water security challenges.
Implementing effective (or improving existing) safety nets that are flexible, scalable, and well-targeted would assist those individuals and households in greatest need or at greatest risk during price shock events. Safety net programs can soften the impact of price shocks by ensuring that poor families can pay for healthcare or children’s education as well as covering food costs. Many Arab countries already have cash-transfer programs that could be further reformed to fulfil this need. Cash transfers not only enable governments to invest in human capital, but can also protect those most in need and improve standards of living. These types of transfers are preferred over subsidies, as they empower beneficiaries by allowing them to make purchasing decisions. Cash transfers also have lower administrative costs and do not distort commodity markets. They are useful when linked to commitments by parents to fully immunize their children and keep them in school.
While some countries are shifting focus away from subsidies, studies indicate that better-targeted food subsidies or proxy-means testing—a way of measuring household welfare using indicators that are correlated with income—can positively impact poverty headcounts, depth, and severity. According to a recent FAO report, livelihood support such as key food production input subsidies (pesticides, diesel, and fertilizers) can also play a role in meeting the Arab region’s food security challenges in the coming decades.
In order to reduce the region’s malnutrition and obesity problems, governments must invest in educating populations about health and nutrition. More than a third of the daily calories consumed in Arab countries come from wheat, which underpins the region’s heavy dependence on imported cereals. Global trends indicate that diets diversify and caloric intake increases as incomes rise. Education programs need to provide information on staple food nutrition— such as showing the benefits of whole wheat flour over white flour—and work to shift populaces to healthier diets and lifestyles. Interventions aimed at improving health and nutrition will be enhanced by more effective family planning services.
Improved agricultural practices and resource management are vital as well to building a more sustainable food secure future for the region and improving rural livelihoods. As most Arab countries do not have the capacity to expand arable land or irrigation, efforts must be concentrated toward supporting system-wide productivity and reducing waste in the supply chain. The effects of higher productivity can include increased purchasing power for the rural poor. Moreover, as foreign exchange earnings grow larger, this will inversely reduce dependence on food and other imports.
Research and development, extension services, and investments in crops suited to the regional environment and climate—those resistant to drought, salinity, and sodicity (the measure of sodium in the soil)—are all recommended by students of food security. These measures will become relevant if agricultural productivity is to stay stable—or rise in some locations—alongside the predicted growth in demand for non-agricultural water usage.
Better water management is also critical. Investment in water-saving irrigation technologies by farmers and switching from low-value, water-thirsty crops (such as wheat) to higher-value crops such as vegetables and fruit is a viable option for the region. Refined approaches to water harvesting, reuse, and conservation will also become increasingly important.
Active investment in infrastructure to produce, store, and transport food can help reduce exposure to price shocks on imported goods. A more collaborative approach to investment in infrastructure, land, and technology has been recommended by the FAO for governments in the region to meet their food and water security challenges. Supporting research and development in countries with the potential to increase agricultural exports to Arab countries is another measure to improve food security in the region. For those food-importing countries with access to inexpensive petroleum, investment in transportation and storage can lead to better arbitrage prices for both food and fuel.
Having reliable food in stock as well as for sale on the market can stabilize domestic prices. Stockpiling can also provide emergency aid in times of crisis. The World Bank asserts that good public management of stocks and involvement of the private sector (which holds most food stocks throughout the world) must be emphasized in the coming years. Coordination of physical stocks across the region has the potential to mutually benefit governments and may help to reduce the pressure on thin global food markets. Stockpiling avoids the high costs associated with perishable materials and the requirement to rotate stock.
Despite potential increases in domestic production, none of the Arab countries are likely to achieve food self-sufficiency, and they will likely remain net importers of cereals. Continued reliance on imports exposes governments to thin markets and high price risks. Adoption of appropriate trade policies can reduce risks associated with overreliance on domestic production. Governments across the region should work together to diversify trade partners, expand intraregional trade, and promote global trade agreements to meet the shared food security challenges across the MENA region.
Edge of Survival
In a small village in the High Atlas Mountains around Marrakech, a group of women have organized into a formal collective following a series of workshops given by the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), a sustainable development NGO, on women’s empowerment. The collective now processes corn, barley, couscous, and dried flowers and shares the proceeds. This provides income and independence in an area that is on the edge of survival—an edge that is getting sharper as climate change accelerates and the pre-conditions for subsistence shift under residents’ feet.
North Africa faces fundamental challenges: by 2050, the region is expected to lose 10-20 percent or more of its precipitation, and warm up by 2-3 degrees Celsius, even as world leaders are working, some more than others, to keep the global average warming under 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius. The World Resources Institute places all of North Africa on the high end of water stress, with Libya being the most extreme case. In this case, “stress” means that almost half of the available water is used by irrigated agriculture, industries, and municipalities in any one year, and the amount of available water decreases year after year. Indeed, Morocco has experienced a 40 percent decline in precipitation since the 1960s as a result of global warming. Already, locally consumed foods like barley and wheat fluctuate wildly based on the amount and timing of precipitation. As the climate changes, experts expect that wet areas will generally become wetter, and dry areas like North Africa will become drier, but the timing of seasons and the affiliated rainfall are also changing. If the rains come too late, crops will desiccate in the fields just as if the rains never arrived.
Sustaining North Africa will require prudent measures that slow ecological decline, conserve what can be conserved, reduce malignant social dynamics, and institute measures to protect the most vulnerable, but none of these answers are likely to emerge without significant political changes in the region.
Drought and water scarcity are nothing new to North Africa. Since the ninth century, Morocco has had forty-nine drought-related famines, and because rainfall is irregular, feeding people has been a constant challenge. The Famine Warning System which tracks and predicts food insecurity, ranging from “minimal” to “stressed,” “crisis,” “emergency,” and “famine,” noted in July 2019 that much of Sudan was experiencing crisis-level food insecurity caused by fuel shortages and late rains, both of which interrupted planting. Ironically, there were also areas that had too much rain that flooded out crops. Meanwhile, South Sudan is in the grip of a total food emergency on the cusp of famine due to armed conflict that has interrupted markets, aid, and of course agricultural productivity. All of this indicates that the region is a complex and interconnected set of social and ecological systems, and when one part of this integrated set of systems is disrupted, people are exposed to existential threats.
Drought is a particularly important issue because it creates a cascade of problems. As elsewhere, drought in North Africa leads to higher food prices. Herds die for lack of forage, malnutrition multiplies, and refugees and displaced people move to ill-equipped cities where sometimes there are riots and unrest. Desertification and erosion close the circle by reducing land that can produce crops or fodder.
Of course, food is traded internationally so local conditions are not the only factor at play in the food-energy-water systems needed to sustain the region. However, exporters are themselves facing systemic problems. A recent UN climate report indicated that climate change will drive severe food shortages, and that there is a possibility of “multi-bread basket failures” around the world. We saw what this was like when a heat wave in Russia, torrential rains in Canada, and droughts in Argentina and China that reduced the wheat harvest—at the same time that China made large purchases of wheat to ensure domestic supply—all combined to double the global price of wheat from June 2010 to February 2011. North African countries are among the largest importers of wheat in the world, and the region was gravely affected by these “distant” crises, which figured into political instability. Remember the uprisings in Egypt in 2011 where protesters chanted “bread, freedom, social justice,” and in Tunisia where protesters waived baguettes.
So-called “wicked problems” are expansive, interact with many other issues, and often occur where people have competing interests and there is little incentive to cooperate. The production and consumption of food, energy, and water in North Africa, as in many parts of the world, create such a problem because each component requires other resources to work. The use of energy around the world causes climate change, which then creates local variations in water supply that affect the planting of crops, as well as the quality of soils after erosion. Agriculture uses surface and groundwater which can cause erosion and the pollution of water sources as well as contribute to global warming.
Politics also affect the way water is managed in-country and across borders, where countries have an incentive to use as much as possible before their rival states who share the same resource. In the Nile Basin, Egypt and Sudan insist that their allocation of the river should not change based on treaties established under colonial rule and which they treat as settled. The River Nile is the lion’s share of Egypt’s fresh water and supports a growing population. However, countries like Ethiopia who were not a part of these agreements do not accept them as legitimate. Egypt and Ethiopia have traded bellicose rhetoric over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will be one of the largest in the world and is the linchpin of Ethiopian economic dreams.
The social conditions under which food is produced, meanwhile, involve pressure from international markets and subsidies that benefit some domestic constituents over others. Tunisians remember the “bread riots” of the 1980s, triggered by an austerity program handed down from the International Monetary Fund that exposed people to market forces while the government removed food subsidies. Similar unrest occurred in Marrakech and Khartoum in 1984 and 1985. While subsidies are known to create economic dependencies, this history shows that, especially for people who live on the margins of subsistence, governments at all levels (municipal, provincial, and national) have a duty to protect citizens from the whipsaw of markets. This does not have to mean providing direct subsidies, but could materialize as crucial government services from education and healthcare to environmental protections, not to mention the construction and enforcement of just institutions.
Unfortunately, North African governments are known for instability and repressive tendencies. Furthermore, just institutions that would better ensure the even distribution of wealth are also not common in the region. Even while states like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt have liberalized markets, ruling elites still control the distribution of critical resources, including government services. Climate change, droughts, and food shortages will be far more difficult for people who are forsaken by their government, and in this author’s discussions with the Amazigh people in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, we were told, “No one asks about us” and that the people of the mountains “don’t matter” to the government or urban society, even when a little support could go a long way (this particular group still expressed gratitude for a road built in 1963 that led into the city).
Complex Problems, Integrated Solutions
The fact that food, energy, and water are integrated problems means that integration is clearly a part of the solution. Policymakers cannot successfully keep each component segregated in silos. Planning will be more successful, and people will be better off, if resources are considered as interdependent parts of larger systems that fundamentally include social condition and capacities. In another village in the High Atlas, we spoke to a men’s association which, short of alternatives, burned plastic waste to heat water. It is hard to imagine a more radical energy poverty, and this makes other things that require energy, such as drilling more wells, or digging them deeper, difficult. In this village, there are three wells, but only one works in the summer. Of course, in an arid environment, recharging aquifers is a slow process that is more vulnerable to overuse, and both conditions make irrigating crops much more difficult even though a third of the High Atlas population is fed by irrigated agriculture. One person commented that, “There was more water in the springs ten years ago, but if the pattern continues, in twenty years there will be no water,” and for his people that means a loss of livestock, crops, and ancient land relations. He feared that there will be “no alternatives”.
In contrast, we spoke with a leader of a small city who expressed to us that water was not too problematic, and that life was pretty good. Snow-covered mountain peaks bordered the town and you could see where their water came from. However, he was also a member of the provincial government and inside the circle of patronage. He noted that the government had even provided the town a refrigerator for their harvests of things like walnuts. Afterward, we drove by the refrigerator, which was an entire building.
Areas, in particular rural communities, that are outside the circle of patronage do not receive refrigerator buildings, or really much of anything from their governments, and this in itself is a major obstacle to sustaining North Africa because, even now, these communities are not being sustained. One person noted that in the surrounding ten kilometers “maybe two people are okay”—few are really making ends meet. Worse, if they organize and protest, they are arrested. And while people in the communities we spoke to said they see education as the path to a brighter future for their children, for many it is simply unaffordable. The cost of books alone keeps children out of school.
Openings to Reverse the Wickedness
The problems above are wicked and some can only be managed or adapted to, not solved. All the efforts of North African countries to reduce greenhouse gases under the Paris Accord will not even come close to affecting global average temperatures and precipitation because the problem is global. However, there are some things the people and governments of North Africa can do to soften the impact of climate problems.
Strengthen the linchpins
When working on problems that cascade and multiply, it makes sense to think about where problems converge, and slow or reverse problems that give birth to five others. One very important opportunity for sustaining North Africa is reversing soil erosion and restoring grasslands and forests. Left unchecked, erosion can spiral out of control and take down whole civilizations. Soil erosion often does spiral out of control because the effect of erosion amplifies the causes of erosion—that is, erosion mechanisms are a “positive feedback” of ecological decline in watersheds. Indeed, the UN reports that half-a-billion people live in areas becoming deserts, and the Maghreb is on the front lines of desertification. Since the 1980s, the grasslands in the high steppes of Algeria, for example, have almost entirely been lost. Overgrazing is one of the main culprits, though desertification has several human and natural causes. When restored, however, ecosystems with healthy soil systems become vital ecological assets. Slowing positive feedback loops is thus crucial to managing food-energy-water systems. Soil holds water and can work as a bank. When mountain areas maintain their soil, the green cover can grow and these areas are wetter and cooler than areas that absorb heat, like asphalt. Soil is often underappreciated, but it is a basis for all terrestrial life. Soils are a central meeting point for food-energy-water systems because soils are tied directly to food production, water storage and flow, minerals, medicine, carbon sequestration, decomposition, water filtration, nutrient cycling, primary production, not to mention community health and heritage. So, soil is a good place to focus, because when soil erodes, the short and long-term consequences are readily apparent.
Erosion is a problem we can solve by reversing its causes, such as deforestation, with concerted efforts in conservation and reforestation. However, conservation of soils and ecosystems requires a different kind of thinking than most governments value, and certainly a different logic than markets looking to maximize revenues. Much of agriculture operates on a model of maximizing production and yield. On first blush, we might see this as entirely rational, but when we maximize yield, we subordinate other things that produce the food in the first place. Maximizing yield will require farmers to “mine” the soil, depleting it of nutrients over time until the soil is bankrupt, and often reducing the biodiversity of an area, even though both the nutrients and biodiversity are essential to future yields. A different approach would maximize the health of the system, so that food can be produced in a place for much longer. Such places are a great deal more stable, both ecologically and socially.
This approach is common to lands and coastlines managed by indigenous peoples. For example, the coastal people of what is now the northeastern United States, the Lenape, once intensively harvested the area’s oysters. However, they knew that they had to care for the needs of the oysters and the larger coastal ecosystem, because if they just took as much as possible, the population would collapse. By keeping the system that grew the oysters and the needs of the oysters themselves a priority, the Lenape were able to fish for them for at least eight thousand years. When Europeans came to the area, there were over 350 square miles of oyster reefs in what is now New York harbor, and the oysters were almost a foot long, indicating that they were quite old. Settlers maximized yield and collapsed the oyster population by 1810 in an effort to produce revenue. Examples like this abound. Likewise, in North Africa, there is tremendous indigenous knowledge about how to manage forests and agricultural resources with time-tested institutions.
For example, across North Africa there are Amazigh patrimonial systems guiding grazing. These Agdals protect the land from degradation and date back at least three thousand years. Agdals are connected to the key Amazigh values of honor and baraka (meaning blessing, and in this case the sacred source of good things, realized through the interdiction of saints devoted to protecting a given resource). Agdal sanctuaries are deemed sacred and forbidden to be used, which preserves them amid other areas that are used. This is akin to the Hawaiian concept of kapu (which later became “taboo” to English speakers) that preserves certain fish from harvest except in times of crisis, thereby acting as a preservation tactic.
Agdals are complex, but they provide specific groups with detailed collective rights and govern all aspects of resources, including things like leaf fodder for goat and sheep forage. The practice uses grazing rotation strategies, enforcement of rules by a guardian paid by the collective, and clear timing for the opening and closing of a space, which always leaves some areas entirely untouched and gives others seasons to recover. At the heart of the Agdal concept are sets of rules for restraint that curb overuse.
One effect of this institution is that forests actually grow, and over time, the number of organisms in an area that create food and fuel (biomass) increase overall. This has long-term positive impacts, and provides a reserve resource in the face of crisis. Unfortunately, many contemporary herders of goats and sheep have become sedentary because they do not have access to sufficient state land, and the benefits of the Agdal are forfeit; however, the institution remains and is still in limited use. This practice shows that deliberate grazing rotation strategies can actually be used as a conservation strategy and a way to fight back against desertification.
Support locals and conservation groups
Another opening is political. In Morocco, the kingdom has embraced the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which might just build political options when they need them the most. The kingdom’s adoption of the SDGs provides a rationale for advancing projects that could encourage allocating more land for Agdals, among other policies. It also gives cover to civil society groups to organize and work on projects essential for land and water conservation.
In the mountains around Marrakech, like the women discussed above, villagers are organizing into formal collectives, either co-ops or associations, thanks to a relatively recent emphasis on local governance introduced in the new 2011 constitution. While only co-ops can make a profit, both have elected leaders that can approach their provincial government, giving the villages a sorely needed voice that was not available in the past. Some of these collectives are growing tree nurseries as part of a national goal to plant a billion trees that would absorb carbon emissions, clean the air, and fight erosion. In some places this is done using traditional practices like terracing, which is another way to build soil capacity and fight erosion. This plan is coming to a close and did not reach its goal, but the HAF is capitalizing on the momentum created in the program to continue.
Morocco’s High Commission of Water and Forests and the Fight Against Desertification, a government agency which has been an important progressive force, granted the HAF the in-kind use of its land for organic fruit tree nurseries to benefit farming families and schools. Their goal is poverty alleviation. At the same time, these practices are protecting whole watersheds as well as the future water that will collect and flow through these ridges over decades. Thus, these projects work to reverse some of the “wickedness” in food-energy-water problems.
These collectives strengthen both social and ecological systems. They build networks of knowledge, trust, and reciprocal responsibilities in civil society. They also mean that people do not experience the sharp edge of survival alone. Every single group we spoke with was concerned about the future of water in Morocco. However, every group also expressed a profound solidarity for one another, saying: “we are like one”, “we help each other,” and “we are one family”.
This solidarity will be necessary for the region as well to sustain North Africa. While civil society groups like the HAF are currently the region’s best hope to create locally oriented programs that foster hope and empowerment, it is imperative that governments begin to better serve their populations and the public good. Right now, the most vulnerable have all but been abandoned by their leaders, and that is neither sustainable for their people nor their legitimacy. Ultimately, the water is needed “in its time” and 2050 draws near. In the closing words of one Amazigh woman, “God give us all plenty, and that this project will succeed, and that the water will come”.
Myths about Food Security and Water
Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali famously warned in 1988 that the next war in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) would be over water—not oil. Since then, there have been a number of wars in the MENA region; however, none were over water. More often than not, water has encouraged cooperation between states, rather than conflict, albeit on uneven, hegemonic terms. Even when politicians have occasionally threatened to bomb the dams of upstream riparian countries or “defend every drop of Nile water with blood,” as did former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 when Ethiopia started construction on its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, nothing happened.
When it comes to feeding populations, water is not as important for food security as the rhetoric on hydro-politics in the Middle East may suggest. A trade-based approach to food security argues that as long as world markets stay open and countries make the necessary foreign exchange earnings to import food, they could become entirely food secure. However, important caveats remain regarding sanctions and war, which could affect food availability, as well as poverty and inequality, which could affect access of vulnerable populations to food that is theoretically available. All four caveats pose serious problems to Middle Eastern countries today.
Importing Food Sufficiency
The MENA region imports more than 50 percent of its calorie requirements and is the world’s largest importer of cereals. Besides cereals (mainly wheat and rice), it also imports a growing number of value-added products such as poultry and dairy. New trading partners have emerged, often from tropical areas. For example, Brazil exports billions of dollars in meat, poultry, sugar, cereals, and soya to the region while Indonesia and Malaysia are its main suppliers of palm oil. Gulf countries have an increased need to outsource alfalfa production for their domestic livestock industries as they phase out their own production because of depleting water resources. In recent years, Russia has become Egypt’s dominant supplier of wheat, taking over from North America.
International organizations such as the World Bank, and much of the academic analysis rooted in economic liberalism, often argue for a trade-based approach to food security. The approach embraces import dependence and stresses the importance of free trade, efficiency, and economic diversification in allowing countries to afford food imports. Oil-rich countries in the region with ample foreign exchange earnings face fewer challenges financing and facilitating food imports. They belong to the most food-secure countries regionally, even though they have low food self-sufficiency and no meaningful agricultural production capacity.
For countries with better agricultural resources such as Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco, the trade-based approach suggests that agricultural production should be switched from staple crops to luxury products such as fruits and vegetables, which yield more monetary value per drop of water used. According to this model, foreign exchange earnings derived from such exports would increase the ability of these countries to import and consume more items such as cereals in quantities that surpass their own domestic output if they focused their production capacity on cereals rather than on the recommended export cash crops. However, MENA politicians’ focus on irrigation projects threatens to crowd out attention for projects based on “green water,” or water that is not lost to runoff and stays in the soil. While domestic resources are overexploited, the region’s green water resources are underappreciated and could be harnessed more efficiently for use in sustainable rangeland management and livestock production. The type of self-sufficiency ambitions envisioned by MENA politicians clearly defies the trade-based approach to food security, which many of them must find unconvincing. Countries that are at risk of war, sanctions, and other supply disruptions, especially if they have larger populations, routinely display a preference for growing staple crops as a means of achieving at least some degree of self-sufficiency. Overall, concerns regarding food availability and security loom large in the conflict-prone region. During World War II, famines were only averted by the arrival of food supplies from the Allied Middle East Supply Center (MESC) in Cairo. Iraq, Syria, and Egypt produced an agricultural surplus that was distributed to food-deficient parts of the region such as Palestine and the Gulf.
By the 1970s, such surpluses had disappeared as agricultural production lagged behind population growth. All the more worrying was the growing politicization of the food trade by the United States, which threatened a food embargo in retaliation for the 1973 Arab oil boycott and used food aid in a carrot-and-stick policy to extract favors from recipient countries. Egypt had become the largest per capita recipient of U.S. food aid in the world by the mid-1960s. Its wheat imports accounted for almost a fifth of total imports, mostly subsidized and delivered under the American P.L. 480 food assistance program. It was a serious fiscal blow for Egypt when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson discontinued such deliveries in the mid-1960s over Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolutionary foreign policy stance. P.L. 480 deliveries would only resume in the 1970s after the Egyptian–Israeli rapprochement and the signing of the Camp David Accords.
Sanctions later developed into a looming threat to food imports in the region. Between 1990 and 2003, Iraq fell under the most comprehensive sanctions regime since World War II, with disastrous consequences for food security. On the eve of its ill-fated invasion of Kuwait, it had imported about 70 percent of its supplies of cereals, legumes, oils, and sugar. Most of these supplies vanished. While food was formally excluded from sanctions, Iraq lacked the financial wherewithal to pay for it, as its oil exports were banned and its foreign assets frozen.
More recently, food exporters such as Argentina, Russia, and Vietnam sent shockwaves through the region in the wake of the 2008 global food crisis when they announced export restrictions out of concern for their own food security. The rich oil-exporting counties in the Middle East reacted by announcing large-scale agro-investments in often-food insecure countries such as Sudan and Pakistan. Such investments were a bid to bypass international markets and seek privileged bilateral access to food production. They were in themselves controversial, raising fears about “neo-colonial” land grabs, and the disenfranchisement of smallholders with customary land rights, which was indeed the issue in some cases.
On the other hand, most of the announced investments by Gulf countries never got off the ground, or were only implemented at a fraction of the announced scale, as harsh investment environments, environmental vagaries, corruption, and political resistance took their toll. So far, the land investments hardly contribute anything to the large food import requirements of Gulf countries. These continue to come from international markets, where they are procured via the large trading houses that are dominant players in the corporatized food regime of today, such as ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus, and Glencore.
Oil for Food and Economic Diversification
Geostrategic concerns notwithstanding, the MENA region’s dependence on food imports will not go away. On the supply side, mere technocratic solutions to tackle water scarcity and increase production such as improved irrigation efficiency will not suffice, and food demands will not catch up with the rapid population growth that is the case in many countries. More demand will additionally result from changing dietary trends that are becoming increasingly based on meat and dairy products and packaged foods—a shift which has occurred in the region as well as in the world.
The dependence on food imports raises the question of how MENA countries will continue to pay for them. As things stand, many economies in the Gulf, Libya, Algeria, and Iraq are highly dependent on oil exports, while most others such as Egypt and Jordan have an indirect dependence on recycled oil wealth via migrant remittances and strategic transfer payments that oil-rich Gulf countries make in return for foreign policy cooperation. Some countries such as Egypt were until recently hydrocarbon exporters themselves before oil fields matured and growing domestic demand eroded their export capacity, sometimes in combination with violent conflict and division of territory, as in the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.
Moreover, the region’s oil production capacity is not only dwarfed by growing domestic demand and declining production in some states, but also by the global oil market outlook. Oil prices have been declining since 2014 in the wake of the unconventional oil revolution in the United States, which has proven to be a major fiscal challenge for Middle Eastern states. A faster-than-expected uptick of electric mobility could cause a considerable decrease in demand in gasoline markets. In the long run, this could lead to a paradigm shift toward renewables that could permanently depress oil markets and lead to the abandoning of the region’s oil assets. On the other hand, diesel, kerosene, and fuel oil would still be needed for trucks, planes, and ships because of their high energy density, and other segments of the petroleum product markets, such as petrochemicals, will likely continue to grow since options for their substitution are limited.
The specter of rentier states without rents evokes scenarios of political instability. When this oil-for-food formula fails, the need for economic diversification to provide fiscal relief, jobs for the burgeoning youth population, and foreign exchange earnings for food imports will grow more urgent by the day. The dependence on volatile oil revenues has created economic uncertainties and has often led to a “resource curse,” defined by the misallocation of resources, the underdevelopment of non-oil sectors and human resources, a resource capture by elites, limited transparency, and shortcomings in the provision of public goods such as education.
Economic diversification in MENA states is a tall order in an age of jobless growth, competition from emerging markets in Asia, and a latent global financial crisis. These countries cannot just follow the lead of South Korea and others, which were able to embark on a course of industrialization and harvest a demographic dividend—a 1960s feat that is not that easy today, if at all possible. The economies of the region’s countries are also hampered by the low level of intra-regional integration, educational shortcomings, and limited endowments of raw materials, apart from oil, gas, and phosphates.
Yet, there are some examples of economic diversification that have borne fruit. Gulf countries had some success with diversifying into petrochemicals, heavy industry, and the logistics and services sectors in the case of Dubai. Renewable energies offered unique opportunities for the non-oil exporters in the region such as Morocco, which are unburdened by concerns over stranded hydrocarbon assets. Some countries in North Africa such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco were able to attract manufacturing or offer opportunities for nature-based tourism.
Inconsistencies of the Water and Climate War Narrative
The debate on economic diversification—whether or not it can happen— not only points to the oil-for-food dilemma of import-dependent states, but also to the question of water wars raised by Botrous-Ghali—or rather, the misconception that the next big wars will center around water. Nobody speaks of water wars in California or southeast Australia, which are equally water-scarce. Yet, in the MENA region, this narrative has become all too common.
In recent years too, the water war narrative has been complemented by a climate war narrative of similar neo-Malthusian persuasion: the region’s populations have outstripped available water resources and agricultural production capacities; therefore, hunger and forced migration will lead to violent conflicts, and climate change will make it worse. The conflicts in Sudan’s Darfur and Syria have been marshaled as evidence. Others have criticized this climate war narrative for neglecting causes of conflict that are rooted in the political economies of the respective countries, such as crony capitalism and growing inequality in the wake of liberalization policies, rural neglect, and misguided water management.
The conceptualization of climate change as a “stress multiplier” of pre-existing socio-political conflicts can be contested. Primary political economy drivers of such conflicts are occasionally mentioned, but not dealt with as factors of war in the climate war narratives. Sometimes the use of water as a tool of warfare is confused with it being the reason for war. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for example, released water behind dams to thwart advancing Iraqi forces and temporarily withheld water or poisoned it with diesel to punish populations that opposed the group. This was war with water rather than for it. The use of water infrastructure was surely of strategic concern, but water does not lend itself to becoming war booty because of its characteristics. Unlike an oil well or a diamond mine, one cannot take lasting possession of it, nor does it make commercial sense to be in control of it: it is a bulky commodity whose long-distance transportation would be costly; to use it for electricity production means that it cannot be withheld; and one cannot hold it back indefinitely for coercive reasons, as dams will fill up sooner rather than later. Moreover, there is no “blood water” that would finance rogue militias.
While conflicts between states over water are rare or non-existent, local conflicts over such resources between pastoralists and herders or between irrigating communities have occurred. Connections have also been made between a moral economy of subsidized food (much of it imported) and political protests during the Arab Spring. Liberalization policies have hurt smallholders in Egypt and Syria’s farming population. The restive Rif region in Morocco is a disadvantaged rural periphery where people have carved out precarious farming livelihoods that depend on the illicit cultivation of hashish. The uprising in Tunisia emerged from the neglected hinterland of Gafsa. Much of the profits from phosphate mining there went to the coastal centers, and residents were left with environmental damage that affected agricultural production. Rural crises can affect state capacity and reinforce the limits of statehood in the periphery, contributing to tipping-point situations such as the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi that set off the Tunisian protests and the Arab Spring at large. Possible solutions to the water and food security challenge in the region should come from outside the rural sector; will need to include debates on economic diversification and inclusive development; and will come with trade-offs between water and food security that can be politically controversial, as farming communities might resist the downsizing of agriculture that would be necessary to save water.
Water scarcity and the impact of climate change do constitute major socioeconomic challenges for MENA countries. However, whether countries are able to cope with such pressures or whether they contribute to existing socio-political grievances and conflicts depend on the adaptive capabilities of the countries and sub-regions. These include the role and contribution of agricultural production to employment and overall gross domestic product, the level of economic diversification and political participation pursued, and the building of infrastructure and proper institutions and safety nets, just to mention a few. Evaluating such factors can help policymakers anticipate whether water scarcity will lead to bigger conflicts, but projections of war made thus far in water and climate war narratives have been misguided.
Improving Food and Water Security
Managing import dependency in MENA countries is one approach to finding food security. While food self-sufficiency is unattainable, domestic agriculture offers considerable room for improvement through making better use of the region’s green water resources. Areas where rain-fed farming is possible with or without supplemental irrigation should receive special attention. Sustainable management of pastures and livestock production is another aspect. Such changes could also have a meaningful impact in the fight against desertification in places like Iraq, where currently the expansion of wheat production is prioritized. Food security debates will also need to tie more into the broader debates on inclusive growth, economic diversification, energy transitions, and the sustainability of recycling oil rents in the region’s economies.
Moreover, improving food security in the region primarily means addressing inequality when it comes to access to food. On a country level, wealth inequality is much higher than income inequality, and there is significant underreporting of ownership of large assets. Intra-regionally, the region has the highest income inequality worldwide because of huge disparities between resource-rich and resource-poor countries. Food accessibility for significant parts of populations can be compromised by such inequalities.
All in all, limited arable land and water resources as well as rapid population growth mean that the future of MENA’s food security will likely remain centered on imports. Managing import dependence and the growing urbanization in the region will involve the management of value chains and related infrastructure such as roads, storage, and cooling chains. Strategic vulnerabilities that come with a higher dependence on imports can also be managed by diversifying trading partners and developing storage solutions. Finally, violent conflict, displacements, and the use of food as a weapon of war in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq belong to the foremost food security challenges in the Middle East region today. Such conflicts and associated food insecurities are manmade; water scarcity and agricultural shortcomings can hardly be blamed for them.
Some parts of this essay have been adapted from a working paper titled “Water and Food Security in North Africa and Possible Implications for Areas of Limited Statehood” for the EU-funded EU-LISTCO project.
Averting a Total Collapse
The relationship, or nexus, between water, energy, and food is the most fragile in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Water resources are being depleted rapidly; energy resources are becoming limited in many nations; and food production is dropping, with many nations importing most of their basic food. Most troubling is that water insecurity leads to social, and therefore political, instability. As a result of major droughts and mismanagement, Somalia became the first nation in the region to experience a total “nexus collapse,” leading to civil war and dysfunctional government and social structures. Yemen, once a breadbasket of the Middle East, has descended into civil war and societal collapse; it now imports most of its basic foods and has approximately ten years of water and energy reserves left. Syria experienced civil war as droughts destroyed agriculture and displaced populations to urban centers, and Jordan is projected to be the next failed nexus state.
The nexus was proposed in the early twenty-first century as a framework for integrating the three factors controlling the structure and function of human communities and ecosystems globally: water, energy, and food (WEF). Together, these influence human health and in turn are driven by economics, the ultimate factor in policy development. Balancing such interactive resources is necessary to maintain community and national stability in the face of declining resources and increased demands associated with changing human demographics, land use, and climate.
In MENA especially, there is a critical need to understand the factors that govern the functions of water, energy, and food individually as well as the myriad of complex interactions among them. The ability to identify what causes a nexus imbalance, including population dynamics and climate change, and whether they cause the three-legged stool to wobble or totally collapse, is still in its infancy and needs to be tailored to the conditions in individual states. No one model fits all situations, but looking at tipping points and the role of adaptive management to alter practices that might prove fatal is required.
Factors Affecting the WEF Nexus
It is impossible to identify a single overarching factor responsible for destabilizing the water-energy-food balance in the MENA region. Individual factors vary greatly across the region, but in general, the causes can be attributed to a combination of issues such as climate change, diminishing water resources in the face of increased demands, unsustainable land management, and changing human demographics.
The consequences of climate change in MENA are evident, and the future looks dire. By 2080, North African countries on the Mediterranean coast will get 40 percent less rainfall, while the Sahel, which has experienced near continuous droughts since the 1970s, is expected to get even drier. Farmers dependent on certain annual rainfall patterns are reluctant to start farming during periods of rainfall unpredictability, thus potentially losing the window for crop production for a given year. Few possess the resources to shield against a bad year, and thus many must resort to unsustainable practices to support the immediate needs of their families. Although there is no other option for survival, skipping a farming season risks desertification and long-term food insecurity. But short-term climate uncertainty is more difficult to forecast and plan for than the long-term impact of climate change.
All throughout the region, water resources are critically low. Major aquifers have been over-pumped to the point that there is little remaining water. Agriculture utilizes the most water in the majority of MENA nations, and is no longer cost-effective. Springs, the only water supply available to local rural communities, have rapidly emptied over the past twenty years especially in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces and, to a lesser extent, in Oman and Jordan as a direct result of agricultural irrigation. Oman too has abandoned its traditional terraced agriculture systems in favor of “modern” high usage irrigation methods, while at the same time shifting from foodstuffs to the narcotic qat, mainly for local consumption. Saudi Arabia was, until the turn of the century, the sixth largest exporter of wheat and almost exclusively depended on groundwater resources, but abandoned such large-scale agricultural plans after its local and regional aquifers were exhausted.
As a consequence, water insecurity has led to abandonment of agriculture in rural areas as people moved to larger metropolitan areas or emigrated to coastal areas and beyond, thus destabilizing already severely stressed urban infrastructure with rapidly increasing populations. Per capita water use has increased quickly in such countries as Egypt, whose water demand exceeds its availability by 20 percent, and Jordan, which is pumping approximately twenty years’ worth of groundwater annually. Although a somewhat controversial claim, it has been suggested that water insecurity and droughts led Syrians to abandon their rural lands and move to metropolitan areas, resulting in economic and social instability and civil war. Similar reasoning has been applied to Somalia.
Arab nations are often trapped in water-intensive practices from which it is difficult to divest socially and economically. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which began to use groundwater in the 1970s to green and irrigate its forests, has overexploited its reserves and the longstanding irrigation practice is no longer sustainable. The country is now faced with the need to protect animal and plant life within the forests in order to avoid a public outcry. As bad practices such as these persist in the UAE and other nations, rapidly expanding urban centers should rely on desalination almost exclusively to meet domestic water demands. For example, water resources in Saudi Arabia come almost entirely from desalination plants, but most nations lack the energy resources to consider this alternative.
But what can tip the balance and cause everything to topple over? Two issues can drive tipping-point scenarios: the urban–rural disconnect and the demands of urbanization that are decreasing the benefits that flow between cities and their surrounding natural environment.
Tipping point one: the urban–rural disconnect
There is an expanding disconnect between rural food production and urban consumption. Not only are rural populations aging as youth move to cities seeking employment, but agricultural production is also plagued by insufficient water resources, droughts, and general climate unpredictability. The latter is especially serious, as farmers normally plant only when seasonal rains begin, and any delay in their arrival pushes the farming season later and compresses the season in which plants and crops grow. Loss of even a single annual crop is often sufficient to accelerate rural poverty and force the desertion of individual family farms, further increasing marginalization and the exodus to urban areas.
Urban sprawl is accelerating in these countries and ranges from irregular communities around Cairo, which are provided with limited services, to the highly structured types of development found in Muscat and other Gulf cities, where infrastructure is factored in as each new community moves in. Regardless of the mode of development, urban sprawl has increased the physical distance between the rural production and urban consumption of food and water significantly, adding to the woes of rural communities as the transport of products to urban markets becomes prohibitively expensive. Increased distance also promotes instability in urban populations as basic commodities are either hard to obtain or expensive. Increasingly, a rift is growing between the services that flow to cities and the few benefits that flow back to rural areas.
In order to meet the challenges of an imbalanced flow, urban populations must develop means of producing basic foodstuffs at the family or neighborhood level. Alongside that, programs must be implemented to empower rural populations, identify new approaches to agriculture production, and provide incentives for youth to remain on the land and use it sustainably. The High Atlas Foundation in Morocco takes an innovative approach to the issues facing rural populations. A critical component of this project is the development of value-added products for local and international markets. Empowerment of women via cooperatives for product development has been particularly successful and returns desperately needed funds to the community for schools and other services. The High Atlas Foundation has demonstrated how community ownership and empowerment help stabilize local rural economies and provide incentives for youth to obtain training, while reducing emigration to cities. Focusing on products with increased shelf life and added value has reduced barriers imposed by increased distances to urban markets and lessened the disparity in the flow between urban and rural populations.
Tipping point two: the urban biome
The earth is divided into biomes, geographical areas of comparable physical environment and climate with distinct plants and animals adapted to the same set of conditions. In the Middle East and North Africa, biomes are deserts, Mediterranean coastal areas, or mountains. Numerous studies have documented the general principles governing the structure and function of individual biomes and the specific ecosystems therein. Biomes are not static in time or space, as evidenced by the expansion of the Sahara Desert into the Sahel of West Africa in response to climate change and shifting human demographics. The extensive database on individual biomes has proven extremely valuable in projecting responses of biomes to catastrophic and long-term changes in climate and resources affecting the WEF in rural areas.
Increasingly, natural and social scientists have suggested that metropolitan areas be considered anthropogenic (urban) biomes, with a comparable suite of structures, functions, and processes as any natural biome. In reality, urban biomes are embedded within natural biomes and depend on the latter to supply water, food, and energy sustainably. In turn, the surrounding natural biome is subject to harm and damage from the urban biome such as air and water pollution, solid wastes, and contaminants that can accumulate within natural ecosystems and lead to the loss of important species. Increasingly, urban sprawl is hindering the supply of water, energy, and food to meet the needs of the urban biome, while dramatically increasing the negative flow of wastes into the surrounding natural biome. Exponentially increasing demands for WEF resources to support burgeoning urban centers by necessity presents a dilemma for both farmers and rural land managers: whether to maintain sustainable management practices that are unable to meet urban demands, or take measures to maximize short-term yield while risking long-term instability for both rural and urban populations. Shortages of food and water have already caused community unrest in some parts of the world.
Adaptive Management and Nature-Based Solutions
While urban areas face climate and water supply problems, there is a critical need within cities to increase water-use efficiency to meet domestic demands. The MENA region is experiencing a massive increase in per capita water use, and an estimated 40 percent of domestic water in Cairo is lost to leakage before it reaches its intended user, while only 15 percent of wastewater is reused. As with any recyclable, water must be reused for multiple purposes and not be considered a single-use commodity to be discharged untreated. Conventional engineering approaches to gray infrastructure such as dams and water treatment plants have not been able to keep pace with increasing urban demands because of planning and cost constraints and the relatively short life expectancy of engineered solutions.
Green infrastructure, i.e. nature-based solutions that utilize ecosystems or their processes, have been implemented globally to supplement gray infrastructure or to replace it with efficient and cost-effective solutions. Such solutions stress storage and treatment of water in decentralized systems that, in turn, can be used for multiple communal purposes including passive recreation, community agriculture, and product development. Any water discharged from urban centers is wasted potential for promoting human sustainability and ecosystem health in downstream countries.
The concept of smart cities is rapidly gaining acceptance and being implemented globally. Connected infrastructure and the use of smart devices including cell phones to adapt resources to the real time needs of citizens are basic tenets of this movement. Nature-based solutions must be recognized as essential components of any smart city concept within the region, especially as the poor are falling further behind in technological advances, are chronically underserved by basic services of the WEF nexus, and are often the major group contributing to urban sprawl. While providing great resilience through technology, such solutions when applied to major urban cities in the developing world may be hindered by the rapid and irregular development of slums and unplanned housing (making it difficult to provide proper infrastructure). This is worsened by the increased demands for training and upgrading smart city applications.
Recognizing both the rapidly increasing distance between WEF resources of the natural biome and sprawling urban areas as well as the aging and often total failure of old centralized infrastructure, a number of measures are being implemented to meet the WEF demands of local neighborhoods and communities to provide quality, cost-effective services. Globally, wastewater is treated in constructed wetlands within the urban core, then stored for additional purposes. In turn, the wetlands provide a major community service as passive recreational sites. Maximizing multipurpose use is a clearly stated goal of most nature-based solutions. Many systems separate black water for treatment in constructed wetlands from gray water that can be used for irrigating rooftop or community gardens. This practice has been highly successful in Mexico City, where rooftop gardens now provide over 30 percent of the food consumed.
One readily available source of urban water—stormwater—is often overlooked, especially in the Middle East. Meanwhile, biofuels from organic waste have made major advances recently and have created a potential for supplying much of the cooking needs of poor communities while significantly reducing the demands of solid waste processing and storage. Finally, solar farms are gaining currency throughout the region, but rooftop solar generation has received little attention.
The WEF Nexus and Social Sustainability
Humans are an integral part of the WEF nexus, both influencing and being influenced by the quantity and quality of water, energy, and food and how they interact. At long last, people are considered part of the global ecology and not just recipients of nature’s benefits. Long-term sustainability of the WEF nexus in MENA can only be achieved if social, public health, economic, and political issues are brought to the forefront of planning and sound adaptive management scenarios are implemented in the face of climate change and the diminishing quantity and quality of natural resources.
Communities must take ownership of WEF nexus management. It is important that government authorities first meet with local communities to gauge concerns about the WEF, from which potential management scenarios can be developed and presented to the public for input, modification, and finally, acceptance. The public can serve as sentinels who provide continuous evaluation of the WEF nexus and can alert authorities at the early stages of imbalance. Such an early warning system will ensure the best approach to develop cost-effective adaptive management actions that lead to long-term sustainability.
Economic and public health concerns are foremost in the minds of local communities. The High Atlas Foundation in Morocco has numerous programs to empower local communities, including women’s cooperatives to develop natural products to supplement local economies, provide schooling and employment for youth, and reduce the exodus to urban centers. Their massive reforestation programs provide erosion protection to watersheds, conserve water resources, and provide carbon credits to Morocco. A major effort has been placed on conservation and cultivation of ancient varieties of nut and fruit trees that would otherwise disappear in the near future.
Water security ultimately drives the WEF nexus in MENA. Faced with increased distance to water resources associated with urban sprawl, escalating inability to pay for potable water, and contamination of available water sources with wastewater, the poor are particularly vulnerable to chronic water shortages and public health problems. Major water-borne diseases such as cholera and schistosomiasis are on the rise throughout MENA, and malaria has become a problem in conflict zones where mosquito eradication programs have been suspended. Green infrastructure in general, and nature-based solutions in particular, can provide resilience for urban populations to reduce water and air pollution, thus improving public health while meeting challenges to maintain a balanced WEF.
Climate change also poses major challenges to the sustainability of both natural and urban biomes. With agriculture currently accounting for over 80 percent of water use in many nations of the region, water resources in the surrounding natural biome will be insufficient to support the WEF needs of the urban biome, and residents will be forced to rely on maximizing resources within urban areas. Every drop of available water must be used, treated, and reused.
Ultimately, WEF insecurity leads to social insecurity and the displacement of the poor to sprawling urban areas. Eventually, it will lead to political unrest. It has been widely suggested that climate-related droughts, overuse of water resources, and reluctance to abandon agriculture in marginal areas or shift from unsuitable crops like wheat and qat have contributed significantly to the current political unrest in parts of MENA. Predictions of the tipping points for individual components of the WEF nexus, economic stability, and public health problems that set in motion social and political unrest are still in their infancy, however. Stability in MENA is linked to an ability to predict which nations are in danger of collapse and to assist them in adaptive management of the challenges at hand.
Striving for Water and Food Security
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region consists of a diverse set of countries ranging from the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations to its poorest member, Yemen. In between there are countries with varying degrees of income and natural resource endowments. Several nations in the region, such as Libya and Syria, have been weakened by armed conflict, while a fragile Iraq confronts massive protests as it tries to recover from the cataclysm of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Popular unrest is also on the rise from Algeria to Iran.
In addition to conflict and the widespread rise in political discontent, many of the MENA countries face threats to their food and water security and a relatively uniform challenge in being among the largest food importers in the world.
These nations greatly depend on imports for staple foods—most MENA countries import at least 50 percent of the calories they consume. This has led to policy decisions over the years in which a focus on food self-sufficiency has been adopted, especially on water-intensive grains, but at the cost of sustainability given the region’s water scarcity.
Indeed, the MENA region has the world’s lowest water tariffs. Water consumption is subsidized to the tune of 2 percent of its GDP, and water productivity rests at half the world average. The price charged for water from conventional sources (surface and groundwater) in the region is 35 percent the cost of production. In the case of desalinated water, only 10 percent of costs are covered by the consumer—the state picks up the rest.
There are also implications for nutrition and health outcomes in a region beset by obesity and other diseases, which are partly linked to the same policies focused on water-intensive grain production. Rapid population growth, the expanding threat of climate change, increasing unemployment (especially among youth), and a deterioration in services and infrastructure for rural and largely agricultural populations have also created critical challenges that impact food and water security in this region.
A New Social Contract
The decline in adequate agricultural policies has also led to a decline in development and a rise in poverty in rural areas, and consequently uncontrolled urbanization, with many moving to cities in search of better opportunities. Reforms in agriculture and water resource policies should therefore be seen as part of a bigger agenda which manifests in varying forms across the region. The changing role of the state and the opening up of spaces for the private sector is at the heart of all these reforms. In fact, the dominant role of the state in the economy and beyond is an inescapable certainty across the region. Today’s reform agendas take their cues from this reality and its mounting failures.
The goal, as articulated by the World Bank and others in the region, is to move beyond a social contract centered around a large public sector providing employment and subsidized services and goods—including many basic items like bread, sugar, oils, etc.—to a quiescent population. This old social contract is no longer sustainable; it is not only unaffordable, but inefficient and ineffective, including in the agriculture sector. The state can no longer employ millions of people nor can it afford the vast and often untargeted subsidies that the old social contract brings with it.
When it comes to the formulation of a new social contract based on inclusive, private sector-led growth, the role of the state does not disappear. It does change, however, and, in some ways, is reinforced. The goal is to have an efficient and effective state that regulates markets, ensures a level playing field, and pushes back against unfair competition, whether from public and/or private sector incumbents often linked to dominant political forces, or new entrants intent on unfairly gaining market share. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the recent protests in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, people are demanding jobs and economic opportunities, as well as a greater voice and accountability.
MENA’s Conjoined Twins: Water and Food
It has long been clear that water and food security must be looked at in an integrated manner. The region’s increasing water scarcity is well known, as is the fact that agriculture is the largest consumer of water globally, accounting for around 70 percent of annual water withdrawals. According to the World Bank, that number is 85 percent for many countries in the region. Indeed, in a world in which demand for food and water is expected to increase 50 percent by 2050 and global energy demand is set to double, others see the water, energy, and food nexus as the framework on which to build sustainable solutions.
Yet, this emerging framework faces challenges in its operationalization, including data and knowledge gaps. Meanwhile, analytical tools to apply nexus thinking effectively are only now emerging.
Food Security and the Middle East and North Africa
According to the 1996 World Food Summit, food security is “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sees this in the context of food availability, economic access, nutritional content, stability of availability, and access.
The supply of available food is more than adequate in all Middle Eastern and North African countries except Yemen. The war-torn country faces unique challenges, such as long-term political instability and the country’s persistent cultivation of the stimulant shrub qat (khat), which depends on large water supplies.
Food availability in MENA has remained stable since 1999–2001. The region currently does not face chronic food shortages, but these do increase due to mismanagement and conflicts. According to the FAO, the salient issues of household food insecurity in the region are malnutrition, economic access to food, and ensuring stability of the food supply.
Yet, underlining the gap between availability and access, in May 2019 the FAO’s Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in the Near East and North Africa noted that hunger in the region had continued to rise since 2011 due to conflicts and protracted crises. Some fifty-two million people in the region were found to be suffering from chronic undernourishment, making meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 2—reaching Zero Hunger by 2030—doubtful as conflict and widening rural-urban gaps pose significant challenges. Over two-thirds of these people, thirty-four million, were in conflict-affected countries where stunting, wasting, and under-nutrition were also far worse.
According to FAO figures released in 2017, Syria saw a 67 percent reduction in its GDP, with food security severely undermined. Nearly 80 percent of Syrians needed humanitarian assistance, while 50 percent required food assistance. The figure for those needing humanitarian assistance in Iraq was 30 percent of the population while in Yemen it reached 70 to 80 percent. Meanwhile, 9 percent of Iraqis and 50 percent of Yemenis required food assistance. In Libya, where the situation has worsened since 2017, 6 percent of the population needed food assistance.
There are also inherent challenges threatening the agriculture sector in the MENA region. For example, while 30 percent of the region’s land is suitable for agriculture, 25 percent is pasture and only 5 percent is considered arable. Some 40 percent of that requires irrigation, which is often done wastefully and unsustainably. There are also serious land degradation issues.
According to New York University Abu Dhabi’s Diana Francis, “Desertification in the Middle East is caused mainly by four human actions linked to farming and agriculture…overgrazing, over-cultivation, deforestation, and poor irrigation. Indirect causes of desertification include poverty, population growth, and loss of traditional knowledge.” Due to degradation, land productivity has been reduced by up to 35 percent of potential productivity and estimates are that the regional cost of land degradation comes to $9 billion annually.
Furthermore, and quite significantly, regional cropping patterns are difficult to rationalize with the level of water scarcity. While fruits and vegetables consume less water with higher economic returns per drop, and most countries in the region have a comparative advantage in exporting these products, 60 percent of harvested land is dedicated to high-water-consuming cereals. A key reason for these inconsistent policies is a vision of food security whose goal is to achieve self-sufficiency and reduce dependence on imports, especially for cereals. This vision equates self-sufficiency in grain production with national security imperatives and fails to use the comparative advantage of countries in agricultural products other than grains. Aside from inherent inefficiencies in such policies, there are also significant health costs to these policies.
Many countries subsidize basic foodstuffs, but rising incomes mean that the growing share of starches and sugars in diets leads to obesity and other health concerns such as diabetes. Indeed, some of the highest global rates of obesity are in the region, and this puts pressure on people’s health, lifestyles, and on already stressed national health systems and economies. According to the World Journal of Diabetics, the prevalence of type-2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) has increased dramatically during the last two decades, driven by the prevalence of obesity. The number of people in the Arab World with diabetes is projected to increase by 96.2 percent by 2035. Aside from genetics, issues of obesity, rapid urbanization, and lack of exercise are key determinants to this rapid increase. With T2DM highly prevalent among those eighteen years old or younger, and being the fifth leading cause of disability, a major effort is needed to reduce its incidence in MENA populations.
The Water Challenge
The World Resources Institute (WRI) is a Washington-based global research organization supported by companies, governments, and foundations which highlight responsible water use. Its “Aqueduct” project provides web-based tools which identify and evaluate water risks around the world. Data from the WRI in August 2019 revealed that seventeen countries—home to a quarter of the world’s population—faced “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress. This meant that irrigated agriculture, industries, and municipalities were withdrawing on average more than 80 percent of their available supply every year. Of these seventeen countries, twelve were in the MENA region: they were, in order of severity, Qatar, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. All other MENA countries (except Sudan and Mauritania) were in the next grouping of twenty-seven with “high” incidences of baseline water stress. While always short on water, growing demand from an expanding and increasingly urban population, unsustainable agricultural practices, and the growing threat of climate change means that countries now face extreme stress.
A critical goal for the entire region, then, is water security, which is defined as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human wellbeing, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against waterborne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”.
The World Bank characterizes MENA as a global hotspot for unsustainable water use, especially of groundwater. “Water has always posed great challenges for the Middle East and North Africa. With rapid growth, regional instability, and climate change, these challenges are more pressing than ever,” the World Bank said in its 2017 report “Beyond Scarcity: Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa”.
In some of the region’s countries, more than half of current water withdrawals exceed what is naturally available. The region also suffers from the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, which is estimated to rise to 6–14 percent of GDP by 2050.
Adding to an already complex set of challenges, the region has the highest proportion of GDP (2 percent) spent on public water subsidies. Yet, the World Bank and agencies including the UN and other multilateral and bilateral development groups are not painting an irreversibly stark and dark doomsday scenario—at least not yet. There are solutions at hand, though time is pressing, and while evolving technologies will greatly assist, the challenge lies on the public policy side and how to incentivize behavioral and cultural changes. This will also need to be undertaken while fighting public and private interests that benefit from current dysfunction, and, as noted earlier, pushing back against decades of counterproductive policies often rooted in old national security approaches. While such solutions may currently exist, they will require mindsets that step back from maximalist demands by all stakeholders, i.e. decision-makers, citizens, the international community, non-governmental organizations and, last but not least, the private sector.
The Way Forward for Food Security
As mentioned earlier, reforms in agriculture and water resources should be seen as part of a bigger reform agenda which extends across this diverse region. The key determinants of food security have been articulated for many years. The World Bank has long said that for the MENA region the issue should not be achieving self-sufficiency (producing all your own food) but achieving food security (having access to affordable, nutritious food). Spending scarce water resources and public funds on unsustainable and often untargeted, ineffective, and inefficient subsidies comes at the expense of future generations.
The approach needs to target an integrated rural development strategy—which goes beyond just a narrow, sectoral focus on agriculture—in order to create jobs in other sectors for broad-based growth in rural areas, where most of the region’s poor live.
Here, again, where markets work or can be made to work, the focus should be on the private sector with the state as a regulator. Where markets do not work, there is a role for the government that goes beyond regulation. What is clear now is that the need for the region to import food remains inescapable. However, with sources of grain currently much more diversified with new exporters from the Black Sea region to Latin America, the approach should be on following the rest of the world and liberalizing agricultural markets, allowing production and exports based on the comparative advantages of the region in fruits and vegetables. This will also help create a more diversified, healthier diet for more people.
Similarly, the FAO calls for rural transformation, encompassing agricultural reform, territorial development, and improved public services in rural areas— much along the lines of what the World Bank called integrated rural development. Agricultural reform foresees a shift from traditional farming to commercial, diversified production systems, i.e. shifting to higher value crops (fruits and vegetables in MENA) and livestock and dairy, requiring more sophisticated production and marketing methods. This means more investment, improved transportation, and higher quality processing and packaging, but promises higher incomes which will ripple across rural areas. Governments will have to provide infrastructure, agricultural research, and extension services while enforcing standards. Governments must also facilitate an environment that enables commercialization and market-orientation of small-scale agriculture, ensuring fair competition and a level playing field while easing access to financial services.
Agriculture relies on linkages with other sectors to reach markets in urban areas, so the key here is to develop agribusiness and agro-industry that are part of a labor-intensive and a pro-poor growth strategy, since most of MENA’s poor live in rural areas. This would likely reduce rural-to-urban migration, strengthen rural links with small cities and rural towns connecting producers and agroindustrial firms, and make good use of linkages emerging from migration dynamics. For example, an increase in agricultural prices did lead to an increase in rural employment and even some urban-to-rural migration in Turkey.
Years of neglect of the rural economy, largely due to longstanding policies focused on urban areas and industry in the region and beyond, will entail significant costs. A revitalized rural economy will require investments in human capital and indeed go beyond health and education to invest in energy, sanitation, access to clean water, and other public services. However, while a growing rural economy will need more investment in these areas, it will also generate revenues via taxes and fees that can help it pay for itself. Elements of these policies are beginning to be put in place from Upper Egypt to lagging regions in Morocco and Tunisia.
Policies and Technologies to Meet the Water Challenge
We noted earlier that the MENA region faces many challenges when it comes to its scarce water resources and usage. Yet, it is important to note that there are bright spots, including greater use of the private sector in Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, among others. Currently, some twenty-eight million people in the region have better water services thanks to public-private partnerships (PPPs). Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan have PPPs in wastewater treatment. For now, however, 82 percent of wastewater in the region is not recycled and represents a huge loss of water. Oman treats 100 percent of its collected wastewater and reuses 78 percent of it. Some 84 percent of all wastewater in the GCC is treated to safe levels, but only 44 percent goes on to be reused; however, the goal is to reuse all of it in the future.
Nearly half of the world’s desalination capacity is in the Middle East. Desalination technology is used heavily in the GCC and some countries rely on it for nearly 90 percent of their water needs. However, desalination carries a large carbon footprint since the region is reliant on energy-thirsty thermal desalination plants, using fossil fuels to generate heat to evaporate and condense water to a purified form. Furthermore, chemicals and brine left over from the process are often discharged into the sea, which damages marine ecosystems. While there is ongoing research into less energy-intensive solar-powered desalination and reverse osmosis desalination, for most countries this remains an expensive technology. As the World Bank notes, strategies that seek to “desalinate their way out of water insecurity” have their limits. Desalination remains expensive and needs to be used strategically to address a limited range of problems, but can be part of an integrated approach to the challenge at hand.
There are more cost-effective routes like wastewater treatment, groundwater recharge, and the capture of rainwater and storm water to recharge aquifers. If we are to become more efficient with water usage and use less of it, placing a value or price on water to signal its scarcity and promote conservation is the first step. Undervaluing or underpricing water creates incentives for overexploitation and depletion. Appropriate water pricing is essential to provide funds for protecting water resources and paying for infrastructure and service delivery. This is a step that is as necessary as it is politically difficult, but countries like Egypt and Iran have shown that subsidies (on energy and other goods) can be reduced successfully. What is clear is that this will take time and donors will have to be ready to support governments as they move forward on this agenda.
The most important lesson from global and regional experience is that technology, policy, and institutional management must evolve together to achieve water security—a point that also seems to be tailor-made for the agricultural sector. What is also clear is that within and between countries, water and food security need to be looked at together while also increasingly integrating energy into this mix. Ministries of agriculture and agencies responsible for water and energy must work together seamlessly and not at cross purposes.
There is no single silver bullet solution, but there is a reform agenda that largely follows a broader economic agenda around changing the role of the state, bringing a well-regulated market to the fore and making greater use of private investments and expertise. There also needs to be a focus on changing long-held assumptions around food security and water availability. Food security needs to be seen in the context of access to food rather than unsustainable, costly, and ultimately unattainable efforts at self-sufficiency. Water needs to be seen as a scarce resource and priced as such, even if the immediate costs may be deferred for direct producers such as vulnerable small farmers.
Things are already beginning to change: a recent survey carried out by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development found that 77 percent of respondents were willing to pay more for water in return for improved social benefits. There is also an agenda around regional cooperation and coordination. This is a must since 60 percent of surface water resources in the region are transboundary, and all countries share at least one aquifer. Despite regional fragmentation, and decoupling of economic ties due to political tensions between some countries, common interests around trade in agricultural goods as well as management of common water resources can and must be achieved. This is also true of comprehensive communication campaigns around everything from water scarcity to healthier diets.
While population and economic growth will raise water demand and put additional stress on food production, climate change will be the primary driver of water stress across the region. In short, there is a whole agenda around mitigation and adaptation when it comes to climate change. Family planning and population growth constitute another large but essential agenda, especially for countries like Egypt, which is trying to revive its past successful efforts on this front. Improved education and health services for women in rural areas will have a significant impact on curbing population growth.
Perhaps most pressing of all are the demands articulated by the region’s youth: 60 percent of the region’s population is under the age of thirty and it is this generation that has gone to the streets from Algeria to Lebanon to Iraq and beyond. They want a voice, an end to corruption, and inclusive economies that produce jobs. A smart agenda on food and water security is part and parcel of the broad reforms needed to meet their demands.
No Land in Paraguay
Paraguay’s nineteen indigenous groups abound in diversity. From the Paĩ Tavyterã communities of the subtropical northeast to the Ayoreo tribes in the far reaches of the arid Chaco region in the west, they each have unique cultural and linguistic heritage. In spite of these differences, they all face similar challenges as a result of negligence and discrimination from the Paraguayan state. While the government’s department of tourism adorns its information offices in Asunción—the capital—with indigenous crafts, other state institutions continue to pursue a development model benefitting an economic elite while robbing indigenous people of their land, culture, and the most basic of public services. Urgent measures must be taken by the state to protect indigenous rights and begin to repair the social, cultural, and economic damage dealt by a history of destructive policies.
The approximately 117,000 people self-identifying as indigenous in Paraguay— roughly 2 percent of the population— face extreme hardship: they are the sector with the country’s lowest living standards. A 2015 report by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples reveals that 75 percent live in poverty. Notably, while on average across Paraguay 26 percent of under-fives live in extreme poverty (households with less than $1.90 per day per person), this figure stands at 63 percent for the indigenous population. The report mentions that indigenous people have low access to electricity and running water and that 40 percent are illiterate compared to 5.1 percent of the non-indigenous population.
Fewer People, More Soy
In recent years, the crisis affecting indigenous groups has become increasingly visible to urban Paraguayans, who have historically been geographically and culturally removed from the trials of native groups in the country. Paraguay’s media shows increasing numbers of indigenous people, especially children and the youth, to be living in squalid conditions on the streets of Asunción. Something is clearly not working for Paraguay’s indigenous population.
At the problem’s core is the issue of land access. The preservation of indigenous territories has a vital role in maintaining spiritual, cultural, and communal wellbeing as well as providing subsistence through hunting and gathering. Despite this important reality, many indigenous communities’ bonds with their land have been shattered. The 2015 UN report states that 134 of Paraguay’s almost five hundred communities are landless and a further 145 are facing land possession issues, such as ownership disputes with private entities.
This directly violates Paraguayan law, which recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples, including guaranteeing them access to land. It also represents a failure to uphold international conventions on the rights of indigenous peoples of which the state is a signatory. Far from remedying this situation, the Paraguayan state’s actions inflict further damage.
The land access issue seems an unlikely problem in Paraguay, given its low population density: just eighteen people per square kilometer, half that of the United States. However, a long history of policies favoring accumulation by a wealthy few has made Paraguay the country with the world’s highest inequality of land distribution according to the World Bank. In a country where agriculture is the main source of wealth,
2.5 percent of landowners control at least 85 percent of the arable surface area and have devoted most of it to cattle ranching and growing soybeans for export. The state has historically favored the elite while causing enormous hardship for indigenous and small-scale farming groups.
Stroessner Divides the Cake
This process of state-endorsed accumulation of land gained great traction during the 1954–1989 right-wing authoritarian dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. The dictator illicitly gifted almost seven million hectares—around 17 percent of Paraguay’s surface area— to friends, family, and political allies. Indigenous groups living in these areas— never granted titles to their ancestral territories—were simply brushed aside as the land made its way into private hands. Notably, the violence inflicted upon the Aché people in order to eject them from their territories has been described as genocide by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).
The infrastructure megaprojects that Stroessner held up as his modernizing achievements also involved violations of indigenous land rights. Some thirty-eight Ava Guaraní communities were brutally relocated as land was expropriated for the construction of the Itaipú Dam— currently the world’s second largest hydroelectric dam—between 1973 and 1984.
The fall of Stroessner in 1989 and the ensuing democratic transition have done little to improve the lot of indigenous groups and there is much empty rhetoric surrounding issues involving indigenous peoples. While presidential campaigns have often included promises to address the situation, this has not been translated into reality. For example, shortly after winning the 2018 elections, current president Mario Abdo Benítez declared he would give indigenous peoples “special attention” so they could enjoy “dignified lives”. Over a year into his mandate, these claims have yet to materialize.
The state’s land policy is defined by extremely close bonds between the political and landowning elites—in many cases they are one and the same— which guarantees the dominance of a pro-business model privileging private interests over those of communities. Consecutive governments’ extremely low tax rates and lax enforcement of environmental laws have provided conditions for an explosion in commercial farming. The expansion of cattle ranching and an enormous boom in genetically modified soy have wreaked havoc on Paraguay’s once extensive natural reserves while allowing for further concentration of land. Only 10 percent of the formerly vast Atlantic Forest remains, and the Chaco region is experiencing some of the planet’s highest deforestation rates. If environmental laws are not tightened and better enforced, this trend is effectively guaranteed to continue; the result is sure to be disastrous both for the nation’s forests and its indigenous peoples.
The depletion of virgin areas leads ranchers and farmers wishing to further expand the agricultural frontier to look covetously at the territories of indigenous peoples. Illicit strategies, such as falsified titles and violent evictions, have been deployed to take control of indigenous lands, taking advantage of the scarcity of communities’ economic and legal resources. A 2018 report from the IWGIA labels the state’s response to this situation as entirely insufficient: to date, no mechanism has been established to deal with indigenous peoples’ land claims and complaints. As a result, the process of recovering land is frustrating, arbitrary, and unjust. In many cases, communities are simply ignored by authorities. It is therefore essential that an efficient mechanism is created as soon as possible to provide a clear and functional route to land reclamation.
Governments of the post-1991 democratic era continued to play an active role in the displacement of indigenous peoples, showing extreme bias toward private interests. Amnesty International points to a three-stage persecution process repeatedly deployed by authorities. Communities are first stigmatized through the media and official statements. They are then forcibly evicted through a questionable use of the justice system and security forces. Finally, unfounded judicial proceedings against community leaders are used to “kill” the cause.
Examples abound. Police evicted the Itakyry community from land they claim is theirs at the end of 2018. Communities such as Tekoha Sauce— one of the thirty-eight Ava Guaraní groups evicted during the construction of Itaipú—and Takuara’i have faced violent, state-assisted persecution and criminalization when attempting to reestablish settlements in the territories from which they were forcibly removed during the dictatorship.
If the land rights of indigenous people are to be respected, the Paraguayan state must reassess its development model. By continually providing economic, political, and legal advantages to wealthy landowners, the state has effectively placed a death sentence on the survival of indigenous ways of life. There must be an end to the persecution of indigenous people struggling to retain or regain land and there must instead be an emphasis on simplifying this process through legislation.
Not Just Land
Though the issue of land access is an enormous part of indigenous people’s suffering, it is far from the only problem. The effective absence of basic public services underlies communities’ difficulties. The 2015 UN report states that indigenous children complete on average just three years of schooling, while the figure for the population on average is eight years. Furthermore, roughly two-thirds of communities do not have access to health facilities of any kind. Measures must clearly be taken to guarantee universal access to education for indigenous peoples. An emphasis must also be placed on producing educational materials that respect the culture and language of the community in which they are to be deployed.
Indigenous people must also contend with the difficulties of environmental destruction produced by the agricultural boom of recent decades (as outlined in the IWGIA report). They are continually exposed to the dangerous health effects of agrochemicals used in the soy fields that now surround many villages. In addition, communities must deal with fires caused by burning practices employed to clear land for agriculture. Earlier this year, a large part of Jasuka Venda—a wooded area that is the most sacred site of the Paĩ Tavyterã people—went up in flames. There was no state response.
The widespread loss of Paraguay’s forests has also limited most indigenous communities’ possibilities for using traditional knowledge to live from the natural resources around them. As such, they are obliged to enter into the mainstream economic system to survive. Endemic racism and a lack of educational opportunities leave them with little options other than to take work under difficult conditions. The Guardian reported last year that indigenous people have been recruited in the Chaco to do agricultural work best described as debt slavery.
The negligence shown by consecutive Paraguayan governments toward the indigenous population is encapsulated by the poor condition of the National Institute for Indigenous Affairs (INDI)—the state institution responsible for representing indigenous interests. The UN Special Rapporteur described INDI as poorly funded, poorly staffed, and unable to fulfill its functions. The institution has also been at the center of large corruption scandals: in 2018, a former INDI president was jailed for embezzlement following his misappropriation of approximately $520,000 earmarked for the restoration of land to two indigenous communities. The indigenous sector has repeatedly discovered that it can expect little from INDI.
A Strong Indigenous Movement
In the face of these numerous adversities, a strong indigenous movement comparable to those seen in other Latin American countries has not emerged in Paraguay. However, there have been some recent victories. The 2018 elections saw the first ever participation of an indigenous political party—the Plurinational Indigenous Movement of Paraguay (MPIP)—which presented a candidate for the senate. Additionally, in October, indigenous communities protested on an important bridge near Asunción and achieved their goal of forcing INDI president Ana María Allen to step down from her position—they did not consider her a suitable representative of their needs.
Considering the ever-increasing pressure on indigenous lands from the agricultural sector and the many human rights violations by the state, these steps forward by Paraguay’s indigenous peoples are admirable. In order to win future victories and oblige the state to fulfill its duty as guarantor of rights, indigenous people will need to strengthen their organizational capacities and deepen relationships with other socially conscious sectors.
The Paraguayan state, and society more broadly, must recognize the deep injustice to which the nineteen indigenous peoples have long been subjected. While Paraguay sinks below an ever-expanding green sea of soy, they are denied land, food, health, and education. Government policies must now be redirected to address the extreme power imbalance between social sectors. Sadly, under the leadership of President Abdo Benítez, this change of direction is hard to envision.
Seeds of Gulf-Africa Agribusiness
Soaring temperatures, sun-baked earth, and dwindling water supplies: the Arabian Gulf’s blistering hot summer this year was, for many, a stark reminder of the impact of global warming on the fast-growing desert region. In June, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia recorded the highest temperatures on Earth for this year: 52 and 55 degrees Celsius, respectively. This was all precluded by warnings from meteorologists, including from a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2015, that future temperatures in the Gulf could exceed the threshold for human survival if nations do not reduce carbon emissions.
The inhospitable summer was also a reminder of the pressures the region faces on its food and water supply. The wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has less than 2 percent of the world’s renewable water supply, and water availability is six times less than the worldwide average, according to the World Bank. MENA countries cannot sustainably meet current water demands, and the World Bank predicts that that water availability per capita will halve by 2050 due to climate change and population growth.
In the six-member economic bloc of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)— comprising the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman—food resource pressures are particularly acute. The International Monetary Fund projects the GCC’s population will grow by an average of 2.4 percent annually in the next five years to reach 57 million by 2025. As a result, regional food consumption is set to expand at an annual rate of 3.3 percent between 2018 and 2023, according to the Dubai-based investment bank Alpen Capital.
Yet, the prospect of growing crops on such arid land to feed the hungry is slim. World Bank figures show that the GCC has among the lowest proportion of arable land in the world, ranging from 0.2 percent of the total land area in Oman to 2.1 percent in Bahrain. This compares to above 30 percent for many European countries and above 40 percent for some countries in Africa.
The combination of desert climate, water scarcity, and limited arable land to grow crops has resulted in a high dependency on food imports, exposing Gulf economies to global food price fluctuations and trade fallouts from geopolitical conflict. GCC imports are projected to double between 2009 and 2020 to reach $53.1 billion, according to research from The Economist. The economic blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies since 2017, and ongoing tensions with Iran, are compounding uncertainty.
Gulf nations are ultimately facing a food security crisis—and are now actively looking outside their own borders to secure future food supplies. Less-developed countries with vast swathes of uncultivated arable land in Africa, central Asia, and other regions are among the main targets for investment by the oil-rich GCC.
Last October, Abu Dhabi hosted the second international Agriscape conference, aimed at stimulating agricultural investments abroad. The country wants to ramp up its involvement in global “agribusiness,” the term used to describe farming for commercial purposes and the numerous trades that support agricultural production. These include crop production, processing and distribution, sale and distribution of farm machinery, livestock breeding, agrichemicals and marketing, and retail and sales operations.
During Agriscape, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) food security minister, Mariam Hareb Almheiri, made a bold proclamation of the country’s ambitions, stating, “As food security is a pressing resource security challenge for the UAE, we have a keen interest in increasing agricultural efficiency through the adoption of new methods and diversifying the pattern of agricultural investment abroad…to support sustainable development and bridge the nutritional gap.”
Africa’s Link in the Gulf Food Chain
Some five thousand kilometers south of Abu Dhabi in Zambia, a plane operated by the cargo division of Dubai’s flag carrier Emirates takes flight, loaded with crops, seeds, and other agricultural exports bound for the Gulf. A property valuer who specializes in farm sales and asked to remain anonymous said representatives of Gulf royal families, sovereign wealth funds, and other investors from the region have sought agricultural investments in the landlocked southern African country. The volume of enquiries has risen substantially since last year’s Agriscape, the person added.
In Zambia, Gulf investors are mainly looking at outright acquisitions of farms and farmland worth two hundred million British pounds and above, with a focus on grains, sugar, beans, and seed production, as well as dairy and goat farming. “They want to produce it here, take it to the Gulf, and then store it for twenty years or more to boost food security,” the valuer explained, adding that many of the wealthiest investors seek discretion above all, and usually strike deals via local “fixers”. These fixers organize indirect investments through special purpose vehicles, which are organizations that invest indirectly through funds or other legal entities.
The UAE, which imports about 90 percent of its food, was one of Zambia’s top export destinations in 2017, accounting for $313 million, according to figures from the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Total non-oil trade between Africa and the UAE stood at $24 billion in 2016, up from $17.5 billion in 2014, according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce.
Saudi Arabia is another GCC country with agricultural interests in Zambia. In 2011, the Arab kingdom’s Manafea Holding unveiled plans to invest $125 million in developing a five-thousand-hectare farm in Zambia’s Northwestern Province to grow pineapples and other fruit for export to Saudi Arabia. Manafea also pledged to build two thousand housing units for farm staff near the capital city of Lusaka. The project was expected to create employment opportunities for local communities and connect small-scale farmers to the larger Africa–Gulf market through distribution contracts.
Saudi Arabia also has invested heavily in Ethiopian agriculture through companies such as Saudi Star Agricultural Development, which in 2011 committed to invest $2.5 billion in agribusiness in the East African country by 2020. The firm pledged to develop a rice farm in the Gambella region on ten thousand hectares of land leased for sixty years, and rent a further 290,000 hectares.
The kingdom also has sizeable interests in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa as part of the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad, which launched in 2009 in an attempt to encourage Saudis to buy land overseas and help overcome food and water shortages in the kingdom. Other examples of Africa–Gulf agribusiness deals include last year’s pledge by Hassad Food, a subsidiary of the gas-rich Gulf state Qatar’s sovereign investment fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, to invest $500 million in Sudan’s agricultural and food sectors over three years.
Meanwhile, the UAE launched a potentially groundbreaking proposal to invest in African agriculture last October when it signed a deal with Uganda to establish one of the world’s first agricultural free zones in the East African state. Under the plan, the 2,500-hectare free zone will allow companies from the UAE to invest in agricultural production and development in Uganda and export produce to the UAE on favorable trade terms. If it comes to fruition, the project could stimulate commercial farming activities in Africa and protect the UAE’s food supply chain for years to come.
There are fewer publicized examples of Gulf agricultural investment in North Africa. However, increasing political and economic stability in Egypt, and measures introduced by the Moroccan and Egyptian governments to incentivize foreign investment, are making these countries more attractive.
In 2018, Morocco’s agricultural output rose by 60 percent to exceed $13 billion after the 2008 launch of the government’s Green Morocco Plan. The initiative aimed to increase farm income from the limited swathes of fertile land in the mountainous country through the adoption of new irrigation and other farming technologies to boost output and lower costs. At the SIAL Middle East industry expo in 2015, the UAE pledged investments totalling $41 million in projects to grow olives, citrus, red fruit, and other produce in Morocco.
Tunisia is another North African country that is attracting greater attention from Gulf investors as it looks to accelerate economic growth following a period of political and national insecurity following the Arab Spring in 2011. Where there is the right investment framework and political stability, GCC investors may find it easier to strike deals in Muslim-majority North Africa due to cultural and linguistic ties and physical proximity.
Measuring the Potential of African Farmlands
There are two things to note. First, it is difficult to gauge with certainty the extent and value of Gulf agribusiness in Africa because many of the investments are indirect, making it hard to identify the stakeholders. The website Landmatrix. org goes some way toward identifying Gulf land deals in Africa; however, not all are documented.
Second, Africa is not the only continent to which the GCC is looking in order to shore up its food supply. Gulf states are also making investments in Europe, Central Asia, the United States, and more established farming markets such as Argentina and Brazil, where global investors have held farming interests for many decades. In Africa, the Gulf faces intense competition with Chinese investors, who are increasingly striking huge deals to support farming through the provision of new infrastructure built by Chinese contractors. This can mean Gulf investors have to work harder to beat the competition and strike favorable deals, or look to other farming markets where there is less competition, to ensure food security.
Some GCC countries are even attempting to stimulate agribusiness at home through national farming initiatives. The UAE has begun investing in agricultural-technology (“agri-tech”) firms. These firms are developing innovative farming techniques to overcome the barriers of water scarcity and barren soil. Abu Dhabi this year launched a $350 million scheme to help establish agricultural technology companies in the emirate.
Perhaps more strikingly, oil-rich Qatar is building a series of dairy farms in the desert and wants to become self-sufficient in milk production. When the Saudi-led air, land, and sea blockade began to threaten the flow of Qatari imports, the authorities set out to boost domestic agricultural production by airlifting four thousand cows into the desert and embarking on a strategy to develop up to 1,400 farms across forty-five thousand acres of land by 2022—no mean feat for a country with less than eighty millimeters of rainfall per year. According to the UK-based trade newspaper Dairy Reporter, the cows live in huge air-conditioned sheds at a farm approximately fifty-five kilometres from the Qatari capital city of Doha. The herd is expanding in line with the farm’s target of owning twenty-four thousand cows within the next decade, and produces a reported 320 tons of milk each day, which is processed using European equipment to boost output.
Notwithstanding these points, there are clear reasons why African agribusiness appeals to Gulf investors. The World Bank estimates that Africa has around 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and uses only 2 percent of its renewable water resources compared to the global average of 5 percent.
Yet, political and economic instability in some countries has hampered the cost-effective use of that land and the efficient distribution of produce from it. Post-harvest losses are between 15-20 percent for cereals and higher for perishable products due to poor storage and limited farm infrastructure, the World Bank says.
As such, Africa remains a net importer of food despite its obvious potential, while hunger and malnourishment remain a critical issue. Africa’s population is set to nearly double to 2.5 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations, and agriculture will be key to feeding and employing people. The World Bank says Africa’s food market, which was valued at around $303 billion in 2010, could triple to reach nearly $1 trillion by 2030 as investments in trade, technology, and infrastructure link farmers with bigger markets and higher quality land.
When seen in this context, rising Gulf interest in Africa is unsurprising. The latest Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report, published this year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, lays bare the extent of food insecurity in the Gulf. The population-weighted average prevalence of “severe” food insecurity in the population between 2015 and 2017 stood at 7.6 percent for GCC countries— higher than the weighted average of 1.3 percent for developing nations, but still well short of developed nations’ 10.8 percent, the report said.
Unsurprisingly, GCC leaders speak less of this and more of the financial reward—which has the potential to be great. “Only 5 percent of African land has been utilized for agriculture and many of the consumers are coming from Africa. Imagine if we find a way to tap into that,” Khadim Al Darei, deputy chairman of UAE-based agribusiness firm Al Dahra, told Agriscape.
For the Gulf, African agribusiness is not only an answer to a pressing food security question, but also an exciting commercial prospect. The UAE was the second largest investor country in Africa across all sectors in 2016, with a capital investment of $11 billion, according to fDi Intelligence—showing the scale of regional interest in the continent.
Deal or No Deal? Barriers to Investing in African Agribusiness
By partnering with farmers in joint ventures, acquiring land outright, or otherwise investing in African farmlands, the Gulf can ensure a sustainable food supply while boosting African economies: a win-win for the parties involved. However, it is not all that straightforward. Above and beyond the quality of land, the success of a venture depends on how a deal is structured to benefit landowner, community, and investor, and the policies and legal frameworks put in place to enable this economic relationship to occur.
Some African countries have well-considered regulations to help attract foreign investors, while ensuring local people retain a stake. For example, to invest in Moroccan farming, it is necessary to partner with a local company or individual who will own a proportion of the venture. Unfortunately, in many other countries, “the agriculture industry is not terribly well organized,” says Willem Janssen, lead agricultural economist at the World Bank. “This means that the response of investors—including those from the Gulf—is to broker a deal that allows them almost full control of the operation. For example, they will buy up one thousand hectares of land and develop a self-sufficient system around it, to cultivate land and export the produce.”
There are big dangers if the local community is not involved in the project—for instance, if it does not employ local workers or if some of the produce does not find its way into the hands of the surrounding villages and towns. King Abdullah’s overseas farming policy led to riots and killings in Ethiopia in 2012, when hostile locals unleashed deep grievances on Saudi Star’s Gambella farm. A group of gunmen, reported at the time to have been Anuak militants, opened fire at the compound and killed at least five employees before fleeing. Reprisals followed and, according to Human Rights Watch, the military rounded up villagers, beat the men, and raped the women.
This is the dark side of what critics term the African “land grab”—an unsettling economic imperialism where affluent countries use their deep pockets to impose industrial-scale farming practices on what were traditional smallholdings from which local people made a living.
Saudi Star is still operating in Ethiopia, but armed guards around the farm’s perimeter are a reminder of previous unrest. The story demonstrates the potential for negative social, political, and economic ramifications in Gulf– Africa agribusiness. African nations are growing rapidly, yet affluent nations are seeking arrangements with them to produce, distribute, and appropriate their most valuable resource: food. Because of this, potential investors have to understand that cross-regional deals impose practical and ethical responsibilities on the countries involved. Stakeholders should work to balance conflicting interests and manage the impact of outside powers to ensure adequate protection of African food supplies and mitigate the risk of causing injustice and disquiet.
It is no coincidence that in the past years, many of the biggest foreign agricultural projects have been in countries racked by political and social instability—for example Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia—where governance procedures to ensure local people benefitted from foreign investment were flimsy or non-existent. For a long time, it was easy for investors to take a bite of the land without giving back. Or, if they did have to give back, it was through an illicit payment to corrupt governments. However, things are changing for the better, as governments strengthen their governance systems and realize how economically vital it is to compete with other countries for valuable foreign investment.
Still, there are other hurdles to cross. In Africa, the cost of land is cheap, but farming is labor and knowledge-intensive and requires supporting infrastructure to be commercially viable. Economist Janssen likens it to the running of a safari lodge. The nightly rate is high, but such operations rarely make a profit because they are typically located hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road or town and it costs a fortune to transport guests, food, and other supplies to and from the lodge.
In Tanzania, the government has created a new capital city, Dodoma, in the heart of the country. The land is not well developed or well connected, so the authorities have had to construct roads and infrastructure so the city can function. Similarly, an average ten to fifteen-thousand-hectare farm requires a workforce of around five hundred people to work the land. With their husbands, wives, and children you suddenly have a community of three to four thousand to accommodate, which requires the building of a school, clinic, church, and recreational facilities. None of this comes cheap, and investors must build all of this into their plans. By contrast, much of the farmland in developed markets such as Argentina and the United States has infrastructure in place and it is easier “to just step in,” Janssen explains.
Toward a More Efficient Export System
The final missing piece for investors is their ability to export produce without constraints within a fair and open trading regime. This is where many African countries are falling short. Trade policies tend to be highly politicized. If there are national food shortages, food is not allowed to leave the country. Granting exclusive rights to foreign investors rarely works, because everybody comes in and requests special treatment. As a result, many Gulf investors head to countries that are better organized. However, there are possible solutions on the horizon. The creation of dedicated agricultural free zones such as the proposal from the UAE and Uganda is one, because it overcomes the problem of having to develop infrastructure around arable land. For Uganda, which has high levels of debt (forecast to rise to almost 50 percent of GDP by 2020–21), the free zone is an opportunity to secure fresh foreign capital to plug its deficit. For the UAE, Uganda could offer an export licence to new businesses to incentivize them to set up shop there.
Another way to energize Afro–Gulf economic links is through the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, signed last year. It aims to create a “single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments,” according to the African Union. The sheer size and the fractured nature of intra-African trade has hindered countries’ abilities to trade with one another, thereby hampering the flow of foreign investment across the continent, and internationally.
“Helping Africa realize its trading potential could…open a new agricultural market for Gulf states to exploit,” said a 2018 report by Australian not-for-profit Future Directions International. Gulf–Africa agribusiness is a clear opportunity for all parties involved, but it must be innovative, fair, and carefully handled in order to be sustainable. Care must be taken that land acquisitions and leases are priced correctly and do not threaten people’s livelihoods, and that robust trade and infrastructure frameworks are put in place.
One of the most important principles in business is that of the risk-return trade-off. The greater the level of risk an investor is willing to take, the greater the potential return—and this is certainly true of farming ventures in Africa. If Gulf investors hit the jackpot in Africa, they can do extremely well, but there is also a high potential for it all to go wrong.
There is a pressing need to maximize output from one of the world’s most fertile continents and increase food security for both GCC and African nations. The parties involved have clear incentives to make this work. With the right approach, the arid Arabian Gulf can develop Africa’s bountiful lands to feed their own people, while helping partner countries prosper for decades to come.
Our Future as Climate Refugees
As one of the few independent journalists reporting on the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, journalist and writer Dahr Jamail was in a unique setting to document the devastation of that war in his first book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. His second book, The Will to Resist: Soldiers who Refused to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, presents a comprehensive study on dissent within the U.S. military.
Since then, this Texas native has focused on anthropogenic climate disruption and the environment. His latest book, End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, chronicles the accelerating pace of climate catastrophes. Jamail says he is committed to educating others on the plight of the planet, and how climate devastation will continue to have a cascading impact on the earth and humanity itself.
As a writer covering diverse issues, Jamail has been a reporter for Truthout, has written for Al Jazeera, appeared on the BBC and NPR, and is a recurring guest on Democracy Now. Among other awards, he jointly won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2008 and an Izzy Award of the Park Center for Independent Media in 2018.
Cairo Review’s Amanda Tapp recently spoke with Jamail about his forecast for a world running out of time to deal with climate change.
CR: In your latest book, you discuss your mountaineering adventures and the climate disasters you’ve witnessed. What would you say were the most alarming things you witnessed?
DJ: Things were happening so much faster than I had thought they were and than a lot of the science was telling us. One area that shook me up particularly was going to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef on the planet, and going to what was supposed to be one of the most pristine parts of that reef and seeing it largely bleached out and just swimming over meters and meters of bleached or already dead coral. It’s one thing to hear the scientists in Australia say the Great Barrier Reef is already in a terminal stage, but it’s another thing to snorkel there and see that. The loss of it right in front of my face was utterly shocking.
CR: How did looking at all these changes in the Great Barrier Reef change your ideas about our options, as a species, for dealing with climate disruption today?
DJ: I think the most important thing I got from that experience and that I hope to impart to the readers is that there’s no more future tense about the crisis. The self-reinforcement feedback loops have already kicked in. Dozens of them have, in fact, and those are irreversible. So, the idea that we can stop the crisis is not based in reality. Even the idea at this point of mitigating it to any substantial degree, given what that would take with the coordination of global governments abandoning a global fossil fuel-based economy, et cetera, seems impossible now. All that said, I think then it really leaves each of us individually at a point where we get to decide how we are going to live.
CR: How would this show specifically in the Middle East and in the Gulf countries? Would there be a true Arab union or more conflict?
DJ: Unfortunately, it’s hard to see more conflict not happening. We’ve already seen the impacts. Look at the water issues all around the Middle East. From Turkey to Iran to Iraq to Israel/Palestine, water issues are massive and have become more intense as this goes forward. As sea levels rise again, think of all the villages and cities along the coast everywhere across the Middle East. All of those people, where are they going to go? And then what happens if you lose all that infrastructure that’s in those cities? That’s going to be a massive crisis. Refugee crises—we’re already seeing that—the setting, in the Middle East, people moving, running up against borders, trying to get into different countries, trying to get out of other countries; this is going to intensify, and this is all based on UN reports that have been warning about this for quite some time.
Just this summer in France alone, a recent report showed that 1,500 people died from the heat waves. And that’s in a place that largely has infrastructure in better shape than so many of these war-torn areas in the Middle East. So, imagine how that kind of thing will continue to play out and intensify across the Middle East.
CR: Looking at refugee patterns in the Middle East with climate catastrophe accelerating at an alarming pace, do you think the region will see more of an influx of refugees or an exodus?
DJ: It seems hard to imagine that there would be an influx. What happens to an entire country when they’re largely free of water? Where are those people going to go? It sounds like an external science-fiction kind of scenario, but unfortunately, if you look at the climate projections and what’s already happening now, and how far ahead of the worst-case future projections for this time we are now than when they were made twenty or thirty years ago … we’re in so far with how extreme this has become that I think unfortunately people across the Middle East need to really bind together.
CR: Will leaders in the Middle East make this radical change that’s needed in order to slow down the effects of climate change?
DJ: I think ultimately things will get so severe that they will, I would hope, be forced to do so. We know the role that the climate crisis played in creating some of the conditions of the Arab Spring, so it’s already happening. That’s actually several years old. And we’re still living in the current fallout from that, and much of that is not resolved and may never be. I think we can expect continued destabilization of governments and regime changes because of it, when things get so extreme that people literally don’t have food and water. And that’s virtually a potential for every country in the Middle East, some more than others. At some point, the leaders will have to contend with this. They will be forced to toil. I think in countries, not just in the Middle East but in so many places around the world where there’s not
going to be a whole lot of options left once cities start going underwater, political destabilization gets to a point where much of the infrastructure becomes paralyzed.
CR: Your article, “Eventually We Will All Be Climate Refugees,” states that humans are bound to become climate refugees. As this becomes the norm, do you think there will be a kind of breaking point where governments and people are cognizant of this?
DJ: I know that in a country as large, geographically, as the United States, for example, it’s really challenging to see us holding together as a country. I mean maybe it ends up fragmenting and other states come out of it because I think things will break down ultimately to a point where a government won’t be able to hold itself together, like what happened in Iraq after the invasion and occupation. As you know, it’s essentially de facto three states at this point. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. Having reported from Iraq for a long time, what I saw in war—and I think this is going to be kind of an iteration of that kind of breakdown—was a societal breakdown. Now, here, there is going to be barbarism; there are going to be atrocities and people doing horrible things. But alongside that, what I saw in Iraq was that the majority of people actually behaved very humanely toward each other. I saw some of the most amazing acts of kindness and generosity people were doing with complete strangers: welcoming people into their homes, sharing what meager food they might have, with complete strangers, just because they understood, “Hey, look, we’re all the same people. We’re all in this together. And let’s see if we can figure out a way we can get through this together.”
CR: So, there will also be cooperation and positivity coming out of true, dire hardships in the Middle East?
DJ: I think so. I mean I’ve already seen it with my own eyes in some of the most extreme situations, for example when hundreds of thousands of people had to flee Fallujah and I watched people in Baghdad taking them into their homes. The level of humanity superseded those Sunni–Shia fault lines that were in many cases created and exploited by the occupier. So really I saw case after case of humanity winning out over any kind of ideology or attempts from the government to fragment people, and that, I wouldn’t say that gives me hope, but at least I find solace in that.
There was more of humanity and understanding and care for fellow human beings, even more so than in the United States. And so I think in places that have already had a history of having to suffer through dictators, demagoguery, crisis and war and strife, and refugee issues, people already have an understanding of what it takes to get through that. You see things break down rather quickly over here in the United States because of a sense of entitlement, privilege. And when people who may not have had to experience suffering before start to taste that, they’re going to tend to react in a lot more extreme fashion than people who understand, “Well, yeah, that’s happened here and it might happen again and here’s how we’re going to try to get through it this time.”
CR: So, can impoverished and developing countries actually benefit from not being individualistic societies in the face of climate crises?
DJ: I think that absolutely is an advantage. There’s a kind of atomization that’s happened here [the United States]. It’s like the root of corporate capitalism. I look around here and see people so individualized—here’s really not a sense of community in any way, shape, or form. And that is a distinct disadvantage when crisis happens. There are little pockets around the United States, and what I realized is that people are essentially trying to emulate much of how so many people already live in parts of the Middle East.
CR: With all the changes in sea levels and droughts in the Middle East, what will happen to Nile Basin countries?
DJ: You have this massive area that’s at such a low elevation. All of the agriculture there, all of the people living there, what happens when you add four feet of water to that area? Just think about that. All of that is going to go away. So, that food has to be produced somewhere else. Everyone living there has to go somewhere else. What happens when all those people get there? Is there enough water? Is there enough food? What happens to the economy? Are there jobs? It’s also important for them to think of these cascading effects because that’s what we’re seeing playing out now. We’re seeing it right now in real time with the refugee crisis. We see people dying, drowning in boats, trying to get across the Mediterranean Sea. We see them running into nationalism, into violence in countries where they’re trying to land and find security. So, all this comes from a couple of years of drought. All of this comes from a couple of feet of sea level rise. You see where I’m going. These very, very small natural impacts and changes from the climate crisis have massively widespread devastating human impacts.
CR: It’s like the butterfly effect.
DJ: Exactly. And it compounds upon itself. I mean, these human impacts themselves become a positive feedback loop, and I’ve used that term a lot and I should specify for those who might not be as familiar with it. So a feedback loop, the most famous climate feedback loop, is when you melt the Arctic sea ice as the atmosphere warms, and it exposes more blue ocean, which then absorbs more sunlight, which warms the ocean, which then melts the sea ice, and all of that just recycles upon itself.
One scientist shared that really the simplest way to think about a feedback loop is that the more something is happening, the more it happens. So, as the sea level rises, the more seas rise, and then these human impacts unfold as we just discussed. That’s going to cause even more problems as those people then go somewhere else, creating a whole new set of crises at that place—even if they’re just places high enough where they don’t have to deal with sea level-rise issues right now.
CR: You wrote before that global capitalism creates an illusion that all is well, while world climate change continues to accelerate at an alarming place. Could you talk a bit about how it creates this illusion? And when the illusion shatters, what does this look like for you?
DJ: Well, for example, I don’t have a television on purpose. And I haven’t had one for decades, because the amount of corporate advertising in the United States and in other places around the world is dizzying. It’s unreal. It promotes this idea of, “Well if you just buy and consume, everything is going to be okay.” It promotes this idea that business as usual can continue and will continue, so buy this new house; buy this new car; go do these things; all of these things that are future-based. It’s also extremely distracting, and we have a situation in the United States where after decades and decades to cuts in education across the country alongside a dumbing down of the population, no critical thinking being taught, no real politics understood by the general population, you essentially have a country and a dominant culture— not everyone here—that’s a dumbed-down, consuming, distracted population. And they’re completely ill-equipped to deal with the crisis that’s upon us, let alone decide how to respond to the political crisis here.
It’s a culture of distraction. That’s the opposite of what we need right now. We really need people sitting quietly and thinking very deeply about what’s happening and then making some very, very hard and important decisions about how we’re going to be leading our lives. To me that means how we’re going be serving each other and serving the planet. Even if it looks like all is lost, I still see us—myself certainly—as morally obliged to find deep ways I can take actions to try to help the planet and help protect a small part of the planet where I live, or work with other people doing that kind of work in other places as well. So, I think those are really the important questions and not living in this corporate-generated denialism that everything is going be okay; the crisis isn’t so bad; and we still have time.
CR: What are the factors in the Middle East that led to a lack of action against climate change?
DJ: You have, in so many countries, U.S.-backed dictators over decades that have kept the thumb down on people in a very violent, oppressive way. That’s still the case in so many countries there, where you don’t have democracy, you don’t have a government that’s truly representative of the people, and therefore is not acting in the best interests of the people. I don’t really know what the solution is in the Middle East, other than people on their own, as best they can, starting to take responsibility. The government is not going to take the right actions. So, looking around at where I live, what can I start doing to take some responsibility to try to figure out where my water and food are going to come from? Who is my community? How can I fortify those relationships and deepen them? And how can we, as people, start to work together to take care of ourselves? Because clearly the government is not going to, and I really don’t see governments in the Middle East and certainly not in the United States or some of these Western countries that are going proto-fascist—I would happily stand corrected and happily be proven wrong here—making an abrupt change to start acting in the best interests of the people that they supposedly represent, because I think they passed the point of doing that a long, long time ago.
CR: And for that change to happen, would some really big disaster have to come first?
DJ: That’s right. I think ultimately that reckoning will be forced upon these governments. When you have these larger countries with very, very large populations, the government is simply not going to be able to contain the level of chaos and need that’s going to be happening as all of these climate impacts intensify. We are looking into a very dystopian future. When times get really dire and hard, people can go one of two ways: either descend into a madness and barbarism, which I’ve seen, or really go the other direction where great acts of love and kindness become paramount. It comes down to how we are going to behave during this time, individually, collectively, and how we’re going to treat each other. And so, my hope is that we really keep that in the forefront of our minds—that the time to really be very kind and generous toward one another is very important now, and that we kind of hold on to that as we go on into the future, because it’s going to be challenging.
CR: It’s an optimistic hope in the face of despair.
DJ: Yes, it is. Ultimately, when it comes down to it, it’s really the only thing to do.
Architect of Enterprise
When Ayman Ismail became a professor at the American University in Cairo and the academic advisor for the university’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in 2011, the field was still in its infancy. But Egypt’s modern history already had a vibrant entrepreneurial culture. Alexandria, for example, was home to the largest commodity exchange in the world in the late nineteenth century. Egypt saw visionary enterprise ranging from economist Talaat Harb’s founding of Banque Misr in 1920 to the establishment of EgyptAir in 1932 as one of the first ten air carriers in history (Harb was notably passionate about the creation of local industries founded by his countrymen).
It was not until the development of tech startups in the 2010s that there was a notable shift in entrepreneurial interest, and it is in this momentum that Ismail found himself drawn back to his homeland. He had previously cofounded a management consulting company with his brother, as well as a social enterprise incubator called Nahdet El Mahrousa with a group of close friends. After finishing his PhD in international economic development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, Ismail arrived at a particularly flexible moment in his career and toyed with the idea of moving back to Egypt—and then came the Egyptian uprising. Gripped by the movement around him, he received an offer from AUC and, as he puts it, “the rest is history.”
Ismail’s work with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program revolved around creating a space for ideas and growth and raising overall awareness, what he refers to as “seeding the ecosystem”—which resulted in forty partnerships and the training of six thousand youth. Now, as the Jameel Chair of Entrepreneurship and founding director of the university’s Venture Lab, Ismail is involved in everything from the lab’s leadership to personal mentoring. However, he remains best known for helping many navigate the risky world of entrepreneurship.
The Venture Lab is a startup accelerator program at AUC’s New Cairo campus. Since 2013, the program has devoted over 2,200 mentoring and training hours to building the capacity of more than 150 startups, resulting in the creation of over eight thousand jobs and 450 million Egyptian pounds (or $28 million) in revenue. This includes the development of some of Ismail’s favorite companies such as Rology, an AI-assisted, on-demand teleradiology platform. Given a global shortage of radiologists, Ismail says that Rology fills a crucial space in urgent care, where “a minute can be the difference between life and death.” Another is the popular transportation service Swvl, a low-cost bus transportation network that is currently the fastest-growing company in Egypt. Along for the ride since their beginning, Ismail fondly recalls when Swvl’s founders told him they had received their first offer from an angel investor. “These are the kinds of moments that you really enjoy and cherish,” Ismail said.
The unique advantage of the Venture Lab is simple: presence on a university campus. Ismail explained, “universities are not about teaching, they’re about knowledge— knowledge, innovation, dissemination.” By connecting policymakers to program designers, entrepreneurs to engineers, the university is facilitating interactions capable of producing tangible results for the Egyptian market.
Programs like the Venture Lab offer a model for the rest of the country, and even the region, of opportunities for accelerators and incubators. Several years ago, governments tended to overlook entrepreneurship in favor of small and medium-sized enterprises, and only recently became aware of its importance and potential. Ismail was optimistic about this shift in view, saying, “That’s a major change over the long term. That’s how we bring cultural change.” He is currently advising the Egyptian Ministry of Planning on incorporating entrepreneurship into Egypt’s sustainable development strategy.
The entrepreneurial scene is currently skyrocketing. “I think it’s probably an inflection point, and the quality [of work] … in the next three years is going to be different, because more people and different people are getting into that space.” Young and mid-career professionals are choosing careers in entrepreneurship, enticed by wealth creation, independence, and serious career options. However, he predicted that when the market cycles downward, those who view entrepreneurship as a short-term opportunity will filter out, ushering in another, more serious wave.
That said, Ismail believes in the ability of younger people to pursue business ambitions. His advice to young entrepreneurs is, “Invest in yourself, before you get into anything.” He is an advocate for informed experience and explained that this does not have to mean building general work experience for a decade, but requires at least having been inside the industry: “Just understand what’s happening in that space. And then start whatever you want.”
The best example of how a consistent, intentional learner can succeed is Ismail himself. In a field where the latest information and resources are rapidly developing, he never assumes that he knows more than his students, despite his extensive experience. As they ask him questions throughout his classes, covering entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial finance, he does not give out answers immediately, but asks questions in return. As he stressed, “The smartest person in the room is the person who is asking questions, not the person who has all the answers. So that’s what I do.”
The Most Severe Threat Facing MENA
Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues facing the international community today and has gained widespread attention recently due to the rise in global temperatures and the increase in water consumption in a number of countries, especially those in the Middle East. Despite these concerns, many nations remain unprepared to confront water scarcity and continue to fail to make the issue a political priority.
The shortage of water in the Middle East has worsened in the modern era due to high population growth rates, urbanization and the expansion of cities, the low price of water, and inefficient water management. These factors have created an unstable—and extremely dangerous—situation, which will impact the availability of water and risk exacerbating tensions between countries in the region.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will be among the regions most impacted by global warming in the twenty-first century through a heightened risk of drought and flood, which will reduce agricultural productivity, impact food stocks, and harm the most disadvantaged of the population.
About 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the MENA region, which contains only 1 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water. Water was available to citizens at an annual rate of 819.8 cubic meters per capita as recently as a few years ago, which is more than 25 percent less than the global average. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the region’s population lives in areas suffering from surface water shortages, while the global average stands at about 35 percent. Despite the region’s scarcity of water, MENA has the world’s lowest water tariffs and the highest percentage of GDP spent on water subsidies. This has led to irrational use of water resources and over-pumping of nonrenewable groundwater. These are striking examples of both poor water management and the region’s lack of appreciation of the urgency of this issue.
Groundwater, large transboundary rivers, and desalination represent the main sources of water in the region, according to a report from the World Bank. These sources are all either points of dispute between countries in the region, threatened by excessive use, or too costly to develop. As a result, the countries of the Middle East continue to suffer from an acute lack of water security, which is defined as “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.” In other words, achieving water security is not limited to maintaining high water reserves, but also involves taking into account productive and preventive initiatives to deal with water needs and related issues. Countries that underestimate the importance of water security are squandering opportunities for economic, political, and social prosperity for their citizens.
This is because water security is directly linked to food security, energy, and irrigation inefficiency. The lack of available water impacts agricultural land and leads to an excessive dependence on food imports to meet the demands of the population. The countries of the Arab World import between 30 and 35 percent of their food resources. Egypt and China are among the largest importers of wheat in the world, despite the fact that China’s population is ten times larger. The higher the national dependence on basic food imports, the greater the risk associated with turmoil in global markets. In this way, protecting national security and achieving stability becomes difficult if water and food security needs are not addressed.
This is not exaggeration or fear mongering, but rather a warning about one of the most severe threats facing the MENA region—I do not rule out the possibility of this becoming a cause or justification for conflict—and a call for leaders to change policies. Policymakers can reach a solution to this crisis if there is political will.
For example, irrigation efficiency in the MENA region hovers at 50 percent, but if efficiency was raised to 70 percent through changes to policies and practices, huge benefits could be achieved. These include providing fifty billion cubic meters of water to the Middle East annually, which would allow countries to significantly increase grain production and work to find more sustainable ways to conserve water and produce food.
Water scarcity is a possible precursor to regional and potentially international conflict, and preemptive action must be taken to prevent this. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have been embroiled in a dispute related to water security and are striving to reach a consensual agreement in this regard that is both sustainable and implementable. The Nile River provides Egypt with 75 percent of its water needs, which are set to increase given population growth rates, and issues related to water security in the country are set to worsen. Ethiopia will soon begin the process of filling a lake connected to the Renaissance Dam, which is part of the largest hydroelectric power station in Africa. Egyptian anxiety and frustration at the slow pace of negotiations and the failure of talks thus far are made clear in Egypt’s public statements and talk about “red lines,” as well as in its seeking to call an international mediator to help resolve the dispute.
Another potential regional conflict lies in water disputes between Palestine and Israel, even if the political conflict is resolved, which remains unlikely. Israel controls the head of the Jordan River, which restricts access to water for Palestinians, and aquifers are also under the control of the Israeli government. This leaves Palestinians with a limited amount of water. United Nations Development Programme reports indicate that Palestinians have access to about three hundred million cubic meters of water annually, while Israelis enjoy about two thousand million cubic meters. Such a disproportionate and inequitable allocation of water resources sows the seeds of future conflict.
A sensitive and potentially dangerous issue like water insecurity in the MENA region requires sincere analysis and an honest warning about its possible impacts. If politicians, scientists, and economists work together to address water insecurity rather than ignoring the issue, we can prevent possible conflict over access to water in the region.
Translated by Madeleine Hall