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 From Extreme Peripheries to an Enclave of Abundance: The Gulf States in the Global and Regional Food Regime

Christian Henderson


The economies of the Arab Gulf States are often defined by their oil exports, but what does their import of food commodities reveal about their position within the global and regional economy?


The Gulf States import food on a scale that is on par with major emerging economies. When compared to all BRICS and MINTS countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are only second to China in terms of food imports. These commodities come from contracts on the open market and through farms that are directly owned by the Arab Gulf States. Many of these enclosures are located in the Nile Valley; Egypt and Sudan are favored sites on the basis of the friendly political relations and water resources. The large scale of these projects and their intensive nature represents a mode of extraction; they represent what one scholar described as “extreme peripheries”. They have been predicated on the dispossession of indigenous land users, and the appropriation of water and land; their intensive character results in the draining and extraction of natural resources.


Often these projects have been facilitated by the state, which pays for infrastructure and other resources despite their questionable benefit. In Egypt backing for foreign agribusiness companies has taken place as support for small farmers has been withdrawn. This has been concomitant with rising food inflation and food insecurity. Agribusiness investments in land are often promoted on the basis that they are beneficial for the host state’s food security, but the evidence for this is dubious. By example one of the main commodities produced on these projects is livestock feed, which is exported back to the Gulf States. 


This exchange ensures the Gulf States have access to relatively cheap food, it has made them into enclaves of abundance. Their access to commodities stands in contrast to other regional countries that suffer from high levels of food insecurity such as Yemen, where as many as 16 million people are on the brink of famine.


This trade is a vital part of the political economy of the GCC states. They have allowed these societies to overcome their ecological restrictions and achieve economic growth and population expansion. In this sense these economies are sources of inorganic energy in the form of hydrocarbons, but they are also major consumers of organic energy, in the form of calories, water and soil.


This represents a form of ecologically unequal exchange, a trade that provides an insight into the unbalanced distribution of resources within the regional economy. It is a transfer of value that is an intrinsic part of the configuration of the food systems in poorer Arab states. For example, Egypt’s food system cannot only be understood by its relation to Northern capital, but must also be seen as a system configured by the ingress of capital from the Gulf. 


Christian Henderson is Assistant Professor at Leiden Institute for Area Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands. His research focuses on the agrarian political economy and the political ecology of the Middle East and North Africa. His work has previously been published in Environment and Planning A, Review of African Political Economy and the Journal of Arabian Studies.