Will the Middle East starve?

Saudi Arabia and others have oil but not enough water or farmland. So they're buying land from poorer nations

Published June 10, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

A Saudi farmer harvests his crop on a farm in Al-Diriyah, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh.        (AP/Hassan Ammar)
A Saudi farmer harvests his crop on a farm in Al-Diriyah, on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Excerpted from "The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth" by Fred Pearce

Fly over Saudi Arabia today and you will see that the desert sands are dotted with huge circles of green. They were not there 30 years ago. These geometric oases are man-made, the result of a $40 billion national effort to create giant farms in the desert to irrigate fields of wheat, fruit and fodder crops. Look down carefully, and you may also see giant sheds holding tens of thousands of cattle in the desert.

The Tabuk plain in the northwest of the country, close to Jordan, gets an average of just 2 inches of rain a year. Yet it is a prairie of wheat fields. Fortunes are being made here. The biggest farm — covering nearly 90,000 acres, or eight Manhattans — is run by the Tabuk Agricultural Development Company (TADCO). Its irrigation pumps extract up to a million acre-feet of water each year from beneath the sands.

TADCO is part of the vast business empire of the al-Rajhi brothers — Sulaiman, Saleh, Abdullah, and Mohammed. As the Economist put it, they have made “one fortune from money brokering and another from farming.” Each brother became a billionaire as they turned a small money-changing business servicing migrant workers in Saudi Arabia into the world’s largest Islamic bank, the Al-Rajhi Bank. Then they joined the country’s 1980s cropping boom which, for a while, made Saudi Arabia self-sufficient in wheat.

But Saudis don’t live by bread alone. Dairy farming is the other big domestic agricultural business. Raising cows in the desert seems even odder than growing wheat. But in the center of the country, near the capital, Riyadh, the late Prince Abdullah al-Faisal, eldest son of the former King Faisal, has established the world’s largest dairy farm. At the heart of the Al Safi farm are six giant sheds, where 30,000 Holstein cows from Europe produce around 42 million gallons of milk a year, sold under the Danone brand. To keep their udders productive, the cows are cooled by a constantly circulating mist of water. Surrounding the sheds are 7,400 acres of fields, where dozens of movable irrigation units called central pivots, each up to a third of a mile long, irrigate alfalfa, sorghum, and hay destined for the cows’ feedlots. This too takes prodigious amounts of water, pumped from more than a mile below the sand.

Not far away, Almarai, a food conglomerate also owned by the Saudi royal family, has five dairy farms with 36,000 cows. This giant was established in 1976 by racehorse-breeding Prince Sultan bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabeer and a colorful Irish dairy magnate, Alastair McGuckian. In semi-retirement today, back home in Dublin, the jovial piano-playing McGuckian now writes musicals. He still oversees an agricultural empire that extends from the bogs of Ireland to China, Egypt, Germany, Thailand, the United States, Britain, Russia, Romania and Zambia, where he grows marigolds. But his enterprise amid the singing Saudi sands is still his biggest.

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There is a madness about farming in the desert — especially when temperatures are above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, there isn’t a river for hundreds of miles, and the only water is more than a mile underground. The technological bravado is breathtaking, but Saudis are slowly realizing that it cannot go on. That their dream of turning oil wealth into food self-sufficiency is doomed, and they will have to get food from elsewhere. I heard this at a conference on the country’s changing attitude to water, held at the Jeddah Hilton in 2009. Outwardly everything looked normal — normal at any rate for the commercial capital of a superrich petro-kingdom. There were flowers and fountains in the atrium, '90s-style lifts zooming up and down in glass shafts, and limousines outside delivering ministers and industrialists. Not far away a huge desalination plant was making the waters of the Red Sea drinkable for the city.

Saudi Arabians have grown colossally rich on the country’s oil reserves. They have grown used to the idea that petrodollars can buy them anything. But Saudis are waking up to the fact that all their wealth will count for nothing if they have nothing to eat. And — despite the conference tables heaving with French, Persian, American and Arab cuisine — that is a growing threat. “If we want our grandchildren to live as we are, we need to change now, or we will be like an African country in 50 years, asking for aid,” Adil Bushnak, a former member of the Saudi Supreme Economic Council, told me during a conference session I was chairing.

The desert farms are magnificent 20th century monuments to unsustainable agriculture. They were created in the aftermath of the oil crisis of 1973. Back then, the OPEC oil-producing states, headed by Saudi Arabia, held the world hostage over oil supplies, causing fuel rationing and lines at gas stations around the world. As anger grew, the United States threatened to organize retaliatory food sanctions. OPEC got its way, restricting oil supplies. The world has paid much higher oil prices ever since. But in the aftermath, the Saudis took that American threat to heart. And with the huge new wealth that the oil revenues were generating for them, they set about insulating themselves against any future food embargo by farming the desert. Even the Saudis cannot use sea water to irrigate fields, so they are pumping up underground water reserves from beneath the desert.

By the 1990s, with $85 billion invested, Saudi Arabia was one of the world’s largest wheat exporters. Like the dairy business, the wheat crop was vastly subsidized. Money was no object. The government paid its farmers five times the international price for wheat — not just for the wheat the nation wanted, but for any wheat the farmers cared to produce. Riyadh charged nothing for the water pumped from beneath the desert, and virtually nothing for the fuel needed to pump it. This deluge of largesse generated full granaries but staggering inefficiency, not least in the use of water. Every ton of wheat required between 3,000 and 6,000 tons of water — three to six times the global average.

Why such hydrological madness? Saudis thought they had water to waste because beneath the Arabian sands lay one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs of water. In the late 1970s, when pumping started, the pores of the sandstone rocks contained around 400 million acre-feet of water, enough to fill Lake Erie. The water had percolated underground during the last ice age, when Arabia was wet. So it was not being replaced. It was fossil water — and like Saudi oil, once it is gone it will be gone for good. And that time is now coming. In recent years, the Saudis have been pumping up the underground reserves of water at a rate of 16 million acre-feet a year. Hydrologists estimate that only a fifth of the reserve remains, and it could be gone before the decade is out.

It took years for the truth to sink in. But in 2008, the Saudi government announced it would end wheat subsidies, with the aim of phasing out all production by 2016. Instead, it would import wheat to make Saudi bread. It decided to keep the cowsheds, but reduce their water needs by feeding the animals on foreign fodder. Then, just as the Saudis abandoned their former goal of food self-sufficiency, came the first world food-price spike. A bit of food inflation didn’t worry the Saudis much. Almost any world price for grains was cheaper than growing them at home. What did scare the Saudis was when their key grain suppliers started banning exports to protect their home consumers. This eventuality, after all, was the nightmare that pushed the Saudis into attempting self-sufficiency in the first place.

So, finding it impossible to feed itself, and unwilling to rely on international food markets, Saudi Arabia came up with Plan C. Under the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad, announced in 2008 in the wake of the global food crisis, the sheikhs decided to buy up farmland in foreign countries. The King called in his country’s agribusiness billionaires, including the al-Rajhi brothers and a number of royal princes. He offered to underwrite the creation of a series of giant consortia to find and cultivate foreign fields and bring the food home. Soon, the commerce ministry had identified 27 countries that might appreciate Saudi investment in their farms; the ministry of agriculture opened diplomatic doors; the Saudi Industrial Development Fund granted credit; and the government put up $800 million.

For those who had gotten rich emptying the country’s water reserves but who now had farms running on empty, it was manna from Allah. Now they could double their money by going on a subsidized global land grab. So the desert cattle raiser, Prince Sultan Al Kabeer, bought a 48-year lease to grow wheat on 22,000 irrigated acres on the banks of the Nile, north of Khartoum in Sudan. Meanwhile his dairy rival, TADCO boss Mohammed al-Rajhi, took charge of two royalty-backed land-grabbing consortia. One was Jannat Agricultural Investment, looking for 530,000 acres to grow wheat in Egypt and Sudan. The other was Far East Agricultural Investment, which by late 2010 had negotiated leases to grow rice in Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s second-largest importer of rice. Securing rice supplies had become a key concern of the Saudis, since India and Pakistan cut rice exports in 2008. The majority of its land grabs have been to grow rice, usually in fellow Muslim countries in Asia or North Africa.

Sometimes the deals have found local acceptance. In the Catholic Philippines, rice-hunting al-Rajhi’s Far East Agricultural Investment homed in on the mainly Muslim island of Mindanao. The island is poor but fertile — and rebellious. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front controls parts of the island. Al-Rajhi signed up local chiefs for a scheme to plant rice, pineapples, bananas, and corn on up to 190,000 acres of communally owned land across Mindanao. The national government was in favor, and so too was the leader of the liberation front. Far from opposing foreign land grabs, he backed the deal “because it is coming from our Muslim brothers.”

But the path has not always been smooth. The Bin Laden Group — an 80-year-old Saudi family industrial conglomerate with an infamous black-sheep son — led a consortium to grow rice on more than a million acres in the Indonesian province of Papua. At one swoop, it gave the Saudis a third of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate, a $5 billion megaproject being developed by the Indonesian government. But, while Indonesia is a Muslim nation, Papua is unruly, and much of it is not Muslim. In mid-2010, the Merauke project was put on hold by its director after opposition from local tribal animists and Christians reluctant to give up their land to Muslims from either Jakarta or Jeddah.

The Bin Laden Group is also behind a scheme to grow rice in Africa. The other main backer is Sheikh Saleh Kamel, a veteran Saudi billionaire who runs a satellite TV group. The AgroGlobe project aims to produce 7 million tons of rice a year within seven years on 1.7 million acres of irrigated land in the West African Muslim states of Mali, Senegal, Sudan, Mauritania, and Niger, as well as in northern Nigeria. It promises to recruit Thai rice experts to help West Africa cut its rice imports while simultaneously supplying the Saudis. But these plans too seem destined to create domestic strife among the hosts.

The Senegalese government is keen. “We are offering Saudi Arabia 400,000 hectares of farmland,” a senior official said in late 2010. Most of the land is on the banks of the River Senegal, which will provide the water for irrigation in an arid land. Contracts say that 70 percent of the rice would be destined for Saudi mouths, and only 30 percent for locals. So this is a water grab as well as a land grab. The government says existing rice farmers there “have no problems with these lease deals.” But traditional farmers do object, and local cattle herders will lose vital dry-season pastures near the river.

Saudi rice farmers could also get an angry reception in neighboring Mauritania, where the president has promised them nearly 100,000 acres of land on its northern banks of the River Senegal. Just over 20 years ago, the Koranic scholars and land barons who run the secretive Saharan state presided over a pogrom against black Mauritanians who lived there. It happened during a war with Senegal that began with a dispute over grazing rights along the banks of the River Senegal. Hundreds died and some 100,000 black Mauritanians fled to Senegal. As they have slowly returned since, many have found their former land taken for irrigated rice crops. Now it looks like the black Mauritanians may lose more of their land to the Saudis.

A sign of the power of Saudi land grabbers in fellow Muslim countries could be seen at a curious ceremony at the Saudi King Abdullah’s royal palace in Mecca in September 2010. In attendance were the king himself and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s director general, the Senegalese diplomat Jacques Diouf. Diouf was on record a couple of years before as condemning international land grabbing as “neo-colonialism.” But now he was in Mecca to award the king, Saudi Arabia’s land-grabber-in-chief, his organization’s Agricola Medal “in recognition of his support for improving world food security.” It was an ignominious retreat for the world’s top food official.

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Saudi Arabia is just one of the Gulf petro-states. The other super-rich emirates were as panicked by the 2008 price spike as the Saudis. They face the same triple whammy of concerns. Demand for food is soaring as the arrival of millions of foreign workers sets them on course to double their populations by 2030. The emptying of water reserves is making food production at home impossible. And the emirs are losing faith in global markets to provide future food.

So, like the Saudi sheikhs, they have gone on a buying spree for farmland, calling on their Muslim brothers to open up their borders to Gulf land grabbers. One assessment at the end of 2009 found that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states were responsible for a third of the land purchased, leased, or under offer to foreigners by poorer countries.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a federation of seven Gulf emirates headed by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, took the lead. The Gulf’s largest private equity company, Dubai-based Abraaj Capital, said in 2008 that it had acquired 800,000 acres of “barren” farmland to grow rice and wheat in the Pakistani provinces of Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan. Others securing land in the Punjab, Pakistan’s breadbasket, included the Emirates Investment Group, a private group in Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi-based Al Qudra Holding. If even a fraction of this goes ahead, the implications could be grim for small Pakistani farmers, most of whom are sharecropping tenants of feudal families with vast landholdings who dominate Pakistani politics as well as the military. They will lose control of their plots of land and will probably not even find regular work as laborers on the new mechanized farms. UAE officials also said its companies had acquired 700,000 acres of Sudan, paying virtually nothing, on condition only that they invest. But, as in Pakistan, details of these deals remain sketchy. There have been lots of promises and pledges, but few statements detail specific projects, and there has been even less activity on the ground.

Other Gulf states have been almost as busy. The Kuwaiti government has followed the Saudis in doing deals to grow rice in Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. But the most dramatic dealing has been from the tiny island state of Qatar. The more I learned about Qatar’s exploits on the world land markets, the more extraordinary they appear. There is nowhere on the planet like Qatar, and its tentacles are everywhere.

Qatar is a small thumb-shaped peninsula of desert sticking out into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia. It is smaller than Connecticut, with a population about the same as Little Rock, Ark. It was a poverty-stricken community of pearl divers until the development of oil reserves in the 1950s. Then came the discovery, just offshore, of vast reserves of natural gas. Today, Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas (8.8 trillion cubic feet a year, for anyone who is counting). It is superrich, even by Gulf standards. The 800,000 Qataris have both the highest average income and the largest per-capita carbon footprint on the planet. Its capital, Doha, is planning on being the next Dubai.

Qatar is an absolute monarchy. It has been dominated for more than a century by the Al Thani family, a Bedouin clan originally from Arabia. The current all-powerful emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, took power from his father in a palace coup in 1995. He has since secured his power by locking up a cousin, allegedly for using state funds to go on a billion-dollar shopping spree in the world’s art auction rooms. A curious amalgam of modernity and tradition, the emir funds the Al-Jazeera TV network, which helped fan the flames of the Arab Spring, and he has bought the right to hold the soccer World Cup in 2022.

Nobody knows quite where the state’s wealth ends and the emir’s wealth begins. For now, they amount to the same thing. And Qatar has been spending this money all over the world in a way that is surely unmatched for any small nation. In 2011, it was the world’s largest investor in overseas real estate. Much of that was spent in cities. In London alone, it spent billions buying the upscale department store Harrods and the vacated U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square, while redeveloping the billion-dollar Chelsea Barracks site and building Europe’s tallest tower, the “shard of glass” near London Bridge. It also owns almost half of the Canary Wharf financial district.

But there has been no shortage of cash for farmland. The emir’s vehicle for farm grabs is a company called Hassad Food. It is the agricultural arm of the Qatar Investment Authority and thus effectively the property of the emir. It has done deals for land in Vietnam, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Senegal, Kenya, Argentina, Ukraine and Turkey. It has set up partnerships with cattle ranches in Tajikistan and bought 370,000 acres of sheep ranches across three states of Australia. In Brazil, it is developing a 25-million-ton-a-year sugar scheme and a poultry project that will supply most of Qatar’s chicken and eggs. Hassad says it has secured 250,000 acres in the Philippines to grow rice. For a while, the Qatar government promised to build a billion-dollar freight port at Lamu Island on the coast of Kenya in return for 100,000 acres of irrigable land in the nearby Tana river delta — though that deal now seems to be off.

The pace has been astounding. It is hard to be sure, but it looks like the country has control of more land in other countries than at home. And while some projects, like many from the Saudis and the UAE, will probably never happen, the Al Thanis do seem bent on spending their treasure chest. There are plenty of takers for this Arab largesse. A constant stream of leaders from around the world has flown to the Gulf, offering land in return for investment. Indonesia’s agriculture minister Suswono went wooing Gulf states in 2010, offering 19 million acres of “sleeping land” for agribusiness investment. The veteran chief minister of Sarawak, the Borneo province of Malaysia, was looking for Gulf investment in his “Halal hub,” 190,000 acres of former rainforest being turned into farms for him by a Taiwanese company. Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is old enough to remember the Japanese landing in Borneo during the Second World War, was undaunted by fears of a new land invasion. He returned with a promise of a billion dollars from Perigon Advisory, an investment fund based in Bahrain.

For a while in 2009, Gulf investors showed signs of getting cold feet, as the credit crunch created the debt crisis that almost engulfed the region’s most visible totem of wealth, the desert megacity of Dubai. Some deals were quietly put on hold or dropped. Abu Dhabi’s Al Qudra Holding had promised in 2008 to acquire 1 million acres in a host of countries from Australia to Eritrea, Croatia to Thailand, and Ukraine to Pakistan. The first harvests, said CEO Mahmood Ibrahim Al Mahmood, would be shipped during 2011. But in 2011 there were no firm sightings of either land or harvest. Likewise, there was no subsequent trace of Qatar’s plan to buy the Pakistani government’s giant Kollurkar farm in Punjab, which farm leaders said threatened the homes of 25,000 people.

Eckart Woertz, director of economic studies at the Gulf Research Center, a privately funded think tank based in Dubai, said in June 2010: “Investment in land was the flavor of the month in 2008, but they are far away from building actual farm developments and overcoming political disagreements.” Agricultural expertise was often lacking. Financiers were sitting in their offices with wads of cash but not an engineer on their books, wondering what to do next.

But by late 2010, enthusiasm had revived with food prices. There were more grand declarations. This time, the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Food Security for Gulf Cooperation Council Countries took pride of place. And some investors, at least, were taking out their checkbooks again. But there were also signs of a new realism, with investors seeking out the expertise needed to turn their pipe dreams into reality.

They were turning to the Egyptians, for instance. In 2010, Gulf money was paying for Sudan to bring in Egyptians to revamp its large but dilapidated Gezira irrigation project — originally built by the British in the 1920s. Gezira grows cotton, sorghum, wheat, and groundnuts across 2.5 million acres of rich alluvial soil close to where the Blue and White Niles join. Weeks later, Khartoum and Islamabad were in discussions about shipping in Pakistanis to work the new farms.

And they were turning to Americans. The Pharos Financial Group, a Dubai-based hedge fund, is paying up to $100 million for an American pig farmer to start transforming part of Tanzania into a replica of the American Midwest. Bruce Rastetter’s plan is to take a 99-year lease on three huge refugee camps in southwest Tanzania that have housed escapees from the brutal conflicts in central Africa, including the Rwanda massacres of 1994. By late 2011, the Tanzanian government had emptied the first camp, the 60,000-acre Lugufu camp, which had been home to 100,000 people. Rastetter’s team, Agrisol, told me they would soon be growing corn and soy and raising poultry, initially for sale within Tanzania. Pharos promises worker training, community development funds, and a system to buy produce from outgrowers, but the heart of the scheme will be a vast expanse of commercialized, high-tech agriculture — Iowa in Tanzania.

Rastetter, who back home in the United States is known as a philanthropist and staunch Republican Party funder, told the local Des Moines Register that the project is “the farthest thing from a land grab that could exist.” But I would bet that if you are sitting in a camp in Tanzania, where you have lived your entire life, hearing reports of Arabs paying for fleets of John Deere tractors and truckloads of Monsanto seeds to come in from Iowa to take over your kitchen garden, you might not agree.

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Whatever one feels about such projects, the Gulf governments were certainly right to be alarmed about the possible impact of rising food prices on their people. Perhaps more than they knew. By early 2011, the Middle East and North Africa were erupting with the Arab Spring. While the Western media concentrated on the politics of reform, many on the streets were protesting as much about bread prices as corruption. They were waving baguettes as they marched into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Tunis’s November 7 Square (now renamed Mohamed Bouazizi Square, after the vegetable seller whose suicide sparked the revolution). In Yemen, they turned on their leaders with chapatis strapped to their temples.

The only Gulf state directly impacted by the uprising was Bahrain. But this was uncomfortably close for many of the region’s autocrats. Bahrain is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. Governments reacted to shore up their popularity. Saudi Arabia increased food subsidies twice. Kuwait promised fourteen months of free food rations. Bahrain simply handed out cash as the people rioted against the ruling Al Khalifa royal family. The politics of food is now a serious issue for the princes of petroleum. And right now, cultivating foreign soil seems like their only salvation.

Excerpted from "The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth" by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission of Beacon Press.

By Fred Pearce

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