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Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East by Eckart Woertz (review)
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Oil for Food, although purportedly about the Middle East, focuses on the subgroup of countries, namely the Gulf states. It outlines the food security predicament of the region, including the reliance on food imports, the limited potential for domestic food production and the impact of the global food crisis whereby global food prices shot up in 2007/8 and 2010/11. In Part 1, the book provides a fascinating geopolitical history of Gulf food security, including the disruptions to food imports caused by World War II and the way that food imports have been used as a foreign policy tool by the United States and others in their dealings with the region. This includes the threat of a grain embargo in retaliation for the formation of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the United States’ use of the Food for Peace Program to win allies in the region, and the trade embargo with Iraq in the 1990s. The response by the Gulf states in the form of a drive for food self-sufficiency is described, using the case study of Saudi Arabia’s audacious food production project during the 1980s and 1990s, which made Saudi Arabia the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter but at a huge financial and environmental cost.

Part 2 of the book looks at the more recent approach to food security in the region in the form of acquiring land overseas to directly source food supplies: the so-called “land grab” phenomenon. Woertz puts this in context by looking at the much older land acquisition programs in Sudan, which he refers to as “the Sudan bread-basket dream.” He provides a fascinating case study of attempted Gulf investment in Sudanese agriculture with the expansion of mechanized rain-fed farming in central Sudan in the 1970s and 1980s. He explains why the project failed due to the clash with customary land rights and politicization. Arab land acquisition overseas has accelerated since the global food crisis on 2007/8, and Woertz describes in detail the host countries and crops targeted and the institutional mechanisms used by Gulf states to acquire land, including the major role played by the state as a facilitator in such programs. Although he outlines some of the adverse effects of overseas land acquisition, limited attention is given to this dimension of land acquisition. Ample evidence is now available, especially from the International Land Coalition’s work, which documents how land acquisition in poor countries, such as those in Africa that have weak land rights, has resulted in displacement of local people from their customary land use, without bringing the promised benefits of employment, infrastructure development, and the building of community facilities, such as hospitals and schools. Such practices threaten the already precarious food security status of host countries targeted by the Gulf states such as Sudan, Ethiopia, and Pakistan. In fact Woertz is remarkably sanguine about Gulf land acquisition overseas. He argues in one section of the book, entitled “A Land Grab that Wasn’t,” that only a small fraction of land acquired by Gulf investors has actually been put into productive use, a finding that is echoed by a World Bank study of land acquisition, and seems to suggest that this nullifies the adverse consequences. In reality, however, acquiring land by removing customary land holders, and then failing to use the land to produce food for the home investing nation, rather than constituting the win-win scenario which is often advocated for land acquisitions, would seem to be a lose-lose scenario.

In short, this is a fascinating book on the political economy of food security in the Gulf states, with an in-depth study of the so called “land grab” phenomenon from the perspective of Gulf investors. However, it presents the practice of land acquisition in an unjustifiably rosy light, and as such is a somewhat biased study.

Jane Harrigan  

Jane Harrigan, Professor of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Copyright © 2014 Middle East Institute
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Jane Harrigan. "Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East by Eckart Woertz (review)." The Middle East Journal 68.1 (2014): 179...


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