The ancient Greek parable of King Midas is a powerful reminder of the limitations of singular forms of wealth, with the titular monarch discovering that the gold he craved is worth little unless accompanied by riches in other forms. As Dubai’s hosting of the World Food Security Summit demonstrates, it is an issue with which the oil-rich but agriculture-poor nations of the Gulf are keenly aware, with governments ensuring that their energy and territorial security is matched by assured access to food and water.
Few nations face this quite as acutely as the UAE, which imports 90 per cent of its food. Along with Saudi Arabia, the government has sought to bolster its food security by investing oil revenues to buy arable land in East Africa, southern Europe and South Asia. It has also sought to maximise the productivity of the farming sector in the Emirates. One example is the trialling of about 100 varieties of wheat near Al Ain in 2012 to assess which grows best in UAE conditions, while also heeding the experience of the Saudis, who through subsidies became one of the world’s major wheat growers in the 1970s – achieving a degree of food security, but at a mammoth cost in financial and environmental terms.
The government is clearly justified in making food security a priority, even though – somewhat paradoxically – the UAE enjoys many advantages. These include the financial resources at its disposal, its friendly relations with all the nations with which it shares land borders and a population that, unlike in countries like Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, is not reliant on market-distorting subsidies for basic food items. As such, the UAE’s food security challenge is primarily one of the supply chain.
The current system of world trade works well for the Gulf nations, where they earn money by exporting oil and then import food from countries rich in water and arable land that produce more than they need.
However it also demonstrates that agriculture-poor countries have a clear strategic interest in ensuring that global system remains functional and stable. That in turn underscores the need for the markets to be open and transparent, where information about factors with an ability to affect prices is freely available to all those who are involved in it. If there is a modern-day parable from this to match that of King Midas, it is that the modern interconnected world offers wealth more valuable than gold.