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Middle East: Hungry and Angry

09/04/2008

There is undoubtedly a looming food crisis in the Middle East (see for example here and here for similar Israeli and Lebanese views.) Food prices will continue to rise, Middle East population increase will continue to outstrip the capacity to feed it, and water will not be more plentiful. Add to that the immediate prospect of rising unemployment due to worsening world economic conditions and you have a very volatile mix. The problem is not limited to the Middle East. It affects Africa, South America and south Asia as well - the entire world poverty belt, and it is not really a new problem. In fact, the major ingredients of catastrophe have been in place for years, and should have been evident to everyone, yet nobody raised a warning flag until now. Economics is a generally boring and discouraging subject. It is only of political interest when the disaster is upon us and nothing can really be done to stop it.

The current crisis rise in food prices however, is due to a short term trend. It was caused by bad weather coupled with an ill-judged rush to grow corn to be used in processes creating an alternative fuel and the irrational volatility of oil prices. In the immediate future, there is some good news. EU experts predict record crops in Europe, North America and Australia that will drive down the price of food. At the same time, the mysterious forces that caused the price of oil to rise to unjustified levels, are now forcing it back down again. The speculators made their money by floating fake rumors about attacks on Iran and other foul means. They are cashing in and leaving the market.

Still, the more fortunate countries need to pay more attention to the price of food and put in place mechanisms for emergency relief. We cannot depend on good weather every year. The crisis that might be averted this year will surely come next year or the one after that if nothing is done. We do not even want to contemplate the human tragedy and political havoc that would be caused by famine in the Middle East and far Asia. The G-8 and other affluent countries, including and especially the petroleum rich Gulf states, have to understand that ensuring an adequate world food supply is a top national and international priority, and that the situation has become urgent because of neglect and irresponsible market-dominated policies. Market behavior is determined by those who can pay. But those who cannot pay can change the rules by rioting, bombing, burning embassies and government buildings and generally causing chaos. What the market economists and Middle Eastern oligarchs will not do because of the dictates of their hearts, they will be forced to do at the point of a Kalashnikov.

In the longer term, it is clear that the shortages of food and water will reach critical levels as populations continue to expand and economies do not keep pace.

We should not fall into the trap of believing that a fixed land size can support only a fixed population. The European and American experience has been that development increases the capacity of the land to support increased population at the same or better standard of living. The land is not a closed box with finite capacity for population. Rather, capacity is a function of development and investment. The experience of Israel proves the case for the Middle East. British experts in the 1930s insisted that the Palestine mandate could never absorb more than a million immigrants. They could see only the capacity limitations imposed by an underdeveloped agrarian economy and a fixed water supply. Since then, the population of the land has increased more than five fold, and people enjoy a better standard of living than they did in 1930, even in the troubled West Bank and Gaza Strip, by every possible measure. A million dunum of Israel's scarce land reserves were rescued from swamp land status and converted to productive farmland. To be sure, there is no magic. More water is used in one day in present day Israel than was used in all of the year 1948, and the water supply is running out. Obviously, semi-arid Middle Eastern countries cannot depend on their own agriculture for food, but rather need to develop industrialized economies that can produce goods to trade for food that can be grown much more cheaply in other parts of the world. The Saudi Arabian experiment in growing wheat has apparently not proven to be economical. It is better to sell oil and financial services and buy wheat from countries blessed with abundant rain. Still, countries like Syria and Turkey are underutilizing their land reserves and could benefit from mechanization, irrigation and land-redemption programs.

Increasing the water supply has been named again and again as the major headache of the Middle East, and analysts regularly predict water wars. The water shortage is not yet really such a bad monster as we think. At this stage it is a technical and political problem. The problem can be alleviated by osmotic desalination as well as pumping and export of water from water-rich areas like Turkey. But these schemes cannot really be expected to provide an infinite amount of water for an ever-growing population, and they are somewhat expensive. Israel's National Water Carrier project was deemed not practical by experts in the 1930s. They were right in the 1930s, because the Palestine economy did not produce enough of anything to pay for the water. Expensive and cheap are relative to the capacity of the society to pay. Of course, it is absurd to try to grow wheat with desalinated water if abundant crops can be grown from rainwater elsewhere in the world. It makes sense to design economies that are geared to create value from local resources that can pay for the food. Oil rich Gulf countries should have no difficulty paying for desalination programs, and the capacity of others to pay will grow with their economies.

Another and vital ingredient in saving the Middle East from famine and poverty is population control. Industrialization requires a change in outlook from an agrarian society in which life expectancy is short and many progeny are needed to cultivate fields by labor intensive methods. In European and North American countries population grew more or less as capacities of the economies grew, and population growth was still moderated by relatively poor medicine. Attitudes to large family size had a chance to adjust to new conditions. The Middle East benefited from these medical advances, but attitudes to large family size have not yet had a chance to catch up. Moreover, there is little or no room for 19th century type labor intensive industries, which cannot compete with automated factories. A large young work force in 19th century Germany and the United States meant cheap labor for new industries as well as a "surplus" that invited wars. A large young work force in Middle Eastern countries amounts to a lot of hungry mouths and potential recruits for terror groups, because there is no agriculture to feed them and no industry to employ them. Population increase rate has been slowing in many Middle Eastern countries, but countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories are still making babies much faster than they could possibly make food for them. Unless government and society take a more active role, the family planning revolution may come too late to save these countries in particular from hunger and chaos.

The European and American industrial revolution also produced a revolution in literacy. Industry requires an educated populace. Education is as important a resource as water, if not more important. But most Middle Eastern countries are still far from the 95-99% literacy rates that are needed for a modern economy. The problem is related to the population increase difficulties, since the major gaps are usually in female literacy. Uneducated and unliberated women stay at home and have babies rather than contributing to the work force. The education problem is probably the most crucial and neglected one. It cannot be solved in a day or a year, and it cannot be solved simply by investment of money or use of better technical gadgets. It is hard for some to understand that teaching people to read grows food and helps the economy more surely than tilling a field, but it is a fact. The education shortage is far more important than the water shortage.

Rami Khouri is right to point out the need for Arab government planning. Arab governments however, cannot do it alone. They can provide for education and desalination. They can and must form an Arab Marshall plan program that invests the oil wealth accumulated by the Peninsular and Gulf countries in development, education and population control programs throughout the Middle East. It is absurd to expect that the nearly bankrupt United States and the EU will continue to subsidize development in the Middle East while Saudi and Kuwaiti sheikhs accumulate billions and give a trickle of aid for "charity."

A global effort is required as well. It is self-satisfying but pointless to blame "globalization" for the rise in the price of food or to put down the energy crisis to the greed of oil sheikhs. Poor allocation of resources and shortsighted greed are certainly responsible for some of the problems of the Middle East, but they are a constant that cannot explain the rise in the price of oil from $10 a barrel to $140. The rulers of the Gulf states did not become more greedy now than they were when oil cost $10 a barrel. It was not due to a commensurate increase in demand during that time, or a real shortage, as indicated by the current rapid slide in prices.

Globalization is a fact. It needs to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Globalization is only a problem if market forces are allowed to run rampant with no regard for social consequences. Globalization can create global havoc, but globalization also gives us the tools to control and plan the food and energy supply of the world on a rational basis. An international body for example, should be investing on a large scale in increasing the grain producing capacity of areas like the Ukraine, which probably still have a huge untapped potential judging from their yields. Investment in mechanization, "over-capacity," improved transportation and good storage facilities can reduce spoilage, regulate against famine and ensure an adequate food supply even in bad years. If "the market demand" requires an increase in the price of grain, then that increase will have to be paid, but it cannot be paid by those who haven't any money. In the past, the United States bought grain and threw it out essentially, to keep the prices high. It is more rational and humane for rich countries - not just the United States - to buy grain and give it to those who need it, on a much larger scale than is being done presently. If the rich countries do not want to subsidize grain, they can either face the social consequences or work to create economies in poor countries that can afford to pay for the grain. Likewise, rationalization of energy policy on a global scale can regulate demand as well as supply, control prices against cynical speculation, accumulate surpluses as a cushion against weather scares and political scares, and invest oil profits in finding alternative energy supplies.

The world, and especially the Middle East, have been gleefully celebrating the downfall of the United States, pontificating about punishment of the US for its supposed sins, and planning the mayhem that the mice will do as the cat presumably gets older and feebler. But the real consequence of the American enfeeblement is that others have to take responsibility, not just grab power. UAE should stop wasting money on artificial islands and consider how to create wealth for others. Iran should stop pouring money into nuclear weapons development and use it feed their people. Iraq is going to have to break out the nest egg of unused US development funds, or whatever is not already in someone's Swiss bank account, and use that money to feed its people. If Egypt is worried about its economy, it should ask the US to convert the $2 Billion it gets annually in U.S. military aid, or at least a part of it, into economic development funds.

We have a suspicion that none of this will happen. Rami Khouri, who can't connect the dots too well, followed his warning about food with another column that "explains" that the corruption, despotism, incompetence and stagnation of Arab world governments are all due to colonialism of the West. This is a typical Middle East lament. Colonialism ended quite a while ago. The Arab world has collectively adopted the psychology of the middle aged failure who blames his inadequacies on the toilet training given him by his parents in days gone by. India and China and Malaysia were all victims of the very same colonialism, remember? Get over it.

The pattern is familiar. The "intelligentsia" of the Middle East will continue to whine about globalization and colonialism, the Western countries will continue to vilify the Arab oil sheikhs, and when chaos and famine break out, as they inevitably must, everyone will be satisfied as they can blame the problems on someone else.

The problem could be solved, but it is really questionable whether it can be solved in time, and whether the different international players can put aside their narrow interests long enough to understand the need to cooperate and to take urgent measures. With no food, there will surely be no peace.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000713.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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