Food security: The Gulf Cooperation Council states in dire straits

Food security: The Gulf Cooperation Council states in dire straits

Heavily reliant on food imports via maritime shipping, the Gulf States are facing an increasing risk: chokepoint risk. The Arabian Peninsula is indeed surrounded by strategic maritime straits which determine market access of GCC countries to vital commodities. The increasing vulnerability of such chokepoints to climate change is likely to increase food supply uncertainty in the region.

Maritime chokepoints and trade on the Arabian Peninsula

In a recent report, the Centre for Climate and Security identified maritime chokepoints as key elements of the geostrategic landscape that can be viewed as “a valuable and scarce natural resource, subject to increasing demand, finite supply, and few affordable alternatives”. In 2015, UNCTAD estimated world seaborne trade volumes to over 10 billion tons – a record in maritime transport.

When considering geopolitical chokepoint risks, the Arabian Peninsula stands out at as a region surrounded by some of the most critical straits to the continuous movement of goods in the world, with the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Manded Strait to the West, the Strait of Hormuz to the East and even the Turkish Straits in the North. Such a high degree of chokepoint exposure, which determines market access for most countries in the region, has been highlighted as a cause for concern by Chatham House.

The Persian Gulf is traditionally associated with oil trade, being the world’s leading oil-producing region. The Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) export 85% of their oil production to East Asia through the Strait of Hormuz. The oil volume shipped everyday through the strait is estimated to 17 million barrels a day – about 35% of all seaborne oil exports according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Food import dependency in GCC states

Often overlooked, however, is the impact of such chokepoint exposure on food security in the Arabian Peninsula. Between 80 and 90 percent of existing food supply in GCC states is imported, and the prospects for food security in the region are dire. The import dependency ratio of all MENA countries – except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco that have a sizeable agricultural sector – exceeds 30 percent, with Oman and Yemen reaching about 50 per cent; Gulf countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates reach up to 70 percent.

The pressure on renewable water resources in the Arabian Peninsula is such that technological adaptation measures such as desalination are not sufficient to respond to a growing demand exacerbated by population growth and urbanization. GCC countries already exploit up to 500 per cent of their total freshwater resources  according to Aquastat; demand is expected to exceed today’s sustainable water supplies by 40% in 2050, and precipitations over the region are expected to decline by 2050 due to climate change.

Geopolitical chokepoint risk: The example of Qatar

In addition to natural and demographic pressures, food supplies to the Arabian Peninsula are subject to geopolitical risk. Over a third of grain imports to the MENA region pass through at least one maritime chokepoint for which there is no alternative route. As a consequence, exerting control over a maritime or local chokepoint can become a political stake.

The recent crisis in the Gulf revealed such vulnerability. Qatar, the richest country in the world based on purchasing power parity of GDP per capita in 2016, was challenged by the regional blockade imposed by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE in June 2017 as 40 percent of its food imports entered the country across the Saudi border. The reliance of Qatar on maritime chokepoints is even more worrisome: 80 percent of its cereal imports transit through the Strait of Hormuz and 30 percent of its wheat imports come from Russia through the Turkish Straits (see figure).



In a region where national security and food security have always been intertwined as a consequence of water depletion, foreign land acquisitions and virtual water (i.e., the water required for the production of the imported agricultural commodities) imports have been widely used for decades by oil-rich countries. The Gulf Cooperation Council has indeed been quite active in establishing partnerships with other countries of the MENA region, such as Jordan, Morocco and most recently Sudan. At stake in the GCC-Northeast Africa relationship are also arable lands, enabling GCC countries to feed their population through massive agricultural investment in the Nile valley. The Gulf crisis has however highlighted the stark reality of chokepoint exposure in a region where a political crisis could rapidly turn into a major food security emergency.


GCC countries are well aware of their dependency on the same handful of maritime chokepoints. Amongst several market-oriented strategies established by Arab countries to increase their self-sufficiency in food, increasing storage appears to be one of the most viable solutions to reduce their exposure to both the volatility of crop prices and chokepoint risk. Even though it is not a panacea, the willingness of governments in the MENA region to expand their storage capacities to as much as 17 months of consumption is a reform aimed at ensuring a more sustainable management of resources would mitigate the aforementioned risks.

About Author

Constance Hubert

Constance Hubert is a research assistant for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Her areas of interest include international political economy, the security-development nexus in sub-Saharan Africa and investment on emerging markets. She holds a M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in International Affairs and Economics and a masters degree from Sciences Po in Strategy and Risk Management.