Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Saudi Land Grabbing...Then and Now

Although it has now been a week since the event, I wanted to respond to the workshop that was recently held at the Kevorkian Center on Toby Jones's book project. As noted in Matt's post Toby Jones is a professor at Rutgers who is just completing a project on the social and political implications of Saudi Arabia's oil development on its local populations. As Jones explained, the study is an effort to re-present the story of Saudi modernization in a way that captures the experiences of local populations as the country transformed itself into the 'techno-state.' Jones only presented one chapter of the book, which examined the impact of Saudi Aramco's oil excavations and the Saudi state's land cultivation policies on the Shi'a population of Al-Hasa. The observations he made in this chapter had, in my opinion, some very concrete present-day analogies to a number of overseas Saudi investments that have recently been made in farming, irrigation, and agriculture.

Because the draft is, as yet, unpublished I won't cite directly from his text. But to paraphrase, Jones makes the point that in the 1960s and 1970s the Saudi state was concerned with its ability to feed its population. The country's largely arid land made food scarcity a major social and security issue, and Saudi statesmen were reluctant to rely too heavily on imports of foreign foods. Self-sufficiency in agricultural production became a major development dilemma. The state cast about for ways to resolve this problem and settled on the oasis of Al-Hasa, which had, among other things, abundant water resources. Saudi central planners decided to irrigate the land surrounding Al-Hasa and expand its potential for food production. In 1971 it launched the Al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Project in an effort to put 20,000 hectares of land to agricultural use using an elaborate network of canals, equaling 2,000 miles in length. Jones's point was that in executing this project and seeking to impose technical and scientific control over the region's natural resources, the state simultaneously imposed political control over the people who lived there. In this case, the will to control water and land translated into a desire to control people, and the territory of Al-Hasa was transformed not just physically but socially and politically as well.

The connection I saw to the present day was to a recent drive on the part of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (as well as several East Asian countries) to acquire and develop land in poor developing countries for the purpose of food security and agricultural self-sufficiency. The motivations for these acquisitions are identical to those that propelled the development of Al-Hasa: fear of dependence on volatile foreign food markets, desire for self-sufficiency and independence, and a recognition of the limitations of local cultivation. In Saudi Arabia the decision to invest abroad was precipitated by the government's decision to scuttle a massively expensive and inefficient program of wheat cultivation, involving huge government subsidies and the use of desalinated water for irrigation. Instead the Saudis have turned to their poor neighbors -- Ethiopia and Sudan -- buying hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for bargain basement prices with the intention of sending all or most of the agricultural proceeds back home, free from anxiety-inducing local tariffs and volatile prices. The general manager of one of the Saudi firms pursuing a deal in Sudan remarked cheerfully about the deal: “The area is big, the people are friendly [and] they gave us the land almost free!”

Thankfully these initiatives have not gone without scrutiny from a number of development experts and INGO officials, who have raised all kinds of red flags about the problems inherent to these deals. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, justifiably raised the prospect of a "neo-colonial" system based on food production and resource exploitation. Even the relatively pro-FDI Economist outlined a number of potential issues that could arise with foreign countries or companies owning and cultivating land in poorer countries: corruption as the deals are often government-to-government, distortion in food prices, lack of transparency, an overall increase in food protectionism, and the erosion of security and property rights of existing landowners.

Although the last grievance alludes to the kinds of issues raised in Jones's paper, the question of long term impacts on local populations has rarely been raised in the discussion of these land deals. When local farmers or landowners are discussed it is often within the narrow context of property-rights and fair-price accounting in the terms of the acquisitions. This is potentially where the case of Al-Hasa may have something interesting to tell us. The scale of these investments is far greater than that of the proposed Al-Hasa irrigation project (the Saudi's goal of 20,000 hectares was never reached). Saudi has now bought 450,000 hectares of foreign land. The UAE has bought over 700,000 and Qatar just slightly less than Saudi. Just like Saudi used "private" companies to develop Al-Hasa it is stepping back and allowing ostensibly private-owned companies to conduct these deals. What will happen to the local populations living on the massive swaths of land when these companies come in and begin imposing new methods of production, irrigation, technical management, and control? Will the desire to control nature once again manifest itself as a will to control humans? Will modernization and the imposition of technocratic know-how manifest itself in irreversible social reconfigurations and political manipulations? And what are the implications (geopolitical, social, security etc.) of having foreign companies imposing control and technocratic power over the citizens of another state? These are the questions Jones asked in his paper and they are ones that development and foreign policy experts ought to be asking today about a set of investments whose implications we may not fully comprehend for many decades to come.

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