For some countries in the region drought, high population growth and social tension will be an explosive combination over the long term. Add to that serious short-term concerns about nutrition and other crises that arise regarding problems of unsustainable development. An example of this was the food price jump of 2007 to 2008, which sent an urgent message to states in the Arabian Peninsula: when nutrition once again becomes expensive — maybe in the next two to five years — economies must be better prepared.
Viewed in this context, water is a major issue that now seems to be taken more seriously. For example, Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest economy and also the biggest geographically, will phase out water-intensive cereal production by 2016 since non-renewable fossil water reserves are being depleted. Instead, Saudi agriculture will re-orient to crops such as fruits and vegetables using water-saving technologies, including greenhouses and drip irrigation. Such a shift will help to ease the tough demography-hydrology combination, as the combined population of Saudi Arabia and her five neighbors of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) will soar to nearly 60 million by 2030.
All this poses a threat to food security, as major food import dependence — currently 60 percent of total demand — grows in the GCC states. Fortunately, they can afford to throw money at the crisis in the short term. The poor man of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, does not have that luxury. The country suffers from severe levels of food insecurity, including lack of income to access and buy food and inadequate national safety nets. Last year it even looked as though Yemen was losing further ground as the share of poor people in the total population may have increased by six percent due to the rise in food prices that began in late 2007 and peaked in mid-2008. Steps taken by the government to ameliorate the effects of high food prices last year included one-off distribution of wheat, flour and seeds.
In the end, these measures succeeded in staving off disaster until the eventual fall in prices eased the situation. At the same time, the crisis was an eye-opener that is prompting Yemen to look at sustainable long-run solutions to its nutritional balance. During 2009, targeting and overall efficiency and effectiveness of the food safety net is expected to improve, based on a similar model being applied in Jordan.
Yet, unlike the latter, Yemen is classified by the United Nations as a Least Developed Country, one of the few dozen poorest in the world. The UNDP ranks Yemen very low on the Human Development Index, which leaves the country vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices.
The economy relies heavily on oil, which in recent years accounted for around 70 percent of government revenue and up to 90 percent of the value of exports. However, oil creates few jobs directly. Generating non-oil growth and addressing unemployment is therefore a key to reducing poverty. Meanwhile, oil continues to drive the economy as growth in agriculture and manufacturing remains modest. At the same time, fuel is subsidized by the state and is being sold domestically below international prices. An additional challenge may arise as projections indicate that the oil production will decline and barring discovery of major new reserves, Yemen could become a net oil importer by 2012.
Yemen’s gross national income per capita is less than a quarter of the average in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and its GDP growth has steadily been falling. Inflation has been averaging 12 percent since 2002, rapidly increasing the cost of living. Poverty in rural areas, where about 72 percent of the population resides, remains high at 40 percent. The Global Hunger Index ranks Yemen 80 out of 88 countries analyzed, indicating an alarming stage of food insecurity. While other MENA countries have seen significant improvement according to this ranking, Yemen’s score has not changed between 1990 and 2008. Almost half of the population is below 15 years of age, implying increased pressure on economic development to provide jobs and basic services, so the drive for food security should also be supported by policies to lower demographic growth. Yemen has the highest population growth rates in the MENA region, with a current annual increase of 3.1 percent (about a third higher than the average for Least Developed Countries) and a projected increase of 2.3 percent annual average until 2050.
In conclusion, an insecure food situation in Yemen will increase discontent and could even aggravate political security. Sitting at the doorstep of the GCC countries, the latter cannot afford to see Yemen degenerate into another Afghanistan, sapped by poverty and insecurity, in nutrition or otherwise.
Riad al Khouri is senior fellow of the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor