AAPI Op-ed: Multilateral Cooperation to Address Food Security

December 01, 2022

The historic Abraham Accords agreements have the potential to transform the Middle East by providing opportunities for sustainable solutions to the urgent challenge of food security.

Even prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, addressing food insecurity was a major priority for numerous MENA countries, which are among the driest in the world. Approximately 60 percent of the Middle East and North Africa’s population already live in areas under severe water stress, with drought and inefficient use of water leading to the loss of millions of hectares of arable land to land degradation. Climate change has exacerbated this challenge, contributing to historic heat waves and sea level rise that further reduces the availability and productivity of fertile land.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has increased the threat of acute food shortages. According to the World Economic Forum, “countries in Africa and the Middle East in particular are heavily dependent on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine.” Both Egypt and Sudan import over 75% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Even countries that do not directly import agricultural products from Russia and Ukraine are at risk of higher food prices as a result of the diminished supply and enduring disruptions to supply chains caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Water scarcity, drought, and dependency on international food markets undergoing the double-shock of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine increase the risks of not only malnutrition and starvation, but also poverty, political instability, and conflict. In 2010-2011, a surge in the price of food exacerbated pre-existing grievances, leading to political unrest in countries across the region. A few of the countries that fell victim to the resulting insecurity are still dealing with the demographic disaster and armed conflicts that resulted. 

It is an imperative of all governments to ensure that their populations are adequately fed. And all Abraham Accords countries (including Egypt and Jordan) share an interest in domestic and regional stability. The Abraham Accords have created an unprecedented opportunity to address food security challenges at the convergence of its members’ interests. Specifically, the Abraham Accords provides an opportunity to combine the unique capabilities of its members to tackle the pressing food and water security challenges the region faces.

All Accords countries are aware that they must invest attention and resources in order to avert that the threat to stability presented by food insecurity. However, it is often difficult, and at times impossible, to address the greatest challenges to the MENA region’s food security through independently pursued ventures. It is therefore unsurprising that Accords countries have begun to cooperate to improve food security on a bilateral basis. In May, the Israeli Innovation, Science and Technology Minister and the Moroccan Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Innovation signed an agreement to collaborate on water desalination, desert technologies, food processing technologies among other areas. In October, the agriculture ministers of Israel and Bahrain signed a first-of-its-kind agreement to boost bilateral cooperation in agriculture, livestock and food security. Also in October, the Moroccan national institute of agronomy and Israel’s Volcani center of agricultural research agreed to enhance cooperation, and exchange experience and know-how in farming and agricultural research. The private sector has also gotten involved. In June, the Israeli air-to-water company Watergenannounced a new three-way partnership with Baynunah, a sister company of the Emirati food security agriculture group Al Dahra and the Moshe Mirilashvili Institute for Applied Water Studies at Tel Aviv University.

However, as is the case in sectors such as energy, healthcare, tourism, and education, the real potential of the Accords lies in multilateral Abraham Accords ventures that take advantage of the relative strengths of each country. Joint commercial agricultural ventures can be established that involve leading companies and investment agencies from Accords countries to implement agricultural projects beginning in Abraham Accords member nations such as Morocco and Sudan, before expanding. A realistic model for such a venture could involve collective capital investment involving Accords country sovereign wealth funds, Moroccan fertilizer, and Israeli irrigation and agricultural technology. Such initiatives could also build on the memorandums of understanding that have already been signed to collaborate on R&D and the training of domestic workers. 

Such ventures would help Accords countries achieve their shared goal of addressing the food security issue, thereby improving the lives of citizens and preventing political instability. But an additional benefit would be that successful agricultural projects in Accords countries would demonstrate the enormous potential of collective action and thereby strengthen the Abraham Accords themselves. By providing food for domestic consumption as well as jobs, such joint ventures would demonstrate the tangible benefits that normalization with Israel has brought, thereby combatting skepticism and declining support for normalization. Ventures in Sudan, whose relations with Israel remain relatively undeveloped due to domestic instability, can help stabilize the country and secure its membership in the Accords. Additionally, successful agricultural ventures that provide measurable benefits to Accords members could incentivize other countries facing similar challenges to consider the benefits they could reap by normalizing relations with Israel

The Abraham Accords Peace Institute recently visited Sudan to identify viable opportunities for Accords countries to cooperate on commercial projects that would improve food security in the region. AAPI was joined by representatives from the World Food Program and OCP Africa, with the latter intending to establish an office in Sudan. Such initiatives are only the beginning. If Accords countries work together, they have the potential to meaningfully address perhaps the greatest challenge facing the region today.