Soaring food prices have prompted the UAE to draw up plans for a major farm project in Sudan – and other wealthy Gulf nations could join the Emirates in tapping fertile fellow Arab countries to slash a widening food import bill.
The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD) said it would invest in a large farm project in northern Sudan to produce fodder in its first stages before it is expanded to grow wheat, corn and potatoes.
The project in Nile State, one of the world's most fertile areas, will cover nearly 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres), just less than half of Bahrain's area.
Officials said the project, which could also involve the UAE private sector and other investors, was part of the UAE's efforts to face soaring food prices and ensure jobs for nationals in other Arab countries.
"This project will support the Sudanese people as it will create jobs for them," ADFD acting director-general Mohammed Saif al Suwaidi said. "It has an area of 70,000 hectares and will primarily produce fodder to ensure enough supplies for the local market following a surge in global demand because of the increase in demand in China and India… this has led to a steady increase in the consumption of fodder in the UAE."
Suwaidi said the project would be a joint venture with UAE investors and the Khartoum-based Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development (AOAD), an affiliate of the Arab League, grouping most Arab countries.
"ADFD will later study plans to grow corn, wheat, potatoes and Sudani nuts."
Sudan, dubbed the Arab food basket, has the largest arable land in the Middle East, exceeding 70 million hectares. But only a portion of the land is exploited because of lack of financial resources and persistent conflicts. Gulf states, the world's richest in oil but poorest in water, have long considered investing in agricultural projects in Sudan, Iraq, Syria and other fertile Arab nations to meet their fast growing farm demand because of their rapid population growth, estimated at seven per cent in some members.
But they have been dissuaded by conflicts in those countries, inter-Arab disputes, previous fiscal woes and other commitments by the Gulf countries.
The high growth in the GCC countries' population, now estimated at 36 million, has allied with a steady rise in farm prices, poor water sources and relatively small arable land to sharply boost their food import bill.
"I expect other Gulf states to follow the UAE example," an Abu Dhabi-based analyst said.