Arab countries suffer from neglect of agriculture sector

The agriculture sector in Arab countries has been neglected for some time now for various reasons, including water management.

al-monitor A farmer collects wheat in Bleeda, south Lebanon, June 7, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

water security, environmental issues, environment, arab spring, agriculture sector, agriculture

Jun 26, 2014

The agricultural sectors in Arab countries are almost neglected or forgotten in the absence of instructions for its recovery and the repair of its operation mechanisms. There may be various reasons for the situations experienced by the agricultural sectors in the various Arab economies. However, negligence or underdevelopment are obvious in the various Arab countries. Agriculture has been facing problems for a long time now, the most important of which are the decline in arable land due to desertification, drought and water shortages. These problems are related to the environment, the climate and water supply.

It is known, for example, that the Nile River reaches Sudan and Egypt; it stems from Uganda and crosses Ethiopia. Over the past years, problems emerged because of Ethiopia’s desire to build the Renaissance Dam, which reduces the flow of water to Sudan and Egypt. Moreover, there are issues of redistribution of effluent water in line with the needs of other African countries that the Nile River crosses. Egypt is haunted by serious concerns regarding these inclinations, since it heavily relies on the Nile waters, and given that over the past years and decades, its water requirements have increased due to its population increase. In Syria and Iraq, the construction of dams in Turkey on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers decreased the flow of these rivers to the two Arab countries and increased desertification in the region of al-Jazira in Syria and several regions in Iraq.

The water problem is not limited to Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Iraq but also includes Jordan and Lebanon. This confirms the importance of seriously considering sustainable alternatives to provide the necessary quantities of water for various uses and enhance the opportunities for revitalizing the agricultural sector in any of the Arab countries. This may require considering the desalination of seawater using modern technologies at adequate costs. In this respect, it will be useful to benefit from the relevant experiences of several countries and to employ the necessary funds in order to break free from the crisis of water shortages and the rising costs of its production.

While the lack of water resources is the main reason behind the inability to revitalize the agricultural sector, there are other issues related to the economic policies adopted in several Arab countries which led to the disruption of agricultural development. Since the early 1950s, and especially after the takeover of military power in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, and Algeria, the philosophy of agrarian reform was adopted. This philosophy aimed at achieving fair distribution of income for workers in the sector and was based on the distribution of land owned by major agricultural landowners to peasants.

It is worth mentioning that the processes of land distribution attempt to achieve higher goals, such as giving workers in agricultural production property rights and freeing them from the tyranny of feudal lords. However, these processes failed to create a production system that achieves efficiency of crop production and modernization of production mechanisms, and promotes the peasants’ sense of attachment to the land.

Given the lack of attention to the development of rural areas and the improvement of the levels of services, migrations took place from the countryside to the city, and sometimes to other countries in pursuit of a better livelihood.

The most important responsibilities of the economic departments include developing and increasing the contribution of the agricultural sector to the GDP in the various Arab countries, given the rising demand for agricultural goods and commodities, such as rice, wheat, corn, meat and dairy products. Arab countries suffer from an acute shortage of these basic materials, thus relying more on imports which raises the cost of imported goods, increases the deficit of the trade balance, balance of payments and the potential of the growing foreign debt. Although Arab countries have joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), none of them have achieved any significant progress in benefiting from its comparative advantages.

After Arab countries were considered key exporting countries of agricultural commodities, they have become today importing countries. For instance, Egypt was one of the most important cotton-exporting countries, and Iraq exported rice and dates until the late 1950s, while Algeria was known for exporting grapes and their derivatives. Yet, these characteristics have regressed, and Arab countries have become dependent on several countries to import their needs for food, such as EU countries that export their agricultural surplus at low costs, due to the subsidy policy that probably contradicts with the free competition and efficiency that the WTO has as a goal.

In Egypt, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP is 14.5%, in Iraq it is 3.3%, in Jordan 3.2%, in Lebanon 4.6%, in Morocco 15.1%, in Saudi Arabia 2%, in Algeria 4.4%, in Sudan 27.4%, in Syria 17.6% and 8.6% in Tunisia. So, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP in Arab countries is significantly different, probably because of the nature of the economies and the predominance of important sectors, such as the oil industry in some countries. Yet, things should not be measured by this standard that may be pro-forma. There are important countries where the contribution of agriculture does not exceed 5%, such as the US, Canada and Germany. These countries, however, have an abundant agricultural production, various agricultural products are available in their markets, and they export the surplus.

What is needed is a review of the agricultural situation in Arab countries, and how to adopt policies to revive the production, address fundamental problems — such as lack of water, the provision of funds, innovation in the production process — and to encourage the labor force to join the posts available in the agricultural sector. It may be useful to work on stimulating the private sector in Arab countries in order to establish agricultural production enterprises under modern tools and mechanisms. Moreover, the governments must facilitate the procedures and laws, and develop an infrastructure to encourage work in this sector.

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