Should Pakistan grow food for the Gulf?

June 16, 2008

Queuing to buy wheat flour in Peshawar/May file photoThis is an idea that looks crazy at first glance — Pakistan, struggling with its own food shortages and rising prices, rents out its farmland to grow grains for the rich Gulf states instead. 

But the idea appears to be gaining momentum. Saudi Arabia is holding talks with officials in Pakistan, among other countries, to set up projects to grow wheat and other grains to protect itself from crises in world food supplies. Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital has already said it is looking at investing in agriculture in Pakistan  and other Gulf countries are also showing an interest.

So is this good or bad news for Pakistan?

U.S. News & World Report says there may be ”potential for large and enduring benefits on both sides. The reported sellers of under-developed farmland, Pakistan and Sudan, for example, are poor and lack the resources to make their own land productive,” it says. “Foreign investment is meant to help the investor, but in these cases it might also help the host countries by improving roads and irrigation and, of course, providing cash.”

The Financial Times last month quoted a senior Pakistani official  as saying of the talks to sell farmland to the United Arab Emirates: “Our aim is not to do away with precious farmland but in fact to raise the productivity of our farms and turn barren land in to fertile farmland.”

On the positive side is the potential for big investments in Pakistan from wealthy Gulf economies looking to use windfall oil profits to diversify away from oil.  According to one expert, the cumulative sovereign wealth fund wealth in the Middle East is now about 1.5 trillion dollars, mostly in the United Arab Emirates; and their assets could triple or quadruple in five to 10 years time.

Pakistan also has an interest in keeping relations sweet with Saudi Arabia as it seeks a deal on deferred oil payments  to ease its own financial crisis. Is this the beginning of a new version of oil for food deals?

On the negative side are all the issues about sovereignty and economic control. And of course the perennial question in emerging markets. What will it mean for the poor man who is already struggling to feed his family.

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