Primer: The Food Gap in the Middle East

As the Middle East enters the 1990s, the food situation cannot be easily captured in catch phrases like “dire emergency." Outside of the Horn of Africa, no country confronts wide-scale starvation, though poor people throughout the region face personal food emergencies daily.

Agricultural production continues to grow at a respectable rate — often better than the world average — in most of the region. Many countries have increased average daily calorie supply per person to levels equal to or better than the industrialized West. Where 22 percent of the population (35 million people) were undernourished in 1969-1970, this had dropped to 11 percent (26 million people) in 1983-1985, a ratio that compares favorably with other parts of the Third World.

Absolute Distress

Most discussion of the food crisis in Africa is a model in which subsistence economies remain essentially intact and food insecurity is a transitory phenomenon, the result of external factors such as drought or war which temporarily upset the normal balance between sufficiency and dearth. My experience suggests that in Sudan subsistence economies have all but disappeared. Food insecurity no longer defines one or another period but is a constant condition of the market economy that has come to dominate the country.

Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

The Fate of the Family Farm

Samir Radwan and Eddy Lee, Agrarian Change in Egypt, An Anatomy of Rural Poverty (London: Croom Helm, for the International Labor Organisation, 1986).

Alan Richards, ed., Food, States and Peasants, Analyses of the Agrarian Question in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986).


These two books are welcome additions to the sparse literature on recent agricultural development and agrarian change in the Middle East. Neither makes easy reading, but students of both economic and social change in the Middle East (mainly Turkey and Egypt) and agrarian change in general will find them useful.

“Food Security”

As Egypt’s dependence on food imports has increased, so has the cry for food security. The phrase “food security” (al-amn al-geza’i) can have several meanings in Egyptian policy debates. It is usually taken to mean either “hedging against fluctuations in world food prices” or “increasing domestic production of food crops.” The Ministry of Agriculture has recently been renamed Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.

The Language of Food

“I went down to Cairo with a little wheat in my pocket and they had the red carpet out for me there…. I was speaking the language of food and they understand.” — US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, 1974


For more than a decade now, the political embrace of Washington and Cairo has directly affected what Egypt’s 45 million people eat and how much they pay for it. Once a leading granary for the entire Mediterranean, Egypt today is one of the largest food importers in the world, and one of the largest markets for US agricultural exports. Each year more than $4 billion worth of imported food comes through its ports. About one quarter of this comes from the United States.

Public Law 480: “Better Than a Bomber”

The US food aid program originated in 1954 as a means of disposing of costly domestic agricultural surpluses. In that year, Congress passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, known as Public Law 480. PL 480 enables food-deficit “friendly countries” to purchase US agricultural commodities with local currency, thus saving foreign exchange reserves and relieving US grain surpluses.

Iraq’s Agrarian Infitah

Egypt’s infitah is finding an echo in Iraq. The Iraqis are grappling with many of the same problems which caused the Egyptians to adopt such a policy: the shortcomings of public sector manufacturing and of collectivized and semi-collectivized agriculture. As in Egypt, the sudden and dramatic rise in oil revenues made it possible to consider far more than minor rearrangements. The sudden surge of revenues also made it possible to allocate investment capital to an emerging private sector without taking it out of the budgets of the public enterprises. Skilled labor shortages in both countries required new approaches in agriculture and industry.

Sudan’s Economic Nightmare

Ten years ago, Sudan was described in a Food and Agriculture Organization report as a potential “breadbasket of the world.” Hopes for the development of Sudan’s economy were running high at the time: the investment of Arab oil-generated revenues in Sudan's agricultural sector seemed to hold immense promise. Vast quantities of hitherto unused arable land could be brought under cultivation. This would transform the Arab world from an area of food deficit into one of food surplus, laying the basis also for the development of extensive processing industries in Sudan.

Gabbay, Communism and Agrarian Reform in Iraq

Rony Gabbay, Communism and Agrarian Reform in Iraq (London: Croom Helm, 1978).

Modern Iraqi history suffers from a lack of monographs and case studies on subjects such as rural affairs. Rony Gabbay’s research helps to fill this vacuum, at least in the area of social and political developments in the countryside and their relation to communism and agrarian reform. Published in 1978, even today Gabbay’s is an important source for the history of the Iraqi Communist Party.

Women and Labor Migration

Women are now the heads of between 25 and 35 percent of all households in developing countries. [1] In the Middle East and North Africa, women head about 16 percent of all households. [2] One main reason for the increasing number of households headed by women is male migration to seek work outside their own countries, unaccompanied by their wives and children. When male villagers from Egypt emigrate, they do so without their families. [3] For one thing, a large number emigrate illegally, with neither official work contracts nor legal residence in countries of employment. It is much easier for them to move alone and leave their families behind.

Egyptian Migration and Peasant Wives

In the 1960s, Egypt supplied the labor markets of the Middle East with professionals and administrators seconded by the government. Carefully regulated and controlled, the export of labor was consistent both with Egypt’s policies in the area and with its own manpower needs. In the 1970s, government-seconded labor was overtaken in volume by a huge and largely unregulated flow of labor at all skill levels. By 1975, Egypt had overtaken Yemen as the major exporter of labor in the area, and its share of the total Arab migrant labor market had reached one third. By 1980, Egypt had at least doubled its migrant stock, an estimated 10 percent of which are women.

Divisions in the Kibbutz

Israel’s kibbutzim, each a block of neat cottages built round a communal dining room, have always concerned themselves with more than the shared tilling of soil pioneered by Jewish settlers in 1911. Since the prospect of a spring election appeared in the autumn of 1982, kibbutz members have been preparing their customary campaign on behalf of factions in the Labor opposition with which they are affiliated. Well organized and articulate, they have provided Labor with campaign bases, public speakers and leading political figures.

Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran

Eric Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.)

Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran

Eric Hooglund, Land and Revolution in Iran (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).

Social Bases for the Hama Revolt

During the first week of February 1982, serious fighting broke out in Syria between residents of the north-central city of Hamah and the government’s armed forces. A Syrian army raid on a number of buildings that were suspected of being hideouts for local cells of the Muslim Brothers precipitated the fighting. Brother militants foiled this operation using modern small arms and grenade launchers. They then attacked a variety of government installations, including the Hama headquarters of the police and of the Baath party, and also the airfield on the edge of town. By the second day of the fighting, mosques in some sections of the city broadcast calls for a general uprising against the country’s rulers.

The Arab Economies in the 1970s

The 1970s were undoubtedly the most dramatic and important years in recent Middle Eastern history. The decade began politically with the death of Nasser, the formal withdrawal of the British from the Gulf and the first sharp increase in the price of oil. Oil — its production and marketing, its revenues, its social impact — was at the center of the economic transformation of the region. By the end of the decade, most Arab oil regimes (with the exception of Saudi Arabia) had nationalized their reserves and producing facilities and taken formal control of pricing and rates of production. Huge sums of money accrued to the major oil exporters, encouraging mammoth infrastructural investment and equally massive labor migration to the Gulf states and Libya.

Capitalism in Rural Iran

Parvin Ghorayshi: Fred Halliday has suggested in the chapter on agricultural development in the first edition of his book, Iran: Dictatorship and Development, that the Iranian state successfully imposed capitalist relations on the rural areas by means of a land reform. While I agree that rural Iran experienced a growth of capitalist relations as a result of land reform, I cannot agree that these relations became predominant, as Halliday claims: “In general, one can say that the Iranian countryside is now a capitalist one. Pre-capitalist features must certainly survive: Old cultivation methods, old attitudes and old unreformed ownership patterns do not disappear at once.

Egypt’s Agriculture in Trouble

The horrendous state of the Egyptian economy is a principal factor underlying Sadat’s willingness to address the Knesset in Jerusalem and to make major concessions at Camp David and since. Multiplying shortages, deteriorating infrastructures, and spiraling foreign debts comprise the economic news on Egypt. A central component of this domestic impasse is an acute agricultural crisis; for if agriculture flags, Egypt falls. Agriculture accounts for some 45-47 percent of total employment, for some 30 percent of gross domestic product, and for more than 50 percent of exports. Further, more than 50 percent of Egypt’s industry consists of agriculturally based sectors such as textile and food processing.


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