The two-month war between Russia and Ukraine has disrupted global food supplies, exposing the fragile state of food security across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike those Mena nations struggling to secure cargoes of wheat and other staples, the UAE is in a better position, even though it currently imports 80 to 90 per cent of its food, thanks to its forward-looking food strategy during the past several years.
Behind the UAE's success in developing a global-scale food production and distribution capacity is the country's National Food Strategy 2051, first announced in November 2018 by Minister for Climate Change and Environment Mariam Almheiri. The plan has informed the UAE's acquisition of agricultural and food production assets from South America to South Asia.
The Emirates' geo-economic strategy begins under the soil, with the drive to become a global player in the production and distribution of fertiliser – the basic key to food security responsible for the enormous crop yield increases of the 20th Century's green revolutions in Latin America and Asia. To attain global scale, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) entered into a joint venture with Dutch fertiliser producer OCI NV, merging their fertiliser operations to form a new global fertiliser giant Fertiglobe.
In October 2021, Fertiglobe raised $795 million in the third-largest IPO on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange and became the largest export-focused nitrogen fertiliser platform in the world. The company is the largest producer in the Mena region, with a combined annual output of 6.5 million tonnes of urea and ammonia, both essential inputs for fertilisers. Fertiglobe operates OCI's subsidiaries in Algeria and Egypt as well as Adnoc's fertiliser subsidiaries: Fertil, in the Ruwais Industrial Zone, and Egypt Basic Industries Corporation (Ebic), a major ammonia producer near the port of Ain Sokhna on the Gulf of Suez.
In the first six months of 2021, Fertiglobe’s largest customers, in order, were the US (16 per cent), Australia (12 per cent), India (10 per cent), Spain (9 per cent) and Ethiopia (6 per cent). Following the UAE's focus on sustainability, Fertiglobe is now becoming a key player in green ammonia, with Adnoc’s Ebic manufacturing green ammonia using green hydrogen as a feedstock, produced using power from Egypt's renewable energy resources.
Fertiglobe is also partnering with Emirati clean energy leader Masdar and French multinational Engie to determine the feasibility of developing a green hydrogen facility in Abu Dhabi to be operational by 2025. The new facility would supply green hydrogen to Fertil’s ammonia facility as a feedstock for the UAE's own local production of green ammonia.
Above the ground, the Abu Dhabi-based holding company ADQ is playing the primary role in advancing the UAE's national food strategy. The workhorse of ADQ's food production subsidiaries is the global agribusiness firm Al Dahra, which has acquired about 300,000 acres of productive agricultural land across Romania, Serbia, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Namibia and the US, along with additional agricultural assets in South Africa, India, Pakistan, China and Australia. Al Dahra is a key producer of animal feed, cereal grains for human consumption, fruits and vegetables and dairy products.
Back home in Al Ain, ADQ's Al Dahra produces organic foods including vegetables, dairy and chicken. In August 2021, ADQ also announced its intentions to build a new 200-hectare Agtech Park in Al Ain to boost domestic food production, using cutting-edge agritech to farm more sustainably through the efficient use of scarce water resources. The Al Ain project is the pilot of a larger effort to attract and develop agritech operations near the special economic zones of the country's ports. ADQ also operates the company Silal to manage food offtake and strategic food reserves. In line with this mission, Silal also promotes technology transfer of agritech and related technologies for desert farming to support small farmers in the UAE to increase their fruit and vegetable yields.
Moving from the farm to the fork, ADQ is the majority shareholder Agthia Group, known to consumers in the GCC, Turkey and Jordan for a variety of iconic brands such as Al-Foah dates, Al Ain tomato paste, Al Faysal baked goods and Nabil frozen foods, among others. Like Al Dahra, Agthia also operates Agrivita is also a key producer of animal feed in the Middle East.
In a major breakthrough to expand the UAE's presence as a power player in global food markets, ADQ acquired in September 2021 a 45 per cent share in the global food commodity trading giant Louis Dreyfus, whose 2020 net sales totalled $46.9 billion. ADQ then further expanded its global footprint in 2022 by acquiring a majority stake in Unifrutti, the vertically integrated fruit company whose production operations in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Spain, Italy, South Africa and the Philippines produce 560,000 tonnes of fresh fruit that the company sells in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
ADQ has also invested $2bn in the Abu Dhabi-based retailing conglomerate Lulu Group, operating in 22 countries and known in the Gulf and Asia for its hypermarkets. Lulu, primarily managed by Indian emigres from Kerala, has been part of the effort to create a massive, $7bn India-UAE “food corridor” to further ensure the food security of the Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries. Lulu along with major Emirati participants DP World, Emaar Group, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Sharaf Group are establishing a dedicated logistics infrastructure that connects India’s farms and farmers through the entire value chain to the UAE’s ports and markets. With Mena nations now looking to India as one of the few suppliers that can fill their wheat shortfalls, the India-UAE food corridor project has proven itself prescient.
On April 1, 2022, the UAE concluded talks on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Israel, a global leader agritech and desert farming. A close partner of India, Israeli agricultural companies have already transformed the Indian farming and water management sectors, boosting India's crop yield significantly. An Emirati-Israeli partnership in agritech could be one of the early fruits of the Abraham Accords that could help the Emirate's global food hub aspirations to bloom.
All of this adds up to a large, global picture of the vertical integration of an entire system that encourages domestic food production while ensuring staple food imports to the UAE. Through striving to ensure its own food security, the UAE has, in fact, emerged as a leading international food provider, with global operations in all stages of the food production supply chain from farm to fork.