No-one is prouder of our country’s achievements than I am. It’s been my life’s joy to watch it grow into an exemplary nation in just about every field of endeavour. As you know, the UAE aspires to be the best. Our government consistently adopts a ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude and, in partnership with our people, has produced a miracle of ingenuity, respected by the region and the world.
We are truly blessed with an abundance of everything and this is why it pains me deeply to hear of anyone struggling to feed himself and his family due to rocketing prices. In this country of plenty no-one should have to go hungry.
There are several reasons why we as a nation have been surprised by this predicament. The fact that our currency is pegged to an ever weakening dollar inevitably means the purchase of imported foodstuffs (the UAE imports 85 per cent of its food) inevitably takes a bigger and bigger chunk out of household budgets.
Whether the peg should remain or the dirham should be unhinged and floated is a matter for the Central Bank to decide.
Secondly, we are facing a global food shortage due to greater demand from prospering developing countries, such as India and China; drought brought about by a lack of rain in some regions, as well as diminishing agricultural land. Some experts say the effects of global warming are having an adverse effect too.
Moreover, in the US and Europe, cereal crops are being turned into bio-fuels such as ethanol, so as to reduce dependency on petrol. It’s a universal truth that when demand exceeds supply prices rise.
In short, this is a global problem exacerbated in this part of the world by a faltering dollar. However, as an affluent country we are more fortunate than others, such as Mexico, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Yemen, Pakistan and Morocco, where shortages of staples and price hikes have triggered protests or street riots.
In some countries prices have risen by up to 40 per cent in recent months and doubled since this time last year. According to the Emirates Society for Consumer Protection, food prices here rose by 30 per cent in 2007.
This trend has led to worldwide panic buying and hoarding, worsening an already bleak picture. Unfortunately, unscrupulous traders have taken advantage of this escalation to increase their own profits.
We cannot dictate the cost of imports, while government price-fixing, as some have suggested – and which Russia and China have recently imposed - would go against the free market principles we have always held so dear. But this does mean we should deal with the current crisis by shrugging our shoulders and hoping for the best.
So what can we do to alleviate this situation in the UAE?
In the short run, the government should commence urgently subsidising such staples as flour, rice, cooking oil, ghee, cheese, milk, tea, sugar, baby food and fuel, electricity and water. Indeed, the Emirates Society for Consumer Protection has appealed to the government to do just that. The Government at the same time should exercise active control and supervision of basic commodities pricing through an effective system.
The private sector should as well start taking responsibility and do its part by supporting charitable organisations that are actively helping the needy of the local and resident population.
Pakistan has recently taken measures to reintroduce ration cards enabling the poorest to buy subsidised flour, while Egypt has broadened the scope of its rationing system for the first time in 20 years. We need to take this challenge just as seriously.
In Egypt, subsidised food is available to all nationals but only the poorest sector generally takes advantage of it. With a population of over 80 million and 20 per cent living below the poverty line, subsidies account for 7.5 per cent of Egypt’s US$431.9 billion GDP.
The population of the Emirates is a drop in the ocean compared to Egypt’s and with a GDP of US$186.2 billion we are more than capable of caring for the less fortunate among us for however long this emergency lasts.
In the long run, the government might consider setting up food co-ops, where people can buy healthy, no-frills, inexpensive produce, and expanding the country’s agricultural sector. It might also be worthwhile for the UAE to assist its neighbours in expanding their own in return for assured long-term imports of essential commodities such as wheat, barley and maize.
This shock should serve as a warning. When it comes to food we must be as self-sufficient as possible for besides drinking water it’s the one thing nobody can do without. To this end, we need long-term strategies to ensure the well being of future generations in an increasingly populated world.
In the end, what is the use of being justly proud of architecture, infrastructure, hotels, malls and luxury housing if even one person in this country is forced to sleep on an empty stomach or one child is malnourished?
Our Rulers have been known for their compassion and generosity in the past. They spared no effort in lending a hand to the needy people around the world. Therefore I have no doubt in my mind that they will act now to ensure the availability of inexpensive food to those in desperate circumstances.
If anyone can do it, we can…and we must.