Review: Oil for Food

M. Ruth Dike

Eckart Woertz. Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East. Oxford University Press, 2013. iii, 268 pp.

Eckart Woertz discusses various courses of action that governments in the Persian Gulf took in order to improve their countries’ food security after the 2008 global food crisis in Oil for Food. The extremely well-researched book takes a historical and political economic approach to examine food security in Gulf countries at a regional and national level. Throughout the book, Woertz moves from the origins of food security concerns in the Middle East during World War II to various efforts to become self-sufficient through mechanized agriculture; later he traces agro-investments in developing nations from the 1970s to the present. Ultimately, Woertz argues that Gulf food security hinges on Gulf countries’ ability to pay for external food imports, rather than self-sufficiency through agriculture, which has proven untenable due to water scarcity.

Chapter one discusses the current food security issues in the Gulf—mainly the rising prices of food on the international market, the importance of low food prices for political legitimacy in the Gulf, lack of water for domestic agriculture, lowering water tables, and the import dependence of food items by country. In part one, chapters two through four give a twentieth-century history of food security in the region. Setting the stage for future food security concerns, chapter two explains the food shortages before World War II and famines in the Gulf, which were only averted during the war due to supplies from the Allied Middle East Supply Center in Cairo. In chapter three, Woertz analyzes the industrialization of agriculture in the Gulf after World War II, emphasizing the use of irrigation and mechanization. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia tried to become self-sufficient in wheat consumption with the launch of various industrial farm projects. Chapter four focuses on food as a political weapon, mainly in relation to US-Middle East relations. The US withdrew subsidized food aid from the Food for Peace program in the 1960s to influence Egyptian foreign policy, threatened food embargos after the Arab oil boycott in the 1970s, and considered a “Grain OPEC” to increase its political leverage. However, in the 1980s, the US tried to distance itself from its former policies and threats by depoliticizing food trade in hopes of stimulating commerce. The UN’s decision to embargo Iraq during the 1990s posed a serious threat to Iraqi food security and served as a severe warning for surrounding Arab countries.

Part two focuses on the Gulf’s global interactions in relation to food security. Moving outside the Gulf region, chapter five discusses Arab investment in farmland in Africa and Asia, despite various potential setbacks like Chinese and Western investors competing for the same land, global climate change, ecological degradation, population growth, and potential conflicts with local stakeholders. Honing into a specific context, chapter six analyzes the failed 1970s attempt to make Sudan the Gulf’s personal breadbasket. Despite this, history seems to be repeating itself with new calls for land investments into Sudan in response to the 2008 global food crisis and potentially the announcements of a government-sponsored dam project and “agricultural revival” program in the 2000s. In addition to Sudan, Woertz also examines land investments in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and the Philippines, despite these countries’ inabilities to provide enough food for their own citizens, in chapter seven. Investments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar are emphasized due to their institutionalized agro-investment policies, which are frequently implemented through sovereign wealth funds. Moving from publicity to reality, chapter eight focuses on the discrepancy between ambitious announcements of agricultural land investments throughout the world compared to relatively modest action on the ground. This is largely due to the difficulty of working in underdeveloped nations, ecological constraints, and a general resistance from local grassroots organizations despite upper-level government officials’ desire for foreign investment projects. In order for the Gulf countries to ensure food security in the future, Woertz argues in chapter nine that Gulf countries must diversify their economies. Woertz recognizes that self-sufficiency based on domestic agriculture is impossible in the Gulf due to low water levels. Domestic policies should be instituted to maintain water levels, curb overconsumption, and stretch the life of oil reserves, in order to be able to pay for imported food over the long run.

This book adds to the dearth of food-focused books about the Middle East. It does an excellent job of connecting disparate strains of political and economic policies, organizations, and actions into a coherent narrative. Despite the book’s focus on larger government-instituted policies, it does not fail to recognize the importance of more local desires of people near and on agro-investment lands in developing countries. The book also provides valuable insight into the historical and psychological reasons for a fear of food insecurity in the Gulf. However, some readers might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of details provided. A wide variety of students and scholars would find this book to be interesting and useful for their studies, but it would be most useful for policymakers, graduate students, and faculty seeking to understand food security in the Gulf. This book is also important for any scholar in food studies or social sciences interested in food security, land grabs, historical examples of food as political weapon, and geopolitical aspects of food sovereignty.


Ruth Dike is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. She was born and raised in Memphis, TN, and holds a BA in honors anthropology from the University of Tennessee Knoxville and a MLA in gastronomy from Boston University. Her dissertation examines how working in open-air informal markets and formal supermarkets differently shape women’s physical and socioeconomic positions in society and their homes.

Download a PDF of this review.