How Artificial Intelligence and Robotics can Help the Gulf Become Food Secure

Joseph Dana

At its core, food security is a function of water availability. The Middle East – particularly the Arabian Gulf states – does not have nearly enough fresh water, and therefore is also food insecure. While water insecurity can be mitigated by technology, it is impossible to intervene against nature to sustainably create enough fresh water to also supply large-scale agriculture: the type of farming needed to fill supermarkets and feed a growing country, rather than boutique horticulture that supply farmers’ markets. It is true that there have been creative technologies crafted to address food insecurity. But they suffer from a fundamental problem in the Gulf: they replace one set of resource demand with another, a commodities shell game that still ends up with a deficit. But there just might be another way around this. Think, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Much has been said about urban farming techniques, such as vertical agriculture. Equally, reams have been written about innovation in water usage in agricultural production and ways to reduce the environmental impact of large-scale industrial farming. But the sum of all these initiatives won’t guarantee the Gulf’s food security. It would be great for the environment if we could design meat alternatives made out of wheat. But for any country that already struggles to produce wheat, such a development does nothing to establish food security. While it might seem simple – that innovative agricultural techniques using modern technology could allow Gulf countries to grow their own food instead of importing it– the problem is one of scale. It is a lot easier to feed 1 million people using vertical farming techniques than 10 million.

That is where the Gulf finds itself in this evolving debate. It is hard to pinpoint exact percentages, but Gulf countries import the overwhelming majority of their food. This happens through traditional imports (think about all the Australian beef in regional supermarkets) and also by countries purchasing large tracts of arable land around the world. In East Africa and Central Asia, for example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have purchased land and agribusinesses to ensure control over their food sources. This model has been successful, but it is a fundamentally insecure method of establishing food security. For example, even though Saudi Arabia may own plots of land in Kenya or Kazakhstan, there is no guarantee that its private holdings won’t be nationalized by a future government with a strong populist tilt. Or if at times of a food crisis the output from those farms won’t be reserved for the home nation.

And then there is politics. Take Turkey. The country has ample water and arable land and has been a key exporter of food to the Gulf. But last year, when several countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to sever ties with Qatar, Turkey was effectively forced to pick a side. It chose Qatar and doubled its food exports to the tiny country.

Gulf countries must think outside the box. And the key is to stop considering the problem only as a supply-side issue – that is to say, that an increase in the number of supply sources will ease the problem. Instead, consider the demand side.

Barring Saudi Arabia, Gulf nations have small natural populations as a result of the environment. But because of the demands of a modern economy, they have all had to increase their populations to operate the levers of commerce. That, however, was the requirement of a 20th-century economy. If instead Gulf nations were to look to re-engineer their economies to the timbre of the 21st century, they would find that they need fewer people from abroad to help generate the same amount or more of GDP.

With advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics, many of the jobs occupied by low-skilled foreign workers could soon be replaced by machines. Developments in the AI space are simply impossible to ignore. Amazon, for example, just opened a grocery store in Seattle that has few physical employees. Imagine if these stores came to Dubai, along with gas stations that required no attendants. The reduction in population would be immediate and dramatic. A transition toward greater dependency on AI and robotics in every sphere of life in the Gulf will reduce the number of foreign workers needed, and thereby reduce the demand for food.

The Gulf benefits greatly from its guest-worker programs, and the reduction in low- and mid-skilled workers through the embrace of AI would signal the beginning of a new chapter in the development and sustainability of the Gulf. In this new world, workers – fewer than before – would be brought in with the high-level skills required to help build and maintain a genuine knowledge-based economy. Most analysts argue that replacing low-skilled jobs with AI and robotics will encourage higher productivity growth. And this is exactly what the Gulf needs.

Countries that have faced energy insecurity have correctly positioned themselves to lower demand. In so far as food security is concerned, that won’t work for countries with large natural populations. But Gulf countries are different. Hitherto, they have had to supplement their small native populations with a large imported labor force to sustain a 20th-century economy. Now, the time is ripe to rethink that economy along the lines of the 21st century, with AI and robotics reducing the need for labor while increasing the value of output. The technology to allow for this transition exists. Reengineer the economy, and you reduce food insecurity.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.