By Omar Obeidat

DEAD SEA –– Arab officials and experts on Tuesday voiced concern over rising food prices in global markets and stressed the need to achieve food security and reduce Arab countries’ reliance on importing basic commodities.

Outgoing Minister of Industry and Trade Amer Hadidi remarked that annual food imports of the Arab world are around $50 billion, calling for Arab countries should adopt economic and agricultural policies to develop the agricultural sector in the region.

Hadidi, who resigned yesterday along with the rest of the government, stressed that Arab countries should work to attract investments in food industries, indicating that investments in the food manufacturing sector in Jordan, which employs around 35,000 people, reached over $2 billion, while local food exports were around $1 billion in 2010.

Hadidi made the remarks at the first Arab Food Industries and Franchising Forum, which was held at the Dead Sea yesterday and was attended by Kuwaiti Minister for Commerce and Industry Ahmed Rashed Al Haroun and Saudi Minister of Commerce and Industry Abdullah Ben Ahmad Zainal along with other officials and private sector representatives from several countries.

During a panel discussion, Khalil Abu Afifa, director of the Arab Councils and Organisations Affairs at the Arab League, highlighted that indicators show that the supply of basic food items in the Arab world is expected to fall short of the expected increasing demand, which will worsen the situation in Arab countries.

“Although the Arab world enjoys natural and human resources, countries did not invest in the agricultural sector which caused a gap in food supply and demand,” he said.

Afifa blamed lack of funding to the agricultural sector for the low food production in the region, saying commercial banks adopt cautious lending policies to finance agricultural projects due to risk factors.

Haroun, the Kuwaiti official, said as rising food prices have become a global issue, Arab states should focus on achieving food security and self-reliance.

Stating that natural disasters in major food supplying countries such as Russia and Australia have affected countries around the world and prices of cereals and sugar are expected to go up even further, the official said. Arab countries, which import 90 per cent of their food needs, should find ways for reaching food security.

Haitham Jaffan, president of the Arab Federation of Food Industries, noted that the Arab market has become the favourite destination of global food manufacturers, saying many recommendations related to increasing food production have been referred to governments in Arab states but nothing has been achieved.

Elias Assouad, CEO of Tecmo Group, a food company, called for establishing an organisation or a ministry in all Arab countries to be in charge of securing food for all the people of the region, stressing the decisions of such an entity should be obligatory to all states.

“It is about time to take tangible and important decisions and not to only discuss and talk,” he said.

There are massive areas of agricultural lands and huge water resources in some countries that suffer financial constraints, while there are some rich Arab states that have the money but not the land or the water, he said, adding that there are also other countries that have the skilled labour.

“If we all work together we can produce food products with a cost of less than 10 per cent than that of the items we import,” he emphasised.

At the two-day forum experts and officials will discuss issues related to the future of food industry and franchise opportunities, investment, economic challenges facing the Arab world, and the role of scientific research among others.