- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

The U.N.’s lead food aid agency said yesterday it has raised the money to cover an emergency funding shortfall due to soaring world food and fuel prices, thanks in large part to a last-minute $500 million donation from Saudi Arabia.

Officials of the Rome-based World Food Program (WFP) warned earlier this year they would be forced to cut rations and curtail programs for the world’s hungriest people if the donor countries did not cover the funding shortfall.

The combination of surging prices for many staple crops and record-high energy prices has produced a global food crisis that has strained the resources of national governments and international aid agencies alike.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Saudi grant “unprecedented in size and generosity,” adding, “It comes not a moment too soon, given the needs of millions of people dependent on food rations.”

“We turned to the world to help the hungry and the world has been generous,” said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

The Saudi donation represented more than half of the $960 million in emergency funds pledged to the WFP by 32 countries. U.N. officials say the Saudi offer was made on Thursday.

The U.N. agency had asked for $755 million on top of its approved budget of $2.9 billion for 2008. The original funding level proved inadequate as world prices for rice, wheat, soybeans and other crops jumped by an average of 40 percent since late 2007.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment on the donation, but the kingdom and other oil-rich Middle Eastern states have come under fire for their failure to help ease the global food crunch even as the price of a barrel of oil was regularly hitting new highs.

The price of oil climbed above $135 a barrel this week — up from $73 a barrel in May 2007.

But Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, was not even on the list of donors for the World Food Program this year, according to a recent report on Fox News. WFP records for 2008 listed the United States, Canada, the United Nations, Japan and Sweden as the top five donors.

The top donor among the OPEC oil-producing nations was United Arab Emirates, tied for 43rd place with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund with a $50,000 donation.

But a number of Middle Eastern countries, heavily dependent on imports, face food woes of their own. There have been bread riots in Egypt and countries across the region have been forced to raise subsidies to keep consumer prices from rising too quickly.

As a region, the Middle East is the world’s largest importer of wheat. And Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries have said they are considering purchasing farmland in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia to ensure adequate food supplies.

Saudi Arabia late last month hosted a meeting of Arab agriculture ministers about ways to deal with rising food prices. Ministers at the meeting discussed a regional approach to the problem.

“There is an intention to set up an emergency fund to support Arab countries that suffer from the rise in prices of food products,” Jordanian Agriculture Minister Muzahim Muhaisin told the Jordanian state news service after the Riyadh meeting.

A WFP delegation met with Saudi King Abdullah in November to discuss what the two sides called a “strategic partnership.” At the time, the Saudi government said it had contributed $40 million to WFP humanitarian operations in the previous year.

President Bush released $200 million in emergency food aid for the world’s poorest nations last month and has requested $770 million to deal with the crisis in the coming fiscal year, which begins in October.

But some Democrats in Congress are pushing to add another $200 million in emergency food aid, arguing that the new money sought by the president won’t be available before the new fiscal year that starts in October.

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