- - Monday, November 6, 2017


If U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is looking for a venue to bring the feuding American allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) under one umbrella, he should look no further than the recently launched Doha-based international organization called the Global Dryland Alliance (GDA).

The GDA is the brainchild of Qatar’s young amir, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. At a speech to the 68th U.N. General Assembly in 2013, the amir of Qatar outlined his country’s vision of becoming an active partner of like-minded states and global organizations to guarantee food security to more than 3 billion people living on drylands spread across 50 countries.

At its official launch last month in Doha, the GDA’s executive director, Bader al-Dafa, who served as Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, outlined the aims of this humanitarian effort as follows: to find sustainable solutions for food insecurities that oftentimes leads to instability and war, and to facilitate partnerships between the private and public sectors to finance and implement programs and projects for dryland countries in all fields related to food security.

According to Mr. al-Dafa, improving food security and nutrition in dryland countries will contribute to reducing poverty and promoting sustainable agriculture development. Indeed, by 2030 food demand is expected to rise by 50 percent compared to current rates, and meeting these needs requires increasing the area of arable land from 175 to 220 million hectares. In fact, the world’s population is increasing by 200,000 each day and thus the challenge is clear: Food production should increase by 70 percent in order to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

The recent visit of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley to South Sudan highlights this challenge: Despite spending $10 billion to support South Sudan since independence, 100,000 are on the verge of dying from starvation. In fact, according to the U.N., close to 20 million people in dryland countries are at risk of starvation. The moral imperative to address the global challenge of food security is clear.

Just as Christians around the world are encouraged by their faith to “love thy neighbor” so too are Muslims. A central tenant of Islam is “sadaqeh,” or charity. And herein lies the diplomatic opportunity for Mr. Tillerson; namely, to enjoin the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and UAE to set aside their current differences with Qatar and focus on cooperating with Doha to perform a “global act of sadaqeh” based on their own Muslim faith.

Whether the U.S. will be successful in rallying its Arab allies around the noble goal of addressing the global challenge of food security, it is important for Washington to support the vision and mission of the GDA. For starters, Mr. Tillerson and his staff should assist to register the GDA with the U.N. as an international organization. Mr. al-Dafa has made it very clear that the GDA will act as a compliment to existing U.N. organizations but with more transparency. In short, unlike some U.N. agencies that waste donor money, the leadership of the GDA is committed to being a good steward of every dollar it spends.

Second, even though as a founding member, Qatar will fund the efforts of the GDA for the next two years, Washington should encourage wealthy nations to donate funds to the GDA with a specific mandate for the rapid improvement in relevant food security technologies and their swift dissemination. Here American universities that are working on cutting-edge technologies in the field of water purification, enhancing crop yields and harnessing higher efficiencies from solar panels can partner with the GDA. Imagine the impact of a Qatar-funded breakthrough in crop yields by an American university on the life of a farmer in South Sudan or Somalia.

Third, Washington should encourage American companies such as Minnesota-based Kays Naturals (that make long-lasting high-protein bars) to establish a manufacturing hub in Qatar so as to allow its lifesaving products to be shipped in cases of emergency to dryland nations. This can be a joint U.S.-GDA initiative since America’s largest prepositioning military base, Al Udeid, is based in Qatar.

And last but not least, the United States should lend its support to a joint GDA-World Bank global tree-planting campaign in dryland nations. According to Yale University’s School of Forestry, trees store a huge amount of carbon and are essential for the cycling of nutrients for water and air quality. Using drip irrigation technologies developed by researchers at Yale University and Israel to cover dryland nations with trees, cannot only help stem the tide of starvation, but it can lower the temperatures in these regions, thus allowing for sustainable agricultural development.

America’s allies Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and UAE have correctly pointed out the importance of fighting Muslim extremism, and the U.S. has in turn agreed with their legitimate stance. At the same time, America’s other regional partner, Qatar, has created a forum to address a moral and human challenge: providing food security for those less fortunate. The Global Dryland Alliance provides an excellent platform for the U.S. to encourage its regional allies to join Qatar in this noble cause.

• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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