Over the past decade Dubai has earned a reputation as a centre for agricultural development planning and, more recently, technological innovation in farming and related industries. Along with neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the emirate has played a key role in the UAE’s steadily improving food security in recent years, despite a wide range of challenges. Indeed, the UAE – an arid country with little cultivable land and long-term water challenges – is perhaps an unlikely agro-industrial powerhouse. As might be expected, the nation, like the other GCC member states, imports almost all of its food and sundry agricultural products, largely from UAE-owned farms and production sites located in other countries around the world.

Food From Afar 

As of September 2015, the UAE had invested in around 2.83m ha of agricultural projects in six countries, including South Sudan, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, according to a recent report published by Emirates National Bank of Dubai. These deals, whereby a UAE-based entity invests in a foreign tract of land for the express purpose of growing produce and exporting it back to the UAE, helped the country become the single most food-secure economy in the region in 2015, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index.

Nonetheless, this model is increasingly being understood as imperfect, despite food import dependence being the norm throughout the Gulf. “The GCC depends 70% on food imports, and subsidies for consumers might eventually disappear across the region amid tighter public budgets,” Mahmood Almas, chairman at Pegasus Agriculture, a hydroponic farming firm based in Dubai, told OBG.

Due to concerns about the country’s dependence on foreign-grown food, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s federal government are working to shore up the domestic agriculture industry. Efforts towards this include farmer and agricultural worker training programmes, the introduction of new technology and techniques, and land reclamation and redistribution initiatives aimed at ensuring that farmland remains productive in the coming years.

Innovative Turn

In this context, one of the most promising developments has been the rapid increase of investment in hydroponic agricultural activity in the GCC in recent years. Hydroponic farming, which involves growing plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, has the potential to transform not only regional food security, but to generate a considerable amount of economic growth across the region.

The technology has a handful of key benefits compared to traditional farming. First, plants grown hydroponically use up to 90% less water, and second, because soil is not required, it is possible to set up a hydroponic farm effectively anywhere.

In general, hydroponic farming allows for great control over nearly every stage of the growing process, eliminating many of the inefficiencies involved with traditional agriculture. Consequently, according to Pegasus, hydroponic crops can be grown up to 300% faster than typical soil crops, allowing for as many as 14 harvests per year and 1000% greater overall yields. Lastly, hydroponic farming requires significantly less labour than traditional agricultural practices, further boosting efficiency. “Hydroponics as an agricultural solution helps solve three main problems,” Almas told OBG. “It saves water, enables the feeding of more people by growing crops in places where it was not possible to do so before and gives self-sufficiency to regions that previously depended on imports.”

Several firms have invested heavily in hydroponics in Dubai and across the region. Pegasus, for example, began researching the technology in 2011, and by early 2016 the firm had become one of the largest hydroponic farm owners and operators in the MENA region. The company’s business model involves constructing hydroponic operations under long-term land leases with governments and landowners.