(MENAFN - Arab News) Saudi Arabia can ensure an adequate supply of food and reduce its dependence on imports by developing local production capacity, an expert said here.
Ashraf Shehata, MARS food company's regional director for quality and safety, said local production would create jobs and boost the domestic industry. He was speaking to Arab News recently at the four-day Foodex Saudi Arabia forum that started on Dec. 8.
The forum at the Jeddah Center for Forums and Events has attracted more than 300 brands from 27 countries, all seeking to get a slice of the 70 billion a year Saudi market.
"We encourage local manufacturing because this creates more jobs. There is good talent here so we can hire local people. If you set up a factory you can use packaging and other sources that are available, improve the quality and safety of the food, reduce dependency on external products and ensure food is readily available on the market," he said.
He said local manufacturing would help boost the Kingdom's economy especially with its growing population. He said Saudi Arabia has already started focusing on this with six multinational companies set up at King Abdullah Economic City.
"Food safety is a very important issue in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East because our regulations are still in the development phase. We have to catch up with the rest of the world. This is a serious issue and we neeto focus on it," he said.
He said importing food means that products often stay on the road or sea for days and weeks. If food is produced in the Kingdom, then freshness and quality can be assured.
"We also need to focus more on food science. People want to know more about what they're eating. In the past there was not that much awareness, but now it's not like that anymore, people are becoming more educated and demanding more information including where their food comes from and the ingredients."
According to a recent report by Chatham House published on the Foodex Saudi Arabia website, instability in the Middle East is the biggest threat to the Arabian Gulf's fragile food security.
The region is vulnerable because imports account for between 80 and 90 percent of food consumption in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where food self-sufficiency is unattainable due to high temperatures, low rainfall and scarce renewable freshwater sources so most of the food imports are from other countries, the report said.
The 2011 uprisings, political instability in Egypt and Syria, food price hikes and Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz have added to the risks.
"The worst-case scenario is conflict in the wider Middle East and North Africa region that disrupts multiple import routes for a sustained period," said the report entitled "Edible Oil: Food Security in the Gulf."