Why is the Arab world convulsing with social and political unrest when triple digit oil prices should be bringing enormous wealth to the region? The answer may be that the link between energy inputs and food prices suddenly makes soaring oil prices a double-edged sword in the world's largest food importing region.
Egyptians are about to find out that it is a lot easier to eradicate your local dictator than to feed your population. The crush of poverty is felt under the weight of a population of 80 million people who live in a country where average annual rainfall is less than two inches and where only 3% of the land is arable. Aside from a narrow strip along the life-sustaining Nile River, Egypt is basically an inhospitable desert.
Yet the population of Egypt has tripled to 80 million today from 27 million in the early 1960s. While the birth rate for an average Egyptian woman has fallen from six children to just over three, it still fuels more than 2% annual growth in the population. At this pace, Egypt's population will double to 160 million by 2050.
But the country is already importing 40% of its food supply and 60% of its grain. Even a brutally repressive regime like Hosni Mubarak's still spent 7% of the country's GDP on food and energy subsidies. Can a replacement regime afford to spend more?
Not likely, particularly when the country's oil production peaked in 1996 and has subsequently declined by 30%. Oil exports are down 50% thanks to strong demand for its subsidized fuel.
The problem facing Arab countries today is higher oil prices feed directly into higher food prices. While oil may be massively subsidized in the Middle East, it's not in major grain exporting countries such as Canada, Russia and Australia that Arab nations increasingly count on for their food supply.
From the diesel fuel that runs tractors and combines to the power needed to pump water through irrigation systems, modern agriculture is one of the most energy intensive industries. And the Middle East is the largest food importing region of the world. As the price of oil goes up, so does the price of food imports.
Egypt's problems feeding runaway population growth is not unique to the region.. They are in evidence throughout the Middle East given the masses now out in the streets in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain demanding regime change. Could Saudi Arabia be next?
Population growth in the Middle East is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of the land. Democratic reform may be what is on the protesters' lips but demographic reform is at the heart of the region's problems.