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I2U2: America’s answer to curbing China and upping food security

US president Joe Biden and Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid attend the first virtual meeting of the I2U2 group with leaders of India and the United Arab Emirates Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
US president Joe Biden and Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid attend the first virtual meeting of the I2U2 group with leaders of India and the United Arab Emirates

Israel, India, the US and the United Arab Emirates came together on Thursday for an historic meeting as the “I2U2” collective.

The futuristic name refers to the first letters of the four countries.

US president Joe Biden and Israel’s prime minister, Yair Lapid, lent the initiative a maiden boost, joining a four-way call in Jerusalem with their Indian and Emirati counterparts, prime minister Narendra Modi and UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. 

“This unique grouping of countries aims to harness the vibrancy of our societies and entrepreneurial spirit to tackle some of the greatest challenges confronting our world,” read a joint statement from the four leaders issued by the White House. 

Analysts say that I2U2 will strengthen Biden’s hand in tackling perceived security threats – both regionally and globally.  

“There had been talk before President Biden’s trip about the formation of some type of Arab Nato, particularly in light of Russian aggression and renewed fears about Iran. I see these as motivating factors,” Courtney Freer, a Fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University, told AGBI. 

The expert added that countering China’s influence in the Middle East and Asia is also a factor in driving forward greater cross-regional cooperation.

But while improving security is a key goal of the I2U2, the partnership is also being touted as an economic catalyst. 

Notably, the UAE has pledged $2 billion to help develop a series of “food parks” in India to tackle food insecurity in South Asia and the Middle East. 

The parks would bring farmers, processors and retailers together using advanced climate technology to minimise waste, conserve water and maximise crop yields, focusing at first on potatoes, rice and onions.

Biden said the investment could “increase India’s food yields in the region three-fold in just five years”.

“The deal is talking about tech parks that are going to integrate processes to improve the quality and transportation of food,” Bobby Kapoor, director at UAE-based Cartalyst Food Solutions which provides food and hospitality advisory services.

“For the first time we’re going to have a cold chain and food production system which, even if just doubled, means India can be the food basket for the world, not just for the UAE.

“A small country like Israel has gone about creating yields and harvests of tomatoes which in terms of volume is about four times what one hectare of land produces in India.”  

Meanwhile the Gulf, which imports around 90 percent of its food, has suffered serious supply chain disruptions amid the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Economic problems from the pandemic, climate change, food insecurity and volatile energy markets, Biden said, had been “made worse by Russia’s brutal and unprovoked attack” on Ukraine.

“All these issues require cooperation and coordination, and none of us can mount a comprehensive response on our own,” the US president said.

“This is going to help not just the Indian economy but also make sure that sustainability is key moving forward for the world,” Kapoor noted. 

“At a grassroots level, for farmers and uneducated classes, if we go about giving those people an option for developing the volume for production then that is a real development for an economy like India’s.”

Ruchir Punjabi, co-founder of Distributed Energy and renewables.org and chair of the School of Policy and Governance in India, stressed the importance of prioritising food security and sustainability in the current climate. 

“Having some positive resolutions assures wheat and other food item supplies between these different countries,” Punjabi said. 

“In some ways it’s an easy win because all of these countries have the ability to control who they export to and manage the level of those exports.

UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and India's prime minister Narendra Modi joined the callCreative Commons
UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi joined the call

“We do know, for example, that despite India banning wheat exports to other markets, they still continue their exports to the UAE. So there are already strong concessions being granted on a bilateral basis.” 

Approximately 3.5 million Indians live in the UAE today and the country’s $2 billion commitment to build integrated food parks in India is a reflection of the strong and growing relations between the two nations.

“Amidst tackling climate change, it is amazing to see nations come together to solve the global food insecurity and food wastage crisis,” Joel Michael, founder, Oceans & Us, said. 

“This will foster innovation around sustainable food production, food delivery and food waste reduction in India.

“The UAE is driving similar initiatives within the country under their Food Security Agenda, encouraging startups to develop solutions in foodtech and agritech.

“Climate change is an unbiased global problem that can only be solved by nations coming together. The I2U2 is leading by example.”

The I2U2 is resonant of the “Quad”, a four-way partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the US that, as of June 2022, pledged to extend more than $50 billion in infrastructure aid and investment in the Indo-Pacific over the next five years. 

“I2U2 looks a bit like the West Asia Quad,” Punjabi said.

“There’s this idea of wanting to have America and its allies cooperate. Usually, these alliances are security focused but I think India’s intentions are primarily economic. 

“Often these alliances are created with a view of having regional security.

“There’s obviously a close alliance between China and Iran, there’s the Chinese influence in Africa.

“I2U2 is trying to make sure that they build a strong dominant force in West Asia and around the Suez Canal because that’s such an important part of world trade.”

Just like Quad has become a central pillar in the Indo-Pacific, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan has said that I2U2 will likely become a feature of the broader Middle East region.

However, some foreign policy analysts are more circumspect. 

“I am a bit sceptical about how much this group can do, given how broad-ranging its agenda is, given that these states still have different geopolitical considerations, and given that oftentimes these initiatives change with a change in administration,” Emory University’s Freer said.

“For instance, President Trump proposed MESA as a so-called Arab Nato – an idea that was never realised but became linked to him rather than to American foreign policy writ large.

“A lot will depend on the extent to which rhetoric is followed up with action and continued engagement, something which could in turn be affected by geopolitical considerations and developments on which these countries may disagree.” 

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