For more than two years, Mariam al-Mheiri had been preparing for a crisis. So when aeroplanes stopped flying into the United Arab Emirates as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the Middle East in March, the country’s first food security minister knew what was expected. She had to guarantee that her desert nation, which imports 90 per cent of its food, was going to be able to keep supermarket shelves fully stacked.
While planes sat idle at the nation’s shuttered airports, she called an extraordinary meeting of the UAE’s nascent Food Security Council. Early warning systems were adopted and the movement of “strategic” food items — from cereals to rice and vegetables — was monitored inside and outside the country. Overseas diplomatic missions were put on alert in case food exporters imposed export restrictions. And a plan to diversify food imports was quickly passed on to UAE traders with a clear mission to identify alternative markets.
When planes did return to the skies to repatriate foreign workers to the likes of India, Pakistan and the Philippines, they came back loaded with food. “There were days when certain foods were not coming into the country . . . but we always managed,” Ms Mheiri says. “The leadership reassured the people and said ‘food and medicine is a red line for us, we will take every measure to ensure you always have access to what you need.’”