Letter from Gambella — From the July 2014 issue

The Man Who Stole the Nile

An Ethiopian billionaire’s outrageous land grab

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Forget about diamond heists, bank robberies, and drilling into the golden intestines of Fort Knox. In this precarious world-historic moment, food has become the most valuable asset of them all — and a billionaire from Ethiopia named Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi is getting his hands on as much of it as possible, flying it over the heads of his starving countrymen, and selling the treasure to Saudi Arabia. Last year, Al Amoudi, whom most Ethiopians call the Sheikh, exported a million tons of rice, about seventy pounds for every Saudi citizen. The scene of the great grain robbery was Gambella, a bog the size of Belgium in Ethiopia’s southwest whose rivers feed the Nile.

I wanted to get to Gambella to see the Sheikh’s plan in action. A friend of mine at the State Department suggested I contact a fixer she knew once I got to Addis Ababa. When I met Aman on my second morning there, he looked the part — blue jeans, black button-down, pin-striped jacket, dark glasses. (He asked that I not use his real name for fear of retaliation by Al Amoudi.) The backstory was good, too: Aman had been raised a devout Muslim but had grown out of religion. Now he was a writer, an editor, and an entrepreneur; his résumé included a year at an English-language business weekly, where he had been schooled in the ways of Ethiopian banking, manufacturing, and real estate. Plus, he knew Fikru Desalegn.

Fikru, explained Aman, ran the Sheikh’s rice operation in Gambella, otherwise known as Saudi Star farm. Fikru could get us onto the farm. Where, I asked, could we find Fikru?

“He’s in town,” said Aman.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His article “The Food Bubble” appeared in the July 2010 issue.

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  • Eckart Woertz

    The central claim of the article that Al Amoudi exported a million tons of rice out of Ethiopia is bogus. Unfortunately another sensationalist piece that does a disservice to a more sober and credible discussion about land grabs. For some context and numbers see http://oilforfood.info/?p=652 .

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