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A Response by the Chief Executive of Saudi Star

The July 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine included an article titled “The Man Who Stole the Nile,” which detailed the activities of Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi and Saudi Star. Below we have afforded Saudi Star the opportunity to respond to the article.

Frederick Kaufman’s article in the July issue of Harper’s, “The Man Who Stole the Nile,” contains seriously damaging statements that misrepresent the work that is being done by Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi in Ethiopia and contains significant errors of fact about the activities of one of his companies in Ethiopia, Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc.

Kaufman has given a superficial account of what Saudi Star is seeking to achieve. He has failed to inform your readers of the true state of affairs surrounding a major agricultural project with important infrastructural, technology-transfer, local community, and employment benefits.

The Sheikh is the largest private investor in Ethiopia, where he provides nearly 70,000 jobs throughout the country, including in Gambella. He is a philanthropist who supports numerous projects in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, including those related to the eradication of HIV/AIDS.

For more information, I refer readers to the official website for the Sheikh at www.sheikhmohammedalamoudi .info, which contains extensive information about him and his business and philanthropic interests. It includes further background on Saudi Star, whose project in Gambella will provide enormous benefits to Ethiopia in terms of food for Ethiopia, foreign investment, and job training and opportunities for Ethiopians.

The numerous factual inaccuracies in the Kaufman article include fundamental misunderstandings about current production levels and provide inadequate and poorly researched context.

Saudi Star is not exporting millions of tons of rice to Saudi Arabia. Only 350 hectares out of a total of 15,000 that have been leased in Gambella produce rice. This initial holding and any other projected holdings do not support — by any stretch of the imagination — the claim that he is in control of the country’s agricultural resources.

Eckart Woertz, a leading independent analyst covering food-security issues, states that “Mr. Kaufman’s central claim of 1 million tons of Ethiopian rice exports to Saudi Arabia is certifiably bogus. Harper’s does not seem to have a fact-checking department, which is rather surprising for a magazine of that size” (“A Sheikh, Ethiopia and Pitfalls of Journalism,”

Samples of rice have been sent to Saudi Arabia for testing to establish whether it meets high international standards. Most rice being produced is issued free of charge to a variety of Ethiopian outlets for market-research purposes related to taste and quality. Getting seed development right is central to the long-term success of the project. None has been sold in the market to date.

Turning to claims about water use, it is inconceivable that the 10,000-hectare plot which has, in principle, been committed to rice, could use up to a trillion gallons of water. The efficient use of water resources in a sustainable way is very much part of the initial experimental phase. No assumptions can or should be made as to likely usage until the trial is completed.

Kaufman referred to our geomembrane technology but he seemed to be uninterested in its significance. In fact, this is a major piece of engineering, requiring a significant investment by Saudi Star in infrastructure that prevents water being lost through the concrete of the canal, thus minimizing any wastage.

Fact-checking is not the only failing of Mr. Kaufman in regard to Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi. No personal claims about the Sheikh are supported with evidence. The visit to Saudi Star by Mr. Kaufman seems to have been undertaken some time before publication. We have no record of Mr. Kaufman contacting any representative of the Sheikh despite there being an official website to corroborate or check claims about him.

The Ethiopian government, supported by the United Nations, encourages rice production as a “millennium food.” Saudi Star’s laudable objective is to help feed two nations, both with rapidly growing populations. One would have thought that those concerned with feeding these people adequately would support such an initiative.

Throughout the article, I detected signs of a political agenda, targeting the government of Ethiopia along lines familiar to observers of regional politics. We do not engage in political debate. Our approach is commercial and philanthropic and, as attested by the Sheikh’s website, transparent.

Saudi Star has consistently acted within the laws of a sovereign country. Emotive and unwarranted accusations seem to be based on political criticism of an African government for reasons that have nothing to do with Saudi Star or Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi.

The unpleasant tone, content, and innuendo that underpins the article is not justified and detracts from the good work that the Sheikh has devoted to this important project.

Haile Assegide
Executive Director
Saudi Star Agricultural
Development Plc.

RV There Yet?

Jessica Bruder describes the “three-legged stool” of pensions, savings, and Social Security that has historically supported our nation’s retirees (“The End of Retirement,” Report, August). Alas, with many states and corporations refusing to meet their pension commitments, and savings wiped out by Wall Street shenanigans, the third leg of the stool is often all that is left to even the best of planners. Social Security and Medicare need therefore to be expanded to ensure that our seniors can afford to live out their retirement years with comfort and dignity.

The dream of all parents is to see their children do better than they did, but no parent wants to be forced to rely on a child for support. What is wrong with America’s social-welfare system and distribution of resources when so many of our seniors are faced with that prospect or, worse, left to fend for themselves? And what does it say about corporate greed when businesses line up to exploit this unfortunate circumstance, sending recruiters in search of potential employees who should be long retired rather than working jobs that require heavy physical labor and come with minimal benefits?

Pam Bournival
Sarasota, Fla.

As a fifty-four-year-old single woman and career waitress, I have no financial security to speak of. I am, however, healthy, strong, and willing to work as long as I’m able.

For years, I’ve joked about drifting a bit in my old age, selecting my towns based on the criteria that are most important to me: scenery, weather, and a decent public library. I read Bruder’s article not with a sense of horror but with a sense of possibility. Perhaps some people snigger about “vandwellers,” as this article suggests, but there are no guarantees when it comes to money. When I read about the communities that build around these camps, I only hoped that no one turns up to ruin them before my chance comes.

S. Sherwood
Oakland, Calif.

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October 2014

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