How Qatar’s Food System Has Adapted to the Blockade

Two-and-a-half years on from the imposition of a trade blockade against Qatar by the Arab Quartet, Qatar’s food system has undergone a remarkable transformation – but it is one that brings new risks to Qatar’s future food and resource security.

Expert comment Published 14 November 2019 3 minute READ
Cows are are fed at a dairy factory at Baladna farm in al-Khor, Qatar. Photo: Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images.

Cows are are fed at a dairy factory at Baladna farm in al-Khor, Qatar. Photo: Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images.

Earlier this month, Sheikh Tamim – the emir of Qatar – hailed the country’s success in overcoming the impacts of the embargo levied by the so-called Arab Quartet – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Qatar will post a budget surplus for the first time in three years, and the country’s long-term plan for economic diversification has taken great strides, according to the emir. Key among the achievements cited was the advancement of Qatar’s domestic food industry.

When the blockade was introduced in June 2017, it threw the vulnerability of Qatar’s domestic food supply to outside interruption into sharp relief. Qatar is poorly suited to growing food. The desert country ranks as the most water-stressed in the world. As one of the hottest, most arid countries in the world, trade is critical to feeding the nation; over 90 per cent of its food supply is imported.

Most of Qatar’s cereal imports – including 80 per cent of its wheat supply – arrive by sea from exporters including India, Russia and Australia. Sitting on the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf, Qatar’s only maritime gateway to the world is the Strait of Hormuz. This narrow body of water can, as events this summer have shown, be disrupted by geopolitical events. But for 40 per cent of overall food imports, overland trade from Saudi Arabia was Qatar’s primary supply channel before June 2017 – particularly so for dairy products and fresh fruit and vegetables coming from the EU, Turkey and Jordan.

The abrupt closure of Saudi Arabia’s borders prompted significant private investment in Qatar’s own food industry; domestic production has reportedly increased four-fold since the blockade was introduced. Prior to the blockade, Qatar imported 85 per cent of its vegetables; it now hopes to produce 60 per cent within the next three years. Perhaps even more remarkably, the country is now self-sufficient in dairy, having previously relied on imports for 72 per cent of its supply.

This progress has come at a cost. Qatar’s booming domestic industry is highly resource-intensive. To fill the gap in the dairy sector, Baladna – the country’s principal dairy producer – imported around 18,000 Holstein dairy cows from the EU and US. The company is thriving; in June of this year, it made its first dairy exports.

But the desert is not a natural environment for these cows; they must be kept indoors, at temperatures around 15°C cooler than the outside air, and misted with water to prevent overheating. The cooling systems are a huge drain on local resources. Each dairy cow requires an average of 185 gallons of water a day, almost twice the volume used by the average Qatari household. The majority of this water comes from oil- or gas-powered desalination plants; the cooling systems themselves run on gas-fired electricity.

Qatar has traditionally invested in production overseas – particularly in Sudan and Tanzania – to secure its fodder supply, but the government has plans to become self-sufficient in fodder crops such as lucerne (alfalfa) and Rhodes grass. This will require irrigation on a vast scale. Qatar’s farmland is mostly located in the north of the country where it benefits from aquifers; fodder production already accounts for half of the groundwater extracted for use in agriculture.

Despite commitments made under the National Food Security Programme to improving the water efficiency of Qatar’s food production, the rate of draw-down of these aquifers exceeds their recharge rates. Overexploitation has resulted in saline intrusion, threatening their long-term viability. With 92 per cent of all extracted groundwater given to farmers free of charge, there is little incentive for economizing on its use.

Increasing production will also likely mean increasing fertilizer use; rates of fertilizer use in Qatar are among the highest in the world, second only to those in Singapore.

Both government and industry are taking small steps to ‘green’ the country’s food production. Certain local authorities plan to ban the use of groundwater for fodder production by 2025, requiring producers to use treated sewage water instead and reserving the use of groundwater for crop production.

A number of companies are also adopting so-called ‘circular’ practices to achieve more efficienct resource use; Agrico, a major vegetable producer, has expanded its organic hydroponics operations, a move the company reports has led to a 90 per cent reduction in water use. But, with a target to produce up to 50 per cent of Qatar’s fresh food supply domestically within just a few years, scattered examples of resource-saving strategies will not be enough to mitigate the rise in water demand.

As Qatar looks to continue growing its food industry in the wake of the blockade, it is from Saudi Arabia – ironic though it may be – that Qatar stands to learn important lessons.

Saudi Arabia’s scaling up of domestic wheat production – initially to achieve self-sufficiency and then to support a prosperous export industry – was ultimately a failed effort. The unsustainable extraction of groundwater – fuelled by generous subsidies for wheat producers and the nominal cost of diesel for pumping – brought the country’s water table to the brink of collapse, and the government was forced to make a dramatic U-turn, reducing then removing the subsidies and shrinking its wheat sector.

The UAE also provides an instructive example for how domestic food production may be supported – this time positive. This summer, the Department of Environment in Abu Dhabi announced its Recycled Water Policy, laying out a policy framework to promote and facilitate reused water across all major sectors, including agriculture.

Back in 2014, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment set hydroponics as a key priority, launching a 100 million Emirati dirham fund to incentivize and support farmers establishing hydroponic farms. And the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, based in Dubai and supported by the UAE government, undertakes pioneering research into sustainable food production in saline environments.

On the face of it, Qatar has indeed bounced back from the blockade. As and when cross-border trade is re-established with Saudi Arabia, Qatar will boast a more diverse – and more resilient – network of trade relationships than it did prior to June 2017.

In addition to investment in domestic food production, the blockade also provoked a rapid recalibration of Qatar’s trade relationships. Allies in the region – most notably Turkey and Iran – were quick to come to Qatar’s assistance, delivering fresh produce by air. Since then, Qatar has scaled up its trading relationship with both countries.

It has also leveraged its position as the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas to establish new maritime trade lines with major food exporters, including India. Should tensions spike again in the future, it will be in a stronger position to weather the storm.

But, in the absence of a commitment to support the widespread adoption of circular agricultural technologies and practices, Qatar’s commitment to increasing its self-sufficiency and expanding its domestic production could ultimately undermine its long-term food security.

Rising average temperatures and increasingly frequent extreme weather events – like the heatwave in 2010 when temperatures soared to over 50°C – will exacerbate already high resource stress in the country. Unsustainable exploitation of finite land, water and energy reserves will limit the country’s long-term capacity to produce food and weaken its ability to withstand future disruptions to regional and international supply channels.

As Qatar continues in its efforts to secure a reliable food supply, it would do well to heed the experience of its neighbours, be they friend or foe.