QAT191216JW001DOHA – Thirty-one months after five Arab states imposed a sea, air and land blockade on independent-minded Qatar, there are clear signs that the embargo has failed. It might even be strengthening the country of nearly 2.9 million people in the Persian Gulf.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain moved to punish Qatar for supporting a wide range of Arab opposition groups in the region, from dissident liberals to the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s ongoing diplomatic and trade ties with Iran were clearly the root of the tensions.

Today, the IMF forecasts that Qatar's real GDP growth in 2020 will slightly edge out its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"We are not a poor country,” said Ahmed Al-Khalaf CEO of International Projects Development Company, a food importer. “After Saudi Arabia closed the land border to trucks and the UAE prevented ships from sailing here from the container port at Jebel Ali, we could have flown in caviar by airplane and fed our people with that."

The gas-rich emirate has a sovereign wealth fund valued at $320 billion. The largely Sunni Muslim country is also hosting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The quadrennial event is expected to be a bonanza of construction and tourism.

Their wealth has helped them pursue a food self-sufficiency campaign while diversifying their trade relationships, replacing the Gulf neighbors that imposed the embargo. In 2018, despite the embargo, American, Chinese, South Korean and other investors. Turkey , Iran, India and Pakistan rose in the place of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as sources for imported consumer goods.

"We didn't take the caviar route," said Al-Khalaf. "Planes moved quickly to airlift vegetables, fruits, meat, and the required dairy products. And at the same time, we stepped up investment in local food production."

Qatar's harsh climate, sandy soil and water scarcity challenge its food security, especially when in growing green vegetables. Al-Khalaf is tackling those issues at his company's farm in Al Khor, where hydroponic greenhouses yield lettuce, mint, eggplants and tomatoes.

"Qatar is now meeting 30 percent of its requirements for vegetables, and if we can get full support from the government, we can make that 80 percent within three years,” said agronomist Fahd Bin Salah, whose farm has grown from around 5 acres in 2017 to 74 acres today.

The government has not released figures for the cost of its food self -sufficiency effort. The Qatar National Vision 2030 plan forecasts a state outlay of $16.4 billion for infrastructure and real estate investment over the next four years that could include the campaign.

Qatar was also a market for Saudi, Emirati and other consumer products. Before the blockade, Qatar imported around 60 percent of its pharmaceuticals from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and 80 percent of its dairy products from Saudi Arabia, according to WHO?.the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in Doha.

"Ironically, their actions ended up encouraging us to build this dairy which we had up and running within five months," said Ramez Al-Khayyat, 35, whose company is overseeing the construction of Khalifa International Stadium, one of the main venues for the World Cup.

Videos of the Al-Khayyat family's "cow lift," which brought the first 4,000 of their current herd of 20,000 dairy cattle in cargo planes, became an iconic image of Qatar's resilience in the face of the blockade. The family’s Baladna Dairy meets 60 percent of Qatar's needs. "Before 2017, it wouldn't have been worth the marketing costs to compete with Saudi brands," said Moutaz.

Aisha Al-Buainain, a 28-year-old Doha account manager and mother of two, said it is reassuring to buy milk, yogurt, and cheese made in Qatar.

"It's hard to explain to people outside how hard it was for us emotionally that the blocking states did that to us during Ramadan,” she said. "The supply situation is more than back to normal. What remains difficult is interruption of regular communications channels like What's App and FaceTime audio. I can't call my relatives in the Emirates on my iPhone."

This winter, Qataris started to speculate the embargo may be fading. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Emirates sent soccer teams to Doha for Arab Gulf Cup games in December, effectively violating their own travel ban.

The United States sent Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to the Doha Forum where he praised Qatar for combating illicit financing of terrorism." We hope they can work out their issues amongst themselves because I do think there are bigger regional security issues that everyone needs to be unified on," Mnuchin told Doha Forum attendees.

The killing of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd also benefitted Qatar diplomatically.

"After the Soleimani killing even Saudi Arabia wanted to de-escalate with Iran," said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington business and security consultancy. "Qatar's role as a mediator no longer looks like such a terrible thing. The Saudi leadership knows it needs to reprioritize, and the time has come for finding new and pragmatic strategies to deal with real security dangers rather than throwing resources at fabricated threats such as Qatar."

Saudi Arabia was feeling the pinch of the blockade, too, added Cafiero. Diversifying amid low oil prices, Saudi leaders have been soliciting foreign investment to boost their domestic economy. “Their neighbors in Qatar could be doing that instead of buying more real estate in Western capitals or shares in international airlines,” he said.

Photo: Dec. 16, 2019 - Al Khor, Qatar - Mouatz Al Khayyat, Chairman of Power Holding International, which founded the Baladna dairy with the inception of the blockade. The facility now produces 80 percent of the country's requirements for milk.
Credit: Jacob Wirtschafter/ ARA Network Inc. (12/16/19)

Story/photo published date: 02/18/20

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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