The reasons Qataris visit Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province cities are varied. First and foremost is the proximity and excellent highways connecting Qatar’s capital with Al-Hasa. “The Qataris have been coming here for as long as I have been here,” said Ragad Muhammad, a supervisor at a fast-food restaurant in the city’s popular central market. “On the weekend we see familiar car plates packed in the parking lots of popular centers. Qataris bring business, and the business community is very happy with their arrival because they are cash-rich and big spenders.” One of the reasons Qataris head to Al-Hasa is the big difference in prices from Doha. “Take the case of a dozen eggs. It costs around SR30 in Doha, but the same is available here in Al-Hasa at half the price or even less at SR11. Likewise, there are hundreds of day-to-day essential commodities for which prices differ enormously,” said Jasem Mohammadi, a Qatari national. He says it is illegal to take goods in bulk from Saudi Arabia back to Doha.
“But everyone knows what our cars are filled with when we head home from Al-Hasa.” Jasim notes Doha is only 200 km — or 90 minutes — away from Al-Hasa. “For us it is not much of a hassle to get across the border. Since we are GCC nationals there is no ban on the free flow of people,” he said. One cannot overlook the fact that many Saudis in this region have family in Qatar, and there may be a fair amount of family visits that also include a shopping spree. According to a spice trader in Al-Hasa’s old market, Qataris used to fulfill all their coffee and saffron needs from Saudi markets. “Saffron used to be very expensive in Qatar.
That is no longer the case. The Qataris are getting high-quality saffron directly from Iran these days. Saffron is cheaper in Qatar now unlike before. Our saffron business has suffered as a result,” he said. “Because of regional problems, Saudi Arabia is getting saffron from third parties, making it expensive in the local market.” According to local businessmen, most of the essential commodities are expensive in Qatar because of hefty tax levies unlike Saudi Arabia, where minimal taxation results in lower food prices. In recent months, Saudi authorities have clamped down on such cross-border business. “This activity is quite common, and everyone knows about its adverse affects on Qatari businessmen. Their businesses are affected, and we are doing all we can to discourage this activity,” said Walid A.H., a local trade official.
“According to international trade laws this is not OK, but there is not much we can do about it. Our business community is not complaining at all. In fact, they welcome it because it keeps their cash registers ringing.” The modern caravans may have three rows of seats instead of one hump, and the draw may be good prices rather than water and dates, but from the hypermarkets to the old markets, those cross-border visitors are keeping business brisk all through the week.