Milking it: Qatari Farmers Reject Gulf Herd Mentality to Defy Blockade

Published July 3rd, 2017 - 05:00 GMT
The yogurt section in a Doha supermarket. Before the blockade began, Qatar imported 80 per cent of its dairy products from Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
The yogurt section in a Doha supermarket. Before the blockade began, Qatar imported 80 per cent of its dairy products from Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

His arms crossed on his chest, standing straight with a construction helmet and in his flowing white robes, Ramiz al-Khayat looks like a commanding general as he watches seven excavators digging into the hard sun-baked earth. The thermometre reads 45 degrees Celsius.

For days now, a hot dry desert wind has been sweeping over Qatar, driving sand into peoples' eyes, and the roar of the excavators is an attack on the ears. But al-Khayat looks satisfied on this recent afternoon. The machines are working on a project to help the emirate of Qatar master the Gulf crisis. Here, a dairy cattle facility is being built.

It is an ambitious project that al-Khayat, as vice president of the Baladna company, is responsible for. In the desert north of the capital Doha, the company already has more than 20,000 sheep and goats from which milk and dairy products are produced in a gleaming facility.

It also bottles dairy milk from cows. But now, Baladna is building stalls to shelter 4,000 cows as soon as possible. Around 1,000 are to be flown in from Germany, the rest from the United States and Australia. "We're working seven days a week," al-Khayat reports.

He sounds defiant, and in fact such words are being heard over and again these days in Qatar. Four weeks earlier, the Gulf neighbours of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) broke off all contact with Qatar and closed their borders, allegedly for supporting terrorist groups and maintaining good ties with the Shiite regime of Iran.

The blockade has put pressure on the Qatari economy. Dairy products are a good example, given how the emirate until now had imported about 80 per cent from Saudi Arabia. Above all it is the Almarai concern that had supplied Qatari supermarkets with milk, yoghurt and cheese. The company's logo is still to be seen on the refrigerators. But instead of Saudi products, for the time being dairy products from Turkey have filled the gaps that for a brief moment had alarmed the Qataris.

If al-Khayat has his way, then the Turkish products should be just a temporary solution. "In nine months Qatar can be self-sufficient," the businessman predicts. Already, traders in Doha were dealing in domestic goods. "Yes to Qatari products" is a sign seen on the doors to many shops in the capital.

But even if al-Khayat's prediction comes true, it would be a solution to only one of the problems facing the economy. The emirate is considered to be the richest country in the world. Sharing offshore with Iran the world's largest natural gas field, Qatar boasts an average per-capita income of almost 130,000 dollars per year.

But the tiny emirate is vulnerable. Virtually everything is dependent on the sale of liquified natural gas (LNG) - the overall affluence, the budget, the 2022 Football World Cup. Qatar delivers about two-thirds of the LNG via tankers to Asia. The LNG is primarily onloaded at the UAE Port of Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman.

The blockade now could put Qatar in a weaker position with its buyers, in turn hurting revenues and Qatar's share of the world market. Amid declining gas prices, the country last year was forced to scale back some of its ambitious infrastructure projects.

And beyond this Qatar is dependent on foreign interests, not only because of the nearly 2 million workers and employees from around the world who earn their living alongside some 300,000 local residents. Trade flows in the region above all run via the UAE, from which many international companies supply Qatar. The largest share of such goods have till now been shipped via the UAE port of Jebel Ali.

Qatar is only a comparatively small market, and so international firms, if faced with a choice between Qatar and its hostile neighbours, could in a pinch decide against Qatar.

For the moment, Qatar has enough supplies in store of construction materials, much of which are from Saudia Arabia and the UAE. And so, construction is proceeding on the new World Cup stadiums and on the subway. But bottlenecks cannot be ruled out if the blockade continues. At the very least, projects could become more expensive.

However, Qatar may not be the only loser in the crisis. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are economically integrated with each other. "Naturally there are always alternatives," notes Kathrin Lemke, a representative of the Chamber of German Foreign Trade in Doha. "But it is not good for the development of the entire region."

In any event, Ramiz al-Khayat has thrown down the gauntlet to the competition from the neighbouring state. Up until the blockade, the Saudis had swamped the market with cheap products. "But what they have lost, they are not going to win back," he says.

© 2022 dpa GmbH

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