How Qatar Got Its Food Back
A look at how a small nation, facing the biggest crisis in its 45-year history, found a way to feed itself and assert its independence.
WRITTEN BY ROSS DIAS
Illustration by Dale Crosby Close
For the tiny peninsular Qatar, sharing a border with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain has helped foster a strong sense of camaraderie between the Middle Eastern nations. Citizens of the region shared a familial bond with their neighbours, while the countries shared resources and (fairly) open borders. The large cultural hubs – Doha, Riyadh, and Dubai – have continually engaged in a healthy competition to outdo one another by building taller skyscrapers, bigger malls, and larger man-made islands. However, earlier in 2017, that friendly rivalry turned hostile when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and UAE suddenly severed diplomatic ties and enforced a strict blockade against the travel of resources and people between the countries. Political affiliations aside, with state-owned Al Jazeera, the upcoming FIFA World Cup in 2022, and an abundance in natural gas, Qatar was steadily growing in its international prominence to the chagrin of its neighbours. The Saudi bloc (with support from President Donald Trump) claimed Qatar sponsored extremism and terrorism, a statement that was quickly delegitimized by international governmental bodies, including officials in the U.S. government. Still, the real questions for Qatar’s 2.5 million residents in the hours immediately following the blockade were about food. Qatar was, and still is, entirely reliant on imports to sustain its current populations, a major crutch in the country’s independent food security. How would a nation that imports upwards of 90 percent of its food resources feed itself?
Residents rushed to stock up on imported basics like rice, frozen meats, bottled water, and milk, despite assurance from the foreign affairs ministry that normal life would not be impacted by the closing of the border. The Filipino government – a country with around 200,000 citizens living in Qatar – banned more citizens from entering the country for fear of food shortages and ensuing riots. Given the circumstances, a dire scenario was not entirely inconceivable given that Qatar produces only a tiny fraction of its daily food needs locally, but a day later, that ban was mostly lifted. True to the Qatari government’s word, the country’s resources were keeping pace, rescued partially by Qatar’s allies (like Turkey and Iran) that sent in dairy products and produce by plane. The quick turnaround left no time for Arabic or English inscriptions to be placed on the Turkish products, leading to government to distribute tables with translation for terms like “full-fat,” “expiry date,” and “natural.”
Aside from the introduction of different imported goods, the crisis shone a new light on Qatari products. The crisis was a catalyst for consumers to be less reliant on familiar imported goods and search for small-scale producers in the country, including decades-old bakeries and newer health-conscious juicers. On social media, users shared lists of local producers and shelves full of Qatari products at grocery stores alongside messages of political support to the country’s leaders. The Qatari Ministry of Economy and Commerce ramped up a campaign that promoted Qatar-made products, including poultry, dairy, baked goods, and even snack foods as a way to replace prominent regional food brands, like Saudi Arabia’s Almarai. With a vision of fulfilling a third of Qatar’s dairy needs before the blockade, local company Baladna expedited plans to import 4000 cows into the country from Europe and Australia. Smaller initiatives like cold-pressed juices and honey from Qatari-owned start-up businesses brought on another layer of supporting local, organic produce. With several outposts of luxury food chains and restaurants by renowned chefs, including Alain Ducasse and Sanjeev Kapoor, Doha’s food scene has always been international in taste, but what the country lacked before the blockade was national support of local products. Although politically and socially unfavourable, the crisis has been a good exercise in bolstering Qatar’s food network by encouraging pride in quality homegrown products. While the Goliath-esque Saudi bloc may have expected a quick and meek response to their sanctions, the crisis has been a much needed wake-up call for a country so reliant on others to showcase a little more independence.