The Gulf crisis has helped Qatar's agri-food sector expand using cutting-edge technology to overcome environmental challenges
DOHA - In the arid desert surrounding al-Khor city, 50 kilometres north of Qatar's capital, Doha, a few camels run across the landscape breaking up the silence of the rolling sand dunes.
Temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius, making the soil dry and inhospitable.
Yet in this unforgiving land, the presence of huge glass structures glinting in the scorching sunlight is a testament to the success of a fast-expanding farming business run by Qataris.
"The metal structure of this greenhouse melted because of the heat," says Nasser al-Khalaf, Agrico's general manager, as he put his traditional ghutra headdress back on.
Nasser al-Khalaf, managing director of AGRICO, checks on one of the tomato plants (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
Despite Qatar's desert climate, the al-Khalaf family started Agrico's farming business in 2012, decades after the company was founded in the 1950s, primarily operating as a food importer.
Operational all year round, the farm is one of the largest sustainable long-term agricultural businesses in Qatar, producing an average of five tonnes of pesticide-free organic fruits and vegetables every day, according to al-Khalaf.
"Not only European visitors are surprised. Qataris themselves find it hard to believe that anything can be grown here," al-Khalaf says, with a big smile.
An air, sea and land blockade was imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on 5 June 2017, accusing it of supporting militant groups, including some backed by Iran. Egypt, Bahrain and other allies soon followed suit.
Qataris themselves find it hard to believe that anything can be grown here
- Nasser al-Khalaf, AGRICO general manager
Qatar denies the allegations and says that the siege aims to neutralise an independent foreign policy that promotes peaceful regional reform.
Since the blockade started, al-Khalaf says Agrico has doubled its production.
According to al-Khalaf, this expansion was made possible by years of experimentation in developing cutting-edge technology that would fit the environmental challenges.
Workers maintain an agricultural field at AGRICO, a private Qatari agricultural development company founded on the principle of sustainable long-term agricultural production (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
The all-inclusive greenhouses are designed to operate with minimal resources.
Hydroponic farming depends on the use of a nutrient-rich solution on the roots of the plant instead of soil; and an advanced humidity, temperature and sunlight sensor system maximises yields by ensuring that plants grow in optimal conditions that are immune to the high temperatures outside of the glass structures.
Qatar meets more than 90 percent of its needs for chicken and dairy products
"We have started to sell this technology to other Qatari farmers," al-Khalaf says, to encourage the development of the "Made in Qatar" agricultural sector.
Before and after the blockade
Sixteen months after the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, the country has restructured its import routes and agricultural sector.
Prior to the blockade, Qatar imported about 80 percent of its food requirements from its Arab neighbours, mainly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Employees of AGRICO process vegetables (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
"Prices of imported products were so low that Qatari farmers couldn't compete with them," says Faleh Bin Naser al-Thani, assistant undersecretary of agriculture and fisheries affairs at the Qatari Ministry of Municipality and Environment.
Prices of imported products were so low that Qatari farmers couldn't compete with them
- Faleh Bin Naser al-Thani, Assistant Undersecretary of Agriculture and Fisheries Affairs
On the local scene, al-Thani says that local production used to cover only 15 percent of domestic demand for vegetables prior to the blockade. Of the 1,400 farms operating in Qatar, two-thirds of them are non-commercial and owned by families for their personal consumption.
A cow can be seen in the stables of Baladna farm, one of the largest dairy and meat producers in Qatar (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
According to information sent to MEE by the Qatar Chamber of Commerce, between 2017 and 2018 there was an increase of 300 percent in the production of Qatari farms.
Within three years, Qatar hopes to be able to produce 60 percent of its vegetable needs
- Faleh Bin Naser al-Thani, Assistant Undersecretary of Agriculture and Fisheries Affairs
It was enough to allow the gas-rich monarchy and host of the 2022 World Cup to meet more than 90 percent of its needs for chicken and dairy products, according to al-Thani.
Al-Thani says that by the end of 2018, the ministry will give 1 million square metres of agricultural land to Qatari farmers. "The target is to produce 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes of vegetables on a yearly basis," he says.
On a narrow alley in Souq Waqif (which means "standing market"), a popular traditional bazaar in Doha, MEE meets Khalid Saif al-Suwaidi, the owner of Abu Saif Apiaries Cafe and a leading Qatari honey producer, with more than 1,000 hives installed across the country.
His cafe and shop specialise in products such as cakes and beverages that are all made with honey.
Honey pots on sale at Abu Saif Apiaries Cafe, in Souq Waqif, Doha (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
"Traditionally, honey is a gift of choice, which is offered as a symbol of friendship," al-Suwaidi says.
Traditionally, honey is a gift of choice, which is offered as a symbol of friendship
- Khalid Saif al-Suwaidi
Captivated by bees since childhood, the 43-year-old admits that his father didn't want him to be a beekeeper and encouraged him to pursue a government job and a more conventional career, yet al-Suwaidi decided to follow his passion instead.
"Fortunately, I didn't listen to him."
In operation since 2010, Bu Saif Apiaries produced 10 tonnes of honey last year.
Khalid Saif al-Suwaidi, a leading Qatari honey producer, maintains several hives in al-Shahaniya, central Qatar (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
While the volume was enough to satisfy demand prior to the blockade, that is no longer the case. For several months in early 2018, the company ran out of "Made in Qatar" honey. According to al-Suwaidi, this is due to a surge of nationalist sentiment and local demand for Qatari products.
"Everyone wants honey made in Qatar," al-Suwaidi says.
A manager of a local supermarket chain who preferred to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak to the media says that before the blockade there was a demand for Yemeni Sidr honey, which was imported through Saudi Arabia.
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In order to maintain a sufficient volume of production throughout the year, al-Suwaidi set up additional hives in Oman, which stood apart from its Gulf neighbours and kept a collaborative relationship with Doha throughout the blockade.
Although the majority of Abu Saif honey is made in Qatar, local production is still not enough to meet the high demand following the blockade.
Wishing to encourage Qataris to share his enthusiasm for honey production, he also offers locals the possibility of owning their own hives in exchange for a fee. The hives are set up outdoors and the maintenance is operated by Bu Saif Apiaries. "People now love to offer home-made honey," al-Suwaidi says.
Following a wave of impulsive "Made in Qatar" purchases in the first days of the blockade, a new approach to consumerism has emerged.
"The 'Made in Qatar' brand is becoming an obsession because the country no longer wants to be under fire," Nabil el-Nasri, director of L’observatoire du Qatar, a Paris-based think tank, tells MEE, pointing out that Qatari agriculture rose also out of national pride following the start of the blockade.
'Made in Qatar' food products for sale in an al-Meera supermarket in Doha (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
At al-Meera, one of Qatar's leading supermarket chains, which boasts 43 supermarkets and convenience stores across the country, "there is a before and after [the] blockade," says a manager requesting to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to comment.
Many people are seeking products that are made locally or that have a "Made in Qatar" sticker on the product to help boost the local economy.
According to the manager, incorporating these stickers was not a widespread practice before the blockade, but they are now applied to all food supplies produced locally and are easily visible in every supermarket to promote sales.
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"The ruling elite of Qatar wanted to encourage nationalist sentiment and this [the development of a Made in Qatar food sector] was one means for them to do that," says Christian Henderson, assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Leiden University. Henderson conducts academic research on food production in the GCC region.
Additionally, a "Made in Qatar" exhibition, which has been organised yearly by the Qatar Chamber of Commerce since 2009, offers a platform to the agri-food sector to promote local productions. The 2018 edition will be held in the Omani capital Muscat in November.
Price of buying local
But the boost in local production comes with a price: food products are more expensive. Estimates provided to MEE by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture of Qatar report that a kilogramme of tomatoes sold at the stalls of the city's markets was 60 percent more expensive in 2017 when compared with 2016, and such increases have affected low-income families.
According to al-Thani, in the next few years, Qatar will be much more independent when it comes to the vegetable requirements. "Within three years, Qatar hopes to be able to produce 60 percent of its vegetable needs," he says. But Henderson argues that Qatari residents have a palate for imported foods and cannot do without them.
"The Qatari population has cosmopolitan tastes when it comes to food; most of this has to be imported."
Limits to growth
Environmental factors could also limit Qatar's ambitious plan. Due to the arid desert climate and scarce water resources, only six percent of Qatar's land is arable.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the development of the agricultural sector is limited by factors "such as scarce water resources, low water quality, unfertile soils, harsh climatic conditions and poor water management".
The 'Made in Qatar' is becoming an obsession, because the country no longer wants to be under fire
- Nabil El-Nasri, director of L’observatoire du Qatar
Al-Thani is realistic about the necessity to modernise the agricultural sector by using cutting-edge technologies to counter water scarcity and salinised water.
"The quality of the groundwater has decreased since the 70s, it is getting more salinised," he says. According to al-Thani, Qatari farmers irrigate 93 percent of their fields by drawing from groundwater, while cultivating soil composed mainly of rocky desert areas.
To help overcome water scarcity, Agrico uses a drip irrigation system that delivers a slow supply of water from groundwater resources directly to the soil in order to reduce water consumption by up to 60 percent. According to al-Khalaf, this technology saves hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of water each year.
Despite the economic hardships caused by the blockade, and with Qatar taking steps to position itself for greater independence, according to al-Suwaidi "the blockade is an opportunity".