How Qatar Flourished in Food Security Despite Geographical and Geopolitical Challenges

As Malaysia has growing concerns over our food security status, should we then be following Qatar’s path in improving food security?

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Published in AstroAwani & BusinessToday, image by AstroAwani.

Food security has been a major concern for many countries, especially as geopolitical tensions have risen to new heights. However, one Arab country has proven its ability to survive despite massive geographical and geopolitical challenges, and it is the State of Qatar.

Qatar, one of the smallest countries in terms of landmass, is essentially a desert nation. This means faces water scarcity, has minimal arable land, and experiences intense heat.

With its population and economy booming at an exponential rate, Qatar requires a large quantity of food. As a result, they have had to rely on importing food from other countries. According to Miniaoui, Irungu and Kaitibie (2018), Qatar imported around 90% of their food from more than 100 countries prior to 2018.

However, Qatar’s diplomatic relationship with the Arab League deteriorated, leading to a diplomatic crisis in 2017. This ultimately resulted in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt cutting ties with Qatar. These countries imposed land, sea, and air blockades on Qatar.

The blockades effectively squandered Qatar’s main food import route, as Qatar shares a land border only with Saudi Arabia. As for the maritime route, ships that once relied on the Jebel Ali port in the UAE had to reroute to Salalah and Sohar in Oman (Al Jazeera, 2017).

After the blockades, Qatar’s Food Security Department devised the Qatar National Food Security Strategy 2018-2023, which consists of four important pillars:

A. International Trade and Logistics

To ensure that Qatar’s trade routes are diversified enough to minimise the impact of sudden disruptions, while simultaneously providing a contingency plan for alternative routes if needed.

B. Domestic Self-sufficiency

To efficiently produce crops, meats, and fish within the confines of Qatar’s resources, ensuring a stable source of perishable food items within the country in times of crisis. Meanwhile, a regulatory framework should be designed to provide incentives to focus on products that are cost-competitive.

C. Strategic reserves

To maintain an adequate and sensible reserve capacity that act as a buffer in times of crisis. The reserves should include not only food products, but all the necessary inputs (such as seeds, water, fertilisers etc).

D. Domestic Markets

To establish an efficient process for moving food from ports, farms, fields, or reserves to consumers’ tables, with regulations that promote healthy competition within the market and encourage safety.

Such a solid national strategy has resulted in massive success, not only bolstering Qatar’s food security amidst the geographical and geopolitical challenges, but also thriving in the seemingly impossible scenario.

While Qatar has found new trading partners to secure food items that they cannot locally produce, they have simultaneously improved local agriculture production. In fact, their poultry self-sufficiency rate has increase from 28% to stunning 84% roughly one year after the blockade, and the vegetable self-sufficiency rate has increased from 10% in 2017 to 46% in 2023 (Gulf Times, 2023; The Peninsular, 2018).

Qatar’s geographical and environmental disadvantages were completely negated by advancements in agriculture technology and research. Although Qatar only had 1.7% of arable land in 2017 according to The World Bank (2024), the use of indoor hydroponic methods has helped Qatar mitigate these disadvantages while reducing fresh water consumption by 70% compared to other methods.

Advancements in technology have also helped reduce Qatar’s reliance on their limited natural water sources, with the Rus and Umm er Rhaduma aquifers being the only two. With a growing population, expansion in agriculture, coupled with low number of storms, the aquifers can be depleted very quickly (Institution of Civil Engineers, 2022).

However, Qatar has been able to leverage desalination process to treat saline water and reuse Treated Sewage Effluent (TSE), not only reducing their dependency on aquifers, but also replenishing them. According to Fanack Water (2021), desalination and TSE combined produce 76% of their water, and the recharge of groundwater reserves from TSE surpasses that of rainfall recharge, at 54.6%.

The optimisation of the wholesales process, including support programmes for farmer, has massively benefitted the Qatari government in enhancing food security, by enabling local farmers to be more competitive.

For example, the launched of the Qatar Food Programme aimed to provide Qatari farmers with opportunities to display their products in different markets at reasonable prices. With the participation of major supermarkets, the programme has successfully reduced interference from intermediaries in the process from farm gate to consumer.

The streamlining of the wholesales process has allowed locally produced vegetables to compete against imported goods, which has helped in reducing the prices of vegetables by offering more choices to consumers (MERatings, 2020).

Other than optimising the wholesales process, the Qatari government also ensures that the vital private sector receives enough support to contribute to the strategy, and guarantees the continued advancement of agro-technology.

Prior to the blockade, Baladna was a local farm focusing on sheep and goat-related products. Shortly after the diplomatic crisis escalated into a blockade, the company, with the support from the Qatari government, expanded into dairy production. By June of 2017, the company was expecting to raise the production of milk and yoghurt to 500 tonnes per day, with surplus of 100 tonnes for export (Reuters, 2017).

Furthermore, the privately-owned Qatarat Agricultural Development Company (QADC) is not only operating three farms totalling 8 million square meters in Qatar, but also offering technical and marketing consultancy to other smaller farms, including operational support (MERatings, 2020).

That being said, Qatar’s strategy in enhancing food security has definitely achieved its goal, as Qatar ranked third among Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries and 30th globally in the 2022 Global Food Security Index.

One of the most obvious reasons why the strategy has been so successful is that it was designed based on data and science, focusing on leveraging technology to address the geopolitical and environmental disadvantages and perfectly in line with the major trends shaping best food security practices worldwide (Figure 1), which EMIR Research has been emphasising in its writings (refer to “Sail along global agritech trends and empower smallholder farmers at scale!”).

For example, the Qatari government understands the paramount importance of collaborating with the private sector and supporting small farmers, providing them with enough support to leverage technology in their operations, resulting in better productivity and higher competitiveness.

Most importantly, the Qatari government recognised the fact that while it is impossible to achieve self-sufficiency in every single food item, it is important to spearhead efforts towards achieving it (including the food supply chain inputs), while striking a delicate balance between import and local production by diversify trading partners for critical commodities!

Qatar, by employing a comprehensive plan, has managed to flourish against all odds. Their success has been widely recognised and studied. 

As Malaysia has growing concerns over our food security status, should we then be following Qatar’s path in improving food security?

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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