Qatar: Food Insecurity in a Wealthy but Vulnerable Nation

The instability of its region makes many within the world's richest nation food-insecure.

September 8, 2021

Avi Bagchi

Writer at Motus News

Introduction

When food insecurity is discussed, Qatar is probably not the first country that comes to mind. Food security was not a major concern of Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, when he signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) charter in May 1981 [1]. The GCC agreement was a political and economic alliance between Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates intended to bolster the region’s strength amidst a turbulent situation in Iran [2]. 

At the time, it seemed like a convenient alliance since it would provide more political influence for smaller countries like Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE in a Saudi-dominated region. The GCC also gave the opportunity for the region to launch group projects to achieve greater global influence [3]. However, these plans largely went unpursued. Aggressive Saudi-led initiatives raised fears of a Saudi-dominated alliance. The alliance was further divided when the UAE and Saudi Arabia seemingly formed a separate alliance and Qatar grew closer to Iran. Fears of the GCC collapsing into a largely irrelevant institution culminated in the summer of 2017 and a major diplomatic crisis unfolded.

The situation in Qatar is clearly not the most dire situation of food security on the planet, but it represents a larger idea of how political conflicts within unstable regions can lead to food crises. Qatar is just one of the many examples where power imbalances within alliances can lead to the exploitation of the weaker countries for the political benefit of the larger countries. Despite being the wealthiest country on the planet, Qatar is not protected from food security, an issue that affects 37 million people worldwide [4].

Country and Family

Qatar is the leading exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG) causing it to have one of the highest GDPs per capita on the planet [5]. However, the Qatari economy faced a major threat in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut off their diplomatic ties to Qatar and imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on the country [6]. The blockading countries accused Qatar of supporting terrorism as well as meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. However, the immediate cause of the blockade was that a Qatari news agency made statements that praised Iran and terrorist organizations. Qatari officials claimed that these statements were never made and it was a UAE led hack that caused the statements to be posted online. Nevertheless, the Saudis have had turbulent relations with Qatar as Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, often criticized the Saudi government and supported the democratic revolutionaries during the Arab Spring. Also, Qatar granted citizenship to many people wanted by the Saudi government [7]. The blockaders issued 13 demands to Qatar, including the fact that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and reduced diplomatic ties with Iran and Turkey. The Saudis knew that Qatar is very dependent on imports for food and machinery and so Qatar would have to accept the demands that would aid Saudi Arabia strategically. However, the blockade has persisted since Qatar has refused to accept the demands, stating the demands are a violation of their sovereignty [8].

The average yearly income for a Qatari family is 24,999.462 U.S. dollars [9]. This may seem low considering that Qatar is the richest country in the world based on GDP per capita [10]. This is due to the fact that 80% of the population are foreign workers mainly from India and Pakistan working in the natural gas industry [11]. These workers cannot obtain Qatari citizenship and they are regularly exploited, mistreated, and unpaid, most notably in preparation for the 2022 World Cup under the kafala system [12]. Due to the influx of migrant workers, there are many more males than females in Qatar [13]. Although Qatar's policies on women are more progressive than its GCC counterparts, they are definitely not seen as equals to males despite the state’s proclaimed mission on achieving equality for women. Women are not often figures in political life, with only four women in the Parliament that sets the budget and laws [14]. Women on average make 70% of what men do, and women are usually only allowed to pursue careers under family approval [15].

Challenge and Impact

Despite its abundant natural gas reserves, Qatar imports 90% of its food, as its soil is largely unfarmable [16]. Along with the rest of the GCC during the 2008 recession, Qatar was engaged in obtaining plots of land in Africa and Asia to maintain food security [17]. However, due to rising oil prices, many of these supply lines were cut off and exports were restricted. This left Qatar very vulnerable to a shortage if it were to lose its supply line from Saudi Arabia who is responsible for 40% of food imports into Qatar [18].  As a result of the persistent blockade, Qatar’s food prices rose since Qatar had to access alternate food suppliers over more costly air and sea routes since its typical truck route from Saudi Arabia was restricted. Since July 2017, food and beverage prices rose 4.5% [19]. Many residents in Doha rushed to markets fearing a sudden food shortage and many investigations indicate that the shortages are creating social unrest. Mirroring what is unfolding in Nigeria, the food shortage has also contributed to an increase in police brutality and even thoughts of overthrowing the Al-Thani regime are emerging [20]. Investment in Qatari real estate and the Qatari consumer price index declined after the blockade and it was becoming clear that regardless of the Qatari response, the blockade had taken a hit on the Qatari economy [21].

Climate change could have a severe impact on the natural gas market. Climate change will intensify hurricanes and tropical storms in the upcoming years which greatly affects the natural gas market [22]. For example, Hurricane Nate that traveled through the Gulf of Mexico caused a decrease of 15% in Mexican natural gas production. Even though natural gas is the cleanest for the environment out of the fossil fuels, it still contributes to carbon dioxide emissions and it is still harmful to the planet [23]. With new policy plans for cleaner sources such as wind and solar energy to stop a warming climate, natural gas might decrease in demand globally in the future. This would first put Qatar in enormous debt if they were to complete their plan of expanding their LNG production to 126 million tonnes per year by 2027 [24]. It would also cause a food crisis in Qatar as it would not be able to sustain its expensive foreign imports from afar, assuming the blockade persists or the GCC falls apart (both of which very likely as efforts at a resolution from Kuwait and the US have not even initiated a debate, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia formed their own alliance giving them no incentive to keep the GCC together).

Natural gas can almost be seen as a cash crop for Qatar. Throughout history it is clear that cash crop economies often result in food insecurity. Under British rule, India suffered major famines as they were forced to produce English cash crops, disrupting the local food production. In Medieval West Africa, a decline in gold prices led to mass famines in the Mali empire. A sustainable solution is needed for Qatar before food insecurity turns into disaster.

Solutions, Recommendations, and Conclusion

As of today, it might seem as if this potential major food crisis has been avoided in Qatar. In 2017, the Qatari economy grew by 1.6% and this number continued to increase in 2018 and 2019 according to the IMF [25]. It seems that the Saudi plan to reduce Qatari-Iranian relations has backfired since as a result of the blockade, Iran has been exporting food by sea to Qatar and the trade between the two countries has increased 60% [26]. Dairy imports from the US, Europe, and Turkey have helped Qatar nearly reach a level of dairy sufficiency [27]. Qatar has also found other routes for exporting LNG. However, it should be considered that this successful economic policy following the blockade was solely dependent on Qatar’s LNG exports which is projected to generate the country 40 billion dollars by 2024 [28]. 

According to some statistics, Qatar is the richest country in the world, and it is no surprise Qatar could use its immense wealth to escape this problem. The natural gas industry is responsible for ⅔ of its GDP and 80% of its profits [29]. Compare this to other GCC countries where oil is responsible for a lower 25% of UAE’s GDP [30], 19% of Bahrain’s GDP [31], and 42% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP [31]. This means that the Qatari economy is heavily influenced by the natural gas market and it will be further affected by the industry amidst new plans to expand the market by 64% before 2027. If the natural gas prices were to fall, there could be severe food shortages in Qatar.

Most of these solutions to solve these problems will build off of existing initiatives made by the Qatari government. Diversifying the economy should be the main goal of the Qatari government at the turn of the decade. In a changing world where we are moving away from fossil fuels, expanding the LNG base to this extent will not be sustainable in the upcoming years. This policy should be stopped as we see how one crop economies throughout history often lead to food insecurity. Qatar should start producing food themselves so a future blockade will not cause as many problems. Dates, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots are some of the few crops that can be grown in Qatar and these industries should be greatly expanded. Qatar has the wealth to fund research to find ways to genetically modify these plants so they can sustain lower amounts of water, a practice being researched at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign [33].

As for Qatar, the best option might be to leave the GCC. The blockaders' demands clearly violate Qatari sovereignty and giving into these demands would make Qatar seem vulnerable under the influence of the more powerful countries that surround it. The shutting down of Al-Jazeera would severely hurt the Qatari economy, it being one of the largest news organizations in the world. The freedom of the press should not be restricted for the political benefit of Saudi Arabia.  Qatar must find other countries to be supplied food from but it might be in their best interest to avoid Iran. There is much tension between Iran and the US. The dramatic increase in Qatari-Iranian relations might create tension not only with the US, but more tension with the Sunni dominated monarchies of the blockading countries. Qatar should try and get more in return from the US especially since the US has a strategic air base in Qatar. The US can prove to be a valuable supply line for food.

The number of countries who have economic dependency on commodities are at an all time high [34]. Yemen, Chad, and the Central African Republic are all countries with such dependency and these countries are all facing food crises currently [35]. This economic dependency paired with tensions in global politics could prove to be a devastating concoction for global food security. This is not a theory or projection, however. It is a reality we are seeing right now throughout the world. Take Yemen for example. The Arab country is ranked in the most severe category when it comes to commodity dependence according to a United Nations report in 2009. Combine this with the lasting revolutionary and anti-establishment disposition of the Yemeni people stemming from the Arab Spring uprisings less than a decade earlier and you have a bloody civil war creating the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet [36]. A century old Saudi Iranian rivalry stemming from an even older Sunni-Shia rivalry dating back to the Battle of Chaldiran in the 16th century turned the Yemeni civil war into a Saudi-Iranian proxy war that has dragged on for over five years. This has not just been a problem in Yemen or a problem of only the 21st century. The Kingdom of Songhai collapsed in the 16th century due to falling gold prices, a product the kingdom’s economy depended on. This not only caused internal political fracturing, but it set the stage for the Atlantic slave trade and European domination in Africa for centuries to come [37]. The situation was the same with post-independence Latin America in the 19th century, where a dependence on cash crops like sugar and cacao ushered in an endless cycle of dictators called caudillos. While some may argue that Qatar should remain in the GCC since it launches a country the size of Connecticut onto the world stage, the price of conflict and lasting instability is a price Qatar cannot afford.

The future of Qatar and the GCC remains unknown during this major diplomatic crisis that does not seem to be ending any time soon. The Qatari economy, despite promising gains, may face a plummet if natural gas prices were to fall. Most importantly, food security is the largest threat facing Qatar despite it seemingly getting the least attention as Qatar seems more focused on expanding its LNG base. However, the situation is far more precarious than many think. One plummet in the natural gas prices could result in massive food shortages since Qatar would no longer be able to afford its imports from countries outside the GCC. Food security is a global issue and it affects all countries. Perhaps, we would see more severe consequences if this blockade did not happen to the richest country on the planet.

 

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