Qatari veg industry thrives on Gulf crisis

June 05, 2019

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Nezar al-Atawneh, the operations manager at the Qadco, shows two red peppers grown at the Umm Qarn Farm in the Qatari municipality of Al Daayen, on April 5, 2019.  —AFP
Nezar al-Atawneh, the operations manager at the Qadco, shows two red peppers grown at the Umm Qarn Farm in the Qatari municipality of Al Daayen, on April 5, 2019. —AFP

DOHA: Surrounded by what was once arid Qatari desert, Nezar al-Atawneh picked up a giant spaghetti pumpkin and brandished it trying to guess its weight.

“This one must be at least eight kilos,” or nine pounds, he exclaimed proudly.

Atawneh, operations manager at the Qatarat Agricultural Development Company (Qadco), played the guessing game in the middle of a field full of mature squash ready to be harvested in Al-Daayen, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Doha.

The fields are a novelty in a country where the landscape is mostly sand dunes, where water is scarce and summer temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

But since June 2017, Qatar has prioritised local food production in response to an economic embargo imposed by its neighbours which had been Doha’s leading source of imports.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have cut direct flights, sea links and cross-border trade with the gas-rich emirate of 2.7 million people over alleged support for terrorism and Iran, which Qatar categorically denies.

“Since the blockade, the work has been 24 hours – day in, day out. We reclaimed vast tracts of land, we increased production,” said Qadco general manager Thawad Mohammed al-Kuwari.

In the days after the embargo came into force, supermarket shelves were emptied and people feared food shortages if import routes were blocked.

Qatar responded quickly and deployed its large national airline Qatar Airways to fly in food from friendly countries including Turkey, Iran and Morocco.

But the cost of air freight highlighted the importance of growing food locally.

Production at Qadco, owned by former prime minister Abdulla bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has tripled since the beginning of the crisis.

From a daily base of seven to nine tonnes of vegetables, Kuwari said “we now reach 25-30 tonnes” during the winter months – the high season — despite Qatar’s challenging climate.

“Qatar has very harsh conditions, high temperature, high humidity. To overcome these challenges is not easy, so you must have special techniques and special agricultural practices,” explained Atawneh as he walked between rows of ripe tomato plants.

Creating a plot of arable land takes about a year of preparation.

“Water is a big issue and it has high salinity” and requires treatment, said Atawneh, an engineer.

Qatar relies mostly on desalination besides wells and underground reserves for its water needs.

When not inspecting crops on the 650-hectare (1,600-acre) project, Atawneh experiments with new seeds, growing techniques and water-saving measures.

He also prides himself on cultivating “clean vegetables” using as few chemical agents as possible -- making them “semi-organic”, he said as he picked a cucumber in an air-conditioned greenhouse.

Farmers hoping to grow their businesses have had to invest heavily, with Qadco alone investing 20 million Qatari riyals ($5.5m) to expand operations in support of the country’s self-sufficiency drive.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2019