Flying cows and friends in Iran: how Qatar is feeding itself under the Saudi blockade

Qatari businesses are rushing to bring in more cows to increase domestic dairy production CREDIT: REUTERS/TOM FINN
Qatari businesses are rushing to bring in more cows to increase domestic dairy production CREDIT: REUTERS/TOM FINN
If everything goes according to plan, a specially-configured transport plane will land in Qatar later this week and lower its ramp to send 140 German cows blinking into the desert sunlight.

(telegraph) -- Every two or three days after that there will be more planes and more cows, until 4,000 cattle have arrived in an arid kingdom where there is almost no grass and temperatures regularly reach under 114F (46C).

The audacious airlift is the brainchild of Moutaz al-Khayyat, a Syrian businessman based in Doha, and is just one of many initiatives borne from crisis after Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a blockade on Qatar last month.
The tiny emirate is home to only 2.6 million people but it imports 90 per cent of its food and has only two days’ of fresh water in reserve. So when Saudi Arabia abruptly shut Qatar’s only land border on June 5 there was genuine panic that the nation might go hungry.

But four weeks later, the shelves of Doha’s gleaming supermarkets are still full and dishes like quinoa salad with crispy tofu and soy glazed short ribs with celery are available in its luxury restaurants.

A satirical Twitter account called DohaUnderSiege posts messages like: “Scared to leave hotel today. Omelet bar at breakfast buffet officially out of chives. Had to trade Rolex for decent espresso.”

A more serious shortage was averted by suppliers who turned to Turkey and Iran to replace what once came from Saudi Arabia, and government action to open new shipping lines, harness the capacity of state-owned Qatar Airways, and subsidise food imports.

Qatar's ability to keep itself fed has given its leaders confidence they can endure a long blockade. Saudi Arabia and its allies, who accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and interfering in their affairs, announced this week the blockade would stay in place indefinitely.

Kuwait continues to act as mediator but there is no sign that the crisis will end soon. For now, wealthy Qatar is having no problem keep its people fed.

Fahad al-Attiyah, Qatar’s ambassador to Moscow, compares the situation to the Berlin airlift of 1948, when the Soviet blockade of West Berlin was broken by thousands of supply flights to Tempelhof airport. 

“The point the Western world wanted to make was: we will make Berlin survive despite the siege that it faces,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s not practicality or pragmatism, it’s about ideology. If the price of Qatar’s independence is to airlift every single pint of milk then we will do so.”

Products with a short shelf life, like vegetables and dairy products, are the most sensitive part of the disrupted supply chain. Qatar is for now depending on imported Turkish milk, leaving Arab shoppers to squint at the unfamiliar language on the labels and occasionally complain about its foreign taste. 

The irony of the blockade is that it was meant to weaken Qatar’s ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, and with Turkey, which Riyadh views with suspicion because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, Doha has embraced the two large non-Arab countries even more closely as it looks to them for food.

Mr al-Khayatt, the president of Power Holding International, hopes his airlifted cows will help Qatar eventually become completely self-sufficient in milk production. The cattle will be brought in from the US, Australia and Germany and kept in air-conditioned hangars in the desert. 

He first thought of the idea years ago but decided to massively speed up its implementation after Qatar’s neighbours moved against it. “The crisis is giving new opportunities for local businessmen to increase their business and open up new lines of work,” he said.

Another dairy business, the Ghadeer Dairy Company, is racing to build new generators as it tries to meet a quadrupled demand for its milk.  

Qatar has not been able to completely shield its residents from rising food prices, especially on fresh produce. The hardest-hit are poor workers from southeast Asia or Egypt, who are helping to build Doha’s skyline of new towers and the facilities for the 2022 World Cup.   

In a supermarket in the dusty neighbourhood of Al-Najma, the price of tomatoes has tripled from  the equivalent of 64p to £1.91. Jamal Youssef, an Egyptian construction driver, shrugs as he counts out the extra money.

“It’s shway mishkele, not kbeer mishkele,” he says. A little problem, not a big problem.