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Qatar dairy takes a new turn towards self-sufficiency after Saudi Boycott

25 July 2019

Just two years ago, Qatar milk was completely on imported mode. But something happened that eventually pushed Qatar towards creating more than sulf-sufficient milk on its own land. When neighbouring countries including Saudi Arabia and its allies declared a boycott against Qatar two years back, they had based their outcry on claims about Qatar supporting Islamist groups like Muslim Brotherhood. This enforced Qatar to rethink how to utilize its own resources and hence came into force a large dairy industry where Qatar cows are being milked via automated systems.

In this large unit, called the Baladna dairy farm, about 20,000 cows are contributing to the making of an almost independent economy in Qatar. Situated North of Doha, the modernised dairy has set up an automated milking system. So, each day, Holstein cows obediently step up on a large circular platform and are milked by automated tubes. This is done thrice daily and after each milking session, the cows are sprayed with cool water sprinklers  and sent back to barns. There are 40 such highly efficient barns where temperature is regulated to almost 82 degrees by cooling and misting systems. So, the cows settles merrily on cooled sand beds in this ambient temperature which is quite low as compared to the scorching 110 degrees outdoors.

Qatar diary

As Saba Mohd N.M. Al Fadala describes the farm's super-comfortable bovine conditions, it seems the cows are treated to a comfortable and productive lifestyle, as they do all except yoga! The farm’s 40-feet high roofs fitted with fans keeps even the tiny newborn calves quite healthy.

Surprisingly, such farms did not even exist in Qatar two years ago when all milk needs were imported from outside into Qatar. But as things took a sharp turn after the group boycott, The Baladna farm, quickly built itself as a major domestic milk provider through its five milk parlours. Apart from diversifying into dairy products too like yogurt and cheese, the farm has now begun to even export to nearby countriess like Afghanistan, Yemen and Oman.

As attributed by Adam Peffer, who manages the farm’s operations, the grand success of this industry took a jumpstart after the blockade actually. He says, "If the blockade would not have happened, the farm wouldn't be existing. This actually points out how important is food security."

Founder chairman of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development (an environmentalist group), Yousef Al Horr acknowledged the fact that Qatar economy became stronger after being left at its own plight. Since tradesmen are getting a more direct access to the suppliers and the role of middlemen is being cut down, a better direct supply chain is being formed, which is a boost for local business logistics. There is a dramatic enhancement in local food industry.

Saudi Arabia, allied by the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, had imposed bans on Qatar more than two years back. What angered them were claims that Qatar was funding extremist groups and supporting Arab Spring movements. This left Qatar with very little choice as its economy was hugely hit and even flagship brands like Qatar Airways faced the brunt. It was an unprecedented move that swept both commercial and diplomatic relations among Gulf nations. But, over time, there was definitely an increasing pressure over Qatar, thanks to its independent strategies as well as due to the rise of Al Jazeera, the Broadcaster from Doha that took the Arabic-speaking population by its stride.

By and large, Qatar has adapted well to such pressures, and has done it with its financial backup as well as its oil and natural gas resources. About 85% of its exports are composed of LPG and it has also continued unobstructed trade with its joint ventures like Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, providing for the country’s economic hunger. Notably, Qatar had called it quits from OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in January, as it produced 600,000 barrels of oil a day.  Right from construction materials to food and milk, the country has also come up with self-sufficient changes.

The International Monetary Fund stated in its spring assessment that Qatar has "successfully absorbed the shocks" after oil price drop during 2014-2016 and also after Saudi-led blockade in June 2017. The Fund reported that GDP estimated growth in Qatar is 2.2% as compared to 1.6% in 2017.

From Donal Trump’s side, the signals that indicated sympathy towards Saudi issues earlier, are now reflecting change. Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, a prominent Qatar leader met Trump recently in the Oval Office, and there were positive discussions regarding investments and questioning the blockade move.

Earlier, Qatar had to use the land route through Saudi Arabia for trading, as that is its only land border or through Dubai as sea route. But now, Qatar has rerouted many ships that can arrive from India, Oman and Turkey. Turkey is especially involved enthusiastically in boosting trade after its last year’s deal with central bank of Qatar that provided major stability to Turkey.

Fortunately, Qatar had just managed to complete one of its port expansion projects at the time when the ban was imposed. This move made it much more convenient to open channels for direct imports from suppliers. Qatar could possibly jump through Saudi Arabia and Dubai based logistics hubs.

S&P Global has also marked Qatar’s outlook as stable, which it had changed to negative in 2017.

In 2022, Qatar is hosting the next World Cup which is the key to many newer projects in multiple arenas. Eight Stadiums, either new or renovated are planned, a new metro to be designed and constructed, and a whole new city in Northern Doha, these are all plans worth $400 billion as upcoming construction projects. The supplies are no longer coming from Saudi Arabia and UAE as earlier. Instead, Qatar had made backup plans as a part of its World Cup proposal and now attaining raw material from new sources. For instance, steel for the Al Rayyan stadium that was supposed to be coming from one of the blockade countries is being now imported from Oman.

Falling back on its sovereign fund, Qatar has successfully diverted wealth funds worth $20 billion back into the country as a part of its assets worth $320 billion.

There definitely are potholes and the road is not easy.

There are several US-run university programs in which students from Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia regularly enrolled. Unfortunately, now all of them have returned back. However, Doha has come up with higher enrolments in certain universities like Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown Universities. Konstantinos E. Kakosimos, a chemical engineering associate professor from Texas A&M University at Qatar confirms that US degrees are in high demand over here.

Baladna farm is a pioneer example of Qatar’s comeback after the Saudi-led blockade, a major contributing step towards self-sufficiency.  At the time of blockade announcement, milking machines were being delivered by an Irish company. Later, Qatar started airlifting cows in Russian cargo planes from Europe. But, they continued to die, unable to bear the excessive heat. Finally, the barns and cooling sprays were instituted that led to an ambient environment for the cows. Today, there is a well-equipped 17-person veterinary team plus a hospital to take care.

More cows have been brought in from Canada and United States. Besides, 30 to 50 new calves are taking birth every day. They make sure the newborn calves sleep in open air cages under high rooftop areas with fans, all to ensure they are accustomed to the hot weather. Once they become an year old, they are shifted to the barns.

One of the biggest challenges is raising cows in the scorching summer heat of 110 degrees in Qatar. There is no grass outside and cows can’t even be left to graze on it. Thus, hay is imported from countries like Germany, Romania, United States, Spain and France.

In a country like Qatar, where water supply is heavily relying on desalinization plants, Baladna needs a regular supply of water to cool the cows. Approximately 185 gallons of water is needed by each cow for misting sprays. The farm has systems to reuse as much water as it can.

As compared to using solar energy, it is cheaper to utilise subsidised gas fired electricity on grid, as described by the chief executive of Baladna, Kamel Abdallah. The company is even planning to share majority of its shares in a public offering in a few months as an experimental move.

Trying to develop brand loyalty at a fast pace, Abdallah concludes that 50% of his job role is to think about moving ahead after the blockade. As a tactic, they are inviting student groups to visit. This helps in creating their own market.

Though the dairy is successfully operating, it has been unable to attract more Qataris to work in Qatar until some time ago. In the total 2.7 million people in Qatar, there hardly a tenth of original Qataris. Baladna, a private enterprise, has successfully created over 1800 new jobs in these years. But, recently it has recruited its first original Qatari employee, Al Fadala.

A diplomat's daughter, who studied life sciences in London about bacteria in fruits and flora, she had started a flower growing business. A female who previously grew roses in the desert is now helping to grow cows in the same desert. 'Nothing is impossible for us', she says.

(c) 2019 The Washington Post

Davies Krish

With a background in journalism and news reporting, Davies enjoys finding surprises and unusual sights in some of Middle East's most well-traveled destinations.

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