The wealthiest nation on the planet is facing a sudden experience of what poverty might be like, if relationships with its neighbours are not restored. Though Qatar has an extraordinary per capita income of $130,000, compared with around $57,000 in the US, it has a glaring weakness – the small desert peninsula imports around 90% of its food.
This has come to a head as a result of the blockade placed around Qatar by neighbouring members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, who accuse it of supporting militants. It furiously denies the claim. Because most of Qatar’s food had previously arrived across its only land border with Saudi Arabia, the blockade created the potential for imminent shortages, food inflation and unrest. Severe food shortages have only been averted thanks to urgent new deals with Iran and Turkey, which are flying and shipping food in.
Qatar is an important example of a nation potentially made complacent by its wealth. Why cultivate your own food when you can simply buy it in? The country also has a major food waste problem exacerbated by a regional culture of social extravagance. It appears to have given little attention to securing resilience within its food supply chains.
The blockades have exposed Qatar’s lack of domestic food production. Its hot, dry climate means most land is unsuitable for agriculture, and costs are high. The local food industry therefore does not have the knowledge, expertise or infrastructure to compete with cheaper, sometimes “loss leader” ranges of food imports that are seeking to create an anchor presence in anticipation of other food ranges to follow. Huge economic inequality also plays a role: wealthy, status-conscious Qataris prefer higher quality imported food, while at the other extreme a cost-conscious imported workforce cannot afford to be choosy.