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Qatar’s next big purchase: a farming sector

Qatar’s energy resources have given it one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, a futuristic urban skyline and enough clout to host the 2022 soccer World Cup. But its wealth may not be enough for the arid state to achieve an even more ambitious goal: becoming largely self-sufficient in food.

Like other oil-rich, water-poor Gulf states, Qatar has been investing heavily in overseas farmland, from Sudan and Australia to Brazil, and Ukraine, to ensure access to food supplies. But it still aims to produce most of its food domestically, by converting semi-desert into agricultural land.

Qatar’s Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani calls it “one of the most pressing challenges that Qatar is facing” and the government aims to more than double the number of farms to 3,000.

Qatar imports up to 90 per cent of the food for its population of 1.7 million people, about 80 per cent of which are foreign workers. The goal is to produce 60 to 70 per cent of domestic demand by 2024.

It is a seductive vision, and Qatar’s vast wealth will allow it to mobilize the best technology and equipment. But many experts say its plans do not make economic sense.

Harsh land

Qatar’s environment is hostile to agriculture, characterized by extreme heat, water scarcity, and high soil salinity. Average precipitation is just 74 millimetres (2.9 inches) per year, and only one per cent of its land area is arable.

In 2008, Saudi Arabia abandoned a push to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat, concluding it was simply too expensive and wasteful in using domestic water resources. The country now plans to be 100 per cent reliant on imports of wheat by 2016.

Mahendra Shah, a director of international planning at Aquiess Rainaid, which is developing rainfall technology to fight drought, said the drive to produce wheat domestically using underground water had caused environmental damage in Saudi Arabia.

“The underground water reservoirs are saline and severely depleted. This is an example of an ecological disaster that will take decades to recharge and clean up the aquifers.”

But Qatar has shrugged off the example of its larger neighbour.

No exports

Qatar’s farming methods include open-field agriculture, greenhouse production, and hydroponics, a soilless culture technology, which uses less water and can yield up to 10 times the crop grown in an open field.

One of the prototype farms is the Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex, located in the desert a short drive from the capital, Doha.

“We are producers of vegetables, seasonal flowering plants and outdoor plants. We have one of the largest landscape projects in Qatar, with 40 hectares of land,” said Mahmoud Refaat Shamardal, a manager at the complex.

“We use artificial soil to produce the vegetables. With this system we can save around 50 per cent of water, and water is a very important factor here in Qatar.”

The country’s aquifers are already severely depleted, but there are plans to obtain agricultural water from seawater desalination using solar parks, and only keep aquifers as strategic water reserves.

There’s no estimate on what the plan will cost, although the government hopes the private sector will provide some of the investment.

However, attracting enough private businessmen may be difficult, especially if they are restricted in where they can sell their produce and will be subject to a zero-export policy because, as one official said, “a country like Qatar that is very dry cannot export water through food.”

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