By Jonathan Cristol
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is currently in the United States, and the American media is aglow with profiles of the young and supposedly liberal Saudi ruler. He has been lauded for allowing women to drive, attend sporting events, and work in the military—with the permission of their male guardian, of course. Even President Donald Trump loves MBS because he is rich and has promised to buy lots of weapons from the United States. But while MBS’ domestic social reforms are winning plaudits abroad, his economic and foreign policies can generously be described as problematic. His country’s U.S.-backed war in Yemen is becoming a quagmire; he has imprisoned, tortured, and expropriated the wealth of Saudis unsupportive of his claim to the throne (whose names may have been provided to him by American Crown Prince Jared Kushner); and he has fallen flat in his blockade of neighboring Qatar.
The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar began on June 5, 2017. While the proximate cause was the publication of pro-Iran quotes attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani—which U.S. intelligence agencies believe actually originated with Emirati-backed hackers—one can’t help but note that the blockade began just two weeks after Trump and Kushner visited Riyadh. For many years, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the quartet (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and UAE) have accused the Qataris of supporting Islamists and of using Al Jazeera Media to destabilize their governments.
Saudi Arabia did not make any immediate demands of Qatar in the early days of the blockade, which contributed to growing uncertainty. Would the Saudis invade Qatar and depose the popular emir? Would the United States withdraw its 11,000 troops in Qatar and relocate them to Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet? Would the flow of liquid natural gas from the South Pars natural gas field, which is shared by Qatar and Iran, be affected by sabotage or maritime blockade?
Ultimately, none of those events came to pass. Instead, the blockade has backfired spectacularly, as exemplified by Qatar’s booming dairy industry. Before the blockade, Qatar was only in the early stages of developing a domestic agricultural industry and still imported almost all of its dairy from Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top dairy product producers. Only weeks after the blockade, however, Qatar began a massive air and sealift of dairy cows into the country, which has continued to this day. Soon, Qatar, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, will be a dairy exporter.
How this happened is a reflection of the country’s enormous wealth, the result of its control of 13 percent of world natural gas reserves, along with oil reserves equivalent to 25 billion barrels. Just after the blockade began, Qatari businessman Moutaz Al-Khayyat spent $8 million to import 4,000 Holstein cows in a single month from Australia, Germany, and the United States on Qatar Airways cargo planes. His firm, the partially government-funded Baladna Dairy, built an entire air-conditioned dairy farm in the desert 30 miles north of the capital of Doha. Six weeks later, Qatar was producing 30 percent of its dairy and importing the rest from Turkey. Even after initial headlines faded, the shipments of cows continued. This month, Baladna will receive 3,200 more cows via sea freight from the United States, where they will live on a farm that Bloomberg reports is the size of “almost 70 soccer fields.” At this rate, Al-Khayyat expects that Qatar will be entirely self-sufficient in dairy by May 15, the start of Ramadan. By 2019, with the farm expected to hold 20,000 cows, Qatar will be a net exporter of dairy products. Baladna plans to file an IPO next year.
This kind of resilience can be seen throughout Qatar’s capital city of Doha. Occupancy rates in the city’s modern skyscrapers are down, but there are no evident shortages of goods. Qataris seem optimistic about the country’s future, if not about the restoration of good relations with Saudi Arabia. Imports have been re-sourced, and construction for the 2022 World Cup continues at a rate of $500 million per week. Qatar has made new investments in its own military and the Al Udeid base, and made major new arms purchases from France, the U.K., and the U.S. And while arms buildups, massive construction projects, and new industries are expensive, it is possible for Qatar to spend at its current level for decades—so there is no concern that they’ll go bust getting around the great bovine blockade.
This new dairy industry is not only a gain for Qatar and a move toward self-sufficiency; it’s a loss for Saudi Arabia, which will never recover Qatar’s business. But don’t worry too much about the Saudis. The country’s GDP is $1.8 trillion, and 90 percent of Saudi export revenue comes from oil. The domestic social reforms enacted by MBS are genuine improvements for his people, and may make him a popular leader for years to come. Saudi women can now enjoy films and soccer matches. Once the blockade ends, perhaps all Saudis will be able to enjoy imported Qatari milk.
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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and Levermore Research Fellow at Adelphi University. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol.[Photo courtesy of Lars Plougmann]