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Qatar could face a food crisis in spat with Arab neighbors

Shoppers stock up in Doha, Qatar, on June 5 after Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, through which the tiny Persian Gulf nation imports most of its food. (Doha News via Associated Press)

In seemingly coordinated statements released Monday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar because of what they called its support for terrorist groups and involvement in regional conflicts.

It's a move that could have wide-ranging repercussions in the region — Qatar hosts a forward base for the U.S. Central Command and is home to the popular Al Jazeera news organization. The island nation of Maldives announced later Monday that it, too, would cut ties to Qatar.

For now, however, the most immediate effects might be felt by the 2.24 million people living in Qatar. After the announcement early Monday by the four Arab nations that they would cut air, sea and land links with Qatar, images spread on social media of empty supermarket shelves in that country — an apparent sign that shoppers were stocking up in the event of shortages.

Oil-rich Qatar is a small country, and most of its landmass is made up of deserts, which are unsuitable for agriculture. “Qatar receives 99 percent of its food from outside,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Washington-based Gulf State Analytics. “They are wholly dependent on outside supplies, particularly with foodstuffs. Hence the rush on stores in Doha today.”

Karasik added that although most of Qatar's food has traditionally come from the Levant, it still needs to travel across Qatar's lone land border — with Saudi Arabia — to get into the country. “The land border, that accounts for about 99 percent of that 99 percent that comes in,” Karasik said.

Supermarkets in Qatar were already busy because of Ramadan, but the local website Doha News reported that the crowds Monday were even bigger than usual. “I’ve never seen anything like it — people have trolleys full of food and water,” one resident told the website.

The full extent of the disruption may not be evident for a while, though Al Jazeera has reported that food trucks are being stopped at the Saudi-Qatar border. A statement from the Qatari cabinet played down the risk of food shortages and warned against panic buying. “We took all the necessary precautions to ensure normal life,” the statement said.

Food security has long been an issue in Persian Gulf states, many of which import up to 90 percent of their food. A number of gulf countries have sought to reach land deals with other countries to grow food — Qatar reached a deal with Kenya to lease 40,000 hectares of land in return for a $2.5 billion loan almost 10 years ago. Karasik said that at the time, it was estimated that Qatar had only three days' worth of food supply in case of an emergency.

“The pressure is certainly on Qatar to capitulate on Saudi Arabia and its allies' commands to change its behavior,” Karasik said.

Apart from the long lines and empty shelves at supermarkets, there were other ways that the moves against Qatar could hurt it economically. Notably, much of the materials needed for its infrastructure and construction projects also are imported, meaning that high-profile events such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup could run into major difficulties.

Qatar's shipping industry and ports, as well as its flagship air carrier, could face significant problems. Its banking system could come under major strain if foreign deposits are withdrawn.

If it is unwilling to meet the demands of Saudi Arabia and its allies, Qatar may have to look to alternatives. According to Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency, one Iranian official suggested that Tehran could ship food to Qatar to make up for its lost imports. Reza Nourani, the chairman of Iran's Union of Agricultural Exporters, was quoted as saying that such shipments could be ready in just 12 hours.

Iranian American analyst Holly Dagres tweeted: “Rather than push Qatar away from Iran, [the] crisis brings them closer.”

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