Qatar Counts Its Sheep-Stratfor

Qatar Counts Its Sheep

The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has interfered with Qatar’s political and economic activities since it erupted in late May. But now it’s threatening to interfere with the country’s religious practices as well. As Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s most important holidays, approaches in late August and early September, concerns are mounting that the blockade against Qatar will keep its people from celebrating in accordance with custom. The holiday, known as the Feast of Sacrifice, commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s trust in God, reflected in his willingness to sacrifice his son. Because God ultimately provided Ibrahim with a sheep to sacrifice instead of his son, observers of Eid al-Adha traditionally slaughter live animals — often sheep, but sometimes goats, cattle or camels — to eat and share with friends, relatives and people in need. Demand for live animals spikes in Muslim-majority countries in the weeks before the holiday, and in years past, Qatar has struggled to supply enough livestock for Eid al-Adha celebrations. This year, the blockade promises to make that task all the more challenging.

Muddling Through

Qatar still depends on imports to feed its population despite its efforts to improve food security; imported meat accounts for more than 90 percent of domestic consumption. Since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt began blockading the country, the government in Doha has been eager to demonstrate that the critical food imports it relies on are continuing as usual, albeit with some detours. A shipment of 32,000 sheep imported from Australia in late June, for example, arrived as expected, though it took 25 days to reach Qatar. For other necessary supplies, Doha has opened new sea routes with Oman as well as two routes to India. Qatar Airways, moreover, has brought in an estimated eight extra cargo shipments of supplies daily, while Turkey and Iran have beefed up their shipments of basic foodstuffs, including dairy and meat.

But though these supply lines have helped Qatar muddle through the blockade so far, they may not be enough to get the country through Eid al-Adha celebrations. For one thing, the alternative trade routes are vulnerable to a variety of political forces, some independent of the crisis in the GCC. For another, Qatar’s domestic meat trade is inherently fragile, hinging on a single company, Widam Food, which controls 85 percent of the meat distributed to Qatari butchers.

Shoring Up the Sheep

With just weeks to go before the holiday begins, Qatar doubtless is already hard at work to ensure it imports enough livestock to satisfy holiday demand. Australia, one of the world’s largest sheep exporters, supplies 93 percent of the live sheep that Qatar imports; Widam brought in 80,000 Australian sheep ahead of Eid al-Adha in 2016 to supplement its usual stock of about 40,000 animals. Live sheep from Australia are cheaper than those imported from other countries, ringing up at 350 riyals, or about $95, compared with 1,750 riyals for a Syrian sheep or 1,500 riyals for one from Jordan. (Government subsidies can significantly lower the costs of Syrian and Jordanian animals, which Qataris prize for their size and flavor.) Even local sheep, at around 1,000 riyals per animal, are more expensive than their Australian counterparts.

Qatar's sheep imports for 2015
Live exports constitute a minor fraction of Australia’s total sheep operations, though, and the price of Australian lamb is expected to rise this year as producers try to increase their stocks. In addition, blowback from animal rights activists in Australia concerned about the ethics of transporting live animals over long distances — for instance, to Qatar — could jeopardize shipments of sheep for Eid al-Adha. Opposition to the practice substantially reduced the exports of live sheep from Australia to Qatar in 2008; they didn’t bounce back until 2014, three years after Canberra enacted a measure to protect animal welfare. And the danger of a temporary disruption in live sheep exports still looms as activist groups release evidence of alleged animal mistreatment and lobby to guarantee the rights of exported livestock, not only in transit but also at their final destination.

Thinning the Flock

Should another interruption occur in Qatar’s supply of Australian sheep, Doha would have fewer alternative sources to choose from than it did in 2012. That year, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan made up for the drastic dip in Australia’s exports. Between Syria’s civil war and the feud in the GCC, however, Doha would likely have to look elsewhere to get the sheep it needs for Eid al-Adha. Sudan, one of the world’s leading exporters of live sheep, has served as a minor supplier in the past and could step up its shipments to Qatar. Countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and South Africa contributed modestly to Qatar’s imports of live sheep in 2015. Kenya, meanwhile, signed an agreement with Doha in 2016 to start exporting a variety of agricultural goods, including livestock, to the Gulf state. Qatar may also increase its imports of Iranian sheep, considering its limited choices.

Of prospective secondary suppliers, several countries have maintained their neutrality in the current diplomatic scuffle. Lebanon, for example, isn’t in a position to take sides in the dispute, since it is constantly negotiating pressure from Iran on one end and from Saudi Arabia on the other. Kuwait has deliberately stayed out of the spat between its fellow GCC member states. Kenya, likewise, has refrained from getting involved in light of the investments Doha has made into its tourism, finance and agricultural sectors in recent years. And though the self-declared Republic of Somaliland shares close economic ties with the United Arab Emirates, Somalia has declined to take a stand on the conflict. Bahrain, on the other hand, has joined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in blockading Qatar. Furthermore, Jordan — which supplied 2.5 percent of the country’s live sheep imports in 2015 — likely won’t offer supplemental livestock shipments to Doha because of its close relationships with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Qatar still has options to see it through this year’s Eid al-Adha. But as the holiday draws nearer, and as the GCC crisis drags on, livestock supplies will be an issue of growing concern for the tiny Gulf state.


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