As Gulf crisis bites, Qatari food factories seek to fill gap

DOHA  - At a meat processing plant in Doha's sprawling industrial zone, masked workers toil through the night heaving boxes of raw chicken across a pristine factory floor.
They have been working extra shifts since Monday when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other nations cut ties and severed all transport links with Qatar, prompting fears of food shortages in the import-dependent country.
The Saudi-led push to isolate Qatar by cutting diplomatic and trade ties over its alleged support for terrorism has choked food imports from key transit points in Saudi and the UAE and caused panic buying at shops early in the week.
The spat has forced the tiny, gas-rich state to turn to other foreign exporters including Turkey and Iran but also to its own local food companies to keep supermarket shelves stacked.
In the meat plant on Saturday, workers hurried about feeding frozen chicken breasts imported from Brazil through shiny metal grinders and pushing them in trolleys into an adjacent room to be packaged.
"We've put two shifts instead of one and stopped exporting to concentrate production for the local market ... There are plans to treble production," said Ahmed al-Khalaf, chairman of International Projects Development Co., the parent company of Qatar Meat, in his office adjoining the plant.
Qatar Meat has been working to double its output of chicken, beef and lamb to 40 tonnes per day.
Khalaf says this is proof Qatar can survive without having to rely on neighbors who have shunned it.
Khalaf's food businesses, which include the meat plant run by one of his sons and a farm that grows root vegetables, both felt the pinch when the UAE and Saudi shut their borders.
Up to 30 shipping containers of Khalaf's remain stranded at the Jebel Ali port in Dubai, a major business and transit hub for the region.
But by flying in goods directly from countries such as Turkey and using other ports in the Gulf including Salalah in Oman, the factory can cover its demand for raw material.
"Some equipment is coming by airplane from abroad to double the capacity of the production line," Khalaf said.
Qatar, a small desert country, relies heavily on imports to feed its 2.7 million mostly foreign population and nearly half of Qatar's food comes across the border from Saudi Arabia.
Like many local businesses, Qatar Meat imports all the meat that it processes and packages.
"The raw material - we bring it from outside," Khalaf said.
Other Qatari companies are also sensing opportunity.
In his dairy factory, Mohammed al-Kuwari, 30, is working weekends during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to oversee production.
"The situation is great! As you can see, there's lots of production and we have a big share in the market," he said as employees packaged yogurts with the Rawa brand of his Gulf Food Production company.
The factory is producing 20,000 liters of dairy products per day, up from 15,000 liters, he said.
Gulf Food Production also relies heavily on import, including milk from France.
"It normally comes in by ship but soon maybe it will all come in by air for the same price," thanks to government support, he said.
As for relations with Gulf neighbors, Khalaf says he is already looking elsewhere.
"I'm leaving next week to make some other arrangements to bring from other countries" including Turkey, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, he said.
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