By Peter Beland
Qatar is a Connecticut-sized country in the Persian Gulf that is rich in oil and natural gas, but poor in water. It has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and its economy grew 19% in 2010. Doha, the capital city, has roughly tripled in size in the past 20 years. Because of this growth and its moonscape geography that supports little agriculture, the country imports 90% of its food. Food security is a serious issue for the small, desert country.
Qatar had developed only 12% of its agricultural potential in 2009, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It could develop an additional 115,000 acres of land, but it would require extensive irrigation. The FAO estimates it could cost as much as $3,800 to develop every two-and-a-half acres of drip-irrigated land. With annual revenue surplus for the 2010-2011 fiscal year at $12 billion, Qatar has the capital to finance it. According to arabianbusiness.com, Qatar signed a deal with Kenya in 2008 to finance a $2.3 billion deepwater port on Kenya’s coast in exchange for a lease on nearly 100,000 acres of uncultivated land in Kenya for agricultural production.
The challenges of this Middle Eastern country are not unlike those that have faced Oregon, a state with recognized leadership in sustainability, and where solutions to an arid eastern landscape have led to irrigation and farming innovations that have transformed it into some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. Morrow County alone produces enough wheat annually to give every one of Qatar’s 1.7 million residents a loaf of bread every day for a year.
Sheikh Hamad Bin Ali Bin Jassim Al-Thani has taken notice of Portland’s leadership in urban sustainability and Eastern Oregon’s high-tech, dry-land agricultural operations. As vice chairman of Qatar’s National Food Security Program and member of the ruling family — and a Portland State University alum — Al-Thani is looking to Oregon’s technological and agricultural institutions to help his country overcome its food, water and energy challenges and develop into a regional powerhouse for sustainable urban and agricultural development.
As with most things, there was no seminal moment that led Al-Thani to the Beaver State to solve his country’s problems. It was more like old friends who run into each other and offer to help one another with contacts and skills they have developed over the years.