A Qatari arms factory that makes rifles and grenade launchers has added a product that saves rather than takes lives: ventilators, now needed at home and abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The venture is the latest salvo in Doha’s charm offensive to cement old partnerships and secure new friends, as a bitter spat with Saudi Arabia and its allies drags into its fourth year on Friday.
The embargo has allowed the small Persian Gulf state to draw on capabilities developed the hard way in the wake of its regional isolation.
In the nerve center of Qatar’s nascent arms industry — the state-run Barzan Holdings facility — giant posters of soldiers toting locally made rifles promote “sovereignty” and “lethality.”
However, alongside all of the gun parts and night-vision goggles, the factory is preparing to churn out 2,000 life-giving ventilators per week, in collaboration with US defense manufacturer Wilcox.
Many are earmarked for export to what Qatar deems “friendly countries.”
“We thought it would be the perfect time to try to seize the moment to ... ramp up production needs,” Barzan managing director Nasser Hassan al-Naimi said of the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, abruptly cut diplomatic, economic and travel ties with Doha in June 2017, insisting that Qatar was too close to Iran and funding radical Islamist movements.
Qatar rejected those allegations and refused to budge on 13 demands made by its allies-turned-adversaries, including the closure of the Doha-based al-Jazeera news network and shutting a Turkish military base in the emirate.
At the end of April, al-Naimi oversaw a military airlift from the US of manufacturing equipment, which is initially to be used to build ventilators, before later being repurposed to produce military gear.
“There was a five-year strategy to bring in these machines over time, but now you’ve got it all at once,” al-Naimi said at the glistening factory in a science park on the outskirts of Doha.
The operation is reminiscent of an airlift that flew in cattle, mostly from the US, to meet demand for dairy products in the first days of what Doha calls “the blockade.”
Qatar’s ostracism by the Gulf’s key economic players propelled a self-sufficiency drive involving stockpiling food and setting up vegetable farms, in a country once entirely dependent on imports.
The blockade “worked as a catalyst and got us to where we are today,” al-Naimi said. “It has been a blessing in disguise and allowed us to realize our true potential and make sure that everything that we need strategically ... is manufactured here.”
Alongside using defense manufacturing capabilities developed under the embargo to respond to the coronavirus crisis, Qatar has also leaned on food security steps that it took after adversaries cut shipments.
At vast warehouses in the desert five key staples — including rice, cooking oil and sugar — are stockpiled to help prevent empty shelves, as seen in Qatar immediately after its neighbors severed ties.
“We have been eager to increase the stockpile of commodities that can’t be grown in Qatar to meet the challenge of any epidemic,” said Jassim bin Jabor bin Hassan Al Thani, undersecretary for consumer affairs and head of the Strategic Storage Working Group for Food Security at the Qatari Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Stockpiles of rice should last eight months, sugar for seven months and cooking oil for three months, he added.
“If you just back up ... 10 years, everyone was talking about the Khaleej [Gulf] community,” Royal United Services Institute associate fellow Tobias Borck said. “Qatar never really needed to be that self-sufficient, but the crisis created this moment of nationalism and of showing what they can do.”
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