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Paul McLoughlin

Gulf supply chains weather the storm as Europe struggles during the coronavirus crisis

Supermarkets have enforced queuing systems to limit the number of shoppers in-store [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 April, 2020

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The Gulf appears immune to the panic buying engulfing Europe and North America.
Empty shelves have become an all too common sight in supermarkets across the UK since the coronavirus epidemic first struck, over a month ago.

The first target of panic buyers was toilet roll. Then pasta, tinned tomatoes and olive oil disappeared from shelves leaving shoppers to pick through discarded sachets of Angel Delight in a fruitless search for non-perishables.

While the shortages are considered temporary and not evidence of widespread food shortages, there are obvious challenges to supply chains and disruptions to ordinary lives in Europe and North America.

Social media has captured ugly scenes of brawls over toilet paper, Soviet-esque queues outside often desolate grocery stores, and rationing systems imposed by supermarkets, all adding to the sense of humdrum cataclysm in the West.

In the Gulf region it's a different story. Gulf nationals and residents who spoke to The New Arab said it is business as usual at local grocery stores, with almost every item they need in stock.

Some have proudly shared images on social media of supermarkets packed with every item imaginable, insisting that people there are unaffected by the panic buying that has engulfed much of the world.

Pictures shared online of fully-stocked shelves of toilet paper point to an element of comic schadenfreude about the struggle of Europeans and Americans to find this highly sought after commodity.

Business as usual

Governments also appear emboldened by the success of their supply chains, with local authorities using social media to show how well they've responded to the coronavirus crisis.

Opinions have been split on the reasons for disparate responses between shoppers in Europe and the Middle East.

Some have blamed the "hysterical media" in the West for encouraging the hoarding of toilet paper and other essentials. Others have implied that national temperament and material factors are the reasons for the calm in the Gulf.

"People don't 'need' everything to survive. In living memory life has been much harder [with] much less available foods. Omanis know how to survive, to make do, and survive on less," one long-time expatriate of this Gulf state told The New Arab.

"Many Omanis have a farm with dates, goats, cows, milk, chicken, eggs, plus vegetables. They have their own food, [so there's] no need to panic."

Supply chains

With the six GCC states - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman - having a combined population lower than Italy's, of 60 million, there is less pressure on supply chains and markets, business experts have said.

Mayank Singh, Group Editor at United Media Services in Oman, said that import-reliant Gulf states have a long history of building strong supply chains and strong emphasis on food security. This has helped markets in the Gulf weather the disruptions brought on by the coronavirus.

"As GCC states have traditionally been reliant on the import of food and essentials, availability of adequate stock and security of supply have always been accorded high-priority by governments," Singh told The New Arab.

"As a result, these states are in a state of preparedness on any given day, helping them negotiate any contingency better."

Gulf states have not been completely immune to panic buying and certain items have been periodically in short supply, such as face masks and hand sanitisers in recent weeks.

Read more: Coronavirus: Travel restrictions, border shutdowns across the Middle East

Some pharmacies and supermarkets have sold a year's worth of hand sanitisers stock in one day, and while the hygiene products are being replenished, they are still flying off the shelves, Singh added.

"The government has been proactive in dealing with such instances. The ministry of health issued instructions to all pharmacies to sell these products only to the public and not for wholesale or export," he said.

"Local producers have also been urged to increase production to keep pace with the increase in demand." 

Imports

In addition to a stimulus package implemented to help local businesses cope with the coronavirus crisis, Oman has also reduced costs for importers. They have also been allowed to avail government warehouses to boost supplies of fruit, vegetables and meat - almost all of them imported.

Muscat's main exhibition and convention centre has been converted into storage space for retailers and logistics companies to bolster food security.

Some pharmacies and supermarkets have sold a year's worth of hand sanitisers stock in one day

Oman also changed the rules to allow vegetables and fruit to be transported directly to Muscat's central market when they arrive to the country, while government is encouraging people to establish their own trading and retail businesses.

Statements have also been issued since the start of the crisis, assuring the public there are enough supplies to go around and urging people not to hoard.

"These steps have reassured people about the availability of supplies, deterred them from panic buying and creating an artificial scarcity," Singh added.

On Wednesday, a 12-day lockdown for Muscat governorate was announced, but logistics and supplies are unlikely to be affected.

Gulf markets also benefit from close relations between business figures and government, with the strong financial reserves needed to keep supplies flowing.

"The scale of the pandemic has seen a rallying of forces between the government and private sector… As food supply chains, hypermarkets and supermarkets in Oman and the GCC are largely owned and managed by private businesses, their commitment to maintain and replenish stocks is paramount and until now they have proved more than a match to the task," Singh added.

"The government is playing the role of the enabler and enforcer, if needed, to see that there are no shortages in the market."

Uncertain times

Other countries in the Middle East have seen shortages that go beyond hand sanitisers and face masks as coronavirus disrupts global supply chains and local lockdowns limit access to stores.

Jordan implemented city-wide curfews in Amman and Irbid to lessen the spread of coronavirus, causing a rush to bakeries and supermarkets before the lockdown began.

Staples such as bread have been delivered to homes by government workers with anyone caught on the streets liable to arrest.

Read more: ’Catastrophe is coming': Disaster looms for Greek refugee camps

Lebanon is also considering importing wheat for the first time in six years due to concerns the coronavirus crisis could impact on food security.

The situation is even more dire in Syria, Yemen, Libya and other war-torn countries. Disruptions to trade and pressure on already weak healthcare will likely see the coronavirus cause widespread devastation there.

Other countries in the Middle East have seen shortages that go beyond hand sanitisers and face masks as coronavirus disrupts global supply chains and local lockdowns limit access to stores.

UK supermarkets have generally seen items shipped directly to stores when needed, eliminating the need for large storage spaces.

The shock jump in demand caused by panic buying saw a disruption to this model.

As the death toll from the disease climbs in the UK, the situation in supermarkets appears to be improving and suppliers adjusting to the new challenges. 

"Initially they tried to rationalise the supply chain, so in a way they managed to minimise the product range available in store. In that way they managed to distribute bigger volumes - smaller numbers of products, but bigger volumes, to manage the demand," Professor Michael Bourlakis, Chair in Logistics, Procurement and Supply Chain Management at Cranfield University, told the BBC.

"Another strategy they have been following is to increase the employees working in the store and warehouse facilities. On top of that we have seen in the past few weeks online orders are increasing a lot."

A surge in demand has seen shoppers complain they are unable to find delivery slots, while retailer Tesco has told customers to shop in-store rather than online.

One positive amid the disruption in the UK has been the armies of volunteers who have ensured the sick, elderly and homeless stay fed during the crisis.

The UK might not have hit a peak in the number of corona cases, but business and volunteers are slowly adjusting to the challenges brought on by corona.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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