Saudi Arabia’s agricultural development over the last three decades has been astonishing.
Large areas of desert have been turned into agricultural fields – a major accomplishment in a country that receives an average of about four inches of rain a year, one of the lowest rates in the world.
Today, Saudi Arabia exports wheat, dates, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables and flowers to markets around the world. Dates, once a staple of the Saudi diet, are now mainly grown for global humanitarian aid.
The Ministry of Agriculture is primarily responsible for agricultural policy. Other government agencies include the Saudi Arabian Agricultural Bank (SAAB), which disburses subsidies and grants interest-free loans; and the Grain Silos and Flourmills Organization, which purchases and stores wheat, constructs flourmills, and produces animal feed. The government also offers land distribution and reclamation programs and funds research projects.
The private sector has played a major role in the Kingdom’s agricultural development. This is mostly due to government programs that offered long-term, interest-free loans, technical and support services, and incentives such as free seeds and fertilizers, low-cost water, fuel and electricity, and duty-free imports of raw materials and machinery.
Historically, agriculture in the Arabian Peninsula was limited mostly to date farming and small-scale vegetable production in widely scattered oases, except in a small coastal strip in the southwest. Small plots produced enough food for the local communities, and any extra was sold to passing caravans.
Serious agricultural development began in the 1970s. The government launched an extensive program to promote modern farming technology; to establish rural roads, irrigation networks and storage and export facilities; and to encourage agricultural research and training institutions.
As a result, there has been a phenomenal growth in the production of all basic foods. Saudi Arabia is now completely self-sufficient in a number of foodstuffs, including meat, milk and eggs.
Water, of course, is the key to agriculture in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has successfully implemented a multifaceted program to provide the vast supplies of water necessary to achieve the tremendous growth of the agricultural sector.
A network of dams has been built to trap and utilize precious seasonal floods. Vast underground water reservoirs have been tapped through deep wells. Desalination plants have been built to produce fresh water from the sea for urban and industrial use, thus freeing other sources for agriculture. Facilities have also been put into place to treat urban and industrial runoff for agricultural irrigation.
These efforts collectively have helped transform vast tracts of the desert into fertile farmland. Land under cultivation, less than 400,000 acres in 1976, reached millions of acres by the 21st century.