Ancient Roots Nourish Modern Center of Agroindustry
Al-Kharj has developed into a modern center of agriculture and industry over the past two decades.
For centuries, the area known as Al-Kharj, which is located about 50 miles south of Riyadh, has stood out. In stark contrast to the vast desertland that surrounds it, the Dahna with its reddish sand to the north, and to the southeast, the Rub Al-Khali, the largest sand desert in the world, Al-Kharj's small verdant farms and groves of date palm trees have flourished in fertile soil. Today, this oasis has become a modern center for agriculture and related industries.
Al-Kharj's secret and its promise lie in its abundant fresh water supply. For thousands of years, several deep ponds and a network of natural aquifers have been continuously fed by three major wadis - Wadi Sahba, Wadi Hanifah and Wadi Nisah - and several smaller ones, which drain rainwater from the Tuwaiq escarpment to the west.
For as long as anyone can remember, the area of Al-Yamamah (an old name referring to the region in which Al-Kharj is located) has been the food basket of the Lower Najd. Farmers there have historically stocked Riyadh's larders with all the food products in the traditional Najdi diet, including flour, cheese, yogurt, eggs, vegetables, dates, watermelon and meat.
Archeological evidence points to the existence of oasis agriculture practiced by ancient cultures in this region as far back as the late Neolithic times some 4,000 years ago. In Wadi Hanifah and the broad plains of Wadi Nisah and Wadi Sulayy, date palm plantations, groves of fruit trees, grain crops and vegetable gardens flourished. Travelers through the ages have described the flowing streams and underground water channels that were fed by large natural rock pools in Al-Kharj itself. The poet Mutalammis, believed to be a native of Al-Yamamah, wrote of abundant harvests nearly 1,500 years ago:
Although its identity remained rooted in agriculture, Al-Kharj's proximity to Wadi Hanifah and the ancient trade route made it a commercial and political center as well. Al-Kharj has an average elevation of 1,600 feet above sea level, and with the rise of Islam it became a popular, refreshing stop for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Cities from the east, from the area of the Arabian Gulf. By the 1800s, Al-Kharj had become increasingly urbanized and a center for Islamic scholars.
It is not surprising that during the Second Saudi State in the 19th century, Al-Kharj served as a strong center of support and, later, as a base for the Saud family. After his historic victory in Riyadh, the centennial of which is being celebrated this year, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud built a palace, complete with a farm and stable, in Al-Kharj. The King retreated to it frequently on weekends and during the summer, often bringing guests from Riyadh. The old palace is currently being restored (photos Page 16) and is expected to open next year as a museum.
In spite of its many attributes, by the early 1970s the population of Al-Kharj was only about 20,000 and little had been done to take advantage of its abundant water supply. Determined to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency, to ensure a supply of water, to encourage rural development and job opportunities for Saudis, and to advance private-sector farming, the Saudi government launched substantial investments in several agricultural regions, including that of Al-Kharj.
In the early 1980s, the government offered Saudi farmers free land, and interest-free loans for machinery, fertilizer and seed, and guaranteed the sale of their crops. Al-Kharj farmers responded enthusiastically and tapped the natural aquifers, installing center-pivot irrigation systems that pump 1,250 gallons per minute onto circular plots as large as half a mile in diameter. These round patches of green, seen from the air, have become a distinctive feature of the area.
Today there are 15,000 to 17,000 wells in Al-Kharj. Although most are between 500 and 1,000 feet in depth, some probe as much as a mile into the earth, pumping out water that is close to the boiling point, and has to be allowed to cool in ponds before use.
By 1986, hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat were being produced at Al-Kharj. In addition to bumper crops, grain elevators and a host of small industries, businesses and shops were established to provide products and services to farmers and laborers.
Though the subsidies were set aside a few years ago, more farmers than ever continue to grow crops. The fertile Al-Kharj basin supports hundreds of small farms in addition to several large commercial farms. There are also large numbers of farms used as weekend retreats and summer homes by city dwellers in nearby Riyadh.
If farming is difficult to picture in the desert, a booming dairy farm challenges the imagination even more. Yet more than 120,000 head of cattle are raised at Al-Kharj, and 80 percent of the dairy products produced in Saudi Arabia come from the area.
The Saudi dairy industry evolved slowly. The Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) created the first commercial dairy farm some 40 years ago. Later Saudi-Danish joint ventures launched local production of dairy products, which previously had been imported.
In the 1980s, larger dairies like Al-Marai were established in Al-Kharj, importing Holstein Friesian cattle. Today the locals have named the road that leads to many of the dairies "Milk Road." One of these, Al-Safi Dairy, holds the distinction, as well as the listing in the Guinness Book of World Records, of being the largest integrated dairy operation in the world.
All its dairy operations, including 24,000 head of cattle, production of feed, milking parlors, processing and packaging plants, and the distribution system, are on-site at the Al-Safi farm located in the Sahba Valley about 60 miles southeast of Riyadh. All basic feeds needed by the herd - such as alfalfa, Rhodes grass hay, and sorghum Sudani silage - are grown on the farm. Water is pumped from on-site wells, some as deep as one mile, for the irrigation system.
To protect the cattle from the intense heat, especially during the summer, many of the dairies have equipped their cattle pens with evaporative cooling systems. Using the latest technology, air-droplet cooling fans cool the cattle that take shelter under special awnings.
The success of the dairy farming industry has made Saudi Arabia a prime exporter of dairy products in the Middle East. To meet the increased demand in the rapidly growing Arabian Gulf states, the Saudi government recently announced that it would invest in another dairy operation in Al-Kharj.
Just as growing more crops has spawned broad economic growth in Al-Kharj, the dairy industry has benefited the overall economy. The abundant supply of dairy cows has triggered a growing beef production program. Several small farms in the area buy surplus bullocks, fatten them and sell them to Riyadh beef production companies. Al-Safi Dairy plans to begin producing beef at the farm. A new slaughterhouse and plant will be built and the operation is expected to be under way by next year.
In addition to its agricultural aspects, Al-Kharj benefits from its railroad link to both the capital city of Riyadh and the Arabian Gulf port city of Dammam. The rail line was one of the primary reasons Arasco Feed & Mill chose its site near Al-Kharj.
A group of local farmers established the Arasco Mill in 1983 as a storage facility for their grain. A private-shareholding company, Arasco started producing a line of quality feeds in 1986.
To date, the company has invested more than 50 million U.S. dollars to produce more than 400 types of feed for chickens, dairy cows, camels, sheep, horses, fish and domestic pets. Last year Arasco produced some 600,000 tons of animal feed.
Located next to the railway, Arasco invested in 200 railway containers to transport feed to the Dammam port. The company is currently expanding its operations and product line and plans to export feed to other countries in the Gulf region.
Arasco is one of many companies that have been established in the Al-Kharj region and have flourished. Initially it employed eight people. Today, the company provides 1,200 jobs.
The face of Al-Kharj has changed dramatically in the last two decades, especially in the past ten years. The city has grown ten-fold in this time, with an estimated population now of about 250,000.
The historic center of Al-Kharj still holds many of the traditional mud-brick homes with wooden ceiling beams supporting roofs made of dried palm leaves and mud. Modern buildings now surround the old section, a testament to the recent boom.
Al-Kharj's healthy economy has also been boosted by nearby military installations. The large scope of Prince Sultan Air Base, which has some 25,000 personnel, and a military depot have contributed to the housing boom to the north and south of Al-Kharj City.
Countless numbers of businesses have benefited from the growth in the local population that the air base generated. Al-Safi, for example, has doubled its sales of milk products in Al-Kharj in the last ten years.
The presence of the air base has also triggered new industry, such as a ballistics factory. Others are on the drawing board. Mansour General Dynamics Ltd. is forming the Advanced Systems Industrial Company, a joint venture company that plans to manufacture parts for military vehicles. The company's feasibility study projects sales of 2.5 million dollars during the first year and 10 million dollars after the first five years. Expected to be in operation next year either in Al-Kharj or in the new Al-Kharj Industrial City located closer to Riyadh, the new factory will provide more jobs to the rapidly growing, youthful population in the region.
Moreover, Mansour General Dynamics is currently working with local officials to design classes and an apprenticeship program at the Al-Kharj Vocational School that will result in a pool of young Saudi machinists. Eventually, the new company will employ about 100 people. Other multinationals are also looking at Al-Kharj to locate large new factories.
The modern expressway connecting Al-Kharj and Riyadh makes it possible for many Al-Kharj residents to maintain an urban lifestyle. At the same time, city life has attracted many Bedouin to settle in Al-Kharj. Located on the edge of vast deserts, Al-Kharj has historically been a frequent trade center for the nomadic desert dwellers. These days most of the Bedouin have moved into town to be close to schools and hospitals.
In spite of the development it has undergone in the past two decades, the Al-Kharj area retains much of its traditional charm. The area's growth has improved the lives of countless residents. Those who move to urban centers tend to keep a small private farm as a second home where they spend weekends with family and close friends, enjoying the green environment and soothing setting that is characteristic of Al-Kharj.