MAKING THE DESERT COME ALIVE
For a country that lacks permanent rivers and receives only scant rainfall to aspire to become a major agricultural producer is far-fetched. Yet Saudi Arabia has made that dream a reality, producing a wide range of agricultural products from barley to watermelons; achieving self-sufficiency in many areas, such as wheat, dairy products and fruits; and exporting to other countries a variety of farm products, from strawberries to flowers.
The key to agriculture throughout the world historically has been the availability, or the absence, of water. Most of the Kingdom is covered by deserts and arid land, yet there are fertile areas, such as the Asir in the southwest, that receive rainfall, as well as oases, such as Al-Qatif and Al-Hasa, that have for centuries produced dates and limited quantities of cereals and vegetables.
Also produced are vegetables, processed foods, dairy products (above), and grains (stored in silos, below).
With the introduction of the First Five-Year Development Plan in 1970, Saudi Arabia undertook to expand agricultural production in the traditionally fertile areas as well as extend it to other regions that have fertile soil but lack sufficient water. As it has done in other areas of economic endeavor, Saudi Arabia applied in the subsequent three decades its vast resources to the agricultural sector, literally making the deserts come alive.
To provide the water needed for the growing agricultural sector, the Kingdom took steps to collect and conserve vast quantities of water from the frequent flashfloods that occur in certain parts of the country, water that had previously disappeared into the sands. To collect the runoff, the Ministry of Agriculture and Water has built more than 200 dams placed strategically in wadis (dry riverbeds). These dams have a total reservoir capacity of more than 16 billion cubic feet of water. It has also established a vast network of irrigation canals to distribute water from these reservoirs to nearby farms.
Innovatively, Saudi Arabia also looked to the sea as a source of water not only for agriculture, but also for industry and urban use. The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) operates 27 desalination stations along the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, which with plants operated by other government agencies produce 220 billion gallons of desalinated water annually. Carried by an extensive network of pipelines to urban, industrial and agricultural centers, these plants provide more than 70 percent of the water used in cities, as well as a sizeable portion of the needs of industry and agriculture.
Additionally, water from underground reservoirs, accessed via deep wells, has been used to meet agricultural needs. Another source of water is treated urban wastewater, which is used exclusively for irrigating agricultural crops.
At the same time, the Kingdom introduced a series of steps to encourage greater private sector participation in agriculture. Under the land distribution and reclamation program, farmers were given plots of arable land. The government also provided them with long-term, interest-free loans, support services, and free seeds and fertilizers. It also set up roads linking major agricultural areas with urban centers to facilitate the transport of goods, and built silos to store grain produced at the new farms.
A milking parlor at Al-Safi, the world's largest dairy farm, in Al-Kharj
The result has been a phenomenal growth in agricultural production in the past three decades, with the value of output increasing more than 30-fold to more than 15 billion U.S. dollars annually.
Today, the Kingdom is a major producer of agricultural goods, and whereby previously output was limited to a few crops, the sector now enjoys great diversity. The Ministry of Agriculture and Water reports that the Kingdom is producing nearly nine million tons of cereals, fruits, vegetables and fodder every year on 11 million acres of land under cultivation. Saudi farmers produce some 2.2 million tons of wheat and barley, 2.7 million tons of vegetables, 1.2 million tons of fruit and nearly three million tons of alfalfa and other types of fodder for the livestock industry.
Flowers are grown in the fields near Taif and other areas for the fragrance industry as well as in hothouses for domestic flower shops and export abroad.
Significantly, the agricultural sector has been making headway in the production of fruits and vegetables that are in great demand in Saudi Arabia and which were almost exclusively imported in the past. For example, production of fruit almost doubled between 1994 and 1998, and most of the growth was for fruits other than dates, in which Saudi Arabia has traditionally been self-sufficient. Output of citrus products has risen from 59,000 tons in 1994 to more than 110,000 tons. Production of grapes has grown from 124,000 tons in 1994 to some 150,000 tons.
Output of vegetables now stands at some 2.7 million tons. As a result, locally produced vegetables satisfy 84 percent of domestic consumption, whereas most of the vegetables consumed in the Kingdom were imported a decade ago. Also, Saudi farmers are now exporting potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and pumpkins, with 60,000 tons shipped to neighboring countries every year.
Saudi Arabia is self-sufficient in the production of many agricultural products, including wheat.
Intensive dairy, meat, poultry and egg farming by small farmers and large-scale agro-industrial operations have satisfied local demand. These ventures produce 500,000 tons of poultry meat, 2.5 billion eggs, over 800,000 tons of dairy products, 160,000 tons of red meat, and 60,000 tons of fish every year.
In addition to supplying fresh farm products, the agricultural sector also features modern processing and packaging plants that ensure a wide range of foodstuffs with extended shelf-life.
Flying over Saudi Arabia today, one is amazed by the appearance of vast expanses of green in the desert. These agricultural tracts satisfy the nationís needs and produce exports of close to half a billion dollars worth of products to countries near and far every year.