Photograph by Mohamed Hwaity, AFP, Getty
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The wheat harvest in Saudia Arabia may soon come to an end as the water dries up and the country and others look to other lands for food.
Photograph by Mohamed Hwaity, AFP, Getty

Gulf Countries Look to Farm Abroad as Aquifer Dries Up

Turning sand into soil has long been a fantasy for many desert-dwelling peoples, and for much of the past few decades, many countries have worked hard to make it a reality. Now, these bids to green the desert have begun to flounder amid a desperate water crisis, forcing the nations to look elsewhere for food security.

For a while, agriculture in the Gulf states seemed like a dream come true: Saudi Arabia’s wheat output rose from 148,000 tons in 1981 to over four million tons by the mid-1990s as farmers carved out over three million new acres of cultivable land from the arid interior. Intent on maintaining political stability, neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE) boosted its volume of agricultural land from roughly 170 acres to around 170,000 over the past half-century.

But maybe these efforts worked too well. In recent years, the Arabian Aquifer, which runs the length of the peninsula, has been so depleted by bumper crop yields that some scientists suspect Saudi’s groundwater will run out within 13 years (see Saudi Arabia’s Great Thirst). As salt seeps into the soil and the water table tumbles (by over 1,000 feet in places), up to a third of the 24,000 farms in Abu Dhabi have already been abandoned.

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For the region’s large cadre of agribusinesses, the deterioration of their home environment has forced them to make some tough choices.

“Agriculture is not sustainable here, and that’s why we’re looking in other countries,” said Najieb Khoury, the head of Mirak Group, which grows strawberries, mushrooms and cherries in warehouse-like greenhouses on Dubai’s desert periphery. “The water is nothing. It just trickles.” He says his company has cut the amount of land it cultivates in the UAE from 500 to 75 acres.

For the governments of the Arabian Gulf states, (Arabian Gulf is another name for Persian Gulf) whose populations are among the fastest growing in the world, water woes have left them with little alternative. With cities like Dubai and Doha continuing to swell with new arrivals, no manner of drip irrigation or desalination technology will enable them to innovate their way out of the crisis.

“This whole food sufficiency scheme was really ridiculous,” says Eckart Woertz, former director of economic studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai and author of Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East. “Not since the 1970s have the Middle East and North Africa been able to grow enough. Their populations are just too big.”

It’s for this reason that Gulf officials and companies have turned to the international markets in earnest. They’ve identified the major agricultural powers and developed more links with suppliers. By upgrading their ports and expanding silos to maintain at least a year’s worth of emergency stores, they’re better placed to weather future food crises. Between 2011 and 2014, Saudi Arabia alone boosted its storage capacity from one million to 3.1 million tons.

“As long as world trade routes stay open, they can buy their food. These guys have money. It’s not a problem,” Woertz says.

If that were to be the sum total of Gulf efforts to stave off domestic environmental disaster, there would likely be little controversy. But these countries’ efforts to buy or lease land abroad for domestic crop growth have prompted uproar and even some accusations of modern day colonialism.

“This whole food sufficiency scheme was really ridiculous.”—Eckart Woertz, author of Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East.

No longer able to grow sufficient alfalfa and other animal feed at home due to water restrictions, Almarai, Saudi Arabia’s biggest dairy company (which also operates the largest dairy farm in the world), has snapped up roughly 14,000 acres of land snapped up roughly 14,000 acres of land in Arizona and California. Given recent drought, some locals are furious at what they see as an additional drain on their resources.

Even more contentious is the acquisition of large swaths of land in Sudan, Tanzania, and a host of other poor African states. Thousands of villagers are thought to have been evicted from their farms in Western Ethiopia (see Saudi Arabia Stakes a Claim on the Nile) in order to facilitate the arrival of East Asian and Gulf Arab agribusinesses. What these companies are doing in order to feed their customers back home is akin to what the European powers did in the 19th century, some NGOs insist. “An estimated 500 million acres, an area about ten times the size of Britain, has been bought or leased in the developing world in the last decade,” the Oakland Institute has reported.

But as far as Woertz is concerned, the so-called land grab been greatly overhyped or misunderstood. He says the investments that have been made are mostly for producing food for sale in the African market. Those that might have been bought with the intent to export back to the Gulf just haven’t really got off the ground, he says.

“The main reasons have been a lack of commercial viability and high risk as a result of a lack of infrastructure and corruption. Forget these stories about them buying these billions of hectares abroad to grow food. If they have received a single batch of rice from one of them, I’d be surprised,” he said.

In the meantime, however, Khoury of Marak Group thinks this crisis has created a prime opportunity for the UAE to go back to its food roots. For centuries, the country’s inhabitants subsisted for the most part on camel milk, camel meat and dates. In a suggestion that might not go down that well with the region’s now cosmopolitan make up, he feels that “these three things should again form the basis of our food security.”

Peter Schwartzstein is a Cairo-based journalist. He focuses on food, water, energy and refugee issues, and his work regularly appears in National Geographic News, among other news outlets. You can find him on Twitter @pschwartzstein.