Thomas W. Lippman
Mr. Lippman is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Perilous Future of an American Ally (Potomac Books, 2011).
On the broad highway that runs southeast from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, it takes less than an hour to reach the beginning of farm country.
The industrial zones peter out, and suddenly date palms are growing on both sides of the road, not in the random patterns of an oasis but in the long straight rows of cultivated orchards. Then the first chicken hatchery appears, and soon patches of green vegetables and alfalfa. East of the farm town of al-Kharj are vast operations of corporate agriculture, such as Al Safi, the world’s largest dairy farm, and Almarai, a dairy and juice conglomerate.
The landscape is unmistakably desert and hardly looks promising for farming. But agriculture is big business in Saudi Arabia, from Hail in the north to the valleys near Taif in the west to the terraced hillsides of the southwest, made possible mostly by decades of government subsidies and irrigation with water pumped out of caverns deep underground. In 2008, agriculture accounted for nearly 5 percent of the country’s annual GDP and employed about 12 percent of the work force.1
Saudi state television’s “This is Our Country” program features a documentary celebrating the achievements of Saudi agriculture: self-sufficiency in wheat and poultry, impressive harvests of figs, grapes and citrus fruits, increasing production of olive oil. The so-called “Desert Kingdom” is self-sufficient in potatoes — which is saying a lot, given the amount of french fries consumed at the ubiquitous fast-food restaurants — and even produces flowers for export.
Nevertheless, only about 2 percent of the country’s enormous land mass is arable, even with intensive irrigation and modern farming technology, and the country in modern times has always depended on imported food. That dependence is increasing as the young population continues to grow at a rate that outpaces production. Facing a probable 77 percent growth in its population by 2050, Saudi Arabia is grappling with the realization that its barren soil and dwindling water supply will be insufficient to feed all those people.2 A quest for “food security,” in a world where competition for food can only increase, has moved to the top of the Saudi planning agenda.
The Saudis were spooked by the global commodity crunch of 2007, when India, their main supplier of rice, temporarily banned exports because of its own shortage, and the prices of corn and other grains spiked upward. As prices rose for the long-grain Basmati rice favored by Saudi consumers, the government granted a subsidy of $267 per ton in an effort to stabilize the market, only to cancel it two years later upon discovering that it was benefiting exporters more than it helped Saudi consumers.3
Given the amount of cash per unit of population at its disposal, it seems obvious that Saudi Arabia would be better able to deal with such a problem than other countries; but the Saudis learned a lesson in 2007 when, despite their oil wealth, they were unable to purchase all the rice they needed. Imports fell from 958,000 tons in 2006 to 914,000 tons in 2007.4 That development augmented a mistrust of markets that can be traced to President Jimmy Carter’s cutoff of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. In 2007 and 2008, food-driven inflation imposed real hardship on the millions of Saudis who live below the official poverty line and became a political issue, to the extent that there are political issues in the kingdom.5
Combined with a growing awareness that the country has mismanaged its very limited supplies of water, the commodity crisis prompted Saudi Arabia to change its agricultural policies. The government has abandoned its aggressive campaign for self-sufficiency, scrapped support for crops such as wheat and alfalfa that consume large amounts of water, and increased support for organic farming and vegetables for human consumption. The generous subsidies that enabled a country with no rivers or lakes to become the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat are being phased out. No longer does the government support easy access to its reserves of fossil water, the underground aquifers from a previous geologic age that delivered water to a thirsty earth. The fossil water is like the country’s oil — when it is used up, it is gone. There is no replenishing spring or mountain runoff.
The agriculture ministry is emphasizing scientific water management, water-conserving drip irrigation, and an end to the production of crops for cattle feed—“more crops for less drops,” as Agriculture Minister Fahd Bulghanaim puts it.6 And, in a program that has stirred up global controversy, the government is encouraging private Saudi corporations to seek “food security” by developing farm resources in land-rich, cash-poor countries around the world. In effect, the Saudis plan to explore for and produce food overseas the way American and other Western companies explored for oil in the Arabian peninsula.
With its new policy, Saudi Arabia is attempting to strengthen its position in what seems certain to be a growing competition for food among the nations of the Middle East, including Iran and Iraq. Among the “relative certainties” the world will encounter over the next decade or so, according to U.S. government intelligence experts, is that “Continued economic growth — coupled with 1.2 billion more people by 2025 — will put pressure on energy, food and water resources. The number of countries with youthful populations in the ‘arc of instability’ [including the Middle East] will decrease, but the populations of several youth-bulge states are projected to remain on rapid growth trajectories. The potential for conflict will increase owing to rapid changes in parts of the greater Middle East and the spread of lethal capabilities.”7
A long-term comprehensive planning document developed by the Saudi Ministry of Economy and Planning in 2003 asserted confidently, “We managed to achieve total food security in less than a generation.”8 By 2009, that confidence had vaporized. Instead, according to a Ministry of Commerce and Industry presentation at an international conference in Austria in 2009, “The Kingdom’s leadership vision is focused on facing the world food crisis by taking sustainable measures and securing food supplies for the Kingdom’s citizens and residents.” 9
In January 2009, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz proclaimed a “food security initiative,” backed by an investment fund of 3 billion Saudi riyals (about $800 million), to support investment by private sector Saudi companies in agricultural projects abroad. According to the government, “The King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad aims at contribution to realizing national and international food security, building integrative partnerships with countries all over the world that have high agricultural potential to develop and manage agricultural investments in several strategic crops at sufficient quantities and stable prices in addition to ensuring their sustainability.”10 In plain English, that means the Saudis intend to use their capital to develop farm projects in countries that have agricultural potential but lack the money to acquire the irrigation pumps, tractors and harvesters, fertilizer, farm-to-market roads and refrigerated warehouses needed for major increases in output.
Among the targeted countries are Sudan, Ethiopia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mozambique and Ukraine. One prominent Saudi businessman, Mohammed al-Amoudi, has already committed his Saudi Star Agricultural Development Company to invest in the cultivation of rice and other crops on 1.2 million acres in Ethiopia.11
The crops developed through these investments would be exported, in whole or in part, to Saudi Arabia. Some would be used to establish what the government calls a “strategic reserve for basic food commodities,” including rice, wheat and barley, “which satisfies the Kingdom’s needs for food and avoids future food crisis.”12
This program and similar efforts by other cash-rich, land-poor countries have stirred fears of a “land grab” reminiscent of the colonial era, when European countries took over tropical lands to grow sugar and rubber. Media reports worldwide, circulated by a website called farmlandgrab.org, have depicted these programs as a threat to peasants and indigenous populations of potential target countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Because some of these countries are themselves dependent on food imports, any plans to grow crops for export there are extremely sensitive politically.
When the first cargo of rice from a Saudi-financed farm in Ethiopia was delivered to the kingdom in March 2009, London’s Financial Times pointed out that “in the past year the United Nations World Food Programme has helped to feed 11 million people in Ethiopia, which has suffered crop failures and food distribution problems.”13
“Land Grab: The Race for the World’s Farmland,” headlined an article in The Independent, another British newspaper. “Neo-colonialists are buying up agricultural land in Africa — and local farmers could be crushed unless there are international rules to protect them.” The article described what it called “a frantic rush,” led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, “to gobble up farmland all around the world, but mainly cash-starved Africa.”14
Well aware of the sensitivity of the issue, the Saudis say their intentions are benign and that their investments can help the target countries as well as themselves by increasing crop yields enough to free up food for export while leaving behind enough for the local people.
“Our policy is to help countries that have land and water,” said Abdulaziz al-Howaish, general director of the agriculture ministry’s international cooperation department. “We have the technology and capital. We will help them to produce, for them and for us.”
According to Howaish, “Saudi investors are following the direction set by His Majesty: it should be a matter of mutual interest and emphasize the interest of local people. It is not just a land grab. We want it to be sustainable, to look at what the local people need. There should always be a clause that part of the output should go to local people if they need it.”15
“We’re not talking about a land grab, we are talking about investment in food supply,” said Usamah al-Kurdi, a member of King Abdullah’s appointed Consultative Council who is investing in a new company formed to participate in the food-security program. “Who is talking about buying land? We are talking about buying from farmers, producing food. The concept of buying land is wrong, in the same way that foreign oil companies don’t own the land where they produce oil. It’s investment of capital and technology. You invest, buy from local farmers and produce there. This includes investment in infrastructure — irrigation, farm-to-market roads — and thus creates jobs. The idea is to participate in providing food for the world, not just Saudi Arabia.”
In his view, the political problem of exporting food from countries that depend on food imports is manageable if the issue is explained correctly to the local people. Just as Egypt exports expensive long-staple cotton to raise hard currency and uses the money to buy cheaper cotton for clothing and towels, he said, “The Philippines is one of the biggest rice importers, but there would be nothing wrong with exporting long grain rice if the people there prefer short grain and you import more of that.”16
A framing paper prepared by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization for the World Summit on Food Security in Rome in November 2009 summarized the issue:
“Certainly, complex and controversial economic, political, institutional, legal and ethical issues are raised in relation to property rights, food security, poverty reduction, rural development, technology and access to land and water. On the other hand, lack of investment in agriculture over decades has meant continuing low productivity and stagnant production in many developing countries. Lack of investment has been identified as an underlying cause of the recent food crisis and the difficulties developing countries encountered in dealing with it. FAO estimates that gross annual investments of US$209 billion are needed in primary agriculture and downstream services in developing countries (this is in addition to public investment needs in research, infrastructure and safety nets) to meet global food needs in 2050.”17
According to the Saudi government, that is exactly the challenge that King Abdullah’s initiative is intended to ad>dress. As outlined by government officials and potential Saudi investors, it would be a partnership between the Saudi government and private-sector companies. The government would negotiate agreements with host countries setting the terms of investment and specifying the conditions under which the host country could cut off exports in emergencies. It would also provide aid to the host countries to build roads and other infrastructure projects needed to facilitate farm development. It would be up to private companies to lease the land, hire local workers, provide equipment and fertilizer, and move the crops to market.
This is not entirely a new idea — Egyptians have long fantasized about what they could do if they could marry their agricultural expertise to Libyan capital and Sudanese land — and the Saudis are hardly alone in their anxiety about future food supplies. The U.S. National Intelligence Council in its “Global Trends 2025” report said,
“Experts currently consider 21 countries with a combined population of about 600 million to be either cropland- or freshwater-scarce. Owing to continuing population growth, 36 countries, home to about 1.4 billion people, are projected to fall into this category by 2025.... Lack of access to stable supplies of water is reaching unprecedented proportions in many areas of the world and is likely to grow worse owing to rapid urbanization and population growth.”18
That report represents a synthesis of the view of all the U.S. government intelligence agencies.
Other studies have reported that competition for access to commodities is also being stoked by conversion of cropland to biofuel production and by a growing number of people worldwide with enough money to purchase food beyond traditional diets — imported dairy products, for example, instead of what is available from family-owned livestock.
As a recent Canadian study of the farmland investment phenomenon noted, “Access to land without water is pointless for agricultural investments. In essence, what are often described now as land grabs are really water grabs: the purchase or long-term lease of land in order to obtain the water rights that come with the land under domestic law or with the investment contract itself.”19
If there is any country that has “land without water,” it is Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis recognize that they have mismanaged what little water they have. The wheat subsidy program that enabled Saudi Arabia to become the world’s sixth-largest exporter, for example, sucked up billions of gallons of nonrenewable fossil water and shipped it out of the country. Some studies have found that as much as 40 percent of the water sent through the country’s pipes and watermains is lost to leakage and evaporation. And with economic development has come increased use of water for modern bathrooms, washing machines and dishwashers.
The kingdom has invested more than any other country in the desalination of seawater, but almost all water produced through desalination is needed for human consumption, leaving little for watering crops and livestock. “Today, the Kingdom is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world, manufacturing nearly 3 million cubic meters of water daily (cum/d),” according to a recent report by the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Business Council, which promotes bilateral trade and investment. But demand “is expected to reach 10 million cum/d,” the report said.20
Nor is water relief available from Saudi Arabia’s mostly arid neighbors. According to a study published by the Population Reference Bureau, “twelve of the world’s 15 water-scarce countries” — those that have “less than 1,000 cubic meters of renewable fresh water per person per year” — are in the Middle East and North Africa. Even neighboring Iraq, watered since the beginning of history by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and formerly a food exporter, is now plagued by drought and importing food because upstream Syria and Turkey use more of those river waters for themselves. “Falling agricultural production means that Iraq, once a food exporter, will this year have to import nearly 80 percent of its food,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 2009. 21
For all these reasons, a consensus has emerged in Saudi Arabia about the need to recast its agricultural policies.
Wheat exports have ceased, and production is being reduced by 12.5 percent a year. To reduce consumption of alfalfa and barley for animal feed, of which the country is already the world’s biggest importer, the government is offering subsidies to dairy farmers and the owners of sheep and goats to switch to a high-protein manufactured feed. Vegetable production is shifting from open fields, where water evaporates, to greenhouses.
Elimination of the wheat subsidies was a difficult decision for the government because it represented the large-scale failure of a policy to which the kingdom had been committed for three decades. The subsidies for wheat and other crops originally were conceived less as a stimulus to food production than as a means of keeping village and farm populations in place. That battle has largely been lost as the population has migrated to the cities. Moreover, the wheat subsidy program was riddled with fraud because wheat merchants passed off imported wheat, which was not subsidized, as a domestic product in order to collect the subsidy.22
With the subsidies on their way out, Saudi Arabia resumed importing wheat in 2009 after a hiatus of more than 25 years. By 2016, when all subsidies have been eliminated, the country will need to import about 3.5 million metric tons per year.23
The policy revisions do not mean that the government is reducing its overall support for agriculture. On the contrary, according to the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Business Council, it has “earmarked more than $28 billion worth of agricultural investment projects through 2020.”24 But it is changing the mix of crops and products it will support to emphasize those that consume less fresh water. One of the stated objectives is to become the world’s biggest exporter of shrimp through aquaculture projects on the Red Sea coast.
Despite some grumbling from landowners who were cashing in on the wheat program, most elements of the revised policies appear to be noncontroversial. But there is a good deal of vocal opposition to the foreign investment program from business executives and economists who doubt that it is feasible or even truly necessary. They say that investing in turbulent countries such as Sudan is more trouble than it is worth, and that a better solution would be to strike long-term deals with stable suppliers such as Canada and Australia. Saudi Arabia might well have to compete with other buyers for such deals, they argue, but the kingdom has the money to outbid them.
“In these foreign investments, in Sudan or Ethiopia or Ukraine, who is going to secure the investment against political risk or flood or whatever?” asked Fawaz al-Alamy, who negotiated Saudi Arabia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and is now a director of a major food and food-processing company. “I would love to see these projects succeed, but I don’t believe it. Profit margins are already small in the food business. I’d rather have agreements with credible countries like New Zealand and Canada — they produce without help from us; we buy, we have stable arrangements with no investment risk.”
That also is the policy of the U.S. government, which would prefer to see Saudi Arabia purchase whatever wheat it needs from U.S. suppliers, perhaps through long-term “oil for food” arrangements, according to American officials.
Al-Alamy said WTO rules specifically permit countries to cut off agricultural commodity exports in times of shortage, so that “when you have a crisis any country has the right to prevent exportation, and [the result is] its people are eating food you paid to produce.” He said his skepticism was fueled by experience. Several years ago, he “helped put together” Saudi and Kuwaiti funding to build Kenana Sugar Company in Sudan. “About $1 billion has been invested and we have not seen one kilo of sugar,” he said, because Kenana, while successful, does not meet all the demand in Sudan.25
Another skeptic is Turki Faisal al-Rasheed, the outspoken chairman of the food conglomerate Golden Grass, Inc., and a sometime newspaper columnist. Al-Rasheed thinks the farm investment program is unlikely to succeed and, worse, represents a bad policy decision by the Saudi government. In his view, the country should encourage more farm production at home, not less, to insulate itself from political upheaval, natural disasters, inexorable commodity-price inflation worldwide and even domestic unrest. Those are the reasons France and Germany subsidize domestic agriculture, he said.
“The only way you could enhance security and fight poverty is through agriculture,” he said. “You need to keep those rural areas…inhabited. Keep people in their villages. If they go below sustainable figures, those villages will be ghost towns. When the rural people move to a city, you have urban poverty, drugs, prostitution, crime. So agriculture is a form of social security.”
Al-Rasheed argues that the country’s oil industry will never employ more than 3 percent of the labor force and that the automated petrochemical plants to which the government is hitching the country’s economic future will also employ relatively few workers. “So what are you going to do with the other 96 or 97 percent of the people? What are you going to do with your labor, your 60 percent [of the population] below the age of 18?”
Agriculture, he said, “is not just a business, it’s multifunctional. It’s a social function, it’s food security, you are in the distribution of wealth to achieve security. Whoever wants to be there [in rural communities], you should give them agriculture jobs.”26
Al-Rasheed will not prevail in the policy argument as long as Abdullah is king, because the monarch is committed to the overseas investment initiative. But he and other experts predict that the initiative will succeed only marginally, if at all, because of political and economic realities in global markets and in the host countries. John Sfakianakis, a development specialist who is chief economist of Saudi Fransi Bank, and Brad Bourland, a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia who is chief economist of Jadwa Investments, both dismissed the entire program as “a fad.”27
Indeed, of the many announced and proposed deals reported in news media, only a relative handful are actually being implemented. According to a study by Canada’s International Institute for Sustainable Development, “In 2009 many of the short-term factors that were present in 2008 (with the exception of the financial crisis) have temporarily disappeared. As a result, and combined with the impacts of the financial crisis and accompanying credit restrictions, the impetus to conclude deals is showing early signs of fading.”
As an example, the study said that an announced $4.3 billion deal by 15 Saudi investors organized by the Saudi Binladin Group in 2008 to develop 500,000 hectares in Indonesia for the production of the long-grain Basmati rice favored by Saudi consumers has been scrapped.28
The skepticism, however, applies only to the proposed solution for the problem, not to the existence of the problem itself. No one doubts that Saudi Arabia will face increasingly urgent food- and water-supply problems in the next two or three decades. As an agriculture ministry delegate told an international food conference in Austria in the spring of 2009, “With the beginning of the world economic crisis in the last quarter of 2008, food prices started to decline. This sign is not an indicator for future abundance in such products. Because it is a long-term strategy, King Abdullah’s initiative had to go on as planned.”29
Indeed, the food numbers are already stark. In addition to the wheat it will be importing in ever-increasing quantities, Saudi Arabia is already the world’s second-largest importer of rice after Nigeria (Iran is fifth) and consumes 45 percent of all the feed barley traded in global markets.30 The Saudis are meat-eaters and because of the shortage of grazing land must import — and feed — millions of sheep each year. And during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Saudi government assumes the additional responsibility of providing food and water for more than two million people for a month.
There is nothing inherently problematic about being dependent on imports for any particular product or commodity. Japan imports virtually all its oil; the United States imports all its television sets. But, as Saudis often observe, no product or commodity carries the immediacy or political sensitivity of food. As one put it in a private conversation, “You can postpone buying a TV; you can’t decide you will eat next year.”
Theoretically, the Saudi Food Security Initiative, backed by large amounts of cash, could contribute to a global solution to the looming commodity-shortage problem by stimulating large increases in agricultural output in underperforming agrarian countries such as Ethiopia and Mozambique. If not, it will become increasingly urgent to create other negotiated international agreements that could stave off a competition for food that would inevitably pit countries against each other.
1 U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, The Agriculture Sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2008), p. 1.
2 Unless otherwise noted, population figures and estimates are from the Population Reference Bureau, Washington D.C., at www.prb.org.
3 See news articles at http://www.riceonline.com/home.shtml.
4 U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, The Agriculture Sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2008), p. 2.
5 For an overview of poverty in Saudi Arabia, see Kim Murphy, “Saudis’ Quicksand of Poverty,” Los Ange les Times, May 16, 2003. According to Abdelmohsen Al-Akkas, former minister of social welfare, more than 2 million Saudi citizens subsist entirely on cash payments from the government (author’s interview, Riyadh, May 2008).
6 The quotation appears in “Cultivating Sustainable Agriclture,” an article in special advertising section promoting Saudi Arabia, Foreign Affairs, November-December 2007.
7 U.S. National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2025,” available at http://www.dni.gov/nic/PDF_2025/2025_Global_Trends_Final_Report.pdf.
8 Saudi Arabia Ministry of Economy and Planning, “Saudi Arabia: Long-Term Strategy 2025,” section 3.1.2, part d.ii, online at www.undp.org.SA/SA/documents/ourwork/pr/long_term_strategy_2025.pdf.
11The Saudi Star project was widely reported in the regional press; see, for example, “Les Visées de l’Arabie Saoudite sur les terres fertiles du continent,” Jeune Afrique, December 1, 2009. Collected articles are at www.farmlandgrab.org.
12 The quotation is from a presentation at an agricultural trade policy conference in Salzburg, Austria, in May 2009, available online at www.agritrade.org/events/spring2009seminar.html.
13Financial Times, March 4, 2009.
14The Independent, May 3, 2009.
15 Author’s interview, Riyadh, October 2009.
16 Author’s interview, Riyadh, October 2009.
17 Text at http://farmlandgrab.org/8833
18 U.S. National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (November 2008).
19 Carin Smaller and Howard Mann, “A Thirst for Distant Lands: Foreign Investment in Agricultural Land and Water,” Winnipeg, International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2009, p. 3.
20 U.S.-Saudi Business Brief, Vol. 15, No. 5, p. 11.
21 See Liz Sly, “Iraq in Throes of Environmental Catastrophe, Experts Say,” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2009.
22 For details, see Helen Metz, Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, published by the Library of Congress in 1992, and Thomas W. Lippman, Inside the Mirage (Westview Press, 2004), Ch. 10.
23 U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, GAIN Report No. SA8003, Feb. 19, 2008.
24 U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, The Agriculture Sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2008), p. 1.
25 Author’s interview, Riyadh, October 2009.
26 Author’s interview, Riyadh, October 2009.
27 Author’s interviews, Riyadh, October 2009.
28 Op. cit. note 18, p. 4.
29 Slides of the Saudi presentation are at www.agritrade.org/events/spring2009/seminar.html.
30 On rice, see http://internationaltradecommodities.suite101.com/article.cfm/rice_impo…; on barley, see the slide presentation by Taha Alshareef of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry explaining the King Abdullah Initiative at www.agritrade.org/events/spring2009seminar.html.