Saudi Arabia’s food supply

Saudi Arabia has a very hot climate and very little arable land. Yet it is home to 16 million citizens and about 9 million ex-pat workers. Where do they get their food?

Saudi Arabia grows some of it’s own food, and it has farms for poultry and cows, but most of the food is imported. Saudi Arabia spends about 6 billion a year on imported food. And food for the poultry, sheep and cows is also imported.

saudi milkproduction

Keeping cows in the desert is a very expensive project.
The Afu-Safi diary farm in Saudi Arabia originated in the 1970’s. It was modelled on a dairy farm in California, but is twice the size holding 38,000 cows. Each cow requires 30 gallons of water per day for drinking and cooling. Oil drilling technology was used to reach aquifers beneath the desert.

There is also a growing ”outsourcing” of the food supply. Saudi Arabia’s Hail Agricultural Development Company, Hadco, stopped producing wheat in 2008 and is purchasing land abroad. Hadco has already purchased 9,239 hectares of land in Sudan, and is considering purchasing another 32,755 hectares in Sudan within the next five years to grow wheat, corn and other crops to be used for feeding livestock. In January 2009 Saudi Arabia received the first batch of rice produced abroad.


Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, and Asian states, have purchased a total of over 20,230,000 hectares of land suitable for arable crops in Africa in the past years, about ten per cent of the farmed land in Africa. This would secure food supply and stable prices for the wealthy importing countries. The likely outcomes for exporting countries like Sudan, which are unable to feed their own people, appear less favourable

saudi sheep

A Naijdi sheep costs twice as much as an imported sheep.

Saudi Arabia has indigenous sheep, but at least 75% of the sheep consumed are imported.
Saudi Arabia imports close to 18 million sheep and goats per year. More than a million sheep are imported for Hajj and eid alone.
To feed all these sheep Saudi Arabia also imports enormous amounts of Barley, mostly from Russia and the Ukraine.
One reason why barley imports in Saudi Arabia are so high are subsidies. The Saudi Government encourages a sheep fattening industry. Economically it makes more sense to import lamb and feed it on subsidized barley than importing grown up sheep.
This industry is mostly located in Jeddah and other coastal cities, not in traditional livestock rearing areas.
Beside this industry barley subsidies are also important to feed the camel and sheep of Bedouin in rural areas and ensure tribal loyalty there.


Animal activists complain about the horrible treatment of animals sent on ships to the middle east, a yearly loss of 2 million animals is considered a sustainable risk by the companies who deal in them. Many animal lovers also complain about the way these animals are slaughtered, which is considered animal abuse.

With an ever increasing population and no chance to ever be able to grow enough food to be selfsufficient Saudi Arabia is in a very dangerous position. One could imagine when the oil dries up, and no other industry of note there would be nothing which could keep the Saudi population alive. They would have to either mass emigrate, or die of starvation.



Saudi Gazette

Oil for food

Arabian gazette


10 Responses

  1. Saudi Arabia imports meat(sheep/cows) mostly from Brazil, Australia and france. Saudi prefers to have most of it’s meat chilled, but of coarse still imports sheep and cows to many farms. It use to import most of it’s sheep from Australia, but recognized the toll it took on the animals, so it decided to import from Sudan, having very close physical and culture; links between both countries.

    As for poultry and dairy,John Lawton, General Manager of Agriculture in Saudi Arabia, said “Saudis dairy and poultry is among the world’s best, making it a major exporter of dairy and poultry to neighboring Gulf and Middle Eastern countries!” Poultry is expanding making Almarai the lead. Lawton also stated that Saudi is an example of how underdeveloped desert areas can be developed with modern technology and efficient irrigation systems..yes Saudi in a bid to preserve scarce water supplies are importing most of it’s wheat from outside, and plans to completely rely on wheat imports by 2016, shifting it’s focus on animal production…So I think the statement ” Saudis would have to either mass emigrate, or die of starvation” a little far fetched!!

  2. This picture of green circles in the sand is very cool!

  3. Given the high birth rate in Saudi Arabia, and the large immigrant population, I wonder how long they can keep feeding the population?

  4. Despite political differences, KSA should learn from Israel about advances in agriculture, their neighbor in the middle east. Israelis must be doing something right and must be doing something good that has made it into an exporter of agricultural products/services. Although a tiny nation, it is no different than KSA in terms of topography, desserts, and arid weather.

    Israel is a flourishing democracy and one of the most advanced countries in the world. No amount of help from the USA would have turned a barren desert to a lush green garden if the Israelis lacked the will to make progress. And so many other achievements!

  5. How is it that countries can purchase land in for example Sudan and presumably exploit it profitably while Sudan cannot feed its people? Is it a question of having the money to invest?

  6. Is it a question of being selfish and considering yourself superior to ”Untermenschen”???

  7. @myronleonard2013,

    You should read up more on the topic. The Israeli miracle is not produced by advancement in agriculture technology, it is produced by military superiority. It allows Israel to divert water resources from Arab inhabitants of the area for its own agricultural use. Water from the Jordan River, Jordan Valley Wells and Lebanon Litani River has been diverted for Israeli use. This impacts Arab farmers who sustained their crops with traditional conservation methods (as it should be given the resources).

    Turning desert into agricultural land is never a good idea. In the case of Israel it is an unethical abuse of occupied people’e resources. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the experiment with deep wells have depleted the Aquifer resources to produce minimal grain output (the circular green picture as an example of the use of deep wells). That water could have been used some where else more economically. Saudi has abandoned that strategy for self reliance in favor of investing in agricultural farms in other countries.

    So if Saudi is to learn a lesson from Israel, it would go something like this: Build a strong Military then invade your neighbors to steal their water resources.

    I do not think that would be your recommendation!!!

  8. djdfr:

    You might find this interesting.

  9. What they really should do, but will not, is reduce their population by eliminating imported labor and reduce the population growth.

  10. Saudi did 3 mistakes – 1. Use of Fertilisers & 2 Use of Hi-breed seeds & 3.Exposed farms. The farms did not have cover or shade to evade rate of evaporation.

    It could have used solar thermal power by use of concave mirrors to evaporate seawater and thus desalinate it. DESALINATING SEAWATER IS A FREE AND EASIEST PROJECT IN THE WORLD. The sun evaporates water everyday… a drop of water put out in the sun gets evaporated in seconds… same happens with seawater… with a concave mirror the heat is increased manifold times… so much that even steel melts with concave mirror and sunlight!!!

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