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Gulf Countries Look to Farm Abroad as Aquifer Dries Up

April 26, 2016
National Geographic

Peter Schwartzstein

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.

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.