How Saudi Arabia is charting a path toward food security

Saudis buy dates at a shop in Jeddah ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP/File Photo)
Saudis buy dates at a shop in Jeddah ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 04 June 2021

How Saudi Arabia is charting a path toward food security

Saudis buy dates at a shop in Jeddah ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Vision 2030 defines agriculture as one of five main strategic sectors, including aerospace and automotive
  • In 2019, aquifers supplied no less than 10 billion cubic meters of irrigation water to local farms

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia is a waterless and barren land, covered by vast deserts and rugged mountains and therefore unsuited to anything but growing dates. Right? Actually, wrong.

The Saudi environment is dry, no doubt. But surprisingly, the Kingdom is an agricultural powerhouse, on the path to achieving a considerable measure of food security, while becoming a major exporter of agricultural products.

This trend has been given further urgency with the implementation of Vision 2030, which defines agriculture as one of five main strategic sectors, alongside aerospace/defense, automotive, transport/logistics, and construction.

So, how is this possible?

First off, Saudi Arabia is more water-rich than it may appear at first glance. While the Kingdom has no permanent rivers, and one of the lowest rainfall rates in the world at only four inches per annum, it possesses huge underground water reserves.

Just as lakes of oil exist deep beneath its parched surface, there are vast subterranean aquifers. In 2019, these supplied no less than 10 billion cubic meters of irrigation water to local farms.

Moreover, the government has constructed a network of dams in wadis throughout the country to capture floodwater from the occasional heavy rains. And of course, Saudi Arabia leads the world in the desalination of seawater, with no less than 27 desalination plants feeding both cities and farms.




View of Wadi Murwani dam, located in Al-Khulais, Saudi Arabia. (Shutterstock)

This access to considerable volumes of water has allowed the nation to supply its domestic market with wheat, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry, vegetables, and flowers — and to export all of these items around the world. And believe it or not, Saudi Arabia is, thanks to some help from the Irish, one of the most efficient dairy producers on Earth, with an extraordinarily high annual output of 1,800 gallons per cow.

That said, the Kingdom faces challenges in terms of its 1.7 percent annual population growth, along with the demands of an ever-more sophisticated consumer market. A simple diet of dates, camel milk, and the occasional piece of meat might have sufficed a century ago. But today’s consumers, in line with the rest of the world, have come to expect an almost infinite array of choice.

No doubt, Saudi Arabia will not stop importing some foods. After all, authentic Japanese wasabi can only be imported from Japan and genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano is only made in Parma, Italy. But agriculture in the Kingdom is projected to grow by 5 percent annually over the next five years.

Saudi Arabia’s two new “Green” initiatives will be partly driven by the Strategy for Sustainable Development of Agriculture, a component of Vision 2030. This overall strategy has four main targets: Efficient and sustainable use of agricultural and natural resources, especially water; comprehensive and sustainable food security; improvement in agricultural efficiency and productivity; and sustainable rural development.

INNUMBERS

* 1st - Saudi Arabia’s rank as Middle East’s food importer.

* 80% - Consumed food that comes from abroad.

* 16m - Tonnes of food consumed annually at present.

* 4.6% - Expected annual food-consumption growth rate.

These policies are being implemented in the face of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, an unforeseen and ongoing crisis that has highlighted the danger of any country relying too heavily on global supply chains for essential commodities such as food.

Smart agriculture in Saudi Arabia means shifting the focus toward crops that require relatively less water and finding alternatives to water-intensive farming. Thus, farming of thirsty grains such as wheat has been largely transferred to water-rich Sudan, while local farmers are encouraged to concentrate on water-conserving approaches such as the greenhouse production of fruits and vegetables.

Further value is being added via the processing of raw materials. For instance, farmers are canning and juicing fruit, as opposed to merely supplying fresh produce. Fruit canning is the Kingdom’s largest food-production segment, and fruit juice is the No. 2 revenue source for Saudi food producers. And Saudis know well that 1,001 products can be made from the humble date!

The future success of agriculture in the Kingdom will largely depend on efficiency of production. Vision 2030 recognizes modern farming as an “industry,” comparable to construction and logistics, and just as dependent on innovation and new technology.




Irrigation system for farming in pivots, located in the desert Area in Al-Sarar, Saudi Arabia. (Shutterstock)

A recent academic paper in the Journal of the Saudi Society of Agricultural Sciences, said: “There is a gap between demand and production of agricultural products (in the Kingdom) which must be filled through the adoption of modern technologies, that is land and water-saving approaches, greenhouse farming and seawater harvesting.”

One example of smart farming is hydroponic agriculture — that is, growing plants with only water and nutrients instead of soil. Hydroponic farming can be incorporated as an aspect of urban growth. There is no reason why large indoor spaces cannot be built or converted to produce hydroponically-grown fruit, salad products, and vegetables — providing food to a city without the need for long-distance transport and logistics.

Hydroponic agriculture can also harness semi-treated grey water produced by sewage and industry, thereby recycling valuable natural resources.

Another bright idea is “aquaponic” farming, whereby aquatic creatures such as prawns feed from naturally growing bacteria and produce nutrient-rich wastewater that can be used to cultivate edible plants. This kind of low-maintenance virtuous cycle is highly suited to a water-scarce country such as Saudi Arabia.

Of course, attention must also be given to more traditional agricultural resources — but with the application of modern techniques. The science of genetics can have a dramatic effect on the output of local breeds. Goats, for instance, are indigenous to the Kingdom and are a traditional source of both milk and meat.




The continued expansion of Saudi Arabia’s agricultural sector requires ongoing cooperation between the public and private sectors. (Shutterstock)

Genetic crossbreeding of local goats with foreign breeds has the potential to significantly improve significantly both size and output of livestock. All of this indicates that many of the answers to Saudi Arabia’s food security issues can, with some imagination and experimentation, be found on its own doorstep.

These biotechnologies also provide exciting new commercial openings in the quest to diversify the Saudi economy and free the country from dependence on oil and its various derivatives.

The continued expansion of Saudi Arabia’s agricultural sector requires ongoing cooperation between the public and private sectors and depends on four key elements: Education, technology transfer, advisory services, and investment in new facilities.

The government is leading the way in terms of investment and infrastructure, and Saudi farmers are accepting that innovation and change are facts of life. What remains is for entrepreneurs to take advantage of the fact that agribusiness and biotechnology are set to play a vital part in the future and will be major revenue sources.

The issue of food security poses a challenge for the people of Saudi Arabia — and a major opportunity.


Confronting crimes against humanity is route to justice, Saudi official asserts at UN committee meeting

Confronting crimes against humanity is route to justice, Saudi official asserts at UN committee meeting
Updated 17 October 2021

Confronting crimes against humanity is route to justice, Saudi official asserts at UN committee meeting

Confronting crimes against humanity is route to justice, Saudi official asserts at UN committee meeting
  • Mission also reaffirms Kingdom's commitment to help fight illicil financial flow

NEW YORK: Saudi Arabia has reiterated that confronting crimes against humanity and combating impunity from punishment is a noble objective to achieve justice and the rule of law because such crimes are among the most dangerous crimes for the international community.

This came during a speech delivered by Nidaa Abu Ali, head of the legal committee in the Kingdom’s permanent delegation at the UN, at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.

Abu Ali stressed the need to implement the principle of accountability and put an end to the impunity from punishment of the perpetrators of these crimes. She stressed the Kingdom’s support for justice following the international agreements signed within the framework of the UN Charter and international law.

Regarding draft articles related to crimes against humanity, she said the Kingdom stresses the need to avoid developing new definitions that might cause confusion in interpreting these terms.

In addition, she stressed the importance of unifying the definitions stated in the relevant draft convention such as slavery, torture and forced disappearance of persons, following the relevant international conventions.

Reem Al-Omair, chairperson of the Economic and Financial Committee at the Kingdom’s permanent delegation at the UN, affirmed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to international cooperation to combat illicit financial flows and promote good practices regarding the recovery of financial assets.

Speaking in a general discussion of macroeconomic policies, she said that the programs and initiatives of the Saudi Vision 2030 contributed to enhancing transparency, developing policies and procedures and filling gaps to contain corruption.

Al-Omair said the Kingdom is keen to harness its potential and resources in the service of humanitarian issues in cooperation with the UN, its agencies and organizations and the international community.

Saudi Arabia has reiterated that confronting crimes against humanity and combating impunity from punishment is a noble objective to achieve justice and the rule of law because such crimes are among the most dangerous crimes for the international community.

This came during a speech delivered by Nidaa Abu Ali, head of the legal committee in the Kingdom’s permanent delegation at the UN, at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. Abu Ali stressed the need to implement the principle of accountability and put an end to the impunity from punishment of the perpetrators of these crimes. She stressed the Kingdom’s support for justice following the international agreements signed within the framework of the UN Charter and international law.

Regarding draft articles related to crimes against humanity, she said the Kingdom stresses the need to avoid developing new definitions that might cause confusion in interpreting these terms.

In addition, she stressed the importance of unifying the definitions stated in the relevant draft convention such as slavery, torture and forced disappearance of persons, following the relevant international conventions.

Reem Al-Omair, chairperson of the Economic and Financial Committee at the Kingdom’s permanent delegation at the UN, affirmed Saudi Arabia’s commitment to international cooperation to combat illicit financial flows and promote good practices regarding the recovery of financial assets.

Speaking in a general discussion of macroeconomic policies, she said that the programs and initiatives of the Saudi Vision 2030 contributed to enhancing transparency, developing policies and procedures and filling gaps to contain corruption.

Al-Omair said the Kingdom is keen to harness its potential and resources in the service of humanitarian issues in cooperation with the UN, its agencies and organizations and the international community.


Who’s Who: Fahad Al-Jalajel, Saudi Arabia’s new health minister

Who’s Who: Fahad Al-Jalajel, Saudi Arabia’s new health minister
Updated 17 October 2021

Who’s Who: Fahad Al-Jalajel, Saudi Arabia’s new health minister

Who’s Who: Fahad Al-Jalajel, Saudi Arabia’s new health minister

Fahad Al-Jalajel has been appointed Saudi Arabia’s health minister following a royal decree issued on Friday. He replaces Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabia, who has been appointed minister of Hajj and Umrah.

Al-Jalajel was previously deputy health minister and had been in this role since 2016. He has been a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Red Crescent Authority since May 2017 and a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Food and Drug Authority since July that same year.

He is a member of the executive council of the country’s medical cities, was a council member at the Saudi General Authority for Competition from 2011 to 2018, and a member of the board of directors at Saudia from 2015 to 2017.

Al-Jalajel was a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Grains Authority from 2013 to 2017 and a member of the board of directors at the Human Resources Development Fund from 2011 to 2016.

He was a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (now the Ministry of Investment) from 2014 to 2016 and a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Standards, Metrology and Quality Organization from 2012 to 2016.

Al-Jalajel was deputy minister for consumer protection at the Ministry of Commerce and Investment from 2011 to 2016 and was also chief information officer and ministerial advisor there.

He was a member of the Riyadh Regional Council from 2010 to 2012 and a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage from 2010 to 2012.

He was a member of the Saudi Energy Efficiency Program, a member of the board of directors at the Jeddah Urban Development Company, and an IT director at SAGIA.

He has a master’s degree in computer and information sciences from St. Joseph’s University in the US. He completed an executive program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from King Saud University.


Food security major objective of Saudi Vision 2030

Food security major objective of Saudi Vision 2030
Updated 17 October 2021

Food security major objective of Saudi Vision 2030

Food security major objective of Saudi Vision 2030
  • Eta’am food bank in KSA has given 100,464 food baskets to 82,653 needy families in Saudi Arabia as of Nov. 30, 2020

RIYADH: Food waste is one of the main issues threatening food security. Several studies have shown that the Kingdom wastes an average of 200-500 kg of food per capita. One of the key objectives of Vision 2030 is thus to implement food security strategies by preventing food waste.

World Food Day is celebrated annually and worldwide on Oct. 16 to commemorate the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945, which aims to eradicate hunger across the world.

In November 1979, a Hungarian Delegation led by former Hungarian Agriculture Minister Dr. Pal Romany suggested celebrating the day worldwide. It has since been observed every year in more than 150 countries, raising awareness on the issues behind poverty and hunger.

This year’s theme is “Safe food now for a healthy tomorrow.”

Saudi Arabia’s arid lands and scarce water sources limit it from supporting mass-scale agriculture. Other efforts must therefore be made to ensure food security, including scaling up the food system, improving food safety, reducing food waste, lowering food costs, addressing poverty, and promoting healthy dietary patterns, said Mohammed Shamsul Ola, an associate professor at the department of biochemistry, King Saud University, and an associate editor of Saudi Journal of Biological Science and Frontiers in Ophthalmology.

In Saudi Arabia as well as worldwide, approximately a third of food is wasted. This results in considerable economic loss and is detrimental to global food security, he added. 

The Saudi Grains Organization in 2019 reported that almost 33 percent of total food is lost or wasted, which equates to a value of SR12,980 million ($3.5 million) per annum. Most of this waste occurs at the retailer and consumer levels.

The Kingdom’s traditions of hospitality, festivals, and celebrations imply large serving quantities of food that are ultimately not eaten due to poorly planned meals in households and at social events in hotels and restaurants. Ola explained that consumers often order large quantities of food at restaurants but do not finish them. The leftovers end up in the trash.

“Given the global hunger crisis, wasting food is a waste of natural resources that hurts the ecosystem and biodiversity. Consumers should buy food according to a meal plan, adopt better storage methods, and recycle leftover foods. They must ask for a reduced portion of food in restaurants. Doing so, customers can play a vital part in reducing food waste, allowing food to be used for meals rather than ending up in landfills,” said the professor. 

He underlined that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and other government agencies have made significant efforts to reduce food waste by fostering awareness and passing legislation prohibiting food waste, which has resulted in the establishment of various food charity groups and food banks to assist people in need.

Thousands of food banks have been formed worldwide to help those in need, including Eta’am in Saudi Arabia, which has successfully given 100,464 food baskets to 82,653 needy families in the Kingdom as of Nov. 30, 2020.

Winnow Solutions has also aided in the reduction of food waste in Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The Savola World Program, in collaboration with Saudi Grains Organization and the Saudi Food Bank, has established many online awareness-raising activities, including Eta’am, to minimize food and household waste. In Saudi Arabia, there are roughly 40 food banks that provide door-to-door food collection and distribution services.

Saudi citizens are also taking significant steps to reduce waste and make food available to the poor, including placing large refrigerators in front of their homes and inviting neighbors to donate food.

“World Food Day is celebrated to highlight issues related to global food security and nutrition. According to the FAO, more than 720 million people were hungry in 2020,” Ola told Arab News.

“On this occasion of World Food Day, it is of paramount importance to increase awareness of the worldwide hunger crisis and the reasons behind it and to find solutions to address those issues.”


Saudis welcome COVID-19 rule changes on social gatherings

Saudis welcome COVID-19 rule changes on social gatherings
Updated 17 October 2021

Saudis welcome COVID-19 rule changes on social gatherings

Saudis welcome COVID-19 rule changes on social gatherings
  • Social distancing will no longer be mandatory at social gatherings or in public settings including transport, restaurants, and cinemas

JEDDAH: The generous Saudi spirit has been sorely missed because of COVID-19 restrictions. Weddings, social gatherings, and parties had capacity limits, at times they were banned altogether, due to the spread of the disease.

For the longest time, people felt what functions they were able to have were lifeless and lacking their usual energy because of the cap on numbers and other anti-coronavirus measures.

But with more than 20 million people fully vaccinated and the Kingdom’s immunization campaign continuing at pace, not to mention an Interior Ministry announcement of a change in the rules, gatherings and get-togethers will be making a comeback after more than 18 months of curbs and lockdowns.

The ministry said on Friday the decision was based on the recommendation of health authorities, with precautionary measures on attendance, face masks and social distancing changing from this Sunday, Oct. 17.

There was a sigh of relief from retired school principal Hamid Sadiq Al-Bakri upon hearing the announcement. He had already prepared everything for his son’s wedding party — with a limited number of guests — set to be held next week at one of Jeddah’s wedding halls.

“I feel I’m on top of the world after hearing this decision as it means that my country has succeeded in confronting the unseen enemy of coronavirus,” he told Arab News. “It also means that residents and citizens have been big supporters of the great efforts exerted by the government to mitigate the effects of the pandemic to the least possible levels.”

He said the decision would save him the embarrassment of inviting just a few close family members and even closer friends, as he could now invite as many people as he wanted to help him celebrate such a special occasion.

“We in Saudi Arabia feel happier when all friends and relatives attend our parties and social gatherings. The more guests we receive, the happier we are. The Arabic proverb says: ‘Paradise without people is not worth going to.’ Those who are keen to be with you at your best are those who truly appreciate you.”

Salem Al-Zahrani’s daughter married eight months ago and he had been distraught to see so few relatives attending the wedding.

“If it weren’t for the pandemic and the restricted numbers issued by the authorities, I would have invited over a hundred of my friends and relatives to attend my daughter’s wedding,” he told Arab News. “It is part of our culture that a bride is taken to her husband-to-be accompanied by as many relatives as possible. It is a source of pride to the young girl.”

He said he was lucky that his daughter was wise enough to understand the complexity of the global situation.

“The social fabric of the Saudis is very strong, and that is why we usually see big numbers celebrating a social event. During a wedding party, hosts normally offer the best food they can to honor the family of the girl and those invited.

“With the end of the restriction, Saudis will rejoice and get back to their normal social gatherings during which they can freely gather and happily rejoice. I’m certain they will be careful about their health.”

Face masks will no longer be mandatory in outdoor settings, except for certain specific locations including the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.

Social distancing will no longer be mandatory at social gatherings or in public settings including transport, restaurants, and cinemas. Wedding halls will also be allowed to return full capacity.

The new rules only apply to those who have been fully vaccinated, which is around 20.6 million people.


Saudi scouts share their experiences with global peers

Saudi scouts share their experiences with global peers
Updated 17 October 2021

Saudi scouts share their experiences with global peers

Saudi scouts share their experiences with global peers

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Scout Association is participating in the International Jamboree on the Air and the International Jamboree on the Internet, the Saudi Press Agency reported. 

Members connected with fellow scouts around the world through radio, audio and digital chats, and Morse code.

The Saudi scouts conveyed their experience of supporting the UN’s most prominent international days for October.

They also presented the association’s contribution to achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the initiatives undertaken by them to serve the community.

The JOTA and JOTI take place each year in October and connect millions of young people around the world for a weekend of activities that promote friendship and global citizenship online.