Andrew Parker | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2012-04-18 04:27

A geological gradient to Saudi Arabia means that water flows naturally from west to east across the peninsula. Pouring off the western mountain ranges of Hijaz and Asir on the Red Sea coast, across the plateau of central Najd to the salt flats just above sea-level in the Eastern Province, this incline results in rainfall eventually becoming trapped in a water table below Al-Ahsa, which translates as "the sound of water underground."
With 10,000 hectares of agricultural land, palm dates are the mainstay product of this region and alongside camel milk were the staple diet for the population until the 1960s, when a government campaign urged farmers to diversify their crops. Since then, lemons, potatoes, rice, corn, tomatoes and mint have been cultivated too. The Al-Ahsa municipal government allows one well per farm to be tapped, but illegal drilling plus a lack of rain means that the necessary amount of water to sustain a farm is not always available. In addition, bugs, which eat the fruit from the inside, can blight the crops but these may be eradicated either by pesticide or, better, by extracting stricken plants. The produce is invariably consumed by local families and anything extra is sold at a large market in Hofuf. Sheep, goats, chickens and cows are also reared.
Camels have always quenched their thirst at the Al-Ahsa springs, and to this day a huge weekend bazaar is held, trading in these ‘ships of the desert’ as well as in sheep and goats. Prices range widely from SR4,000 to 7 million. Brown-haired camels — the expensive end of the market — are used to race, while the black and white breeds are butchered for their meat.
The Riyadh to Dammam railway line (Saudi Arabia’s only route) swings south to call at Hofuf and runs parallel to the newly restored highway, which for decades was a notorious death trap for drivers. There is a law in Saudi Arabia stating that, during the hours of daylight, camel farmers may allow their beasts to run free and graze. If the camels cross a public road and are hit by a vehicle then the driver is liable for the accident. However, at night the farmer is responsible for enclosing their animals and if an accident takes place then it is the farmer who is liable. Hofuf, with a population of 287,841, is the capital of Al-Ahsa county, home to just under one million people, an area which includes the vast swaths of sand in the Rub Al-Khali (Empty Quarter), making it Saudi Arabia’s largest county. The palms of the oasis provide shade to 50 separate villages, and a rocky outcrop at Al-Garah is well-known for its tunnel system that provides cool air in the summer and, intriguingly, warm air in the winter. Hofuf is also home to King Faisal University, with faculties in agriculture, veterinary medicine and animal resources. Local industries today includes meat, poultry, woollen winter robes known as bisht, baby cots made from palm fronds, fans and palm oil.
Al-Ahsa is believed to have been settled since 4000 BC, and by the year 1000 AD, it was one of the ten largest cities in the world with 110,000 inhabitants. At this time the oasis was at the centre of a spice trade route between India and what is modern day Iraq. By the 16th century, it had become the focal point of a struggle for control between the Portuguese and Ottoman imperialists. Eventually it was the Turks who won out and colonized Al-Ahsa, taking full advantage of its agricultural land and freshwater.
Remnants of Turkish rule exist to this day in the mud-walled fortress of Al-Kut, the crumbling sandstone castle of Qasr Ibrahim and Jawatha Mosque, known to be the second mosque to be built in early Islamic history. A fascinating National Museum can be visited with documented evidence of early land ownership and a tax district that stretched 300 kilometers south from Hofuf to the Jabrin Oasis.
The Ottomans also brought with them an ability to maintain law and order, which went down well with city dwellers weary of tribal warfare. However, the desert nomads, unused to being told what to do, didn’t take so kindly to a Turkish police force and simply bided their time in tented encampments, intermittently attacking and ransacking the town to advertise their displeasure on a land that had always been theirs. It was in 1680 that Al-Ahsa legend Bani Khalid rallied enough Bedouin forces to re-take Hofuf and end the reign of what had become a corrupt Ottoman overlord.
Yet the Turks were not driven away for good: over the course of the next 200 years, they twice returned to re-conquer Al-Ahsa. In 1818, an Egyptian Ottoman army gained control and a tug-of-war then took place with the second Saudi state until, in 1913, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud managed to annex and absorb the oasis into his Kingdom of Najd, the forerunner to the present Saudi realm.
Once the human enemy had finally been driven away, a natural adversary rose in its place — sand. By the 1960s the encroachment of the desert, blown by the winds of the shamal (north) at a rate of 30 feet a year along a 15 kilometer front, threatened to entirely engulf the oasis. Aerial reconnaissance showed that a 9 by 150 kilometer sand field was actively moving on Al-Ahsa. In addition to this enormous body of sand, literally looming above the palm trees was the damage that the sand was doing to the drainage of the oasis. Al-Ahsa has an abundance of ground water and if left standing — caused by the silting up of irrigation channels — it soon becomes a stagnant swamp, entirely detrimental to effective agriculture and also a breeding ground for mosquitoes and malaria.
The answer to this critical dilemma was in trees, and to be exact the tamarisk tree, which grows quickly and densely, retaining moisture tightly, making it ideal for the desert environment. A taskforce of local men was quickly employed to plant these trees and as an impressed official from the Ministry of Agriculture remarked, “I’ve never seen people more interested in doing a job.” After all, it was the livelihood of the Al-Ahsa inhabitants that was at stake and as such they had very good reason to bend their backs into hard labor.
Three million seedlings were swiftly planted and staggered in rows 15 kilometers long and 150 feet deep to stem the onrushing tide of sand. A canal was also dug and shored up to supply water to the saplings. Within two years the job proved a great success: the desert had been halted. The tamarisk trees had saved Al-Ahsa from extinction and a Sand Control Board was set up to tackle future problems.
There was also an unexpected benefit in preventing this danger, as to meet demand for the seedlings’ initial planting, millions of plant pots were needed, and so a factory was built, workers were hired and a new industry was born in the oasis.
Having first discovered Saudi oil in 1938 from Lucky Well Seven in Dhahran, Tom Barger and his small team of geologists from the Standard Oil Company then traveled south, full of optimism that bigger deposits would be unearthed beneath the Rub Al-Khali, the world’s foremost sand desert. Barger’s confidence was proved to be spot on when in 1948 Al-Ghawar, the world’s largest known oil field, was found, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ironically, in the 21st century, Aramco’s extensive mining has resulted in Al-Ahsa facing yet another catastrophe. While black gold has certainly enriched the region and the nation as a whole, it now threatens the natural water supply of the oasis. As oil is pumped out of the ground, huge fissures are left below the earth’s surface into which the freshwater seeps, making it much more difficult to reach. Previously the Al-Ahsa water table was always a steady 50 meters below the surface, however, due to oil extraction, this depth has now dropped alarmingly to 200 meters and may well drop further. The Al-Ahsa springs have drawn mankind to the oasis for thousands of years and Mother Nature has duly delivered, but how long this will last only time will tell.

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