The 1970s marked the beginning of serious agricultural development in the Kingdom.
The government launched an extensive program to promote modern farming technology; to establish rural roads, irrigation networks and storage and export facilities; and to encourage agricultural research and training institutions.
The result has been a phenomenal growth in the production of all basic foods. With substantial amounts of meat, milk, and eggs, Saudi Arabia is now completely self-sufficient in a number of foodstuffs.
The increased food production brought about a proportional decline in food imports; and in fact Saudi Arabia now exports wheat, dates, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry, vegetables and flowers to markets around the world.
Intensive dairy, meat, poultry and egg farming were all introduced early in the program, and already by 1985, local farms were satisfying domestic demand for many products previously imported. The Kingdom now has some of the most modern and largest dairy farms in the Middle East. Milk production boasts a remarkably productive annual rate of 1,800 gallons per cow, one of the highest in the world.
While fish production through traditional off-shore fishing has been constantly on the increase, the Kingdom is exploring ways of further increasing its catch and encouraging greater private investment.
One of the new areas in which the private sector is investing with government support is aquaculture. The number of fish farms, either using pens in the sea or tanks onshore, has been increasing steadily. Most are located along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Shrimp farming has been particularly successful. The National Shrimp Company ‘Al-Rubian’, for example, has a farm south of Jeddah managed by Saudi hydro-biologists and marine engineers, whose shrimp, including the preferred black tiger, is exported mainly to the United States and to Japan.
The Kingdom’s most dramatic agricultural accomplishment, noted worldwide, was its rapid transformation from importer to exporter of wheat. In 1978, the country built its first grain silos. By 1984, it had become self-sufficient in wheat. Shortly thereafter, Saudi Arabia began exporting wheat to some thirty countries, including China and the former Soviet Union, and in the major producing areas of Tabuk, Hail and Qasim, average yields reached 3.6 tons per acre.
In addition, Saudi farmers grow substantial amounts of other grains such as barley, sorghum and millet. Today, in the interest of preserving precious water resources, production of wheat and other grains has been considerably reduced.
The Kingdom has, however, stepped up fruit and vegetable production, by improving both agricultural techniques and the roads that link farmers with urban consumers. Saudi Arabia is a major exporter of fruits and vegetables to its neighbors. Among its most productive crops are watermelon, grapes, citrus fruits, onions, squash and tomatoes. At Jizan in the country’s well-watered southwest, the Al-Hikmah Research Station is producing tropical fruits including pineapples, paw-paws, bananas, mangoes and guavas.
This agricultural transformation has altered the country’s traditional diet, supplying a diversity of local foods unimaginable a few generations ago. Dates are no longer the vital staple for Saudi Arabians that they were in the past, although they still constitute an important supplementary food. Much of the annual production of dates, estimated at around half a million tons and comprising some 450 different kinds, is used as international humanitarian aid.
Several factories, including one in Al-Hasa, are dedicated entirely to the production of dates for foreign aid and donate tens of thousands of tons of dates each year to relieve famine and food shortages, mainly through the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many countries have directly benefited from Saudi Arabia’s food aid offered through the WFP, and the Kingdom is second only to the United States in contributions to the program.