The kingdom’s development plans have given food production special attention, in an effort to provide some food security, and the government has made subsidies and generous incentives available to the agriculture sector. Agriculture now contributes only a small fraction of the Saudi GDP and employs a comparable proportion of the workforce, but without government support the sector would be even smaller. The aridity of the country and the lack of arable land (only 1.5 percent is arable) would make large-scale agriculture largely uncompetitive with imported food without the massive subsidies and other benefits received by the sector. Agriculture uses over 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s fresh water.
Historically, Saudi Arabia’s agriculture was limited to date-farming and small-scale vegetable production in widely scattered villages and oases. The production sustained the local village communities; some vegetables were traded with passing caravans. Bedouin communities generally relied on livestock. In an effort to secure better control of the country, the government began in the late 1960s to pass laws that restricted the movement of nomadic peoples and their grazing livestock. The government began programmes to give land to citizens who demonstrated agricultural development of the land in a prescribed period.
Water is the main challenge in agriculture, as the country receives only about 106 millimetres of rain annually. A network of dams has been built to capture and use precious seasonal rain. Wells have been drilled to tap underground water resources, and desalination plants are producing sufficient water for agricultural needs. These efforts have helped to transform vast tracts (millions of hectares) of desert into fertile farmland, but these efforts and subsidies have been a large drain on the government budget, which began to cause fiscal stress in the 1980s. As production boomed, Saudi Arabia even began exporting wheat in substantial amounts in the 1980s, until the practice was banned in 1986. Barley and sorghum production also increased dramatically.
In 2008, it was decided by the Saudi government that these subsidies, as well as the drastic depletion of water resources (as much as 40 percent of water being used for agriculture) were not justified for wheat production and that the country would instead import wheat. Subsidies, which had already been lowered, will be reduced further. Wheat production fell from 2.55 million tonnes in 2007 to 1.3 million tonnes in 2010. Other water-intensive crops used for animal feed, such as alfalfa, will also increasingly be imported by providing import subsidies to livestock farmers. Agriculture is now more focused on increasing yields of fruits and vegetables grown in greenhouses that waste little water and on livestock (including dairy and eggs), as well as dates, which are adapted to the climate. Dates are Saudi Arabia’s second-largest crop, 1.07 million tonnes in 2010. The production of dates, as well as of tomatoes, the kingdom’s third-largest crop at 0.49 million tonnes, has been fairly steady in recent years. The agricultural sector employs slightly more than half a million people in Saudi Arabia.