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Saudi Arabia: Kingdom Must Have Agriculture Base, Says Al-Rasheed

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JEDDAH: Many people do not believe that three million Saudis are below the poverty line and 91 percent Saudis earn less than SR6,000 a month, said Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed, chairman of Golden Gras Inc., a major agricultural company based in Riyadh.

He said Saudi Arabia should do everything possible to help rural masses that depend on agriculture. Water scarcity is one of the limiting factors to local food production. To overcome this the government should build dams to tap the renewable water so that small stake farmers in rural areas get water for irrigation.

According to Al-Rasheed, the Kingdom gets six to eight million cubic meters of rainwater yearly. “Our strategy should be to make optimum use of whatever little rainwater we get,” he said here on the sidelines of the just-concluded Jeddah Economic Forum in which he was one of the panelists.

Al-Rasheed said the secret behind China’s success was its farm policy of the 1990s. It invested with small farmers and gave them a free hand.

“That became the engine of growth for the country,” he said.

He said agriculture is one of the most effective tools to promote growth and alleviate poverty. Therefore, Saudi Arabia must have a base of agriculture. “We must use the highly genetically modified seeds. We must heavily depend on the new technologies of the most optimum water management,” he said.

Al-Rasheed said it was the corporate social responsibility of the government to make distribution of wealth throughout the Kingdom. It should support the farmers of Taif to grow roses and guarantee their produce is bought. Similarly, farmers in Jazan and Asir and other provinces should also be supported in all possible ways.

The Ministry of Water and Electricity has formed an autonomous body called the National Water Company (NWC) with the mandate to oversee wastewater management. Al-Rasheed said the treated water was not going to help farmers in rural areas. “It will only supply water to the suburbs of major cities,” he added.

After the food crisis of 2008, Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the Middle East, went to countries in Asia and Africa to lease farmland. Al-Rasheed said instead of leasing the land Saudi Arabia should purchase it. According to him, there was a big difference between the two options. “When you buy a land you own it. It’s tradable. But if you lease a land it has no value. In the book value it is called leased land. It does not appreciate,” he said.

Al-Rasheed had a solution to the social and political implications the land buying deal may have in the host country. He said the deal should be on the basis of partnership between the private sectors of Saudi Arabia and the host country. “A joint venture company should be formed with Saudi side keeping 60 percent while the rest of the share may be floated in the market so that the public of the host country has an interest in it.” The role of the two governments should be limited to official work like in any other joint venture, he added.

Commenting on the reservations many people have about the genetically modified seeds, he said: “We don’t have choices. People were against this when there was abundance of food. Now when there is a shortage you have to live with it.”

According to him, agriculture was facing worldwide neglect. He cited the World Bank whose lending to agricultural projects in 1980 was 25 percent of its budget. In 2000 the number went down to 10 percent. Moreover, the bank has lost almost half of its technical staff in the area of agriculture development. 

His list of neglect was long. Punjab region, the most fertile land shared by India and Pakistan, he said, has not seen development or investment in new farm technology for the last 30 years. Worse, the dams in the region have not been upgraded during the period. The Philippines has lost its rice production because of continued apathy. Thailand and Vietnam claimed to have enough food but they were exposed when the food riots erupted.