Wealthy Arab countries are exploring new agricultural technologies like hydroponic greenhouses, in the quest to reduce the quantities of food imported from abroad. Currently, almost 90% of the food consumed in the Arabian Gulf relies on imports from outside the region. This leaves them vulnerable to a capricious global food market, likely to become even more volatile within the coming years. For many decades, the Persian Gulf has been evaluating different ways to supplement the region’s water depravation, lack of adequate faming land, and low food production. Some countries went as far as buying or leasing agricultural plots across the Red Sea in neighbouring Africa. Others preferred to invest in agricultural businesses abroad, and modern technologies back home. Since 2012 for example, Saudi Arabia has invested almost 40-50 billion riyals (approx. $1bn) in agricultural and livestock projects in the Ukraine, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Sudan. While the latest in Qatar is growing vegetables in a highly advanced, climate-controlled environment. Here rows of crops are cultivated under florescent LED lights, with roots nurtured by troughs filled with a nutrient rich water. The entire process is tightly protected from the harsh desert climate. But the Japanese developed technology is not cheap. The price of one portable greenhouse unit is more than $800,000 dollars. Its manufacturer Mitsubishi agrees that it will cost three times as much to produce food using its new high-tech system, then employing traditional agricultural techniques. The only way to make it work, is by turning the small unit into large scale commercial farming warehouses, with an extensive network of crop supply and distribution chains.
But Saudi Arabia is less enthusiastic about home grown food production methods. In a tried and tested experiment forty years ago, the Kingdom gave massive agricultural subsidies to domestic farmers, encouraging them to grow wheat so the nation could become self-sufficient in grain. It soon became clear that food security is not worth the resources and investment required to produce the water which goes into agriculture. Currently, the Kingdom uses tremendous amount of energy - 1.5 million barrels of oil per day - to provide power to the country’s thirty water desalination plants, according to Harvard Review. When oil prices rise, so does the cost of desalinated water, making local agriculture even more economically unsound. Ultimately, to keep up with the huge increase in demand for water, Saudi Arabia is having to dig deeper into its oil reserves. Before agriculture in Saudi Arabia depended on a large reserve of underground fossil water. But fossil water is a non-renewable resource, and its reserves have long been depleted. So, to address the problem the Kingdom is having to rely once more on food imports, because the government decided in 2008 to gradually phase out all water-intensive crops including grains by 2016, amid commodity price spikes. However, in the long run it might also be valuable for the country to channel investment into rainwater harvesting schemes, educating people on the benefits of conserving water, enticing them to be productive by growing their own food, and promoting the goodness of a low carbon, sustainable lifestyle.