Mr. Lippman is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Perilous Future of an American Ally (Potomac Books, 2011).
On the broad highway that runs southeast from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, it takes less than an hour to reach the beginning of farm country.
The industrial zones peter out, and suddenly date palms are growing on both sides of the road, not in the random patterns of an oasis but in the long straight rows of cultivated orchards. Then the first chicken hatchery appears, and soon patches of green vegetables and alfalfa. East of the farm town of al-Kharj are vast operations of corporate agriculture, such as Al Safi, the world's largest dairy farm, and Almarai, a dairy and juice conglomerate.
The landscape is unmistakably desert and hardly looks promising for farming. But agriculture is big business in Saudi Arabia, from Hail in the north to the valleys near Taif in the west to the terraced hillsides of the southwest, made possible mostly by decades of government subsidies and irrigation with water pumped out of caverns deep underground. In 2008, agriculture accounted for nearly 5 percent of the country's annual GDP and employed about 12 percent of the work force.
Saudi state television's "This is Our Country" program features a documentary celebrating the achievements of Saudi agriculture: self-sufficiency in wheat and poultry, impressive harvests of figs, grapes and citrus fruits, increasing production of olive oil. The so-called "Desert Kingdom" is self-sufficient in potatoes--which is saying a lot, given the amount of french fries consumed at the ubiquitous fast-food restaurants--and even produces flowers for export.
Nevertheless, only about 2 percent of the country's enormous land mass is arable, even with intensive irrigation and modern farming technology, and the country in modern times has always depended on imported food. That dependence is increasing as the young population continues to grow at a rate that outpaces production. Facing a probable 77 percent growth in its population by 2050, Saudi Arabia is grappling with the realization that its barren soil and dwindling water supply will be insufficient to feed all those people. A quest for "food security," in a world where competition for food can only increase, has moved to the top of the Saudi planning agenda.