Land grabs are old news, but National Geographic has taken a closer look at Saudi’s African interests in particular and the resulting story is startling. The world’s favorite nature magazine visited two massive dairy farms, including the world’s largest, that were built in one of the driest and hottest parts of earth – roughly 100 miles southeast of Riyadh. Here, Friesian cows survive amid temperatures of up to 110 degrees fahrenheit.
The cows raised at the Al Safi and Almarai farms live better than some humans in air-conditioned sheds and water misters that keep them cool. But feeding them with grain grown nearby has depleted 4/5th of the Kingdom’s ancient aquifer in the last 30 years. For milk. The farms are facing closure as a result of water shortages, but instead of giving up altogether, the Saudis are buying up land and water elsewhere – including the already vulnerable Nile.
The Nile was apportioned in 1929 by colonial powers, an issue that has created great tension among Nile River Basin countries in the last few years. Egypt relies almost entirely on this river for its population’s survival, but upstream countries feel that they have been shortchanged by that country’s monopoly.
Ethiopia has been particularly vociferous, though the main instigator of a slew of new damns and hydroelectricity projects, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, died in August, 2012. But not before allowing Saudi Star, owned by Sheikh Mohammed Ali Al Amoudi, to purchase large tracts of land near the headwaters of the Nile in Gambela.
Member of the local Anuak Tribe talked to National Geographic about the firm’s usurpation of land and water. At the time of writing, the company was digging a canal to drain nearby wetlands and their 24,711 acre relies on a reservoir built in the 1980s by Soviet engineers.
Tribesmen told the magazine that they intended to farm their ancestral land anyway. When they moved in to do so, gunmen shot and killed several Saudi Star workers, unleashing a vicious government crackdown in the nearby villages.
Men were killed, women were raped. Many people fled to neighboring Southern Sudan.
The Saudi government offers shiny incentives for firms to seek out arable land outside of the Kingdom. According to National Geographic, the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad has catalyzed projects as far afield as Senegal River in West Africa and Indonesian New Guinea.
And the reason? The Saudis are concerned to secure a steady food supply in the decades to come now that their own resources are depleted as a result of chronic mismanagement. Other Gulf countries such as Abu Dhabi are pursuing a similar track.
Meanwhile, several reports show that Gulf Arabs are among the fattest people on earth,which begs the question: will Saudi, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar purge other resources the way they destroyed their own in order to satisfy their overgrown waistlines?
Visit National Geographic for the full story and photos.
Image credit: friesian cow, Shutterstock