Dairy Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Makes the Desert Moo

Saudi Arabia's dairy industry is booming, but is it sustainable?

Moooove over, Europe - Saudi Arabia’s dairy industry is booming thanks to Al-Safi Dairy Farm, the largest in the world. Conceived in the 1970s in the midst of the oil embargo, Al-Safi is twice as large as the largest American dairy farm and houses 37,000 cows that produce more than 58 million gallons of milk a year.
Entirely self-sufficient and operational year-round, Al-Safi thrives in the middle of the desert. The milking parlors, processing and packaging plants, and distribution system are all on-site, and the farm grows enough fodder to feed all of its cows. To protect the cattle from the summer heat, pens are equipped with air-droplet cooling fans and special awnings.
This innovation comes at a high cost: in water-scarce Saudi Arabia, it takes nearly 2,300 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk, nearly three times the amount required for production in the United States. In 2007, Saudi Arabia used more than 19 billion gallons of water to produce dairy products it then exported—the equivalent to seven hours worth of water crashing over Niagara Falls.
Recognizing the toll agriculture is taking on water supply, the Saudi government is phasing out the wheat subsidies that had made the desert kingdom a grain exporter. But ending subsidies doesn’t solve the problem, as some farmers are switching to alfalfa, an even thirstier crop. With the Kingdom’s water supply under stress, Al-Safi may not be able to produce milk until the cows come home.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.