Infrastructure / On the water frontShort on water, Saudis phase out wheat production

Published 14 April 2008

In the 1970s the Saudi government launched an ambitious plan to make the kingdom self-sufficient on wheat; the Saudis now reverse course and plan to phase out wheat production by 2016; the reason: Wheat production requires water, and if current water consumption patterns continue, the kingdom will run out of fossil water in 20 years

There are not many political scientists who write well. We recall, for example, a University of Chicago professor who referred to citizens and voters as “behavior units.” There was an exception, though — a notable and welcome exception: Professor Robert W. Tucker, now retired from Johns Hopkins University. Tucker’s writing had the rhythm and cadence of a Victorian essay: Rich, evocative, and jargon-free. It was learned and erudite but innately modest, opinionated but measured. It was as if he was following James Madison’s adage that “It would be a presumption in me to do more than make my case.” Take a Foreign Affairs article in which Tucker criticized the foreign policy of the Carter administration, describing it as naive and futuristic, addressing the world not as it was but as the administration’s wide-eyed, innocent foreign policy makers wished it would be. What the president and his foreign policy team never understood, Tucker wrote, was that “What inclinations may compel, circumstances nearly always qualify.”

Here is an example of circumstances qualifying inclinations. Two months ago we wrote about how the Saudi government, facing increasingly severe water shortages, was about to give up on the kingdom’s twenty-year old ambition of becoming a wheat producer. The Financial Times’s Andrew England updates the story. He writes that what started as an ambitious dream, for a desert nation bereft of rivers and lakes to become self-sufficient in wheat, became a reality with the aid of billions of dollars from the first oil boom in the 1970s. Today, though, Saudi Arabia is preparing to phase out production by 2016. The volte face could make the Gulf nation one of the world’s top fifteen importers of the cereal - even as countries across the globe grapple with high wheat prices. Officials say they had few options — it was wheat or water, the most precious of resources in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is now enjoying a second oil boom, so the government believes it has the financial clout to ensure it meets its cereal requirements from international markets. It is expected to begin importing wheat for the first time in more than twenty years in 2009.

Critics said at the time that the scheme dreamed up by the government in the late 1970s was one of the country’s first big white elephants, a project that was bound to fail in the long term. The current plan, passed by