Saudi citrus industry thrives in desert


Production reaches 50 000 tonnes, guided by FAO-supported research centre

Rashed Al Zubeidi, an agronomist at the Centre, checks citrus seedlings.
(FAO photo/Salah Al Bazzaz)

NAJRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Visitors to this desert city in the extreme southwest of the country should expect the unexpected: plantations of orange, lemon, mandarin and grapefruit trees growing in sandy soil with drip irrigation, and a prosperous agricultural region aiming to satisfy national demand for citrus fruit.

This impressive economic and scientific achievement has its roots in the founding of the Horticultural Development Research Centre in 1982 by the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture and Water with technical assistance from FAO. While the desert is not the ideal habitat for citrus fruits, the Najran region, with its moderate climate, underground water and sunshine, proved suitable for citrus cultivation and the Centre laid the foundation for the scientific development of a modern industry.

The Najran region produces 50 000 tonnes of citrus fruit a year, a figure that is rising and making an ever-growing contribution to the national demand for citrus, currently around 700 000 tonnes a year, the rest of which is imported. Since 70 percent of the region's 250 000 inhabitants work in the agricultural sector, most families have benefited from the boom, enjoying an improved standard of living including more schools and public institutions. So completely is Najran identified with citrus fruit that it has acquired the nickname of the "Desert Orange".

"Our Centre is the first institute specialized in citrus fruits in the Middle East," Ali Bin Abdallah Al Jalil, director of the Centre, says proudly. "At present, we are working on introducing legal regulations on the registration and certification of citrus seedlings, which will make us an internationally recognized centre."

Ali Bin Abdalla Al Jalil, director of the Centre, inspects drip irrigation in an orange grove in Najran.
(FAO photo/Salah Al Bazzaz)

Mr Al Jalil obtained his master's degree in agronomy from the University of Florida, where he has recently taken advanced studies. He points out that while citrus may be more suited to conditions in other countries, Saudi Arabia uses more advanced technology such as sophisticated devices to study citrus DNA and check on microbes and viruses. "We experimented with more than 100 varieties of citrus from Florida, Arizona and California before settling on 80 varieties that were deemed environmentally and commercially suitable for Najran," he notes. "We continue to experiment to find citrus adaptable to desert conditions."

FAO has been with the Centre from the beginning, providing training in production, irrigation, plant protection and extension services. "Now the Centre is 100 percent managed by the Saudis," says Dr Mohamed Djerbi, FAO programme coordinator in Saudi Arabia. "They also train the agronomists serving at the Ministry of Agriculture and Water and other government sectors."

Farmers visit the Centre regularly. Ibrahim Akran recently brought soil and water samples to the Centre's analysis service to find out if his land was suitable for citrus cultivation. Mohamed Bin Muslim, the owner of a two-year-old citrus farm, counts on the Centre's advice. "Thanks to their new system of irrigation and limited use of fertilizers, my trees have grown better, fruit quality has improved and production is up," he says.

Starting a citrus fruit industry from nothing is a complex business. The Centre, which employs 25 agronomists and technicians, had to find suitable varieties, which now include sweet oranges like "Early March" and "Spanish Caletciano". Farmers, who traditionally grew wheat, barley and clover, had to be taught new methods. The Centre promoted drip irrigation instead of traditional irrigation, thereby "rationalizing the use of an important resource, which was previously squandered on a large scale," says Rashed Al Zubeidi, an agronomist at the Centre.

The Centre runs five laboratories that examine seedlings, viral and viral-like diseases, analyze soil samples and test citrus fruit quality. It produces about 100 000 virus-free citrus tree seedlings a year on its 40-hectare premises, selling them to local farmers at "promotional" prices in order to encourage the use of high-quality stock.

7 February 2002

For more information, contact writer Salah Al Bazzaz.

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