Saudi Arabia in the Oil Age is a Microcosm of Everywhere

Saudi Arabia in the Oil Age is a Microcosm of Everywhere

I’m about to delve into some politics, economics, resource constraints, and context-building for the next series of the blog.  Before I get into that, it’s important to keep the end in mind, and understand where i’m going.

A facility at the Khurais Oil Field.  Source:  The Guardian

A facility at the Khurais Oil Field. Source: The Guardian

We live in the oil age.  I’m not sure what’s going to come after the oil age, but we’re not there yet. Everything human society runs on is derived from oil.  Agriculture depends entirely on oil, and I don’t mean because bananas make it from Colombia to wherever you are.  Food is produced with oil-derived nitrogen fertilizers, and mined phosphates and potash, using oil-driven machines.  Without those fertilizers, conventional agriculture collapses.  The planting, the fertilizers, the synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and the harvesting are all done using oil-driven machines, processes, or materials.  That’s just the agriculture.  There are other oil-driven fields that determine a lot about our way of life:






We depend on oil for almost everything in our lives.  Put that thought on a shelf for a second and let’s talk about saudi Arabia.

Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on oil for everything that everyone else does, but it also depends on oil for its national revenues–about 90% of them.  Since Saudi Arabia is a desert country, with no rivers or lakes, its capacity to be resource self-sustaining is very very small.

The way our societies are designed, and the way we produce, distribute, consume, and discard the products and goods of 21st century civilization is turning much of our world into water-stressed desert as well.

Look at the American Southwest:   the Colorado River no longer reaches Mexico. There are otherwise intelligent people seriously advocating for a pipeline of water from Lake Superior, once the Ogalalla aquifer runs out.  Finally Southern California is on the verge of building its first desalination plant, and you can never stop with just one.  All so we can have ranches and cotton.

Look at the Aral Sea, once the world’s 4th largest lake.  It will be gone within 15 years, at which point the surrounding countries, which have sucked it dry for cotton production and other agricultures will also start to desertify.  Here’s what NASA has to say about it:

As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.

The Aral Sea Disappears over 30 years.  Source:

The Aral Sea Disappears over 30 years. Source:

Look at the fertile crescent; it’s not fertile anymore.  Northern Syria’s severe drought and agricultural destruction was one of the causes of the ongoing revolution, and Turkey’s damning of the Euphrates, so it can grow cotton, is decimating Iraqi farmers, and will eventually lead to the destruction of the Euphrates itself.

Look at Egypt, which was once the bread basket of the roman empire, and now the greatest importer of wheat in the world, with rapidly salinating soils, and a falling capacity for agricultural production.

China, Pakistan, India, Australia, Central Asia, and many other countries are experiencing massive  desertification, and in most cases this is caused by short-sighted, unsustainable oil-based agriculture systems.  This is well documented in Fred Pearce’s “When the Rivers Run Dry.”

China has twice more land undergoing desertification than it has land under agricultural production.

China has twice more land undergoing desertification than it has land under agricultural production.

The whole of human civilization is in a pattern of overdrawing resources.  We mine our soil to produce food, destroying soil in the process.  We turn forests into fields, and then the fields turn into deserts, as the waters and lakes dry up.  We are mining our oceans until they are full of plastic & jellyfish.  We are consuming every non-renewable resource we have and after we are done with them, we discard them in unreusable forms, ruining the renewable resources we have in the process.  Our ability to affect our environment increases more quickly than our ability to perceive that effect.  This is not an issue of global warming–this is an issue of how humans manage their resources.

What seems to be the near future of Saudi Arabia, a barren land with drastically few renewable resources, and a dependence on mining oil, gas, potash, and other minerals, is very much like the future many countries face, unless the way they manage natural resources changes.  The truth is, unless we redesign our societies to cooperate with nature and its cycles, and redesign how we produce, transport, consume, and discard all the facets of peopledom, that is the future we all share.  Keep that in mind as you follow over the next few months the series on food security, water security, and the challenges Saudi Arabia faces over the next generation.




The Catalyst of Desertification

The Catalyst of Desertification

In the last post I discussed the cycle of desertification and its effect on weather patterns, and how dust, high temperatures relative to dew point, and the lack of suitable ice nuclei for cloud formation prevent more rainfall from occurring in the Arabian Peninsula.  The next few posts are going to focus on  the Hijaz–the strip of land on the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula between the red sea and the mountains.   In this post you will learn how the cycle of desertification was set off in the Hijaz in the recent past, as well as how it has been a recurring event in human history.

The hijaz has sustained nomadic pastoral tribes for thousands of years, and over that time, a land management system known as Hima was brought into practice.  This system predates Islam, and has been amended over the years to constitute a reserve or protected area, managed by the local tribe, to maintain rangelands and grazing.  Shortly after the advent of Islam, the Hima became recognised as a place to provide for the general welfare of the people, particularly the poor.

The caliph Omar ibn al-Khattāb (reigned 634-644 CE) instructed the manager of Rabadhah himā by saying: “Lift your wing from the people! Heed the complaint of the oppressed for it will be heard by God. Let enter those who are dependent on their camels and sheep; and turn away the livestock of Ibn ‘Awf and Ibn ‘Affān (two rich Companions of the Prophet), for they can fall back to their palms and fields if their livestock should perish. Whereas the needy ones, if their livestock perish, will come to me crying (i.e. asking for financial help). (from O. A. Llewellyn, “The Basis for a Discipline”, p. 213)

In the middle ages, Himas were given as waqf surrounding the cities.  In the rural areas,  local inhabitants established environmental planning and management strategies which balanced the settlements’ growth and natural resources uses according to Islamic laws and the tribal self-government. Tribes were given the authority by the Prophet, PBUH, to be the custodians of their himā-s, and to control them on behalf of the central government. (S. al-‘Ali, “The himā in the first hegira century (7th century CE)” (in Arabic), al-‘Arab (Riyadh), 7 April 1969: pp. 577-95.  Also see here)  Violators of the rules of the hima–those who brought unpermitted animals in, were either beaten, or had some of their animals confiscated as punishment.


Thus we have a very brief overview of a political system that sustainably  managed lands teetering on the desert for thousands of years, and which, contrary to many other human societies, maintained the relative health of their land while caring for the poor.

Hunting was another activity managed through the Hima to maintain stocks and prevent extermination.

Hunting was another activity managed through the Hima to maintain stocks and prevent extermination.

This system thrived throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant until very recently.  In Saudi Arabia, as in so many other cases throughout history, unintended consequences of policies led to severe deforestation.  Here I quote directly from Lutfallah Gari:

In Saudi Arabia the government wanted the tribes to be unified under one umbrella; hence it took the responsibility of management and security of the rural lands through governmental agencies. In 1954 a decree was issued designating the Ministry of Agriculture and Water as the custodian of the rural lands in this country. This created a new statute for the himā-s that became public lands. There was no immediate alternative conservation system. The first national park in the country (i.e. ‘Asīr National Park) was established in 1980. The National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) was established in 1986. The period between the banning of the himī system and the start of constructing national parks and protected areas was a period characterized by severe destruction of the plant cover through overgrazing and felling of trees as well as over-hunting of wild animals… An estimated three thousand himā-s existed in Saudi Arabia in the 1950’s…A report issued by the NCWCD in 2003 mentions only four remaining that are called “old himā-s” that are managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, in addition to a few dozen himā-s that are still managed by local communities in “isolated” rural areas. The NCWCD report says: “Many of the traditional himā s as well as many terraces have been either abandoned or disappeared under fields that are suitable for mechanical cultivation. In some cases, this has replaced sustainable systems of land use with ones that require increasing inputs of water and management to maintain their productivity, but is has also markedly reduced the diversity of habitats” [45].

The effects of this policy are being felt acutely in the hijaz and many other rural areas of the kingdom.  When the Himas were disbanded and tribes lost the legal right to manage their land, A tragedy of the commons took place that resulted in massive deforestation, overgrazing, and environmental destruction that continues today.  This is compounded by a surging population (set to double to 50 million by 2035!), and along with it a surging demand for red meat.

The people in Al Baydha, where I work, are the prime subjects of this issue.  They have no legal right to manage their land, nor to prevent others from bringing their animals to graze when it rains in Al Baydha.  One man I know owns two hotels in Makkah and his hobby (like many of his compatriots) is to keep a large herd of camels, and go out on the weekends to camp, roast a goat, and drink camels milk.  When it rains in Al Baydha, he brings some 200 head of camels (worth an estimated 1.2 million USD) into Al Baydha to graze.  The people in Al Baydha welcome him because of their sense of hospitality, yet cannot maintain 20 head of goats on their land because of visitors like him.  They have no right to forbid others from coming and overgrazing their land, yet bear the full brunt of desertification’s consequences.

Conversely, because they do not own the land, they have disincentives to develop it.  There is a real risk that if someone manages land and tries to bring it back to productivity, that it will be seized by the government because that is who owns the land.  This scenario is the reality for thousands of rural communities throughout Saudi Arabia–they cannot manage the land, and if they begin to improve it, it could be seized from them.  In Al Baydha, they have responded by cutting down trees to be sold as charcoal in Makkah.  In turn, the trees’ ecological services are lost, and the cycle of desertification intensifies and progresses more rapidly.

As recently as 40 years ago, this was a forest, with trees so big "you could not reach your arms all the way around them."  as related by Abdul Rizaq al Aduani, pictured above.

As recently as 40 years ago, this was a forest, with trees so big “you could not reach your arms all the way around them.” as related by Abdul Rizaq al Aduani, pictured above.

Thus we see the interplay of policies, unintended consequences, the collapse of a traditional land management system, and as a result, massive desertification, loss of productivity, and a collapsing way of life for many rural peoples in Saudi Arabia.  Without exception, every person I talk to in this country who is older than 50 years old has fond memories of visiting a green, lush wadi, filled with date palms, jujubes, acacias, fish,  running water, or forest.  When they revisit these areas now, they are dry, dead, treeless, and prone to flooding.

As the land dies, it becomes more and more difficult to bring it back.  Soil life dies, erosion increases, and the land’s ability to absorb water ebbs away.  As plant life decreases, soil temperatures increase, making it even harder for plants to become established.  Finally, the 3 main impediments to rainfall–dust, high temperatures, and the lack of particles that form ice nuclei and clouds, dominate the climatic situation.  The water cycle becomes erratic and unhealthy, and the mineral cycle ceases to function as even bacteria cannot decompose plants or animals because of the dryness.

This is the reality for much of the Arabian Peninsula.  People have been the catalyst for desertification in many cases throughout history–in the fertile crescent, on Easter Island, in the western United States, China, and much of Africa.  This is now the case in the Arabian Peninsula today.  In the next few posts, I will go into more detail on the water and mineral cycles, after which we will get into the solutions of these problems–how people can also be the catalyst for regeneration of their land, their environments, and their economies.

More Resources:

On The Hema:

From King Abdulaziz University

A downloadable PDF in Arabic, French, and English

Omar Lutfi’s “Ecology in Muslim Heritage”

Google Books Sources:






When Arabia Was Awash in Rivers and Lakes

When Arabia Was Awash in Rivers and Lakes

The above graphic is a map of rivers that once existed on the arabian peninsula, in a time when it was populated by crocodiles, hippos, elephants, and a lush array of foliage to support such an ecosystem.  Most recently the peninsula had this type of climate between 10,000 and 6000-5500 BCE.  scientists have also identified lakes that existed in the current Empty Quarter.   The timing for 6000-5500 BCE  is curious, because it corresponds with the time that agriculture was showing up, but I’ll get into that later.   Aside from the wetter periods in prehistoric times, it’s likely that rivers existed much more recently than 7000 years ago.  Here are two maps from  the 1570’s, one by Ruscelli Ptolemy, depicting rivers flowing through Yemen, East into the Arabian Gulf,  as well as into the Hijaz (Source is Leen Helmlink’s site).  And while the maps would not be considered accurate by today’s standards, just the reports that rivers were here that recently is intriguing.

Ptolemy Map Arabia

A 1570s map from Ptolemy with rivers crisscrossing Arabia.

A 1570s map from Ptolemy with rivers crisscrossing Arabia.


For a moment I would like to go back to the first map, though:

Paleo Rivers that flowed through Arabia.

Source: “The Prehistory of The Arabian Peninsula: Deserts, Dispersals, and Demography” by Growcutt & Petraglia. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:113–125 (2012)

Do you notice the pattern here?  Almost all the rivers have their sources in the mountains, with most of them sourced in the hijaz and the Hajar Mountains.  There are some that flowed out of the Empty Quarter, which would have found their source in lakes, but all the rest stem from the mountains.  Notice the enormous alluvial fan (somewhat like a delta) entering the sea in modern-day Kuwait.  This was an enormous amount of water!

There are two points I am trying to make here:

  1.  Just because a place is a desert now does not mean that it has always been a desert, nor does it mean that it will stay one permanently.
  2. Any work seeking to restore rivers in a desert must focus work first of all in the mountains, because of their impact on rainfall and because they are the high point of any watershed.

In the next post I will discuss the major weather cycles that have affected the dry/wet cycles in the penninsula, as well as why currently, if the patterns held true, Arabia should be getting more rain now than it actually is.

How I Got Started in Permaculture

How I Got Started in Permaculture

In 2004 I worked as an assistant to the industrial hygienist at Brigham Young University.  We would put on Hazmat suits and scour some of the buildings on university campus for hazardous materials that could get out while the building underwent construction.  Mostly this was to make sure that there was no asbestos, no electric or plumbing hazards, or calcification of the systems.  It exposed me to the underlying infrastructure that allowed everything else in the university to work.

Remove all the right angles and you can save a ton of money.

All those buildings’ basements looked like an older version of this.

That exposure got me thinking about building materials and building efficiency, and I found a few books that really resonated with me:  RMI’s Natural Capitalism, William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, and Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House.

Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism connected directly with what I was seeing at my job–miles of pipes bending all at right angles over and over again to fit the layout of the building.  And I realized if you could eliminate 50% of all those bends, they could probably buy a pump half the size as the one they had, and reduce their operating costs for all that pumping by at least 50% if not a lot more (smaller pumps are less capital up front, and typically need less maintenance, plus fewer turns in the pipes means less chances of things getting stuck).   It also introduced me to the concept of initial capital vs. operating costs–a building constructed to last 100 years and to operate very efficiently might cost more up front to build, but will cost a lot less in the long run, when compared with a cheap building with a 30 year shelf life.

Cradle to Cradle was a bit of a cultural smash as well–McDonough, the author, became a bit of a celebrity because his ideas were seen as so essential and yet so radical.  In a nutshell (as I interpret it), he says that everything we build needs to be deconstructable or biodegradable–so that we are cycling the components of things we manufacture and build–either because they biodegrade and go back into the soil, or because they are designed to be reused over and over again.

The Not So Big House introduced me to the concept of stacking functions–it said that if we design spaces in a house to perform multiple functions, then we don’t have to build as much house, and therefore can either build a much cheaper house, or a much nicer one (depending on which way you want to go with it).

All of those principles–thinking in cycles, eliminating inefficiencies, stacking functions in space, resonated with me on a gut level, and were all pushing me toward thinking like a permaculturalist.

From there over the next couple years I delved into Natural building styles–earthbag, cob, compressed earth, drystone, and found a gem in Ianto Evans’ The Hand-Sculpted House.

I still dream of building a cob house one day.

I still dream of building a cob house one day.


By the time I read Ianto Evans it was 2006, I was graduating from BYU and moving on to a cubicle farm in Virginia.  Over those couple years, i developed a real desire to one day build my own house.   Ianto’s book may have been the first one I read that mentioned permaculture.  He does work with beans and cultivating certain selections specific to his home in Oregon.  I didn’t know what permaculture was when I read the word.  But it lead me to what is probably one of the most common introductory books in permaculture, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden.

After two years at the cubicle farm, I was looking for a way out.  Corporate America was not the place for me.  I felt cheated by the narrative that to be a good citizen, you go to school, work hard, graduate, and then get a job to pay off your student loans.  I felt like a cog and wanted out.  I continued to study and read about building and permaculture gardening in my spare time.  We had a daughter in 2007, and then a son in 2009, and I felt more and more trapped by a job I hated.  In 2010, I was prepping to quit that job, go do a 6 month internship at Ianto’s Cob Cottage Company and from there on try to make it as a natural builder.  Instead, I was given the chance to join the Al Baydha Project in Saudi Arabia. I signed up for a permaculture design course with Geoff Lawton in Jordan, and  moved to Saudi Arabia in October 2010.

Hiking Wadi Rum during my PDC in October, 2010.

Hiking Wadi Rum during my PDC in October, 2010.

Since then, I’ve been a leader for one of the most ambitious and challenging permaculture projects I know of–one that seeks to use ephemeral flash floods to convert areas of the Saudi Desert into productive forest, as a new economic basis for the settled bedou living in the area.  So far it has been a tremendous learning experience, and I count myself very blessed to have the opportunity to work with the bedou, and to test if permaculture really can do what I think it can.

Permaculture has changed how I perceive the world around me, and how I think.  It gave me hope that we can tackle the enormous environmental problems that we have been creating for the last 200 years, and that we can feed the world without destroying the planet, and that is the vision I am pursuing in my work and with this blog.

My friend Abd al Rizaq and I drink Camel's milk near Makkah.

My friend Abd al Rizaq and I drink Camel’s milk near Makkah.