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:







  1. Hi,
    thank you for your informatice reports about the situation of the Arabian Peninsula.
    One question: Do the camels of the hotel owner even graze inside the demonstration site, that is within the big berm?

    • Hi Stephan,

      the project’s demo site is under management of the project; the stuff in this article is relevant to everything outside our little site.

      • Hi Neal,
        thank you for your answer.
        I think you are really writing history there in Saudi Arabia together with Geoff Lawton and his wife Nadia and all the other permaculture pioneers.

        Greetings from Germany where the spring is finally starting.



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