A little-known fact about Saudi Arabia: it was until recently the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat. From 1980 to 2005, the Saudis spent some $85 billion, nearly 20 percent of the total oil revenue accumulated during the period, on subsidies for wheat farmers. In a country with a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves but no natural rivers or lakes, the environmental cost of cultivating wheat was extraordinary. The Ministry of Agriculture and Water had by the 1980s built some 200 dams, seeking to trap and redirect precious, finite water from oases and ancient underground aquifers. One economist estimated that the irrigation cost for Saudi wheat farms from 1980 to 2000—more than 300 billion cubic meters of water—was “the equivalent of six years’ flow of the Nile River.” An American delegation to the kingdom likened “the growing of cereals at an exorbitant cost in the desert” to “planting bananas under glass in Alaska.”
Another little-known, but more fantastic, fact about Saudi Arabia: in the late ’70s the Saudi government entertained the idea of wrapping a 100 million-ton iceberg in plastic and towing it from Antarctica to the Red Sea, where it would melt and provide much-needed fresh water. One of the king’s nephews, Mohammad al-Faisal, spearheaded the project, and his consultants included French engineers and a polar explorer. He invested millions of his fortune in a start-up called Iceberg Transport International, “a company whose sole purpose was to haul icebergs to the water-poor,” as Toby Craig Jones writes in his provocative book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. The company didn’t last. Its high point came on the campus of Iowa State University, where in 1977 Faisal, “at considerable personal expense,” successfully displayed a 4,785-pound “mini-berg” shipped from Alaska for “a conference on iceberg utilization.” At the conference, the berg was crushed into bits used to ice delegates’ drinks. But no amount of capital or limelight could make towing icebergs feasible. “Once you get north of the equator,” an American engineer told Faisal in Iowa, “you’ll have nothing but a rope at the end of your tow.” As it turned out, higher-ranking royalty in government had already abandoned Faisal’s iceberg scheme and committed their oil wealth to building dozens of expensive desalination plants for watering the kingdom.
Saudi authoritarianism may be founded on the Al Saud family’s “grand bargain” with the Wahhabist clergy, Jones writes, but religion has not been the sole instrument of state power. It has often been complemented by the government’s management, manipulation and control of natural resources, most of all water. “Over the course of the twentieth century, capturing, controlling, engineering and even making freshwater have been just as important to Saudi political authority as controlling oil,” Jones writes, even though the ability to do the former is funded by the latter. “The process has virtually turned oil into water.”
On the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts, more than twenty desalination plants, at a cost of billions in oil revenue, make seawater fresh for the country’s 28 million people. Today four cities are being built from scratch in the desert, hopeful future job hubs for the kingdom’s younger generation. Their names may be banal, but at least they reveal intent: King Abdullah Economic City, Knowledge Economic City, Prince Abdulaziz bin Mousaed Economic City, Jazan Economic City. Rather than invest in the crumbling, historic center of the port city of Jeddah, or the slums in the sprawling capital, Riyadh, the government has elected—in keeping with urban planning trends across the region—to build anew, on the desert periphery, in drab suburban tracts and glass towers that are thought to signal progress. The first coeducational university in the kingdom, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, recently opened on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah, with an endowment of roughly $10 billion. The scale of development suggests that the Saudi government has solved its water crisis. Otherwise, how else could high-rise cities reliant on air-conditioning and potable water sprout in the desert?