Saudi Arabia: Grazing and Oasis Agriculture along the Northern Coastal Region of the Red Sea



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Western Asia


  • Saudi Arabia (Northern Red Sea coastal region)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of pastoralism and oasis farming in the area.


  • Drylands, agriculture, nomadic pastoralism, hima system


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Saudi Arabia, which occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, on the whole has a warm-desert climate under the Köppen climate classification. In Riyadh, the country’s capital located inland, the average annual temperature is 26.0 degrees Celsius and the average annual precipitation amounts to only 135.7 mm. Along the northern coast of the Red Sea, the average annual precipitation is much lower at 40 mm. Out of the total land area of 2,15million km2, agricultural land only accounts for 1.8% (38,000 km2) and forest land comprises 0.5% (9,770 km2). In contrast, the area of pastureland is quite large, accounting for 79.1% (1.7 million km2) (FAOSTAT’s figure in 2009).

The Red Sea, located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, is a semi-enclosed coastal sea with a long narrow area, extending approximately 2,000 km from north to south. The depth of the seabed is almost 3,000 m at its deepest point since the Red Sea is an extension of the Great Rift Valley in Africa. With no inflowing rivers and limited development due to the extreme aridity of the surrounding area, the transparency of the seawater of the Red Sea has remained high. The high transparency of the seawater is important for the photosynthesis of the zooxanthella that live symbiotically with the coral. This creates good conditions for the habitat and breeding of the hermatypic coral, coupled with the high temperatures and salt concentration of the Sea. The coastal area exhibits unique biodiversity with mangroves (two species of Rhizophora mucronata and Avicennia marina) and halophytes.

In the central portion of the Red Sea coastal area, cities such as Mecca and Jeddah have prospered since the seventh century, when Arabs began to exert their growing political power with the birth of Islam. Jeddah is the largest city in the Red Sea coastal area with a population of over 2 million. In contrast, the coastal area of 600 km extending from Umluj to Haql has a very much lower population density of 2.2-3.4 people/km2, compared to the national average of 11.8 people/km2, and has been mainly inhabited by nomads (Table 1). Nomadic pastoralism was the key industry in Saudi Arabia until recently. Since the worldwide oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the exploration of abundant oil resources that the region along the Arabian Gulf is endowed with has yielded massive profits, and hence made Saudi Arabia a major destination for many workers from abroad (Figure 1).

Table 1: Population Density and Proportion of Foreigners in the Major Cities in relation to the Total Number of the Population and the Proportion of Foreigners in the Corresponding Provinces of the Northern Coast of the Red Sea

Sources: 1. Saudi Arabia Population Census in 1992 2. The proportion of foreigners in the cities was estimated from the data from public hospitals in each city.

Figure 1. Cities and the Progress of Development along the northern coast of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia (JWRC and and Oceanographical Consultants Co. Ltd, 2000)

Oasis Agriculture and Grazing System

Oasis Agriculture

In the coastal area of the northern Red Sea, sandy and rocky deserts extend throughout the region dotted with open forests and a sparse distribution of Acacia ehrenbergiana and farms using oases as their water source. These oases and “wadis” (valleys with flowing water only at the time of rainfall or in the rainy season, being underlain by underground water veins) are considered to be supplied with moisture from the high humidity (60% on average) along the Red Sea coast.

Along the Red Sea coast, there are sparsely scattered oasis farms, where irrigated agriculture is practiced, using the oases or wadis as their source of water. These oasis farms save water and fuel oil with a time-limited supply of water in the morning and afternoon while estimating the sales of the cultivated cash crops in monetary terms. A main crop is the date palm, which is drought-resistant and can grow in the unfavorable conditions of oases with little water that is saline. The dried fruit of this palm is a traditional source of carbohydrates. Other crops that can be cultivated under these unfavorable conditions of water quality in oasis farms include pasture, which in sold in the form of hay. Vegetables and fruit trees are cultivated in places where the water quality is good and the supply is abundant. Recent oasis farms have come to practice a combination of date cultivation and sheep raising, supported by hired foreign workers.

Grazing and the “Hima” System

In areas with scarce plant resources, nomadic pastoralism has been practiced by Arab nomads (Photo 1). In arid areas, where there are a few plant resources directly available for human beings, they are engaged in production activities through livestock browsing (Miyazaki and Ishida, 1996). The forage for sheep, goats and camels, which are able to cope with a very hot environment and dryness, includes herbaceous perennials such as Panicum and the leaves and bark of bushes growing in sandy land. In addition to the grasses and bushes that are also eaten by sheep, camels eat shrubs with long needles (Ishida and Miyazaki, 1996) and are even fond of mangroves and halophytes along the seashore. The underlying factor that has made nomadic pastoralism possible in the sandy and rocky deserts over a long historical period is the existence of the generational succession of a chain of “hima” or pasture reserves where the scarce plant resources have been used sustainably instead of being overexploited.

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Photo 1. Grazing of sheep and goats along the northern coast of the Red Sea (photo: Japan Wildlife Research Center)

Hima” are pasture reserves consisting of rangelands surrounded by stones and have been extensively demarcated since time immemorial in the Arabian Peninsula and these remain to this date in Oman, Syria and the Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia. The “hima” system is an essential element of self-sufficient production in semi-arid or arid areas in general (Child and Grainger, 1990).

As the word “hima” dates back to the mid-fifth century in the Arab region, resource management based on the “hima” system is considered to have a history of more than 1,000 years. In its earliest form, however, “hima” meant land protected by the clan heads and sharifs, where hunting, tree-cutting and plant-collecting were banned. Then, its functions were transformed due to the development of Islamism. In the seventh century, for example, Umar ibn al-Khattāb, the second truly legitimate caliph, allowed the “hima” to be utilized for the protection of the poor. Thus, the “hima” system has constituted a form of resource management for communities, based on Islamic laws and the customs of tribes (Nawata, 2009). According to a survey conducted in 1960, the “hima” management system is exemplified by the following five cases of “hima”: (1) where livestock grazing is always prohibited and forage is allowed to be cut only in drought years; (2) where grazing and the cutting and gathering of grasses and other plants are allowed only after the grasses and plants have grown and become lush; (3) where grazing is allowed, depending on the type of livestock; (4) where beekeeping is practiced; and (5) where trees are essentially protected (Child and Grainger, 1990).

Continuity between Nomadic Pastoralism and Oasis Agriculture

A field study in the 1970s (Katakura, 1977) pointed out the continuity and the exchanges conducted between people involved in nomadic pastoralism and oasis agriculture (Table 2). The nomads have a tendency to live in a dispersed pattern due to their environment with scarce resources while maintaining day-to-day contact with farmers, or in some cases working in farming for themselves, as well as actively coming into contact with urban areas (Katakura, 1977).

Table 2: Arabian Dwelling Patterns, Livelihoods, Cash Sources, Average Number of Livestock per Household and Geographical Features

Source: Modified from Katakura (1977)

The nomads and sedentary farmers share a common recognition of the harsh natural environment in the Arabian Peninsula (Katakura, 1977), while the need for sharing access to scarce resources has been understood at least by those who live in rural areas in Saudi Arabia since time immemorial (Child and Grainger, 1990). Moreover, sedentary farmers have another reason to manage the “hima”, that is, to prepare for the hearty appetite of the herds of sheep and camels of the nomads. They have protected the crops on their farms from these animals by providing a portion of the “hima” resources to the nomads (Child and Grainger, 1990). Based on a common recognition of the need for sharing the scarce resources between the nomads and the sedentary farmers, the “hima” have been sustainably conserved in the way that the nomads, as “hima” users, have refrained from overusing the “hima” resources.

Challenges and Responses

Along the northern coast of the Red Sea, those who once managed nomadic pastoralism and oasis farms have come to work for companies in the oil-related industry and desalination plants, as well as in government offices and the coast guard, as Saudi Arabia became an affluent country due to its oil resources. In Saudi Arabia, 85% of the rangelands were substantially degraded in the 1970s. The “hima”, which amounted to around 3,000 in 1965, had been mostly abandoned, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of “hima” by 1990 (Child and Grainger, 1990). The nomads have become sedentary and changed their lifestyle substantially. While the “hima” system has been degraded and is on the wane, full scale nomadic pastoralism is no longer practiced and grazing, which moves the livestock over a shorter distance, is found to be common in the area. There is an increasing tendency towards dependence on workers from abroad in general and in grazing and agriculture in particular. There are significant variations in the extent of such dependence due to the rapid changes in lifestyle among the different generations of Saudi Arabians: those in their 70s or older have been engaged in the nature-based work without any reliance on foreign workers; those in their 40s to 60s have been engaged in such work with a substantial dependence on them; and those in their teens to 30s are fully dependent on them. It has been pointed out that local environmental conservation requires the consolidation of relationships with foreign workers while recognizing the existence of these intergenerational differences (Nawata, 2008).

In response to these changes, in 1989 Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Wildlife Commission (SWC), a government agency with the aim of the protection and rehabilitation of wildlife and ecosystems in the country. The Commission is authorized to prepare natural environment management plans for the protection of rare wildlife and ecosystems and to establish and manage nature reserves. In fact, it has advanced the establishment of natural reserves based on Islamic traditions with the recognition that the traditional “hima” system in the country is an example of conserved rangelands and forest lands that have been sustainably managed and that have worked well since the early era of Islam (SWC, 2011).

The demarcation of nature reserves has in effect taken over the traditional “hima” system to continue certain social, economic and cultural characteristics (SWC, 2011). Thus, the SWC set forth criteria for the establishment of nature reserves comprising not only bioecological ones, but also socio-economic ones, especially focusing on the willingness of local people to maintain them, such as through “obvious economic benefits to the local people” and “the perceptions of local people concerning traditional protection systems.” The Commission officially announced the establishment of 56 terrestrial reserves, 47 marine reserves and coral reefs for eligibility as nature reserves. Out of these, 15 sites have so far been designated as nature reserves, the total area of which amounts to eight percent of the total national land with the aim of increasing this to over 10% in the near future, taking into account local support, disputes over land use, etc (SWC, 2011).


Child, G. and Grainger, J. 1990. A System Plan for Protected Areas for Wildlife Conservation and Sustainable Rural Development in Saudi Arabia. IUCN and NCWCD, p.335.

FAO. FAOSTAT. DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=377#ancor. (accessed 2011-07-01)

Ishida, J. and Miyazaki, A. 1996. “Livestock and Poultry Raising and Use”. Tropical Agriculture. Watanabe, H.; Sakuratani, T.; Miyazaki, A. Nakahara, H., Kitamura, T. eds. Asakura Publishing Co., Ltd, p.114.

Japan Wildlife Research Center and Shin-nihon Meteorological and Oceanographical Consultants Co. Ltd. 2000. Study on the Coastal/Marine Habitats and Biological Inventories of the Northern Part of the Red Sea Coast in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Final Report Summary. Japan International Cooperation Agency, p.79.

Katakura, M. 1977. “Nomadic Society”. Cultural Anthropology – Nomadic Pastoralism, Agriculture and Cities. Katakura, M.; Sato N.; Aoyagi, K. eds. Yachiyo Publishing Co., Ltd. p.3-140.

Miyazaki, A. and Ishida, J. 1996. “Environment and Livestock/Poultry”. Tropical Agriculture. Watanabe, H.; Sakuratani, T.; Miyazaki, A., Nakahara, H., Kitamura, T. eds. Asakura Publishing Co., Ltd, p.102.

Nawata, H. 2008. “Environmental Conservation in Partnership with Workers from Abroad: on Grazing in Natural Reserves in Saudi Arabia”. Community Development and Environmental Conservation: Considering from the Local Residents’ Point of View. Kusano, T. ed. Kokon Shoin Publishers, Tokyo p.119- 134.

Nawata, H. 2009. “The Use and Conservation of Juniper Forests in Saudi Arabia.”. A Question Raised from the History of the Global Environment: What is a Symbiosis between Human Beings and Nature?. Ikeya, K. ed. Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, Tokyo. p.271-294.

Saudi Wildlife Commision. default.aspx. (accessed 2011-07-01)