Farm Ireland

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Video: 25,000 cow Saudi dairy farm one example of latent opportunities

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The massive Almarai dairy operation in Saudi Arabia encapsulates some of the contradictions of the Middle East. It also embodies the latent opportunity in the region for the Irish food sector.

Its scale is mind boggling. I knew beforehand that the company milked 75,000 cows, with as many as 25,000 on one site, but seeing is believing.

I tried valiantly to get a TV crew onto the farm for Ear To The Ground, but the strict Islamic laws that dominate daily life in Saudi meant that securing permission to film was next to impossible.

The same Sharia law forbids women working with men, or even entering the bank by the same door (the women's entrance sign was hilarious and sinister in equal measure).

In fact, I needed the Irish Ambassador and the Department of Agriculture's secretary general to make special representations on my behalf to get into Saudi as a journalist with the Irish food trade delegation that accompanied the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney last week.

It was also a major faux pas to even enquire how somebody's wife was doing. Statues of people or animals are forbidden, and beheaded if discovered by the religious police.

These religious zealots are also on the look-out for any women not adhering to the strict dress code that requires all women to cover all their hair and body with a simple black robe to the ankle.

Alcohol is banned everywhere except in western compounds. Happily, the Irish Embassy is located in one of these and the crowd there last Wednesday night partied like it was New Year's Eve.

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Despite its rigid culture, the Saudi economy is one that is turbo-charged by the massive deposits of oil that the country sits on. This has allowed King Abdullah of Saudi to virtually ignore the impracticality of producing food in the desert.

So when the Irish McGuckian brothers said that they could produce milk in the desert in the 1970s, they were welcomed with open arms.

Forty years later, the McGuckians are long gone, but their legacy lives on in the huge Almarai farms that were taken into Saudi ownership.

Irish men still manage much of the operation, and the units have multiplied in size in an effort to keep pace with the growing demand for fresh dairy products. But approaching the farms, it was noticeable the number of irrigators that lay idle in the lifeless desert sands.

Water is the big elephant in the room in the Middle East. "We'd rather not get into that," was the stock response when the subject was broached.

Other farms I visited in the region were either drilling down 1.25 miles into the ground in search of water or pumping it hundreds of kilometres from the sea. Saudi has so much oil that petrol costs just 8c/l, and the King uses nearly 500,000l of crude oil annually to keep the sand down on his gallops.

A massive 20pc of their annual oil output is used domestically, much of it in tasks such as desalinating thousands of litres of seawater daily to keep the taps running.

Almarai doesn't grow any fodder in the desert any more. Instead most of it is imported from the US, Argentina and Spain. Some is grown on out-farms about 1,000km away.

Why do they do it?

For the same reason that King Abdullah keeps a herd of 200 milking cows, along with goats, sheep and 7ac of greenhouses on his sprawling 3,000ac ranch just outside Riyadh. He only eats food that is produced on the farm but he's rarely there, so it is shipped to wherever he is in the world.

Why? Because he can afford it.

This may seem extravagant to us, but the Saudi ruler is actually considered to be one of the more frugal of the Middle East's royal families. He has banned any of his sons from owning a private jet or yacht and limited them to just one foreign home each.

Where does all of this leave Ireland?

The powers that be in the Middle East know how unsustainable their systems are without the power of the oil dollars to fund it. That's why they are investing billions of dollars in millions of acres in Africa and South America.

It's also the reason that they are interested in securing long-term partnerships with Irish food suppliers. For now, the main opportunities lie in supplying premium cuts of meat and dairy products to wealthy Arabs and the millions of foreign workers that are earning huge tax-free salaries.

But long term, there is a bigger opportunity. The oil is not going to last forever, and when it goes, many of the country's huge ex-pat community will leave with it.

But the locals will not want to go back to the basic lifestyles or diets of the past. The Kerry Groups and IDBs of this world have realised this, and are making a big play for a slice of the action. The rest of the Irish food sector should follow.

For more facts, pictures and video clips of my visit to Almarai and other locations in the Middle East, check out and @darraghmccullou on Twitter

Irish Independent