EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

National scale agricultural development dynamics under socio-political drivers in Saudi Arabia since 1990

Ting Li, Oliver López Valencia, Kasper Johansen, and Matthew McCabe
Ting Li et al.
  • Water Desalination and Reuse Center, Division of Biological and Envirormental Sciences and Engineering, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Thuwal, 23955-6900, Saudi Arabia

Driven in large part by policy initiatives designed to increase food security and realized via the construction of thousands of center-pivot irrigation fields since the 1970s, agriculture development in Saudi Arabia has undergone tremendous changes. However, little is known about the accurate number, acreage, and the changing dynamics of the fields. To bridge the knowledge gap between the political drivers and in-field response, we leveraged a hybrid machine learning framework by implementing Density-Based Spatial Clustering of Applications with Noise, Convolutional Neural Networks, and Spectral Clustering in a stepwise manner to delineate the center-pivot fields on a national scale in Saudi Arabia using historical Landsat imagery since 1990. The framework achieved producer's and user's accuracies larger than  83.7% and 90.2%, respectively, when assessed against 28,000 manually delineated fields collected from different regions and periods. We explored multi-decadal dynamics of the agricultural development in Saudi Arabia by quantifying the number, acreage, and size distribution of center-pivot fields, along with the first and last detection year of the fields since 1990. The agricultural development in Saudi Arabia experienced four stages, including an initialization stage before 1990, a contraction stage from 1990 to 2010, an expansion stage from 2010 to 2016, and an ongoing contraction stage since 2016. Most of the fields predated 1990, representing over 8,800 km2 in that year, as a result of the policy initiatives to stimulate wheat production, promoting Saudi Arabia as the sixth largest exporter of wheat in the 1980s. A decreasing trend was observed from 1990 to 2010, with an average of 8,011 km2 of fields detected during those two decades, which was a response to the policy initiative implemented to phase-out wheat after 1990. As a consequence of planting fodder crops to promote the dairy industry, the number and extent of fields increased rapidly from 2010 to 2015 and reached its peak in 2016, with 33,961 fields representing 9,400 km2. Agricultural extent has seen a continuous decline since 2016 to a level lower than 1990 values in 2020. This decline has been related to sustainable policy initiatives implemented for the Saudi Vision 2030. There is some evidence of an uptick in 2021 — also observed in an ongoing analysis for 2022 — which might be in response to global influences, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the more recent conflict in the Ukraine, which has disrupted the international supply of agricultural products. The results provide a historical account of agricultural activity throughout the Kingdom and provide a basis for informed decision-making on sustainable irrigation and agricultural practices, helping to better protect and manage the nation's threatened groundwater resources, and providing insights into the resilience and elasticity of the Saudi Arabian food system to global perturbations.

How to cite: Li, T., López Valencia, O., Johansen, K., and McCabe, M.: National scale agricultural development dynamics under socio-political drivers in Saudi Arabia since 1990, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-11293,, 2023.

Supplementary materials

Supplementary material file