The Dairy Farms of Al Kharj
For centuries, the area around Al Kharj, about 90kms south of Riyadh, has stood out in stark contrast to the vast desertland that surrounds it. And today, this oasis is a centre for agriculture and the dairy industry. For thousands of years, a network of natural aquifers were fed by three major wadis – Wadi Sahba, Wadi Hanifah and Wadi Nisah – and several smaller ones, which drain rainwater from the Tuwaiq escarpment to the west.
Al Kharj’s proximity to Wadi Hanifah and the ancient trade route also made it a commercial and political centre. With the rise of Islam it became a popular, refreshing stop for pilgrims traveling to the Holy cities from the Arabian Gulf. After his historic victory in Riyadh, King Abdul Aziz built a palace here, complete with a farm and stable. He retreated to it frequently at weekends and during the summer and often brought guests from Riyadh. The old palace has now been opened as a museum.
In the early 1980s, the government offered Saudi farmers free land, and interest-free loans for machinery, fertilizer and seed, and guaranteed the sale of their crops. They responded enthusiastically and tapped the natural aquifers, installing centre-pivot irrigation systems that pump 1,250 gallons per minute onto circular plots as large as a kilometre in diameter. These round patches of green, seen from the air, have become a distinctive feature of the area.
subsidies were set aside a few years
ago, more farmers than ever continue
to operate in the area, together
with several large commercial farms.
also large numbers of farms used as
weekend retreats and summer homes by
city dwellers in nearby Riyadh.
If farming is difficult to picture in the desert, huge dairy farms challenge the imagination even more. Yet 80 percent of the dairy products produced in Saudi Arabia come from the area and the success of the dairy farming industry has made the country a prime exporter of dairy products across the Middle East.
The historic centre of Al Kharj still contains many of the traditional mud-brick homes with wooden ceiling beams supporting roofs made of dried palm leaves and mud, though modern buildings now surround the old sector.
Al Kharj’s healthy economy was also boosted by nearby military installations. The massive Prince Sultan Air Base, which has some 25,000 personnel, has contributed to the housing boom to the north and south of the city. (On entering the air base, visitors travel 25kms before encountering their first building!) The presence of the air base has also triggered new industries, such as a ballistics factory.
One of the largest and most successful dairy companies in the kingdom is Almarai, and it is possible to visit both its farms and its processing plant which produces and packages milk, laban, juices, processed cheese, and much else besides.
Although Almarai organises visits most days, you’ll need to book through its public relations department if you want to be included on a tour.
To get to Al Kharj, take the eastern ring road southbound, past junction 18 and keep on going.
Learn how Al Kharj is spelt in Arabic as there is an unexpected right hand fork a few kilometres on which is only signed in Arabic!
From downtown Riyadh it’s about 90kms to Al Kharj’s famous water tower.
To get to the dairy farms, turn left at the next traffic lights and keep on going for another 45 kms, following signs for Harradh, to reach Almarai’s plant.
Al Kharj Water Tower: 24o 09.73’ N; 47o 17.87’ E
Almarai’s Processing Plant: 24o 9.35’ N; 48o 57.14’ E
Almarai’s PR Dept: 01 470 0005 x 119
Whilst on your way to Almarai's processing plant, look out on the left hand side of the Harradh Road for a rare sight in Saudi Arabia - a collection of massive bird houses located on a private small-holding.
The owner is usually quite happy to receive visitors, though he only speaks Arabic.