Juan Cole Politics Saudi Arabia

Arizona Dems End GOP Sweetheart Saudi Deal

Katie Hobbs” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Arizona state government of Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs and Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes are terminating the license of a Saudi company, Fondomonte, owned by Almirai, which had essentially given the company carte blanche to pump scarce Arizona water to grow alfalfa, which it then exported to Saudi Arabia as cattle feed. So reports Arizona’s 12News.

Ella Nilsen at CNN argued that although state law prohibits the export of Arizona water, using that water to produce crops like alfalfa for cattle back in Saudi Arabia is a stealth way of exporting it.

Gulf oil states are buying or leasing large amounts of agricultural land in the Third World as a hedge against food and water shortages in the future. This policy implies, though, that they will be exporting agricultural goods to themselves even if local people are in danger of starving, the way the British exported crops from Ireland during its Great Famine.

The deal had been done by Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, for reasons best known to him. It functioned as a way for Saudis to use Arizona’s water to raise alfalfa and then to export the crop to Saudi Arabia to feed its cattle. Alfalfa can no longer be grown in Saudi Arabia itself because farmers have depleted the country’s aquifers and the Kingdom receives little rainfall.

The Saudis were getting the water cheaply. As I noted last year, Nick Cleveland-Stout wrote at Responsible Statecraft, “Fondomonte, a subsidiary of Riyadh-based Almarai, has the bargain of a lifetime: for only $25 per acre annually, it can pump as much water as it wants. Nearby farmers pay six times more than the Saudi company. ” Ordinary Arizonan farmers have to pay 6 times that to lease land and get access to aquifers. Cleveland-Stout quoted Holly Irwin, who served on the La Paz County board of supervisors as saying, “We’re not getting oil for free, so why are we giving our water away for free?”

12News says that Governor Hobbs and Attorney-General Mayes have found the Saudi subsidiary, Fondomonte, in breach of its contractual obligations including “a failure to include secondary containment structures on its fuel and Diesel Exhaust Fluid storage units.” Leases of all four Butler Valley fields will be terminated by February of next year.

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Hobbs said in a press release, “I’m not afraid to do what my predecessors refused to do—hold people accountable, maximize value for the state land trust, and protect Arizona’s water future. It’s unacceptable that Fondomonte has continued to pump unchecked amounts of groundwater out of our state while in clear default on their lease. I’m proud my administration has taken swift action to hold defaulting high volume water users accountable and bring an end to these leases. And moving forward, I will continue to do everything in my power to protect Arizona’s water so we can continue to sustainably grow for generations to come.”

Attorney General Kris Mayes had run for office partly on a platform of ending the Saudi company’s lease. Of the Ducey administration’s sweetheart deal for Almirai, Mayes told 12News, “I have never seen anything this egregious by state government in my life.”

Saudi Arabia has over 400,000 head of cattle, and is projected to have 443,710 by 2026. It ranks 112th in the world for cattle production. It is in the same range as Malaysia, which is crazy since only 1.6% of its land is arable, whereas Malaysia is lush, with lots of rainfall.

Beef production is highly carbon intensive and needs to be rolled back or done completely differently to forestall even more deadly global heating.

In Saudi Arabia, rainfall is below 150 mm (5.9 inches) per annum in most of the country except for the southwest, where it can reach 400-600 mm (15.7 to 23.6 inches). The Food and Agriculture Organization says that rainfall agriculture is for the most part not possible in places with less than 450 mm (17 inches) of rain a year.

Saudi Arabia also had extensive aquifers, underground water, but these are being rapidly depleted. Attempts in the 1990s to grow wheat by bringing up aquifer water have collapsed as the aquifers got tapped out. These underground lakes of water can take a long time to replenish, even if they aren’t being emptied at a rate of 5 trillion gallons a year, as they were in unregulated Saudi Arabia.

Cows are a water-intensive animal, which is why in most of the Arid Zone stretching from Morocco to the Gobi desert in China, people prefer lamb and goat meat (and sometimes camel), since those animals can be raised in semi-arid conditions, that is, they can be herded to where pasturage pops up from snow melt or sudden squalls, on land that is often otherwise just savanna. Dairy cows, in contrast, can drink 30–50 gallons of water per day. Sheep can get along with half a gallon but depending on other factors could drink 5 gallons a day.

Starting from on the excellent reporting of Ella Nilsen at CNN, I blogged this issue last November, writing:

Since Saudi water resources are insufficient to raise the alfalfa needed to feed these cows, the Saudi firm Almarai established an American subsidiary, Fondomonte, which has leased land in Arizona to grow this feed crop. The alternative would be to import beef and milk from someplace where producing them makes sense (i.e. neither Saudi Arabia nor Arizona).

The hitch, though is that much of Arizona, especially the southwest, gets only 4 inches of rain a year and isn’t much better than Saudi Arabia. Farming depends heavily on irrigating off rivers or using underground aquifer water. As for the Colorado River, it is at historic low levels.

Aquifers can be replenished by rainfall, but given the great Southwest Megadrought that began around the year 2000, many of them are having their water pumped out and not replaced. In some areas of the state, people could dig down 100 feet and hit water. Now, the water table is more like 500 feet, Nilsen says. And the aquifers had been in danger of being emptied out entirely if the state had failed to act.

Now the whole project of Americans trying to do intensive agriculture in Arizona needs to be rethought. It is one of the crazier ideas the US government ever had. Not quite as crazy, though, as essentially giving away Arizona’s scarce water supplies to Saudi Arabia.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

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