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2. The rural farming areas

The areas suited to agriculture in the United Arab Emirates are determined by the availability of water and cultivable soil. Wide areas are covered by salt marshes and sterile desert sands and, like the mountain regions, have very limited potential for agricultural use. It is primarily the gravel and coastal plains which are suited to such use.

The average annual precipitation of 110 mm is not sufficient for agriculture. Ground water was and is the main natural source of water for agriculture.

Ground water is limited both in quantity and quality and the same is true of arable land. Agricultural development depends upon these two primary factors.
The Distribution of Ground Water

Three aquifer systems constitute the primary ground-water sources (see UNDP/FAO 1976). The first is a shallow alluvial aquifer system which extends beneath the gravel plain and the areas at the edge of the desert. This system lies to the west of the Oman Mountains and extends from the northern territory of the emirate of Ras al-Khaima to al-Ain. The system is not spread over a wide area but extends in long fingers which become closer together in the area of the Jiri plain (Ras al-Khaima) and northwest of there to the coast. The volume of ground water in this system is in creased by precipitation which falls on the west side of the mountains and seeps into the ground, mainly in the gravel zone, though the storage capacity of the system is notably greater than the increase which it receives along its 170 km-long front. In Ras al-Khaima the aquifer system narrows because of the limited land surface (mountains, gulf) and the danger of salt-water intrusion is much greater.

The second of the aquifer systems also alluvial, is on the Batinah coast. This system is found between mountain ridges which reach down to the coast and receives inflow from precipitation that falls on the mountains and, to a limited extent, from under-flow from mountain valleys. The water table is very close to the surface.

The third is the deep carbonate aquifer system which extends into the southern part of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

While the ground water in this system is very salty and brackish in the northern emirates and in the al-sin area, its quality improves toward the south. South of al-Ain, the water contained in the upper part of the system has more than 10,000 ppm, according to various drill samples. In the wells of the Liwa, on the other hand, the water has only 1,000 to 1,500 ppm; between the Liwa and the coast, the ground water is of drinking quality in certain locations.

The Distribution of Arable Land

In 1966 - 1967 the Department of Geography of the University of Durham conducted a "Survey of Soils and Agricultural Potential in the Trucial States" on behalf of the Trucial States Council (see Trucial States Council 1967). The goal of the study was to determine what arable land was available and to classify it according to its agricultural suitability. Six classes were established on the basis of soil type, alkalinity, salinity, relief, and hydrological conditions, the sixth class being designated unsuitable for agriculture. The study concluded that the following areas had agricultural potential: a. the Batinah coast and islands b. small intramontane areas near Masafi, Siji, Idhn, and Masfut c. the Madam plain d. the Gharif plain e. the Dhaid plain f. the Jiri plain g. desert basins in the emirates of Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, and Umm al-Qaiwain where soil has limited potential for cultivation.

The regions with agricultural potential were only partially developed at the time of the study and expansion of the cultivated area was anticipated.

In 1969 the Department of Geography of the University of Duham, prepared a report entitled "The Soils and Agriculture of the Al Ain Oases, Abu Dhabi" for the Department of Agriculture of Abu Dhabi (Stevens 1969). The report confirmed that in the al-sin area some soil was well suited for agricultural development but in certain places the soil had no potential beyond its present use.

Goals of the Agricultural Policies and Measures to Develop the Rural Farming Areas

The UAE government has three basic aims in this context: (a) to adopt measures to prevent a flight from the land by the farming population; (b) to optimize native food production while preserving soil and water resources; and (c) to diversify the farmers' sources of income.

An economic and social disparity between town and country life has become evident in the UAE as economic development has been concentrated on the urban areas. As urban living and employment became more attractive to the farming population, many farmers moved to the towns, seeking temporary or permanent work and farms were cultivated less intensively or were abandoned. Such changes conflicted with the government's goal of optimizing domes tic production of foodstuffs and countermeasures were obviously necessary.

Agricultural development was controlled by the government and, at great cost both financially and technically, was related to the urban centres. Schools were established in rural regions; adult education programmes were instituted; comprehensive medical care was organized; new dwelling units, the so-called "low-cost houses," were built and let to the natives rent free; supplies of water and electricity were secured. In the rural farming areas of the northern emirates, 414 km of asphalt roads were built between 1972 and 1976, and 20 schools and 17 medical care centres were constructed. A total of 73 new settlements with 2,203 housing units were established on the sites of old settlements or in the immediate vicinities (author's calculations from Public Works 1974, 1975; 1976; unpublished statistics from the Ministry for Public Works and Housing).

3. The Organization of the Extension Service

Sources: FAO 1973; author's enquiries at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1978, and field trips to agricultural centres and extension units in the northern emirates, April 1978.

Measures Relating to Agriculture in the Rural Farming Areas

1. The Extension Service.

In addition to the measures mentioned above, projects were introduced to increase agricultural production. To facilitate these plans the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries created an Extension Service which was organized as shown in figure 3.

The federation has been divided into four agricultural regions, of which three are under the authority of the federal ministry; the fourth, comprising the southern region with al-sin as its centre, is under the Agriculture Department of the government of Abu Dhabi. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, employing numerous experts and assistants, administers development in the northern region, centre at Digdagga; the eastern region, centre at Fujairah; and the middle region, centre at al-Dhaid. Each region is divided into independent extension areas, the branch office of the federal ministry located in an extension area being called an Extension Unit. These regions, centres, and units are shown in figure 4.

The measures adopted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are introduced into the rural farming areas and implemented by employees of the centres and units. There are two main tasks: field service, and extension work.

The centres and units have modern agricultural machines at their disposal and they store seed and seedings, insecticides and pesticides, and chemical fertilizers which are made available to the farmers. Individual farmers thus need not acquire expensive machines and tools which are used only for short periods of time. Furthermore, field service personnel perform a number of tasks that need to be done during the rural work year such as the drilling of wells, the cultivation of fields, the control of pests, and the repair of machines and tools. The field service and the distribution of costs connected with it in the northern emirates are shown in table 5.

In 1976 the following services (see Annual Statistical Abstract 1977, pp. 102 - 107, tables 49 - 54) were supplied to the three agricultural regions: a. 14,718 extension visits were made to 5,913 landowners; b. 38,625 sacks of fertilizer were made available to farmers; c. 114,881 distributions of seed were made; d. 9,834 Itr and 8,239 kg of insecticides and pesticides were sold;

The following information was obtained from FAO 1973; interviews at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1978; and study visits to the agricultural centres and extension units of the northern emirates in April 1978. e. 2,328 landowners received tractor services; f. 203 vehicles and farming-equipment pieces belonging to the units were used.

TABLE 5. Field Service and Distribution of Costs in the Northern Emirates

Field service Bearer of Costs
Farmer Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries
Tractor service   X
Well-drilling   X
Spraying of plants    
with pesticides   X
Seed and seedings 50% 50%
I Insecticides/pesticides 50% 50%
Fencing in of the    
cultivated area 50% 50%
Pump(s) 50% 50%
Repair of machines    
and implements x  

Sources: Information obtained from interviews at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and at the Agricultural Centres and Extension Units of the northern emirates, April 1978.

"Most of the Extension Work deals with advising and assisting the farmers in obtaining seed, seedlings, pest control, fertilizer, ploughing etc. and in marketing the produce" (FAO 1973, annex 3, p. 169). New cultivation methods, agricultural and irrigation techniques are demonstrated on the fields belonging to the centres and units, and seeds and plants are tested there. The harvest from the demonstration fields is usually distributed free to the native farmers to encourage them to adopt the innovations that have been introduced.

Sometimes, however, the new techniques are not practical or practicable. In 1978, 300 ha of wheat were cultivated at plots at al-Oha Extension Unit, al-Ain. Judging from unofficial sources, more than 300,000 cubic metres of water were necessary to irrigate the cereal. An input-output calculation, taking into account such factors as the cost of the water, machinery, and fertilizer, shows that a kilogramme of wheat was produced at an approximate cost of US$2.

An agricultural school connected with the Agricultural Centre, Digdagga, is providing natives as well as other interested Arabs with three year agricultural courses. At present 14 Omanis are enrolled along with native Emiratis.

Traditional agriculture in the UAE region was characterized by intensive labour and low yields. Today large amounts of capital are invested in agriculture. Only very limited capital is provided by farmers themselves; the bulk is budgeted by the federal government. Farmers are thereby enabled to modernize their farms with credit from the state, and they avoid the risks and burdens of heavy debts. The productivity of the land has increased and given individual farmers higher profits and enabled them to employ foreign agricultural workers, usually Indians or Pakistanis. The farmers themselves become co-workers of the centres and units, or they commute to towns where they enter new, non-agricultural fields of work.

FIG. 4. Agricultural Regions of the Northern Emirates

Sources:FAO 1973; Wilkinson 1977; author's enquiries in 1978

The fact that agriculture has become increasingly attractive has resulted in an increased demand for cultivable land. Natives, whether bedouins, urban dwellers, farmers, or fishermen, can apply to the government for free land grants in the farming areas. Such applications are generally approved. The parcels of land granted measure 500 x 500 ft or 1,000 x 1,000 ft according to the quality of the land (information obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, April 1978). Fathers can apply in the names of their children, thus acquiring large areas of farmland. While there were 10,766 ha of land under cultivation in the three agricultural regions in 1973 (FAO 1973), by 1976 there were 19,171 ha (Annual Statistical Abstract 1977, p. 41, table 41).

Surveys conducted in the centres and units in the northern Emirates in the spring of 1978 revealed a sharp increase in the amount of land brought under cultivation since 1975 (information obtained during several study visits to the northern emirates, April 1978). This author noted an increasing percentage of new arable land during several trips through the three agricultural regions. The new areas either extend along the main highways (al-Dhaid) or are to be found in the immediate vicinity of the towns (Digdagga). Owners of these areas are not only farming families but also town dwellers and bedouins who have found a new source of income in agriculture, although neither the town dwellers nor the bedouins work their land themselves.

The townsmen are so well integrated into their employment that they have no time for agricultural work. The bedouins have time, at least potentially, to work their land but consider the standard of living and the social status of the farmer as being clearly below their own. (For bedouins the only agricultural activity other than camel herding which was traditionally dignified was the cultivation of date palms.) It is thus not surprising that bedouins make an effort to own land only when they are in a position to hire foreign workers. The government's attempt to settle bedouins in Mileiha/Sharjah and to motivate them to work on already existing farms was doomed to failure. The same was true of a Dubai government project: a large agricultural area was opened in Ruwaya in 1974, divided into parcels of two hectares, fenced, and supplied with water. The parcels were intended for distribution to those bedouins wanting to engage in agriculture. The bedouins were not interested and the parcels were instead granted to town dwellers (information obtained from the Department of Agriculture, Municipality of Dubai, May 1978).

The extent of agricultural production is determined by ecological conditions and by the marketability of the produce. Although traditional agriculture was primarily to maintain the farming household, today's production is intended for the market. The economic development of the UAE, the steadily increasing number of inhabitants, and the establishment of a good transportation system between rural areas and urban markets have made the marketing of agricultural produce very profitable. Farmers either sell their produce to wholesalers or deliver it directly to the market. The establishment of marketing co-operatives sponsored by the government has already passed through its first phase.

Nevertheless agriculture is of subordinate significance to the majority of the farm owners. For them agriculture provides only one source of income. Their financial outlay is small and there is a wide range of government aid available to them; profits are excellent. No knowledge of economic principles and no long-term commitment are required. And at present it must be said that the federal government is not attaining its agricultural aims.

Vegetables and fruit are grown outside and high summer temperatures limit the variety of summer vegetables to a few heat-resistant species such as melons, okra, and peppers. The main season for growing vegetables is the winter, when tomatoes, cabbage, melons, onions, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, eggplant, and potatoes are grown successfully and prove the high suitability of the winter climate for horticulture. The percentage of the cultivated land planted with each variety of winter crop is determined by the demands of the country's vegetable markets. Table 6 shows the land area planted to various crops in the northern emirates.

TABLE 6. Area of Winter Crops in the Northern Emirates

  Percentage of cultivated area
Tomatoes 48.5
Cabbage 17.7
Melons 9.7
Onions 7.5
Eggplant 6.6
Green peppers 4.8
Lettuce 3.2
Cucumbers 1.2
Potatoes 0.8
Total 100.0

Source: Author's calculation from Annual Statistical Abstract 1977, p. 97, table 44

In order to increase the quality and quantity of summer vegetables, simple greenhouses with heat-reducing covering and lights are being tested at the Digdagga and Fujairah centres by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in cooperation with the UNDP/FAO. The greenhouses that have been developed are inexpensive and can be set up without difficulty by farmers.

The main types of fruit are dates and lemons; both have played an important part in the diet of the Emiratis. Date palms grow where soil conditions and the salt content of irrigation water prevent the cultivation of vegetables. During the date harvest from June to September the farmers from all three agricultural regions sell their dates at the large markets in the United Arab Emirates.

The large increase in land under cultivation has also brought an increase in the amount of water used and a rapid lowering of the ground-water table. Experts have established that the water table in the central region has been lowered three metres in five years and in the southern region by one and a half metres in three years. In a study of soil and water conditions by the UNDP/FAO (1976) the rates of water inflow and outflow have been computed for the aquifer system between Ras al-Khaima and al-sin (table 7).

TABLE 7. Water Inflow and Outflow Rates for the Aquifer

System between Ras al-Khaima and al-sin

  106 m3 per annum
Mean annual recharge +100
Net consumption by agriculture -140
Extraction for municipal water supply -24
Consumption by natural vegetation not quantified
Evaporation on sabkhas and
losses to the sea

Source: UNDP/FAO 1976, p. 34.

The yearly deficit amounts to 124 million cubic metres, and this will lead eventually to the depletion of the system's water reserves.

Because of the proximity of the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, the rapid lowering of the water table in the three agricultural regions results in the intrusion of salt water; this in turn limits or eliminates the possibilities for cultivating fruit and vegetables.

The traditional falaj irrigation system demanded a high degree of co-operation between water users and a sense of communal responsibility. The laborious method by which it was acquired made water a valuable commodity and this influenced its consumption by the individual farmer and his community responsibility. The introduction of motorized pumps has individualized the use of water and eliminated community control and responsibility. The free, seemingly unlimited use of water is seen as a strong indication of progress by large segments of the farming community. Natural water resources are being irresponsibly exploited. The danger of this to agriculture is made clear in the UNDP/ FAO study:

It should be noted that the present level of agricultural development on the gravel plain and the desert foreland has an irrigation water demand which, of itself, imposes heavy overdraft conditions on the reservoir. So the present level of agricultural development cannot be maintained in the long-term and substantial reduction of the currently irrigated area must be foreseen. [UNDP/FAO 1976, p.39.]

The substitution of desalinated sea water for fresh water from natural sources for agricultural purposes, desirable as it may be, is ruled out by the extremely high costs involved. The creation of an institution similar to the Irrigation Management Service established in the USA by the Bureau of Reclamation would be a desirable step; its task would be to introduce farmers to new irrigation techniques and a way of organizing irrigation that would optimize the use of water (information obtained from an expert of the US Bureau of Reclamation at Dubai, May 1978). A further possibility would be for the government to set a fee for the use of ground water and thereby to make the value of water significant to farmers.

2. Research and Experimental Work Designed to Improve Agriculture

New agricultural techniques and new methods of seeding and cultivation, introduced to native agriculture through the Extension Service, are the result of research and experimental work based on ecological conditions and of a survey of related marketing prospects. This work, while carried out at only a few locations, has validity for a wider area. The research and experimental work is either tied to specific projects or carried out in specially established research stations. It is limited at present to cultivation; the only project involving animal breeding was terminated in 1977 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. In the following sections, one research project and three research stations will be discussed. Although the three stations are under the authority of the government of Abu Dhabi, the results obtained are available to the whole country.


In 1974 the government signed a contract with the UNDP/ FAO for a Project for Water and Soil Investigations for Agricultural Development. While the scientific, technical, and organizational responsibility for the project was borned by the FAO, the government guaranteed the financing of the project.

Work on the project was begun in 1975 and was limited to the Digdagga Agricultural Experiment Station, the al-Dhaid Agricultural Station and, to a lesser extent, the Fujairah Agricultural Station. Digdagga was chosen as a location for the project because a large, well-equipped experimental station of the Agricultural Ministry already existed there and because the work of the project was to have as broad an influence as possible (Digdagga lies in the centre of the largest self-contained agricultural area in the UAE). The project has not yet been completed.

The goal of the project is to provide scientific, technical, and organizational support to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in: (1) research and experimental work with selected types of fruit and vegetables that have been successfully cultivated over a longer period of time (breeding and selection); (2) developing new agricultural techniques and cultivation methods that are in keeping with the ecological, particularly the hydro-edaphic, conditions in the region.

The successful results obtained by the project are to be applied to quantitative and qualitative improvement of native agriculture by means of the Extension Service.


In 1969 the government of Abu Dhabi and the University of Arizona, USA, signed a contract for the construction and administration of a power, water, and food facility on Sadiyat island. Sadiyat is in the Arabian Gulf, one kilometre from Port Zayed in Abu Dhabi. The Environmental Research Laboratory (Erlab) of the University of Arizona, which at that time was conducting a pilot project in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, took over the scientific, technical, and organizational direction of the planned installation.

In June 1970 the first greenhouse for experimental work began operations. Construction of the centre was com pleted in February 1972. During a construction period of two years, four large steel-framed, polythene-covered greenhouses and 48 small, inflated half-bubbles of plastic were set up. Also built were a power station (12,000 kva), a desalination plant delivering an average of 60,000 gallons of water, a workshop, and a multi-purpose building. In addition, the centre was linked to the port of Sadiyat by an asphalt road two kilometres long. The area covered by the greenhouses was five acres: four acres for commercial vegetable cultivation and one acre for research and experimental work. Since the beginning of 1977, a further experimental area for the outdoor cultivation of vegetables has been available.

The goals of the Arid Land Research Centre

In 1969 three goals had already been formulated-and these have been strictly adhered to. They are: a. Cultivation and technical research with particular reference to the prevailing agricultural and ecological conditions. b. Instruction and training of Abu Dhabians in the latest developments in agricultural and greenhouse techniques and in the organization and direction of the ALRC. c. The production of vegetables of high quality and quantity with good market potential.

Research and experimental work

The following briefly characterizes the research and experimental work of the ALRC.

The breeding and selection of seed which guarantees good production under the ecological conditions of Abu Dhabi (and thus of large parts of the UAE) have a high priority. Experience has taught the researchers that seed originating in the tropics can best adapt to the ecological potential of Abu Dhabi. The best example of this is the tomato seeds bred by the University of Hawaii which are used on Sadiyat. Seed is supplied primarily by Japanese, French, and Dutch firms .

The development and use of plant-improvement measures designed to shorten the maturation period while at the same time increasing yield is a related project. The author noted that on Sadiyat the plant crown of tomatoes is trimmed so that the growth potential of the plant is diverted to the advantage of the fruit.

The selection and improvement of suitable irrigation systems and fertilizing methods, and the development of new greenhouse techniques are other goals. Drip-and-trickle irrigation ensures a well-directed supply of water. Fertilizer in the form of a soluble chemical, imported from the Federal Republic of Germany, is applied by the irrigation system. The amount of chemical fertilizer used is about 150 t per year.

Natural fertilizers are used on the experimental field for outdoor growing of vegetables; although there are two compost factories, natural fertilizer is also imported because of its much higher quality. The soil that provides the beds for seeds and seedlings on Sadiyat is sand and consists of 95 per cent calcium carbonate with a pH value of 8.6. Its only function is to provide support for the plants. It is able to support low-growing plants, but is supplemented by a vertically-ordered system of strings for taller plants. In the spring of 1970 there were experiments in cultivating vegetables in hydrocultures: the seedlings are bedded in grooves of artificial material containing a plant-food solution instead of in sand and the plants are supported by strings.

The development and improvement of cooling and ventilation systems designed to extend the period during which vegetables can be grown, particularly in the summer months, is another research area. On Sadiyat, sea water with a temperature of 20 - 25 C (66 - 88 F) is taken from the Gulf by vertical turbine pumps and then pumped to the front of the greenhouse. Air from the outside passes through this filter, is cooled and lowers temperatures inside the greenhouses significantly below those outside. As a result of experience in Puerto Penasco, additional sources of shade have been provided in accordance with the needs of individual plants. Furthermore, ventilators are installed beneath the ridges of the roof to ensure good air circulation.

Research and experimental work is conducted to improve pest control and to limit plant disease In addition to numerous experiments with insecticides and pesticides it should be noted that of the 60,000-gallon average production of desalinated sea water, part of it is used for sterilizing (leaching) the sand that serves as the bed for seed and seedlings. It should also be mentioned that the water not used in the centre supplies the needs of the population and industry of Sadiyat. Until the ALRC began operations, the supply of water had been brought by tank ships.

Training and instruction

The training and instruction of Abu Dhabians in the newest agricultural and greenhouse techniques and in the organization and direction of the centre, is a goal established at the time the contract was signed, and it was already being pursued in 1970. Three Abu Dhabians underwent a year of training in Arizona and then returned in order to continue and complete their training at the ALRC with nine other trainees. Since that time 15 Abu Dhabians have completed the training programme. They were competent to take over the direction of the centre in 1975.


The selection of types of vegetables to be cultivated on Sadiyat was determined by the results of an intensive marketing and production evaluation study of different varieties. The study recommended about fifteen kinds of vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, radishes, cabbage, squash, lettuce, and carrots.

The greatest demand in the local market at Abu Dhabi is for tomatoes and cucumbers. It is therefore not surprising that of the four acres devoted to commercial cultivation, two are planted with cucumbers and one-and-a-half with tomatoes. While cucumbers can be harvested four times a year on Sadiyat, tomatoes can be harvested only three times since the high relative humidity in the summer inhibits production from June to September. Statistics for the most important types of vegetables, their production figures and value in 1975 and 1976 (table 8), indicate the importance of tomatoes and cucumbers to the ALRC, which together account for more than 90 per cent of total production.


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