Barley for the Bedouins: Saudi Arabia tries to spread the oil wealth

In March of this year a privately owned truck loaded with 100-pound bags of government-subsidized "Excellent Australian" brand barley rumbled up an unpaved road to an isolated cluster of mud huts and rock buildings in this southwestern Tihamah region near the Yemen border.

There was no fantare, no celebration. But the arrival of that first shipment of 80 percent subsidized feed grain probably contributed more to the well-being of Bedouins and rural Saudi Arabians in this undeveloped corner of the kingdom than electric power lines, sewer pipes, or telephones ever could.

The arrival of the truck also marked a triumph for the Saudi government in its efforts to spread the benefits of Saudi oil wealth to every area of this desert kingdom, no matter how remote.

For Yahya ibn Aiyth, a young member of the Bani majur tribe of the rugged, parched hills bordering Wadi Baysh, the barley shipments may mean that his sheep and goats will now be free from the threat of starvation during long droughts.

In his land, where rain comes perhaps twice a year, a man's wealth is measured by the number of his camels, sheep, and goats. His herds are his bank account. The barley not only helps make sheep stronger and more healthy, but fatter as well, which makes them worth more money in the market.

Government assistance for Bedouins oriented toward their animals is not a new idea. For years Riyadh operated a system whereby agents would pay compensation to Bedouins for each sheep, goat, and camel. But problems outweighed the good intentions of the program.

Some Bedouins inflated the numbers of their sheep at subsidy time while others, often in remote areas, never received any compensation. Still others, fearful of government authority and registration forms and desiring only to be left alone, avoided the program.

In contrast, the barley subsidization program appears a successful means of upgrading the lives of the relatively small minority of Saudis who choose to live as Bedouins. The government's third development plan calls this minority "the most underprivileged section of society."

It notes, "Although some nomads have settled in villages and towns, there are still many following their traditional way of life of pastoral livestock herding. . . . For those who wish to remain nomads there is no compulsion to settle."

Despite the apparent success of the barley program, no one in the Bani Majur tribe was aware that the government was the motivating force behind the barley shipments. Nor were they aware that the grain was heavily subsidized. They had assumed that the grain was being sold for a profit by the private distributor and they knew they could afford it.

Their introduction to the program had been simple and straightforward.

As Yahya ibn Aiyth told it: When the truck driver from the regional port, Jizan, pulled down sacks of barley for the first time and began to explain that the grain could be fed to all their animals, the Bedouins and villagers were hesitant to believe it. And not until he opened a sack and brought animals to feed did the Bedouins back their pickup trucks in close to buy some of the grain to try on their own herds.

Not long after that, it became common practice to use the grain as a diet supplement for the herds and Bedouin camps in the Tihamah hills began to take on a new accessory, a large canvas-covered mound of barley sacks.

The value of the barley to the Bedouins is evident. A year ago one could count the ribs of Yahya ibn Aiyth's sheep. In fact, by the Muslim holy month, Ramadan, last year the Majuri and their sheep were trying to survive a 13-month drought that had begun to tip the fragile balance of life.

Finally, the decision was made by most of the tribe to leave the familiar Tihamah for an area called Shahadan 40 miles away where there was believed to be forage.

They stayed for two months.

Five months later the first shipment of barley arrived, and today there isn't a rib showing on a Majuri sheep.

An estimated 1 million tons of barley is imported each year by Saudi Arabia, of which about half is consumed there.

Through its Grain Silos and Flour Mills Organization the government purchases the barley at international market prices. Once in the kingdom, the grain is turned over to private distributors who then sell it in city and village markets at prices set by the Ministry of Commerce. Subsidies are said to cover up to 80 percent of the cost of the grain.

One of the problems the government is facing with the grain subsidization program is that approximately half of the grain brought into the kingdom is reportedly re-exported to neighboring countries, where it is sold at higher prices.

In an effort to crack down on the escaping barley, Saudi border inspections became more rigorous. And almost as suddenly, a barley glut developed in Saudi Arabia in the late spring. The glut may eventually work to the benefit of Bedouins living in even more remote regions than are presently reached by the private distributors. Hurrying to reduce their stocks, distributors may fan out in search of new outlets.

One effect of the glut has been the reported stranding of 80,000 tons of barley bound for Saudi Arabia in Singapore.

The barley program is but a small part of the Grain Silos Organization's operations.

Nonetheless, when the relatively small barley program began a few years ago it was so popular, one senior organization official said, that his office at the Dammam port on the Gulf was crammed with lobbying, bartering, bargaining Bedouins daily from morning until night.

He said it became so hectic the organization discontinued distributing barley from its port offices and referred the Bedouins instead to private distributors in Damman city market. He explained that some Bedouins occasionally still wander into his office, often causing great commotion.

A few moments later, as if on cue, the interview was interrupted by a knock on the door. A Bedouin appeared. He'd come to buy grain and he knew it was here. He'd seen the silos out front.

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