Peaceful Fly Camp in Desert Plains


September 1977 - March 1980


Soil Scientist

Team Leader

Umm Er Radhuma Project

Describing Soil From Giddings Auger Hole

This massive study, covering the Eastern Province of Saudi, was done at three levels. Reports held by MoA Riyadh, HTS UK and WOSSAC

  • Level 1 Province wide reconnaissance study and based very heavily on landform or geomorphology

  • Level 2 This was semi-detailed soil survey of pre-selected areas. Basically soil augering done at density of 4 sites per square kilometre

  • Level 3 Detailed soil survey of areas with agricultural potential - observation density of 1 site per hectare

Three soil survey camps were established Wadi Batin (Brian Kerr) in the north of the area, Miyah (Neil Munro) in the central area and Jabrin (Austin Hutcheon) in the south and close to the Empty Quarter (Rhub al Khali). Surveyors stayed out in the camps for 2 - 3 weeks and were then allowed some time - a few days - up in Riyadh as R&R. Eventually the Central Camp was closed and staff absorbed into the Southern Camp.

Full reports and all maps, soil and land suitability classification were a team effort by survey teams. These were finalised by the Team Leader and Senior Soil Scientist as and when analyses were available. Project had its own soils laboratory.

Author's Input

Led ten to fifteen-member survey teams in, mainly, extremely remote areas of the Eastern Province. In each area, established self-sufficient tented camps and set-up vehicle workshops.

Undertook routine survey in all areas as well as training inexperienced pedologists in all aspect of soil survey. Carried out soil (USDA) and land classification (USBR) and mapping. The main areas studied were:

Jabrin Oasis / Wadi as Sabha / Al Hasa Oasis / Gravel Plains

The old established Bedouin centre at Jabrin comprised extremely gypsic soils. Moving about in the oasis could be very dangerous as massive sink holes were inclined to develop due to the gypsum dissolving in the groundwater.

In total camped for over 12 months in Jabrin and were totally self sufficient throughout - all food and fuel were trucked in as was drinking water. The local well water had a cleansing effect when used for drinking.

Instruction to new staff arriving in Riyadh were as follows. Drive for 100 km up this road -you will reach Joe's Café (There was an American that worked in the area and the eating house got his name). Turn right and follow the railway for 100 km. When you reach Haradh turn right and stay on the track (the track was about 10 km wide in places) and after about 100 km you will hit the oasis and find Austin!! We did not lose anyone.

Wadi as Sabha had been partially developed and there was a massive irrigated farm operating. The survey covered the farm and extended some kilometres down the wadi. The area was dominated by calcic and gypsic soils.

Large areas of gravel plain south of Haradh and Al Hasa Oasis and extending well into the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter). We though that Jabrin Oasis was the end of the world until we camped out (Fly Camping) for 10 days at a time in these virtually flat, barren areas. Notice the horizon in the photo on the left - it was like that for 360 degrees. The soils, when soil was actually found, were shallow to very shallow and extremely calcic.

The Client did not like our findings because a previous survey, by expatriate consultants, led them to believe that these flat plains had potential for irrigated agriculture.

For the first and last time in professional career used mechanical augers - Giddings. They did a good job but were not popular as one could not "feel" the soils as one did the augering.

Soil pits were self dug - for remuneration which was used to finance the food bill.

The augers were operated by DOs (Driver Operators recruited in the UK). These young men got the fright of their lives when they arrived in camp and they saw the environment - but they coped. Some of them are still engaged in survey work.

Assisted senior soil scientist with the final reporting and map checking of the whole project before assisting with the logistics of project close down.


Calcicorthid from Gravel Plains Area

Fly Camping on Mobile Dunes: Bad Idea

Gypsum  Crust  Typical Jabrin Oasis Soil



This volume presents, in condensed form, the history and scope of the Umm Er Radhuma Study and its findings. The volume is divided into three parts. Part 1 is concerned with the background to the study, covering previous investigations and descriptions of the physical environment and the present state of development. Part 2 is concerned with resource evaluation, dealing separately with land, water and range resources. Part 3 covers development planning, dealing successively with resource development potential and feasible agricultural enterprises, leading to the recommended plan for development, costs and economic appraisal. A final chapter deals with the rather separate potential for development at AI Hasa.

The terms of reference (TOR) for the study required the preparation of an agricultural development programme for an area of 50 000 ha, this area being selected from some 1.5 million hectares of land broadly identified from previous surveys as having irrigable potential and situated within the 35 million hectares Umm Er Radhuma study area. The development programme was to be selected following an investigation of the land and groundwater resources, preparation of a list of potential development-projects and sufficient economic analysis to allow the selection of the best areas for development.

At semi-detailed level (Level 2) soil surveys were carried out in eight areas totalling some 670 000 ha. Within these areas some 260 000 ha of irrigable land were identified. In addition, a preliminary Level 2 soil survey was undertaken in the large gravel plains delineated as irrigable by previous studies. When these plains were adequately confirmed to be non-irrigable, further work on them was abandoned.

The overall development potential in the context of land available for large scale irrigated agriculture was therefore substantially less than expected at the outset of the study. Very large areas of continuous good land do not exist and good soils occur in relatively scattered, discontinuous patches. In addition, most potentially arable areas are in private ownership, or subject to claims by private landowners. Therefore, even ignoring the actual availability of suitable groundwater resources for irrigation, the land constraints alone materially reduce the overall potential for agricultural development especially with regard to the original aim of planning large scale modern - or commercial agricultural enterprises on Government owned areas.

It must be stressed, however, that development potential in the areas identified by the semi-detailed survey is considerable. Relatively large-scale, mechanised commercial farms could be set up on these private lands provided that the likely returns to the private developer offered sufficient incentive. This method of development has recently proved successful in Saudi Arabia and it would also suit the rather scattered nature of the irrigable soils.

Within the gross area of 260 000 ha of irrigable land found within the eight Level 2 areas and after eliminating small tracts of marginal potential which are too fragmented to allow development, there remain 208 000 ha of land which can be split into 36 "development areas". Most of these arable sails are suitable for overhead irrigation but are too permeable for traditional surface methods. Centre pivot and linear move irrigators have proved to operate successfully in Saudi Arabia and would be ideally suited for this development; the centre pivots would be used wherever possible with the various linear move systems being used on land areas too narrow to allow large sized centre pivots.

The aim of the groundwater study carried out concurrently with the soil surveys was to evaluate the regional potential of the Umm Er Radhuma aquifer and, particularly, its suitability as a source of irrigation water for the development areas. Groundwater studies included an inventory of existing wells, two major drilling and well testing subcontracts and hydrological and water chemistry investigations. The data obtained were input to a regional groundwater model of the aquifer system and, after calibration, the model was used to ascertain safe well-field abstractions for a future 50 year period. In addition, the water quality study assessed the possible constraints on the growth of crops and whether development might cause unacceptable deterioration in groundwater quality.

The development potential of the 36 development areas was then assessed in terms of three main criteria. These were:

  • (i) The relation between suitable land and the availability and quality of groundwater.

  • (ii) Choice of suitable agricultural enterprises. These are not only controlled by physical conditions (climate, sail and water) but by market and demand criteria and the Kingdom's longer term strategic needs.

  • (iii) Economic and social factors.

  • All these factors combined allowed a rating to be made of the 36 areas and hence identification of the 11 priority areas indicated in Table S.l. The gross irrigable extent of the priority areas is just under 55 000 ha. Table S.1 shows clearly that those areas with the best land resource did not also possess the best available water resource and vice versa. Only the three priority areas in Wadi as Sahba and Jabrin have the best water quality, but land in these areas is somewhat marginal. The best land identified and, indeed, the largest area of continuously good land, is in Wadi al Batin, but both water availability and quality in the Umm Er Radhuma aquifer is so poor that this area has to be excluded from consideration for priority development.

    Following the identification of the 11 priority areas, detailed irrigation planning was carried out and this gave a net irrigable area of 34 240 ha once allowance had been made for the broken landform and space for the provision of roads, drains and building space. A detailed groundwater model was also used in conjunction with the regional model to check whether water demands for the priority areas could be met over the 50 year development period. In this exercise it was assumed that some groundwater abstraction would occur in some of the 36 development areas not included in the priority plan, and also that abstraction would continue in areas such as the coastal belt near Dammam and Dhahran, AI Hasa and at the HAPCO farm in Wadi as Sahba. For 8 out of the 11 priority areas the results showed that the required demand could be safely met.

    TABLE S.1

    Land and Water Characteristics of Selected Priority Development Areas


    Area Name

    Gross Irrigable area (Ha)

    Land Category

    Water quantity category

    Water quality category

    Wadi al Miyah



    Sarar North

    Sarar South






































    Wadi as Sahba

    Upper Farm Ext.

    Lower Farm Ext





















    Notes: * suitable for trickle irrigation as planned

    * to be used on highly drained soils

    In three (specifically Abwab, Mutali and Judah) draw-down is projected to lead to pumping lifts of more than 250 m if the full net irrigable area- is developed, indicating that the actual area which can be irrigated will have to be limited by water availability.

    The proposed development should lead to the establishment of relatively large scale private rnechanised commercial farming enterprises. A range of recommended farm types has been developed, principally based an wheat (for which no market limitation is foreseen), milk and animal fodder crops. Scope, though of a lower order, is foreseen for fruit, vegetables (particularly potatoes, carrots and onions) and possibly for meat. Development costs for all priority areas have been calculated, as well as financial returns.

    Unit capital costs, based on individual farm types (or mix of farm types) used in the financial analysis, range from SR 57 000 to SR 138 000 per ha over the 11 priority development areas.

    The economic and financial analyses carried out on the various types of farm operation thought to have promise within the area revealed that continued high subsidy levels were essential. The present levels of subsidy give adequate returns to farming though dairy farming is dependent on private sector milk prices.

    The results of the resources evaluation and the agricultural and economic studies were used to formulate an indicative development plan for the 11 priority areas. Development in these areas would rely on government subsidy to give private developers financial incentive to move into the new lands. In addition unplanned development is likely to occur in some of the remaining, non-priority, 36 areas as private individuals make use of the available resources.

    The Study Area also includes AI Hasa, much the largest area of traditional smallholder farming in the Eastern Region. A different approach is suggested here, with the emphasis on production of dates, fruit and vegetables and on poultry (both egg and broiler production), aimed at the local urban markets and the Dammam-Dhahran-Khobar complex.

    The potential for rangeland development was investigated only in one area, the Rumah Rangelands. This area was selected because good land was known to occur but it was also clear that Umm Er Radhuma water would not be available for irrigation (the aquifer outcrops in the area). It was therefore reasonable to consider development based essentially on proper management of the range resources. The study, while making it clear that this area can only be considered as a sample of a much wider area, indicates, potential for improvement but also indicates serious reservations about the ways in which changed economic and social conditions are affecting longer-term potential. Taking into account the reduced (even though still substantial) opportunities for development of irrigated agriculture in the region, the broader and longer-term potential for utilising the rangelands for livestock production should be stressed, including the use of groundwater for producing supplementary feedstuffs and even the possibilities for commercial management of wild herbivores such as gazelle. These considerations were, of course, outside the terms of reference for the study, but no surveys of this kind could have been undertaken without recognising the vast extent of the rangelands and their potential for the future.


    The Umm Er Radhuma Study has established that agricultural development in the Eastern Region is viable within the present system of agricultural subsidy. It is recommended that the Ministry should take up the priority development plan discussed in the Summary and give every encouragement to private sector entrepreneurs to develop modern farms in the 11 recommended areas. In order to achieve the objective the following specific recommendations are made

  • 1. A small full-time bureau should be established within the Ministry to steer the development programme; it is suggested the bureau be named 'The Eastern Region Agricultural Development Bureau' (ERADB). This bureau should be able to assist developers with all available soils, topographic and hydro-geological data.

  • 2. Government should be responsible for the provision of essential infrastructure; in particular this would include primary and secondary roads, spur power lines from the grid system and all social facilities associated with new settlements. Planning and construction of these works should be co-ordinated under the development programme by ERADB. For example, the construction of a road to Jabrin is an essential prerequisite to private sector development in that area.

  • 3. Persons wishing to construct large farms should be actively encouraged to do so in priority development areas. The technical and economic viability of schemes proposed outside the priority areas should be strictly evaluated before finance is provided.

  • 4. Continued expansion of the Hasa oasis for agriculture is not recommended but it is recognised that in spite of the fall in water levels further development will occur. It is recommended that a Committee be formed, representing all interested parties to co-ordinate agricultural development and water use on and around the oasis.

  • 5. It is recommended that the piezometric situation be monitored by the Ministry in priority development areas and in other areas where development is permitted. Return of records to the Ministry by farmers should be arranged.

  • 6. Rangeland studies suggested additional support at summer camping areas and it is suggested that this be provided in the form of Supply Centres. Priority for a pilot development area should be given to the areas studied to the west of the Ad Dahna and this should be a model for further development in the vast rangeland areas in the northern part of the Eastern Province.

  • 7. There is scope for large-scale water abstraction from Umm Er Radhuma groundwater in certain areas. The recommended maximum rates of abstraction are :

  • Wad! al Miyah 760 Mm3/year

    Jabrin oasis 500 Mm3/year

    Harad 170 Mm31year

    Groundwater abstraction in some areas has reached a level where long-term damage is being caused to the system. It is recommended that at AI Hasa minimal Umm Er Radhuma abstractions are made. It is also recommended that in the Coastal Belt minimal Er Radhuma abstractions are made and that, wherever possible, desalinated water be used in preference to groundwater.