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Saudi Arizona: Extraterritoriality and state power in the drylands

Authors: Natalie Koch*, Syracuse University
Topics: Political Geography, Middle East, Arid Regions
Keywords: political geography, extraterritoriality, sovereignty, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Arizona, US Southwest, deserts, agriculture, water, technopolitics
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Almarai is the largest dairy company in Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East. Headquartered at Al Kharj farms near Riyadh, it has a herd of more than 160,000 milk cows. In 2014, Almarai purchased a farm near Vicksburg, Arizona, where they now grow alfalfa as feed for the Saudi cattle. The acquisition followed a Saudi government 2008 decision to phase out domestic production of grain and feedstock–an industry heavily subsidized since the 1970s. Saudi Arabian agriculture has always depended on groundwater extraction and decades of unsustainable state subsidies predictably led to aquifer depletion. It also led to the rise of a powerful agricultural lobby in Saudi Arabia, which meant that the 2008 decision to eliminate grain subsidies became a shift in state policy to instead subsidize acquisitions of foreign farmland–and Almarai’s alfalfa farm in Arizona is one such case. The Saudi acquisition of Arizona farmland raises many questions about sovereignty and extraterritoriality related to groundwater and land use in the US Southwest today, but it is actually part of a much longer genealogy of exchanges between Saudi Arabia and Arizona–dating to the early 1940s, when a team of Arizona farmers helped to establish Al Kharj as Saudi Arabia’s first large-scale experiment in desert farming. This paper traces these technopolitical networks – stretching not just across space, but also time – to show how political leaders and scientists have long worked together by mobilizing extraterritorial mechanisms to entrench state power and colonize the US Southwest and the Arabian Peninsula.

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