Saudi Arabia is teaming up with a Dutch greenhouse company to create “a synthetic climate” to make the desert bloom.
It’s carving out an area the size of some 15 soccer fields to form a horticulture oasis on the outskirts of Neom, an entirely new city being built on the Red Sea coast that extends out into the desert. The commitment marks the biggest food-tech investment for a country whose largely arid landscape and extreme summer temperatures have long left it reliant on imports to supply most food.
The project is just the start, according to Dutch horticulturist company Van Der Hoeven, whose $120 million contract with the Saudi government entails design and construction of two test facilities on Neom’s outskirts, along with their service and operation over multiple years.
Food security is a priority for the planners of Neom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s $500 billion showpiece project to turn an expanse of desert the size of Belgium into a high-tech region that may eventually host millions of people.
In another recent deal, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund signed a pact with U.S.-based AeroFarms to establish a company in Riyadh to build and operate indoor vertical farms in the kingdom and the wider region.
The Dutch project will expand significantly after the two pilot greenhouses are ready. Construction started earlier in 2023 and the plan is for the test facilities to be completed by next year.
“We will scale up to hundreds of hectares with different types of greenhouses,” said Neom Food CEO Juan Carlos Motamayor. Neom needs more than a thousand hectares of greenhouses to deliver on its goal of producing over 300,000 tons of fruits and vegetables, a target it’s trying to reach in the next eight to 10 years.
The Dutch company, which is combining a slew of the latest horticulture technologies — including artificial intelligence-driven crop growing and advanced water filtration systems — aims to start operating the first site as early as August next year.
In one location, a solar and seawater-driven cooling system is being introduced to operate the greenhouse throughout the extreme summer heat. On another site, a quarantine greenhouse will be constructed for introducing perennial crops to Neom.