Future of the Omani rose is not looking pretty

The crop that was once a vital part of the history, culture and economy of the Gulf state is at risk. It is meant to be 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP, but is falling short.
Roses simmer over clay ovens in the first stage of the distillation process at Abdulla Al Saqri’s rose water distillery in the village of Saiq, Oman. (Image: Jonathan Stoughton)
By Anna Zacharias
Thu 06 Jul 2017 11:19 AM

In the rose fields on Al Jebel Al Akhdar, Omani farmers are worried about rising temperatures. The crops they have cultivated for centuries are not growing.

“Winter should be cold,” says Abdulla Saif Al Saqri, 63, a farmer from the village of Saiq. “Look, they’re not blooming. There’s no rain. None. The future is weak.”

This year’s rose harvest — which started in the first week of April and lasted about five week — was one of the poorest that Al Saqri has seen in his 56 years of farming. A poor rose harvest, the first crop of the season, usually means a bad year lies ahead.

Al Saqri lives on the Saiq plateau in Al Jebel Al Akhdar, the highest part of the Hajjar mountain range that runs down the easternmost edge of Arabia. Lying at 2,000 metres, the plateau has a temperate climate in an otherwise hot and arid country. Although isolated, farmers can cultivate fruit — including pomegranates, apricots, peaches, pears and plums — that cannot grow elsewhere. They can also grow the Damascus rose.

Rising temperatures, however, could be the end of it all.

“Winters must be cold so old leaves can fall and new leaves can come,” says Saqri’s son, Mohanna, as he walks through his family’s orchard, pointing out pistachio and apple trees. “This year, it wasn’t cold. The climate is changing. In the 1990s, the weather was great, the rain was great. Everything was there.”

Rising temperatures and low rainfall meant the 2017 spring rose harvest was one of the poorest that farmer Abdullah Al Saqri, 63, had seen in his 56 years of farming. (Image: Jonathan Stoughton)

To blossom, plants need a minimum number of chilling hours, where the temperature is below 7.2°C. Temperatures have been declining since at least the mid-eighties, according to a 2009 doctoral thesis by Eike Luedeling for the University of Kassel in Germany. He found that at Al Ayn, the area’s highest settlement, the number of annual winter chilling hours decreased 17.4 percent annually from 1983 to 2007 (from 1,047 to less than 350 hours).

There is also concern about rainfall.

“Everything depends on the rain and this year there was no rain [from October to March],” Al Saqri says. “About 20 or 25 years ago, it would rain every day, but now maybe a good rain happens just once a year.”

According to a 2014 study led by Mohammed Saif Al Kalbani published in the academic journal Water, annual rainfall decreased at a rate of 9.42mm per decade from 1979 to 2012.

Complete crop failures of pomegranate, peaches and apricot — likely caused by higher temperatures — were already being reported ten years ago.

“Rain is like death. Humans can’t know when it will come,” Al Saqri says. “It’s in God’s hands.”

Agriculture and tourism are key sectors in the government’s latest diversification strategy, Tanfeedh. Government revenue, heavily dependent on oil, has dropped by almost half due to falling oil prices. Meanwhile, the population and the cost of living are rising. Half of the population is younger than 25 and the unemployment rate is 12 percent. This year saw the first protests since 2011 after the government scrapped its fixed-price fuel policy.

Lying at 2,000 metres, the Saiq plateau of Al Jebel Al Akhdar has an ideal climate for temperature crops, such as pomegranates and the Damascus rose. Still, population growth has strained water sources. (Image: Jonathan Stoughton)

Farmers, such as Al Saqri, want more government support but are sceptical of any grand plans. “It’s inshallah this and inshallah that,” he says. “Just ink on paper, all talk. Anyways, the government can’t make it rain.”

He interrupts himself, remembering the cloud seeding programmes north of the border, in the United Arab Emirates. (The UAE government completed 58 cloud seeding operations in the first two months of 2017.) “Well, even if a government can make it rain, they can’t make it cold.”

The agriculture sector made up 1.6 percent of Oman’s GDP in 2015, a long way from the target of 3.1 percent set by Oman’s Vision 2020 strategy.

“In order for agriculture to reach that target, it means Oman needs to identify areas that the government can invest and reach more opportunities,” says Dr Masfiri Mbaga, an associate professor of agriculture at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. “The only way to do that is to identify areas where Oman has an advantage, so things like roses are a possibility.”

Rose farming is a marginal cottage industry, but Oman once built its empire with the frankincense trade and some believe roses could be an equally lucrative aromatic.

Mbaga suggests farmers switch production from rose water to rose oil, which can sell for $7,838 per kilogram. Right now, the oil is a by-product.

Men like Mohanna Al Saqri, 27, return from salaried jobs to help with the harvest out of respect for tradition. (Image: Jonathan Stoughton)

Rose water retails at OMR6 ($15.50) for a 750ml bottle, but there is no measure of its production cost. Nobody tracks the hours worked by family members. “You come to realise that it’s very difficult even for them to really come up with the cost,” Mbaga says. “Nothing is recorded so there is no way to do that.”

Despite the lack of research, the government continues to work with farmers to address water shortages with such strategies as drip irrigation.

“The region of Jebel Al Akhdar is suffering from a water shortage,” says Dr Ahmed Mohammed, an irrigation consultant at the Ministry of Agriculture who is trying to find ways to mitigate the water shortage. “We know that the temperature is increasing and there is low precipitation. We have to increase the underground reservoir.”

Many farms are irrigated by aflaj, water canals fed by rain and natural springs that can extend for kilometres and continue running during droughts of five years, and even up to a decade.

“The aflaj are still running, but if this continues, they’ll dry up,” says Badr Salem Al Riyam, 28, a farmer and land owner from the village of Al Aqar.

Badr’s friend, Nasser Abdullah, agrees.

“It’s all dry now,” says Abdullah, a farmer in his sixties from Saiq village. “The aflaj have been very weak for the last four or five years, especially the last three years.”

Abdullah started rose farming this year to offset expected losses on his pomegranate trees, which usually bring in OMR400 to OMR600 ($1,038to $1,558) annually.

Simple changes to the production and sale of rose water, such as the packaging of rose water in sealed bottles instead of old Vimto bottles, will be essential to the industry’s survival. (Image: Jonathan Stoughton)

For this harvest, he rented 40 rose bushes for OMR1,760 ($4,570), and was up at dawn every morning to pick roses for two hours out of financial necessity. “It’s not just a hobby. Petrol is expensive, the cost of living is going up, everything is increasing in price.”

Today’s Omani youth consider family farms a supplementary income, unstable and unprofitable. Yet they still return from salaried jobs during the harvest out of respect for tradition. “Our generation wants to do it,” Al Riyam says. “All of my friends work on the farm.”

As long as the roses bloom, they will be grown. Despite a poor harvest, Abdullah says he would do it again. “It’s an adventure. I’m a sailor. I’m riding the sea and this ship could float or sink.”

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