Small, oval and often green or black, the olive has been used for light, fuel, medicine and, of course, food. Not only is this fruit delicious, but it’s also symbolic in a number of religions, including Islam. Olives, olive oil and olive trees are referenced several times in the Quran and are considered sacred.
Olive trees have strong root networks that allow them to tap into deep groundwater and flourish in arid regions, which explains their origin in Asia Minor. Olive trees were cultivated before the first written language was invented, and they were among the first plants grown in Muslim societies — dating back about 6,000 years. Today, olives and olive oil are major staples in Saudi Arabia’s culinary scene and are at the center of many exciting production efforts.
In 2007, the kingdom started planting olive trees in Al Jouf, in northern Saudi Arabia on the border with Jordan. By 2018, nearly 52,000 acres of olive groves were planted. Today, the largest modern olive farm can be found here — just check the Guinness World Records, which awarded this title to the Al Jouf Agricultural Development Company. With more than 5 million olive trees, the company produces about 15,000 tons of olive oil per year. That’s half of the 30,000 tons of olive oil consumed annually in the kingdom.
The company’s director, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Al Hussein, says Al Jouf Agricultural Development Company is the largest plant producing olive oil in the Middle East. (It’s also working on pickled olives and body-care products, he says.)
Soon, the country will also be home to the largest olive mill. The National Agricultural Development Company, the Middle East’s largest ecological olive oil producer, and Spain’s Grupo GEA agreed in March 2019 to build Asia’s largest olive mill in Al Jouf. Research projects are already underway at Al Jouf University in the kingdom and at the University of Jaén in Spain.
About 20 percent of Saudi olive cultivation is geared toward table olives, while the remaining 80 percent is put toward producing olive oil. While visiting Al Jouf, make sure to go out to eat and enjoy dishes that incorporate the area’s local olives and olive oil.
“Table olives would be as common on tables in the north as dates are everywhere,” says Felicia Campbell, an author who specializes in food of the Arabian Gulf. If you’re looking to sample a dish with olive oil, she suggests trying matabaq — “the flaky, layered street food bread that is popular all over, but which is made using olive oil instead of butter or ghee in the northern areas,” she says.
Ask your hotel concierge for information about visiting the olive groves. If you plan your visit right, you’ll arrive during the annual two-week Olive Festival, which features a variety of cultural, social, recreational and educational events, including art contests and seminars about olive cultivation.
Before or after you experience the kingdom’s olives, book a five-day tour of Tabuk and Al Jouf to explore a variety of sites. For example, in Tabuk you’ll visit the Hejaz Railway station and the Tabuk Museum. In Al Jouf, you’ll discover Marid Castle in the ancient city of Dumat al-Jundal before heading to pick up souvenirs at a heritage souq nearby.
- By Lisa Zimmermann