The advent of Ramadan, the wedding season and summer vacation all at one time has sent both beef and sheep prices skyrocketing in the Kingdom.
In addition, hundreds of Kuwaitis have been buying sheep in bulk at Saudi markets, have them slaughtered due to regulations on livestock transport and take them across the border because meat is cheaper in the Kingdom than in the neighboring country.
Another factor being cited for the alarming rise in prices is the shortage of expatriate workers, particularly Sudanese, in cattle and sheep farms, since many of them are busy arranging for repatriation or legalization of their employment status following the amnesty announcement for illegal expats.
The considerable price increase of fresh meat during Ramadan this year is indeed worrisome because it had reached levels that only normally occur on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha, when the demand for sheep goes up on account of the animal sacrifice ritual. All these factors have had a ripple effect, with the general price of food shooting up in the Kingdom.
In an attempt to rein in rising prices, authorities are making efforts to increase import of livestock from at least four countries including Pakistan. They are also considering lifting the ban on the import of meat from certain countries. The general belief is that these measures may bring about some semblance of price stability by the time the Haj season starts.
Demand shoots up during Ramadan because many Saudis like to offer Ramadan meals to the poor, mainly expatriate laborers, through mosques. Some provide meals with beef, while others offer meals containing fresh lamb.
When it comes to choice of meat, Saudis prefer locally bred sheep, while expatriates prefer imported African sheep in general and the Sawakani breed in particular. Sawakin is a port city in Sudan from where these sheep are imported.
Prices of local breeds of sheep have shot up by as much as 40 percent since Ramadan began and demand is expected to further rise in the coming days.
The brown-skinned Naimi breed of sheep is the most popular among Saudis in the Central and Eastern Provinces. The price of this breed has jumped manyfold across the Kingdom in general and in the Eastern and Central Provinces in particular.
The price of a 10-kg Naimi sheep was pegged at SR 1,200 ($ 319) before Ramadan, but is now being quoted at SR 1,600 ($ 426) and expected to rise further. Other local breeds commonly known as Baladi, which used to cost SR 700 ($ 186) a head, are now priced at SR 1,000 ($ 266).
The Najd breed (the name being derived from the Najd region) is widely preferred in Riyadh and the Central Province and is being sold at SR 1,700 ($ 453) or more. This breed does not have a big market in Jeddah.
Saudis in Jeddah and the Western Province prefer the white-skinned Harri, which used to cost SR 1,000 ($ 266) before Ramadan, but is now fetching over SR 1,300 ($ 346). Harri and other breeds are from Taif and Al-Baha.
At SR 1000 ($ 266), compared to SR 600 earlier ($ 160), Sawakini is the lowest priced and is a favorite among expat communities. Four shiploads of Sawakini sheep arrive daily on average from Sudan at the Jeddah Islamic Port, according to a Sudanese field salesperson.
The recent arrest of a Yemeni national by the Jeddah police for stealing 39 sheep, which he intended to sell in the market, only goes to show the lucrative nature of the business.