From 2009 Saudi Arabia will begin importing wheat, ending almost three decades of self-sufficiency.

By the end of 2016 Riyadh will have to import roughly 3 million tonnes a year. But with wheat prices recently hitting record highs, it is hardly the best time for the country to increase its dependency on others.

Global wheat producers can cope with the extra demand, but it will leave the country exposed to the vagaries of the international wheat markets.

Food is no longer the cheap commodity it once was, because of a mixture of weak global harvests and speculative trading.

And while in recent weeks prices have started to fall, high demand and the need to replenish stocks mean they are likely to remain relatively high for some time.

Even so, Riyadh is right to change course. When large-scale wheat production began in the 1980s, it was motivated by a need to provide long-term employment to a large section of the population. With the kingdom’s fresh-water sources so scarce, that policy is no longer sustainable.

But while the kingdom can easily afford to buy wheat on the open market, other elements of the policy could yet run into trouble.

Riyadh is not just relying on international markets.

It is also trying to guarantee some supplies by investing in production in the developing world.

But it will be politically difficult to ship wheat out of somewhere such as Sudan if the host country was suffering a food shortage for its own people.

Whether Riyadh will want to continue with this policy if wheat prices continue to fall in the longer term is also open to debate.