Topography and Natural Regions
The Arabian Peninsula is an ancient massif composed of stable crystalline rock whose geologic structure developed concurrently with the Alps. Geologic movements caused the entire mass to tilt eastward and the western and southern edges to tilt upward. In the valley created by the fault, called the Great Rift, the Red Sea was formed. The Great Rift runs from the Mediterranean along both sides of the Red Sea south through Ethiopia and the lake country of East Africa, gradually disappearing in the area of Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Scientists analyzing photographs taken by United States astronauts on the joint United States-Soviet space mission in July 1975 detected a vast fan-shaped complex of cracks and fault lines extending north and east from the Golan Heights. These fault lines are believed to be the northern and final portion of the Great Rift and are presumed to be the result of the slow rotation of the Arabian Peninsula counterclockwise in a way that will, in approximately 10 million years, close off the Persian Gulf and make it a lake.
On the peninsula, the eastern line of the Great Rift fault is visible in the steep and, in places, high escarpment that parallels the Red Sea between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Aden. The eastern slope of this escarpment is relatively gentle, dropping to the exposed shield of the ancient landmass that existed before the faulting occurred. A second lower escarpment, the Jabal Tuwayq, runs north to south through the area of Riyadh.
The northern half of the region of the Red Sea escarpment is known as the Hijaz and the more rugged southern half as Asir. In the south, a coastal plain, the Tihamah, rises gradually from the sea to the mountains. Asir extends southward to the borders of mountainous Yemen. The central plateau, Najd, extends east to the Jabal Tuwayq and slightly beyond. A long, narrow strip of desert known as Ad Dahna separates Najd from eastern Arabia, which slopes eastward to the sandy coast along the Persian Gulf. North of Najd a larger desert, An Nafud, isolates the heart of the peninsula from the steppes of northern Arabia. South of Najd lies one of the largest sand deserts in the world, the Rub al Khali.
The Hijaz and Asir
The western coastal escarpment can be considered two mountain ranges separated by a gap in the vicinity of Mecca. The northern range in the Hijaz seldom exceeds 2,100 meters, and the elevation gradually decreases toward the south to about 600 meters around Mecca. The rugged mountain wall drops abruptly to the sea with only a few intermittent coastal plains. There are virtually no natural harbors along the Red Sea. The western slopes have been stripped of soil by the erosion of infrequent but turbulent rainfalls that have fertilized the plains to the west. The eastern slopes are less steep and are marked by dry river beds (wadis) that trace the courses of ancient rivers and continue to lead the rare rainfalls down to the plains. Scattered oases, drawing water from springs and wells in the vicinity of the wadis, permit some settled agriculture. Of these oases, the largest and most important is Medina.
South of Mecca, the mountains exceed 2,400 meters in several places with some peaks topping 3,000 meters. The rugged western face of the escarpment drops steeply to the coastal plain, the Tihamah lowlands, whose width averages only sixty-five kilometers. Along the seacoast is a salty tidal plain of limited agricultural value, backed by potentially rich alluvial plains. The relatively well-watered and fertile upper slopes and the mountains behind are extensively terraced to allow maximum land use.
The eastern slope of the mountain range in Asir is gentle, melding into a plateau region that drops gradually into the Rub al Khali. Although rainfall is infrequent in this area, a number of fertile wadis, of which the most important are the Wadi Bishah and the Wadi Tathlith, make oasis agriculture possible on a relatively large scale. A number of extensive lava beds (harrat) scar the surfaces of the plateaus east of the mountain ranges in the Hijaz and Asir and give evidence of fairly recent volcanic activity. The largest of these beds is Khaybar, north of Medina.
East of the Hijaz and Asir lies the great plateau area of Najd. This region is mainly rocky plateau interspersed by small, sandy deserts and isolated mountain clumps. The best known of the mountain groups is the Jabal Shammar, northwest of Riyadh and just south of the An Nafud. This area is the home of the pastoral Shammar tribes, which under the leadership of the Al Rashid were the most implacable foes of the Al Saud in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their capital was the large oasis of Hail, now a flourishing urban center.
Across the peninsula as a whole, the plateau slopes toward the east from an elevation of 1,360 meters in the west to 750 meters at its easternmost limit. A number of wadis cross the region in an eastward direction from the Red Sea escarpment toward the Persian Gulf. There is little pattern to these remains of ancient riverbeds; the most important of them are Wadi ar Rummah, Wadi as Surr, and Wadi ad Dawasir.
The heart of Najd is the area of the Jabal Tuwayq, an arc-shaped ridge with a steep west face that rises between 100 and 250 meters above the plateau. Many oases exist in this area, the most important of which are Buraydah, Unayzah, Riyadh, and Al Kharj. Outside the oasis areas, Najd is sparsely populated. Large salt marshes (sabkah) are scattered throughout the area.
The area north of the An Nafud is geographically part of the Syrian Desert. It is an upland plateau scored by numerous wadis, most tending northeastward toward Iraq. This area, known as Badiyat ash Sham, and covered with grass and scrub vegetation, is extensively used for pasture by nomadic and seminomadic herders. The most significant feature of the area is the Wadi as Sirhan, a large basin as much as 300 meters below the surrounding plateau, which is the vestige of an ancient inland sea. For thousands of years, some of the heavily traveled caravan routes between the Mediterranean and the central and southern peninsula have passed through the Wadi as Sirhan. The most important oases in the area are Al Jawf and Sakakah, just north of the An Nafud.
East of the Ad Dahna lies the rocky As Summan Plateau, about 120 kilometers wide and dropping in elevation from about 400 meters in the west to about 240 meters in the east. The area is generally barren, with a highly eroded surface of ancient river gorges and isolated buttes.
Farther east the terrain changes abruptly to the flat lowlands of the coastal plain. This area, about sixty kilometers wide, is generally featureless and covered with gravel or sand. In the north is the Ad Dibdibah graveled plain and in the south the Al Jafurah sand desert, which reaches the gulf near Dhahran and merges with the Rub al Khali at its southern end. The coast itself is extremely irregular, merging sandy plains, marshes, and salt flats almost imperceptibly with the sea. As a result, the land surface is unstable; in places water rises almost to the surface, and the sea is shallow, with shoals and reefs extending far offshore. Only the construction of long moles at Ras Tanura has opened the Saudi coast on the gulf to seagoing tankers.
Eastern Arabia is sometimes called Al Ahsa, or Al Hasa after the great oasis, one of the more fertile areas of the country. Al Ahsa, the largest oasis in the country, actually comprises two neighboring oases, including the town of Al Hufuf.
The Great Deserts
Three great deserts isolate Najd from north, east, and south as the Red Sea escarpment does from the west. In the north, the An Nafud--sometimes called the Great Nafud because An Nafud is the term for desert--covers about 55,000 square kilometers at an elevation of about 1,000 meters. Longitudinal dunes--scores of kilometers in length and as much as ninety meters high, and separated by valleys as much as sixteen kilometers wide--characterize the An Nafud. Iron oxide gives the sand a red tint, particularly when the sun is low. Within the area are several watering places, and winter rains bring up short-lived but succulent grasses that permit nomadic herding during the winter and spring.
Stretching more than 125 kilometers south from the An Nafud in a narrow arc is the Ad Dahna, a narrow band of sand mountains also called the river of sand. Like the An Nafud, its sand tends to be reddish, particularly in the north, where it shares with the An Nafud the longitudinal structure of sand dunes. The Ad Dahna also furnishes the beduin with winter and spring pasture, although water is scarcer than in the An Nafud.
The southern portion of the Ad Dahna curves westward following the arc of the Jabal Tuwayq. At its southern end, it merges with the Rub al Khali, one of the truly forbidding sand deserts in the world and, until the 1950s, one of the least explored. The topography of this huge area, covering more than 550,000 square kilometers, is varied. In the west, the elevation is about 600 meters, and the sand is fine and soft; in the east, the elevation drops to about 180 meters, and much of the surface is covered by relatively stable sand sheets and salt flats. In places, particularly in the east, longitudinal sand dunes prevail; elsewhere sand mountains as much as 300 meters in height form complex patterns. Most of the area is totally waterless and uninhabited except for a few wandering beduin tribes.
In the absence of permanent rivers or bodies of water, rainfall, groundwater, desalinated seawater, and very scarce surface water must supply the country's needs. In eastern Arabia and in the Jabal Tuwayq, artesian wells and springs are plentiful. In Al Ahsa a number of large, deep pools are constantly replenished by artesian springs as a result of underground water from the eastern watershed of the Jabal Tuwayq. Such springs and wells permit extensive irrigation in local oases. In the Hijaz and Asir, wells are abundant, and springs are common in the mountainous areas. In Najd and the great deserts, watering places are comparatively fewer and scattered over a wide area. Water must be hoisted or pumped to the surface, and even where water is plentiful, its quality may be poor.
Modern technology has located and increased the availability of much of the underground water. Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) technicians have determined that very deep aquifers lie in many areas of northern and eastern Arabia and that the Wasia, the largest aquifer in Saudi Arabia, contains more water than the Persian Gulf. The Saudi government, Saudi Aramco, and the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have made separate and joint efforts to exploit underground water resources. In the past, improperly drilled wells have reduced or destroyed any good they might have served by leaching the lands they were drilled to irrigate. Successive agricultural projects, many of which were designed primarily to encourage beduin settlement, have increased water resource exploitation. In the early 1990s, large-scale agricultural projects have relied primarily on such underground aquifers, which provided more than 80 percent of the water for agricultural requirements. In fiscal year (FY) 1987, about 90 percent of the total water demand in the kingdom was consumed by agriculture.
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