The Arabian Peninsula is a peninsula in Southwest Asia at the junction of Africa and Asia consisting mainly of desert. The area is an important part of the Middle East and plays a critically important geopolitical role because of its vast reserves of oil and natural gas.
The coasts of the peninsula land, on the west, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba; on the southeast, the Arabian Sea (part of the Indian Ocean); and on the northeast, the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Persian Gulf.
Its northern limit is defined by the Zagros collision zone, a mountainous uplift where a continental collision between the Arabian Plate and Asia is occurring. Geographically, it merges with the Syrian Desert with no clear line of demarcation.
Geographically, the Arabian Peninsula includes parts of Iraq and Jordan. Politically, however, the peninsula is separated from the rest of Asia by the northern borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The following countries are politically considered part of the peninsula:
- Bahrain, geographically an island off the east coast of the peninsula.
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
With the exception of Yemen, these countries (called the Arab Gulf states) are among the wealthiest in the world.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covers the greater part of the peninsula. The majority of the population of the peninsula lives in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. The peninsula contains the world's largest reserves of oil. It is home to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both of which are in Saudi Arabia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are economically the wealthiest in the region. Qatar, a small peninsula in the Persian Gulf on the larger peninsula, is home of the famous Arabic-language television station Al Jazeera and its English-language subsidiary Al Jazeera English. Kuwait, on the border with Iraq, was claimed as an Iraqi province and invaded by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War; it is an important country strategically, forming one of the main staging grounds for coalition forces mounting the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The peninsula is one of the possible original homelands of the Proto-Semitic language ancestors of all the Semitic-speaking peoples in the region — the Akkadians, Arabs, Assyrians, Hebrews, etc. Linguistically, the peninsula was the cradle of the Arabic language (spread beyond the peninsula with the Islamic religion during the expansion of Islam beginning in the 7th century AD) and still maintains tiny populations of speakers of Southern East Semitic languages such as Mehri and Shehri, remnants of the language family that was spoken in earlier historical periods to the East of the kingdoms of Sheba and Hadramout which flourished in the southern part of the peninsula (modern-day Yemen and Oman).
Geologically, this region is perhaps more appropriately called the Arabian subcontinent because it lies on a tectonic plate of its own, the Arabian Plate, which has been moving incrementally away from northeast Africa (forming the Red Sea) and north into the Eurasian plate (forming the Zagros mountains). The rocks exposed vary systematically across Arabia, with the oldest rocks exposed in the Arabian-Nubian Shield near the Red Sea, overlain by earlier sediments that become younger towards the Persian Gulf. Perhaps the best-preserved ophiolite on Earth, Semail ophiolite, lies exposed in the mountains of the UAE and northern Oman.
The peninsula consists of:
- a central plateau, known as Nejd, with fertile valleys and pastures used for the grazing of sheep and other livestock.
- a range of deserts, the Nefud in the north, stony; the Rub' Al-Khali or Great Arabian Desert, in the south, with sand estimated to extend 600 ft. below the surface; and between them, the Dahna.
- stretches of dry or marshy coastland with coral reefs on the Red Sea side (Tihamah).
- ranges of mountains, primarily paralleling the Red Sea on the western (e.g. Asir province) and southeastern end (Oman). The highest, Jabal Al-Nabi Sho'aib in Yemen, is 3666 m high.
Arabia has few lakes or permanent rivers. Most are drained by ephemeral watercourses called wadis, which are dry except during the rainy season. Plentiful ancient aquifers exist beneath much of the peninsula, however, and where this water surfaces, oases form (e.g. Al-Hasa and Qatif, two of the worlds largest oases) and permit agriculture, especially palm trees, which allowed the peninsula to produce more dates then any other region in the world. The climate being extremely hot and arid, the peninsula has no forests, although desert-adapted wildlife is present throughout the region.
A plateau more than 2,500 feet high extends across much of the Arabian Peninsula. The plateau slopes eastwards from the massive, rifted escarpment along the coast of the Red Sea, to the shallow waters of The Gulf. The interior is characterised by cuestas and valleys, drained by a system of wadis. A crescent of sand and gravel deserts lies to the east.
Ar Rub' al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the most arid part of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. Ridges of sand up to 40 km long, run northeast-southwest, giving characteristic linear dunes.
Land and sea
Most of the Arabian Peninsula is unsuited to settled agriculture, making irrigation and land reclamation projects essential. The narrow coastal plain and isolated oases, amounting to less than 1% of the land area, are used to cultivate grains, coffee and exotic fruits. Goats, sheep, and camels are widespread throughout the region.
The fertile soils of Yemen have encouraged settlement of almost all of the land from sea level up to the mountains at 10,000 feet. In the higher reaches elaborate terraces have been constructed to facilitate crop cultivation.
Transport and industry
The extraction and refining of oil and gas are the major industrial activities in the Arabian Peninsula. The region also has an active construction sector, with many cities reflecting the wealth generated by the oil industry. The service sector is dominated by financial and technical institutions, which, like the construction sector, mainly serve the oil industry. Traditional handicrafts such as carpet-weaving are found in rural areas.