Official name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Area: 1,960,582 square kilometers (756,984 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Jabal Sawdā' (3,133 meters/10,279 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 3 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 2,295 kilometers (1,426 miles) from east-southeast to west-northwest; 1,423 kilometers (884 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest
Land boundaries: 4,415 kilometers (2,743 miles) total boundary length; Iraq 814 kilometers (506 miles); Jordan 728 kilometers (452 miles); Kuwait 222 kilometers (138 miles); Oman 676 kilometers (420 miles); Qatar 60 kilometers (37.3 miles); United Arab Emirates 457 kilometers (284 miles); Yemen 1,458 kilometers (906 miles)
Coastline: 2,640 kilometers (1,640 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covers about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula and constitutes a land bridge connecting Africa with the Middle East. It is about three times as large as the state of Texas, and the third-largest country in Asia, after China and India. Because several of its borders are incompletely demarcated, however, its precise area is difficult to specify. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, and the nation ranks as the largest petroleum exporter. Its extensive coastlines on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea provide abundant shipping access through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Saudi Arabia has no territories or dependencies.
Saudi Arabia's desert climate is generally very dry and very hot. In winter, however, there can be frost and freezing temperatures. Day and night temperatures vary greatly. Two main climate extremes are the coastal lands and the interior. Coastal regions along the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf encounter high humidity and high temperatures, hot mists during the day, and a warm fog at night. In the interior, daytime temperatures from May to September can reach 54°C (129°F) and are among the highest recorded anywhere in the world. The climate is more moderate from October through April, with evening temperatures between 16°C and 21°C (61°F and 70°F). The prevailing winds are from the north. A southerly wind brings an increase in temperature and humidity, along with a Gulf storm known as kauf . A strong northwesterly wind, the shamal, blows in late spring and early summer.
Average annual rainfall is only 9 centimeters (3.5 inches). A year's rainfall may consist of one or two torrential outbursts that flood the wadis and quickly disappear into the sand. Most rain falls from November to May. The eastern coast is noted for heavy fogs, and humidity there can reach 90 percent. Between 3 and 5 centimeters (10 and 20 inches) of rain falls in the mountainous 'Asir area, where there is a summer monsoon. Much of the Rub' al-Khali is considered "hyper-arid," often going without rainfall for more than twelve consecutive months.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
The country can be divided into six geographical regions: the Red Sea escarpment, from Hejaz in the north to 'Asir in the south; the Tihamah, a coastal plain that rises gradually from the sea to the mountains in the southeast; Nejd, the central plateau, which extends to the Tuwayq Mountains and further; and three sand deserts: the Ad Dahnā', the An-Nafūd, and, south of Nejd, the Rub' al-Khali Desert, one of the largest sand deserts in the world.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Two bodies of water border Saudi Arabia: the Persian (Arabian) Gulf to the east, and the Red Sea to the west. The Red Sea is the warmest and saltiest sea in the world. The Persian Gulf is the marginal offshoot of the Indian Ocean that lies between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran, extending about 970 kilometers (600 miles) from the Shatt al Arab delta to the Strait of Hormuz. The gulf's width varies from a maximum of 338 kilometers (210 miles) to a minimum of 55 kilometers (34 miles) in the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman.
Seacoast and Undersea Features
The shallow gulf waters have very slow currents and a limited tidal range. There are practically no natural harbors along the Red Sea. The Red Sea eco-region is best known for the spectacular corals that live in the central and northern areas. Fewer coral species thrive in the Persian Gulf than in the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the entire Arabian Peninsula is fringed by some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world
Sea Inlets and Straits
The southeastern portion of Saudi Arabia's coast borders the Gulf of Bahrain and the Dawhat Salwa, an inlet of this gulf. The sea border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is an imaginary line drawn down the middle of the Dawhat Salwa.
Islands and Archipelagos
The Farasān Islands, in an archipelago in the Red Sea, are fringed by pristine coral reefs, sea-grass beds, and mangroves. Of the more than 120 islands, the largest are Farasān al Kabir, at 395 square kilometers (152 square miles); Sajid, at 156 square kilometers (60 square miles); and Zufaf, at 33 square kilometers (13 square miles). All are uninhabited.
Tarut Island in the Persian Gulf near Ras Tanura has the oldest town on the Arabian peninsula.
Saudi Arabia's coast has no significant bays or capes. The Persian Gulf coast is extremely irregular and the shoreline is unstable. The Tihamah Plain borders the Red Sea; Jidda, which is located on this plain, is the chief port of entry for Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca. A flat, lowland coastal plain borders the Persian Gulf.
6 INLAND LAKES
Except for artesian wells in the eastern oases, Saudi Arabia has no perennially existing freshwater, either pooled in lakes or flowing in rivers. Medina is the site of the largest and most important oasis in the Hejaz region. In the southern 'Asir, fertile wadis such as Wadi Bīshah and Wadi Tathlīth support Except oasis agriculture. Eastern Arabia is also known as Al Ahsa, or Al-Hasa, after the largest oasis in the country, which actually encompasses two neighboring oases and the town of Al-Hufūf.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
In the northern Hejaz region, dry riverbeds (wadis) trace the courses of ancient rivers and contain water for a brief period following significant rainfall. The only consistent sources of inland water are oases, however. Oases are fertile areas of otherwise unfertile land.
At least one-third of the total area of Saudi Arabia is sandy desert. The Rub' al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) in the south is the largest desert region in the country. It consists of sand overlying gravel or gypsum plains, with a surface elevation that varies from 800 meters (2,624 feet) in the far southwest to near sea level in the northeast. Types of dunes include longitudinal dunes more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) long, moving dunes, crescent-shaped dunes (barchan), and enormous mountainous dunes. The northern counterpart of the Rub' al-Khali, the An-Nafūd, covers an area of about 57,000 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) with an elevation of about 1,000 meters (3, 280 feet). Longitudinal dunes here can reach heights of 90 meters (300 feet). The dunes are separated by valleys up to 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide. Connecting the Rub' al-Khali and An-Nafūd deserts is the Ad Dahnā' Desert, also called "the river of sand." The Ad Dahnā' connects to the An-Nafūd Desert by way of the Mazhur Desert.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
The Tihamah Plain bordering the Red Sea is a salty tidal plain with an average width of only about 65 kilometers (40 miles). The flat, lowland coastal plain along the Persian Gulf is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide. The northern part is the Ad Dibdibah gravel plain; the southern section is a sandy desert called Al Jafurah. The salt flats of the Rub' al-Khali can harbor quicksand.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The Hejaz Mountains (with elevations from 910 to 2,740 meters/3,000 to 9,000 feet) rise sharply from the Red Sea and run parallel to the seacoast from north to south. Mount Lawz, at 2,580 meters (8,464 feet), rises in the far north of the Hejaz near the Red Sea and the neighboring country of Jordan. The northern range in the Hejaz seldom exceeds 2,100 meters (6,888 feet) and gradually decreases to about 600 meters (1,968 feet) around Mecca. Close to Mecca, the Hejaz coastal escarpment is separated by a gap. In the plateau region of Nejd, the Ajā' Mountains are just south of the An-Nafūd desert. The highest mountains (over 2,740 meters/9,000 feet) are in 'Asir in the south. This region extends along the Red Sea for 370 kilometers (230 miles) and inland about 290 to 320 kilometers (180 to 200 miles). Saudi Arabia's highest peak, Jabal Sawdā', is found here; this summit reaches 3,133 meters (10,276 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
The Tuwayq escarpment—800 kilometers (496 miles) of spectacular limestone cliffs, plateaus, and canyons eroded by wind and sand—cuts across the Ad Dahnā' Desert. Its steep west face rises anywhere from 100 to 250 meters (328 to 820 feet) above the Nejd Plateau.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
East of Hejaz and 'Asir lie the central uplands of the Nejd, a large, mainly rocky plateau with widths ranging from about 1,520 meters (5,000 feet) in the west to about 610 meters (2,000 feet) in the east. The Nejd is scarred by extensive lava beds ( harrat ), which are evidence of fairly recent volcanic activity. Al-Hasa, a low plateau to the east, gives way to the low-lying gulf region. The area north of the An-Nafūd, Badiyat ash Sham, is an upland plateau that is geographically part of the Syrian Desert. The Wādī as Sirhān, a large basin that lies 984 feet (300 meters) below the surrounding plateau, is a vestige of an ancient inland sea. East of the Ad Dahnā' lies the rocky, barren As-Summān Plateau, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) wide and descending in elevation from about 400 meters (1,312 feet) in the west to about 240 meters (787 feet) in the east. Separated from the As-Summān Plateau by the Ad Dahnā' is the Al-'Aramah Plateau, which runs right up to Riyadh.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
More than 40 percent of Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf coastline consists of land reclaimed by dredging and sedimentation. The completion of the breakwater, or mole, at the port of Ras Tanura in 1945 allowed tankers to dock on the gulf coast. This site is still the largest oil port in the world. Over two hundred dams capture water from seasonal flooding for drinking and irrigation. Among the largest are those at the following wadis: Jizan, Fatima, Bisha, and Najran. In fact, the dam at Wadi Bisha is one of the largest in the Middle East.
14 FURTHER READING
Long, David E. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.
Nance, Paul J. The Nance Museum: A Journey into Traditional Saudi Arabia. St. Louis, MO: Nance Museum Publications, 1999.
Walker, Dale. Fool's Paradise. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Lonely Planet: Destination Saudi Arabia. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/middle_east/saudi_arabia/ (accessed April 14, 2003).
Saudi Arabian Information Resource. http://www.saudinf.com/main/a.htm (accessed April 14, 2003).