Deserts of the World Arabian Desert

About the Arabian desert, size, history, and geography of the third-largest desert in the world.



The Arabian Desert, third-largest in the world, covers nearly 1 million sq. mi. of the Arabian peninsula. Located between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, it lies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and extends into the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan. It is the sandiest of all deserts. No river flows through or originates from it. A narrow band of steppe separates the Arabian Desert from the Mediterranean climatic zone.

One third of the Arabian Desert is sand, which first accumulated in shallow seas anywhere from 65 to 25 million years ago, before the depressions were uplifted. The desert today is characterized by 700-ft.-high dunes and giant sand mountains. The bullying shamal--the northwesterly wind that keeps Arabia extremely dry--pushes those giant dunes all over the desert.

A common sight is the mamlahah, a salty desert lake that stays dry most of the time. Arabia's rainfall averages only 2-5 in. a year, and two year droughts aren't uncommon. Many portions of the desert are so inhospitable that Europeans didn't visit or map them until the 20th century.

Archaeologists have found artifacts dating back 3,000 years documenting Arabian desert culture. The first white man to traverse this desert was H. St.John Philby, in the 1930s.

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