The Arabian Desert, the world’s second largest "hot" desert after the Sahara Desert of Africa, occupies an area of 2,300,000 square kilometers in the Arabian Peninsula in southwestern Asia. The Arabian Desert is bounded by the landmass of the Syrian Desert only on the northern side, whereas it is bounded by the sea on all of its other sides. The Red Sea forms the western boundaries of the desert, while to the east and the northeast it is bounded by the Persian Gulf. The southern and southeastern boundaries of the Arabian Desert are in turn formed by the Arabian Sea. Though the desert extends into Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, the greatest part of it lies within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Rub’al-Khali, ranked as the world’s longest, continuous bodies of sand, is found in the Arabian Desert, stretching across parts of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
The Arabian Desert appears to have been inhabited by humans since the early Pleistocene Epoch. Paleolithic and Neolithic sites have been discovered in various parts of the desert. The famous Bedouin nomads of Arabia have been known to inhabit the desert region since a long time ago and, despite the harshness of the desert habitat, managed to herd large numbers of camels and establish agricultural practices near the oases in the desert. In particular, date palms were extensively cultivated by these Bedouin nomads. In more recent years, however, most of these nomadic travelers have been forced to settle down in permanent settlements near desert oases, and traditional feuds between these tribes have also considerably declined. In 1888, one of the most important works on the geography routes of the area, titled Travels in Arabia Deserta, was produced by the English traveler and writer Charles M. Doughty. In the beginning of the 20th Century, European expeditions to the desert increased and, in 1936, petroleum was discovered in the eastern part of what is now Saudi Arabia. This discovery soon led to massive exploitation of the desert’s oil and natural gas reserves by Europeans and, later on, native Arabians.
Though the Arabian Desert is practically devoid of surface water in most regions, the desert has a vast underground reserve of water that has been trapped beneath its sands since the Pleistocene Age. This water has been tapped by the Arabians to irrigate their fields to grow crops. The desert’s location near the seashore has also facilitated the use of modern desalinization techniques to convert brackish sea water into drinking water which is fit for human consumption. Interestingly, despite being a dry, harsh desert habitat, the abundance of oil fields in the Arabian desert has rendered the countries based in the desert highly prosperous and economically self-sufficient in a global economy dependent upon the use of fossil fuels. Oil fields and refineries, as well as natural gas reserves, are found in plenty in the Arabian Desert region. A large flow of money from the oil and petroleum market has led to the rapid development of cities and towns of the region. Long gone are the days of slow camel and caravan travel being the best means to move across the desert. Today, modern automobiles now ply on the desert's roads instead, and domestic airlines connect the cities across vast stretches of desert.
Habitat and Biodiversity
The Arabian Desert is one of the harshest deserts of the world. It receives very little annual rainfall, averaging below 33 millimeters, with only 15% air humidity in the summers. The extreme diurnal and annual variations of temperature of the desert also render it highly inhospitable. While in the summers, daytime temperatures can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius, in winters night temperatures can fall well below freezing. Xerophytic and halophytic plants nonetheless grow in this desert, while tamarisk trees are commonly found around the borders of its oases. Flowering plants like mustard, peas, milkweed, and daisies grow in certain areas of the desert as well. Date palms, which are found growing within and along the Arabian oases, are one of the most economically important species vegetation of the region, and every part of the tree is utilized by human settlers of the oasis for various purposes. A wide variety of invertebrate species, including locusts, scorpions, spiders, and dung beetles, inhabit the area despite the harsh Arabian Desert climes. Dabbs, monitor lizards, vipers, and sand cobras also call the desert their homes. Gazelles, ibexes, civets, hyenas, jackals, porcupines, and hedgehogs are some of the mammalian species that also reside in various sections of the Arabian Desert.
Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes
While the discovery of petroleum acted as an economic boon in the Arabian Desert region, and an event boosting the welfare of the region's peoples significantly, excessive exploitation of these same oilfields has also led to habitat degradation in the region, and opened up a series of disputes among the neighboring nations over the control of the lands bearing these productive oil fields. In the 1991 Gulf War, 11 million barrels of oil were released into the Persian Gulf as part of a military tactical maneuver, which led to an immense loss of aquatic biota in the Persian Gulf region, killing thousands of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other endangered species of the gulf habitat that became poisoned by the oil-ridden waters. Besides such large scale damage, the extensive poaching of desert mammals such as ibexes and gazelles has significantly reduced their populations in the wild. Overgrazing by the cattle of local herders has also laid barren vast tracts of the desert that had previously been covered by some level of vegetation.