Arabian Desert: Middle East

T he great, sand-swirled Arabian Desert that includes almost all of modern-day Iraq and Saudi Arabia is all about beginnings, both the genesis of Western civilization and the birth of an ocean. Moreover, the remarkable geology of the region sustains modern civilization with the compressed ooze of eons past in the form of the world's most extensive deposits of oil.

The 900,000-square-mile (2.33 million sq km) Arabian Desert is in many ways a continuation of the larger Sahara Desert that covers most of Northern Africa. The same global climate patterns that baked the Sahara also made the Arabian Peninsula a great desert—the hot, humid air that rises at the equator, drops its moisture on the rain forests, then descends as a dry scourge over both the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula.

In the north, the Arabian Desert blends into the Negev Desert of Israel and the nearly deserted Sinai Peninsula. It encompasses all of the Arabian Peninsula bounded by the Red Sea on the west and the Persian Gulf on the east. It also includes the oil-rich nations of Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates.

This sweeping desert has played a vital role in human history. For instance, the whole area has only one significant river system, the Tigris-Euphrates and their tributaries. These rivers essentially gave rise to Western civilization. The rivers could sustain farming in the midst of a harsh desert, but only if people cooperated sufficiently to build the large-scale irrigation works needed to divert water on the fertile floodplains of the flood-prone desert rivers. This need for social cohesion and organization in the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the first complex Western civilizations, starting about 5,000 years ago. The same process took place along the Nile, another great desert river. By about 2500 b.c. the Assyrian civilization had organized a large area. The civilizations of this area developed the crops that fed subsequent civilizations, domesticated cattle and other animals, invented writing, and passed down a rich legacy, including the lock and key, the 60-minute hour, postal systems, flush toilets, aqueducts, magnifying glasses, and the arch. In a very real sense, the challenges of coping with a desert environment gave rise to modern civilization.