Southwest Asia: The Arabian Peninsula

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Two million people pour into the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for a few weeks each year. They come from all over the world. In the past, the trip to Mecca involved a difficult journey across oceans and over miles of desert. Today, pilgrims arrive on airplanes.

These people are fulfilling the Islamic religious duty of hajj, which is a pilgrimage to the holiest city of Islam—Mecca. For five or more days, all are dressed in simple white garments and all perform special activities, rituals, and ceremonies. It is a powerful example of spiritual devotion by the followers of one of the three major religions that claim a home in Southwest Asia.

Islam Changes Desert Culture

The modern nations in this subregion are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. They are located at the intersection of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Because of this location, there were many opportunities for trade, and exchange of culture and religion.


In the past, some towns in the subregion served as trade centers for caravans moving across the deserts. Other cities were ports where goods were exchanged from the Silk Roads in East Asia, Indian Ocean trade from South Asia, and Mediterranean Sea trade from Europe.

Still other towns were near oases and fertile lands along major rivers.

Nomadic desert dwellers called Bedouins moved across the peninsula from oasis to oasis. They adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert and built a culture based on strong family ties. They often fought against other families and clans for pasturelands for their livestock.

Their fighting skills would eventually help to spread a new religion that developed in the region—Islam.

Islam is a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of its founder, the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad lived part of his life in the city of Mecca.


The new religion united the people of the Arabian Peninsula in a way that had not been done previously. Islam requires certain religious duties of all who follow its teachings. The basic duties are called the Five Pillars. By performing these religious duties, all converts to Islam, called Muslims, practiced a similar culture. The Five Pillars are:

  • Faith All believers must testify to the following statement of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
  • Prayer Five times a day, Muslims face toward the holy city of Mecca to pray. They may do this at a place of worship called a mosque or wherever they find themselves at the prayer times.
  • Charity Muslims believe they have a responsibility to support the less fortunate by giving money for that purpose.
  • Fasting During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset. This action reminds Muslims that there are things in life more important than eating. It is also a sign of self-control and humility.
  • Pilgrimage All able Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once during their lifetime.


As more and more people on the Arabian Peninsula began to convert to Islam, they spread its teachings. Armies of Bedouin fighters moved across the desert, conquered lands, and put Muslim leaders in control. Arabic language and Islamic teachings and culture spread across Southwest Asia. Muslim armies spread across three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the Middle Ages, a large area of the world was controlled by Muslim empires.

Governments Change Hands

The governments of lands controlled by Muslims were theocratic. This means religious leaders control the government. Rulers relied on religious law and consulted with religious scholars on running the country. In some of the modern nations of this region—Iran, for example—religious leaders are in control of the government.

Arabian Peninsula History


Toward the end of the 1600s, the leaders of Muslim nations were weak. At the same time, countries like Britain and France were growing in power and establishing empires throughout the world. Much of Southwest Asia fell under the control of those two nations, especially after World War I and the breakup of the Muslim-held Ottoman Empire.

The region was valuable to colonial powers for two reasons: because of the Suez Canal, a vital link between colonial holdings in the rest of Asia and European ports, and because oil was discovered there after 1932.

However, only a part of the region was colonized. On the Arabian Peninsula, a new power was rising. It was Abdul al-Aziz Ibn Saud. A daring leader, Abdul al-Aziz consolidated power over large areas of the Arabian Peninsula in the name of the Saud family. By the end of the 1920s, only small countries on the Arabian Gulf and parts of Yemen remained free of his control. The whole area became known as Saudi Arabia in 1932. Descendants of Abdul al-Aziz still rule Saudi Arabia today.

Oil Dominates the Economy

The principal resource in the economy of the Arabian Peninsula is oil. The region grew in global importance as oil became more important to the economies of all nations. Arabian Peninsula nations make almost all of their export money and a large share of GDP from oil, so oil prices are very important to them. Large increases in oil prices allow the oil-producing nations to funnel money into development of other parts of their economies, especially water development projects.

In 1960, a group of oil-producing nations, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, established an organization to coordinate policies on selling petroleum products. The group is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, also known as OPEC. The purpose of OPEC is to help members control worldwide oil prices by adjusting oil prices and production quotas. OPEC is a powerful force in international trade. Other Southwest Asian members include Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Iraq.

Modern Arabic Life

Changes in the nations of the Arabian Peninsula during the 20th century were dramatic. The region is developing quickly with an emphasis on modernizing. Use of Western technology and machines undermined traditional ways of life. Camels, which used to be the mainstay of life in the Arabian Peninsula, are no longer used as extensively as they once were. Pick-up trucks, automobiles, and motorcycles have replaced them. Gone, too, are some of the traditional marketplaces called bazaars or souks (sooks). These open-air markets brought together buyers and sellers with a great variety of merchandise, food, and entertainment. The market was a place to meet neighbors or friends, or to conduct business. Today,Western-style supermarkets or malls may be the shopping location of choice instead of the traditional bazaar.


Cities were always a part of life in Southwest Asia. However, because of changes in the economy, the entire area is much more urbanized. Millions of people abandoned their lives as villagers, farmers, and nomads and moved into cities. In 1960, the region was about 25 percent urbanized. By the 1990s, this number had risen to about 58 percent. According to estimates, 70 percent of the population will live in cities by 2015. Saudi Arabia has an urban population of 83 percent. About 4 million people jam the capital, Riyadh.

As the economy switched to providing petroleum and petroleum products, the types of jobs available in cities changed as well. Workers who could read and write and had technical skills were in great demand. Arabic nations on the peninsula scrambled to upgrade educational systems to meet the needs of the technological age. When those needs could not be fully met, foreign workers were brought in to work at jobs the native population could not fill. As a result, a large number of foreign workers now live in peninsula countries. In some cases, such as Qatar, only one in five workers is a native of the land.


Despite its rapid modernization, some aspects of Muslim culture have remained the same for centuries. If you traveled to Southwest Asia, one of the first things you would likely notice is that women cover their heads, hair, and sometimes faces with a scarf or veil. This is in keeping with the belief that covering those parts of the body is pleasing to God. Women's roles have gradually expanded during the 20th century. More Arabic women are becoming educated and are able to pursue careers in other nations. Because family is viewed as very important, many women stay at home to manage household affairs.

As you read earlier in this section, all Muslims are expected to perform certain activities. One of the duties, prayer, is performed at prescribed times—dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and before bed. Faithful Muslims stop the activities they are engaged in to carry out this responsibility. In some countries, traffic stops during prayer time. If a person is not near a place of worship, he or she may unroll a small prayer rug on which to kneel to pray.

On Fridays, the day for congregational prayer, Muslims assemble for prayers at a mosque.

Fasting in the month of Ramadan is another duty that shapes the lives of Muslims. During this month, adult Muslims do not eat or drink from before dawn until sunset. Fasting is a way of reminding Muslims of the spiritual part of their lives. After sunset, Muslims may eat a light meal of lentil or bean soup, a few dates, yogurt, and milky tea. A festival, 'Id al-Fitr, marks the end of Ramadan. New clothes, gifts, and elaborate dinners, along with acts of charity, are part of the celebration.

Since the Muslim culture is found throughout Southwest Asia, many of the same activities of modern life on the Arabian peninsula take place in other areas of Southwest Asia as well. However, as you will learn in the next section, other groups with different religions and lifestyles also live in the region.