Chapter 5

Ecology of Arabian deserts

An outline of the plant ecology of the Arabian deserts is necessary to understand the role played by plants in the entrapment of sand to build certain dunes and sand mounds, such as parabolic dunes and dikakah, and in stabilization of dunes and interdunes. In such arid environments it is remarkable that plants survive, and it is often surprising to see plants spring up and flourish briefly after prolonged intervals, even years, without rainfall in the desert. Since ecology is the scientific study of living organisms, their interrelationship and their relation to the environment, animal communities also have a significant role, such as camels and goats introduced by man, as well as the ecological effects of human occupation on fragile desert environments.

Arabia can be divided into regions of distinctive ecology (Hearn et al., 2003; World Wildlife, 2001). These ecological regions are shown on the map (Fig. 5.1). These ecological regions are briefly described below with emphasis on their vegetation, which has a major effect on the deserts of Arabia. 5.1.1 Arabian desert and East Sahero-Arabian deserts and xeric shrublands This very large region includes most of Arabia, the Sinai Peninsula and all sand seas, stretching from the Persian Gulf coast to the Yemen border and from Jordan and Iraq to eastern Oman. It is a desert ecoregion with little biodiversity, although quite a few endemic plants grow in this region (Mandaville, 1986, 1990; Watts and Al-Nafie, 2003). In the Rub‘ al Khali, diffuse shrub communities are dominated by Calligonum crinitum mainly on dunes, the saltbush Cornulacea arabica locally associated with Haloxylon persicum, tussocks of the sedge Cyperus conglomeratus, (Fig.5.2), Dipterygium glaucum, Limeum arabicum, Tribulus arabicus, and Zygophyllum mandavillei (Mandaville, 1986). Farther north, in the Emirates, Calligonum comosum is a woody perennial found on sand dune slopes, and some annuals grow after

. Acacia tortilis raddiana (Savi) is also found in large wadis in the Sinai (Danin. 1987). but Calligonum comosum is more common in the northern and central dunes (Watts and Al-Nafie. Ferula sp. slopes of rocky hills and in sand fields. and some Acacia tortilis (Zohary. Trees are not found in the Rub‘ al Khali. such as the common Centropodia forskalii (Vahl). where Acacia ehrenbergiana and Prosopsis cineraria are found in wadis and interdune pans. and also in the northern Nafud as Sirr. The Sinai Peninsula has a sparse vegetation cover consisting of semi-shrubs. Native fauna of this region include the Arabian white oryx (Oryx leucoryx) and the sand gazelle (Gazella subguterosa).. 2003). In the central An Nafud. except on its northern edge. 1986a). On the deserts of north and central Jordan. 1962). In the sandstone desert country of southern Jordan.72 Chapter 5 Fig. as well as rarely along the southern edge of the Rub‘ al Khali as at Mugshin. as . The Ramlat Al Wahı bah is included in this ecoregion and has ¯ extensive stretches of Prosopsis cineraria woodland on its south-eastern margin and variable cover of Prosopsis on its northern-eastern border (Goudie et al. 5. rain. Zilla spinosa. Artemisia sp. one finds Haloxylon persicum. mainly found along wadis. and basalt terrain. Zygophyllum dumosum. Chenolea arabica. Suaeda vermiculata. Traganum nudatum and Anabasis articulata are found sparsely on limestone.1 Ecological regions of Arabia (Developed from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature divisions). Haloxylon persicum is found commonly. Traganum nudatum. chert.

Edgell.3). Calotropis procera. s. gazelle) now reintroduced in the protected area of ‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid. C. The ibex (Capra ibex nubiana) has survived.l. It also continues through the Hadramawt. Cordia gharaf. sand cat and caracal are other characteristic mammals. and Prosopsis cineraria in central Oman. which is the source of frankincense (Fig. and the vascular flowering plant Tribulus arabicus Hosni on sand dunes near Ash Shaybah. A. are common trees. Lavandula nubica.1. Interior Dhofar and the eastern Mahra are also the habitat of the low tree Boswellia sacra.Ecology of Arabian deserts 73 Fig. A. Moringa peregrina and Ziziyphus spina-christi. plus Acacia ehrenbergiana. P.2. 5. Red Sea Nubo-Sindian tropical desert and semi-desert This ecoregion of flat and plateau desert covering 651. The vegetation is of the pseudo-savannah type with scattered trees.S. (Identifications by J. cartilaginea. mostly species of Acacia along or near wadis and shrubs and herbs in between. photo from M. red fox.300 km2. tortilis raddiana. gerrardii. 5. Mandaville and H. 5.2 Tussocks of the sedge Cyperus conglomeratus Rottb. Acacia tortilis. . Ephedra foliata. Capparis decidua. Other common plants are Balanites aegyptiaca.) well as the mountain gazelle (G. while the striped hyena. Rasheeduddin. interior Dhofar and the interior Jiddat al Harasis of eastern Oman. is mainly najd and extends from the Gulf of Aqaba along the northern Red Sea and then along the western borders of the Hejaz and Asir..

It includes flat plateaux and plains. the almond Prunus dulcis is found wild. with many wadis incised in plateau areas. sand gazelle.74 Chapter 5 Fig. 5. as well as the monitor and spiny-tailed lizard. Edgell. (Photo and identification by H. The typical low scrub vegetation is dominated by Acacia trees. Juniper shrubs together with some lichens and ferns grow in . congealing as frankincense. Fauna characteristic of this ecoregion include the Arabian white oryx.3 South-western Arabian foothills savannah This ecoregion of xeric shrublands occurs along the inner side of the Asir and Hejaz. S.1. The Bedouin cut the bark for the sap to ooze out. near Hanun. 5.3 A typical Boswellia sacra in interior Oman.) In the high Jabal al Lawz. with grasses and herbaceous plants growing in the cooler season. sand cat and Ruppell’s fox. and more widely in the Hadramawt and Mahra.

1. On the southeastern Jiddat al Harasis (Fig.4 The thickly wooded south-facing eastern Jabal Qara near Darbat dominated by the tree Anogeissus dhofarica Scott. 1980). 5. The fauna is diverse including the rock hyrax.3). hyenas. while rainfall in Dhofar is about 100 mm on the coastal plain and 200–500 mm on Jabal Qara. Fog precipitation is quite high. Edgell. Euclea schimperi. 14. This is the densest woodland anywhere in Arabia and the flora of coastal Dhofar and the ranges is so diverse that it was described as “a real paradise in the wilderness” (Bent and Bent. ehrenbergiana and Prosopsis cineraria.4) associated with Cadia purpurea. wetter areas. ibex.Ecology of Arabian deserts 75 higher. badgers. part of the so-called ‘fog desert’. (Photo and identification by H.4 Arabian Peninsula fog desert This ecoregion along the eastern coasts of Yemen and Oman is strongly influenced by the South-West Monsoon between June and September. A. where average annual rainfall is lower at ~50 mm. vegetation includes Acacia tortilis. Arabian wolves. and occasional Ficus vasta (Radcliffe-Smith. (Fig. 5. Indian crested porcupines. Fig. mountain gazelles. S. and cape hares.) . In this desert ecoregion temperatures may average 30°C with rainfall from 120 to 27 mm/year. which produces dense fog and drizzly rain in areas like coastal Dhofar and its adjacent ranges. caracals. There is dense deciduous woodland on the southern slopes of Jabal Qara in Dhofar dominated by the endemic tree Anogeissus dhofarica. 5.

both Ruppell’s fox and the red fox.1.8 Al Hajar montane woodlands The arc of the Oman Mountains. but except for the 1. and a large number of animal species including troops of baboons. rare Nubian ibex in the mountain hinterland. 5. The Nubian dragon tree Dracaena ombet is found at higher altitudes and several species of Euphorbia are found at middle elevations. including many common date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) growing wild (Fig. Carissa edulis and Rhus somalensis. with areas of carbonate rocks to the . the Nubian ibex. high temperatures and high salinity. and mangroves occur where some widyan flow into the Red Sea. Curiously Dendrosicyos is the only member of the cucumber family to grow in tree form (Evans.7 South-western Arabian montane woodlands The southern Asir and most of the western highlands of Yemen form an area of good rainfall with cloud forest of lichen-festooned junipers. 5. The Jabal Areys volcanic massif. 5. there are groups of dorcas gazelle. 14. this ecoregion is characterized by its aridity. The Arabian white oryx has been reintroduced in the Jiddat al Harasis (Fig.1. is largely composed of dark ophiolites. At higher altitudes. 2001). Darsa and Samhah. as well as many white-eyed gulls and other seabirds along the shoreline. is also clouded by fog in summer and has shrubland dominated by Euphorbia balsamifera on its slope facing the sea (Llewellyn-Smith. These areas are mostly open deciduous shrubland with Croton socotranus dominant and scattered Euphorbia arbuscula.1. It is not a desert ecoregion and is. Dodonaea viscosa.5 Socotra Island xeric shrublands The South-West Monsoon also affects Socotra (Soqutra) Island and nearby islands of Abd al Kuri.4). 5.6 Red Sea coastal desert Extending along the Arabian Red Sea desert coastline from the Gulf of Suez. grassland dominates with scattered trees of Ficus vasta and F.1. which do not encourage vegetation. as well as the Arabian leopard now in rare numbers. a great variety of plants estimated at over 2.5). Amongst the fauna. Many widyan transect this coastal strip. therefore. caracal.503 m high Jabal Haggier most plains and low plateaux receive only 150 mm of rain.76 Chapter 5 1900). mentioned very briefly. there are semi-deciduous thickets of Olea europea. the caracal. The vegetation is partly endemic containing many links to Africa. The fauna is very varied with the Arabian gazelle. Dendrosicyos socotranus and Ziziphus spina-christi. 2001). or Al Hajar. Arabian wolf and rock hyrax. There are scattered palm trees on the coastal plain. Small sand dunes occur in parts of the southern plain. sycomorus.000 species. honey badger and Arabian fox. 5. on the southern coast of Yemen. On the plateau areas.

Acacia tortilis. Permian. ¯ Most of the region is desert outwash plain. In wadis of lower parts of the mountains. gerrardii and Periploca aphylla is found. Acacia tortilis. 1999). the Arabian tahr. are elements of the fauna. except for the rugged. 5. Amongst the vegetation. dissected. part of the Red Sea Coastal Desert.Ecology of Arabian deserts 77 Fig. trees of Acacia tortilis and . This diverse ecoregion also includes the pediments and fans or bajada of interior Oman south of Al Hajar. there occur Ziziphus spina-christi. combined with a rainfall below 200 mm a year in all except the high parts of Al Hajar.5 The date palm Phoenix dactylifera growing wild in the western Sinai Peninsula.000 m.500 m. junipers form open woodland (Ghazanfar. The adjacent outcrops are Nubian Sandstone. It surrounds the quite different environments of Al Hajar montane woodlands and of the Ramlat Al Wahıbah sand sea. It also extends along the Batinah coast and the Musandam Peninsula to the north-eastern coastal plain of the UAE.1.000 and 1. A. mostly Ficus salicifolia. Protected gazelle and a wild goat. Between 1. north. Jurassic and Cretaceous limestone terrain of the Ru’us al Jibal and Musandam Peninsula. Prosopsis cineraria and fig species. render most of this ecoregion mountain desert with woodland in restricted higher areas. where soils are richer and the vegetation more varied. above 2. The paucity of vegetation over the extensive ophiolite terrain.9 Gulf of Oman desert and semi-desert Included in this ecoregion is the north-eastern border of the Arabian Peninsula of the Batain coast from Barr al Hikman to Ra’s al Hadd and Muscat. In the highest parts. a woodland vegetation of Euphorbia larica. 5.

while slopes supporting the thistle Echinops spinosissimus and the cactus-like Caralluma sp. Halocnemum strobilaceum and Anabasis setifera are found (Böer and Al-Hajri. otter. It consists of low desert plains. Along the Batinah coast. the common reed Phragmites grows 1. including coastal Kuwait. Commonly occurring shrubs include Haloxylon salicornum. juliflora occur. a halophyte zone with Arthrocnemon macrostacbyum and Halocnemon strobliaceum. grows along parts of the north-eastern coast of the UAE. delta area is mostly saline sediment. followed by a supratidal marsh grass zone dominated by the reed Phragmites communis (Basson et al.. are very rare.78 Chapter 5 Ziziphus spina-christi are common. jackal. Indian mongoose and the goitered gazelle. striped hyena. 5. with land flora similar to the Batinah. and the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles on Masirah Island are exceptions. The sedge Cyperus conglomeratus is also common. 2003). like the Arabian leopard and Arabian tahr. as well as Tamarix spp.. On saline gravel plains in Qatar.. . Rhanterium epapposum and Calligonum comosum. One type of mangrove.7). 1989). but native animals. but includes areas of marsh and some salty lakes. as well as Cyperus sedge. reeds occur like Phragmites (Fig. while on sabkhah edges Salsola baysoma. Bird species are numerous. or nabkha’ (nabkhah).1. Dodonaea viscosa lines wadis. red fox. the willow leaf fig Ficus salicifolia occurs along stony wadi floors. In the Ru’us al Jibal. 5. In Al Hasa oases and along their Aftan River. Prosopsis cineraria and P. 1985). while forests of cedar and poplar occur on the banks of waterways and on some islands. while the most widespread grasses are what Bedouin call thumam or Panicum turgidum and Stipa capensis. which are deserts and xeric shrublands. Acacia tortilis occurs commonly with Prosopsis cineraria in sandy areas.11 Tigris–Euphrates–Karun alluvial salt marsh This arid. Acacia ehrenbergiana. The fauna includes wild boar.1. 5. In the Hawr al Hawizeh marshland. The sparse fauna include the red fox. Hummocky sand areas known as dikakah. Cape hare and Ethiopian hedgehog. and the bulrush is also common. and retained by low shrubs or grass tussocks are common in this ecoregion (Fig. On the higher plateau of the Ru’us al Jibal.10 Persian Gulf-Nubo-Sindian tropical desert and semi-desert This ecoregion lies along the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia.6 m tall. and the shrub-like tree Prunus arabica is found together with common Ficus carica (Western. are common. Most of this ecoregion is now salt encrusted barren desert. In intertidal areas. there is often an outer mangrove zone with Avicennia marina. and the introduced Prosopsis juliflora (Bundy et al. Date palms and tamarisk trees are indigenous. The four species of turtles found at Ra’s al Hadd. 5. or ‘Hofuf River’ outflow. 1981).5–3. Avicennia marina.6). the western coastline of Qatar. and parts of the western coast of the UAE. while the succulent tree Moringa peregrina clings to rock faces. Bahrain.

Eastern Province.) Fig.Ecology of Arabian deserts 79 Fig. 5. (Botanical identification by J. (Photo from the “Water Atlas of Saudi Arabia. 5.6 Dikakah terrain near Abu Hadriyah.7 Phragmites growing along the Aftan.”) . Mandaville. or Hofuf River outflow from Al Hasa oases to the Gulf of Bahrain. P. Saudi Arabia with sand anchored by grass clumps of Panicum turgidum Forsk.

0 m tall.2. and in dunes west and south of ‘Unayzah. 5. It is a transitional ecoregion between the steppes to the north and great deserts to the south. while Phragmites reed beds are found in rare wetland areas. Aspen and tamarisk trees are found along the river channels. such as Poa bulbosa. just south of Palmyra. northern Ad Dahna. north-eastern Nafud as Sirr. 5.8). and is called ‘abal’ by the Bedouin.90 m (Fig. rarely up to 3. which wither away in the burning heat of summer. Preferring . such as An Nafud. gravelly areas. 5. striped hyenas. At Sabkhat Muh.65 m.2 Haloxylon persicum community Known to the Arabs as ‘ghadha’ and a major source of firewood in the desert. It lies at elevations of between 600 m in the west. associated with grasses. Chenopodiaceae and Artemisia sp.1. asphodels and umbellifers. 1990).7–4. and grows to 1. wolves. 5. In the spring.1. On stony soil. and Nafud ath Thuwayrat.12 Mesopotamian shrub desert This ecoregion encompasses most of the Syrian Desert (Badiyat ash Sham). Haloxylon persicum is a large shrub or. wild boar and the Euphrates jerboa. It grows in the central An Nafud. Towards the eastern edge of this region.80 Chapter 5 5.13 Middle East steppe Vegetation. it is decked with a carpet of flowers. including grasses. goitered gazelle. dwarf shrubs and a shrubby species of rock-rose grow in rocky. woody. and the surrounding desert is sparsely vegetated with tussock-grass. Tamarix bushes grow around the lake margins. while reeds and rushes occur in the rare wetlands. Thickets of Populus euphratica. umbrella-thorn Acacia trees. as well as in the eastern sands south of 26° 30′ N and on the northwestern and western margins of the Rub‘ al Khali (Mandaville. It is found associated with Artemisia monosperma and Scrophularia hypericifolia on the upper surfaces of deep dune sands. Fauna includes Asiatic jackals. 2001). and 100 m in the east where it also includes the upper valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. similar to that of the Iran-Turanian ecoregion consists of herbaceous and dwarf shrub sage brushland with Artemesia sieberi on non-saline soils. Hammada scoparia is found (Buff. anemones. Tamarix and Typha are found along rivers. in the foothills of the Zagros Ranges.2. Calligonum comosum has quite long roots.1 Calligonum comosum community This is the dominant plant community of sand dunes of northern and central Saudi Arabia. semi-tree 2.2 DESERT PLANT COMMUNITIES This brief summary of major desert plant communities deals mainly with desert sand dune areas. Watts and Al-Nafie (2003) list the following: 5.

Nafud as Sirr and Nafud Qunayfidah. 5. and commonly in Nafud ath Thuwayrat. In northern and central Saudi Arabia it grows to a height of about 1 m. salicornicum. Mandaville. 5. (Photo credit N. it grows in low hollows with Haloxylon salicornum. relatively a component of sand seas.2.2. Ephdera alata. It also occurs in Sinai and Palestine and is an important sand-binding species with a deep and extensive root system. Edgell confirmed by J. Al-Homaid. and is usually associated with Echinops sp.5 to 82. parts of An Nafud. but not in the Rub‘ al Khali. 2003). Calligonum comosum. being dominant. Other members of .) alkaline soils. 5. S. from 77. Stipagrostis drarii. but in An Nafud it grows on less saline parts of dunes with Artemesia monosperma and Stipagrostis drarii (Watts and Al-Nafie. Scrophularia hypericifolia.4 Scrophularia hypericifolia community Although. and Scrophularia hypericifolia. 2003). Haloxylon persicum and H.8 A bush of Calligonum comosum in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.) (Identification by H. this low shrub community can be dominant in places on deep sands in Ad Dahna north of 26° N. P.. in parts of Nafud ath Thuwayrat (Watts and Al-Nafie.5%.3 Artemesia monosperma community This community dominated by Artemesia monosperma is found in the northern Ad Dahna.Ecology of Arabian deserts 81 Fig.

Locally. with Rhanterium epapposum and Ephedra alata found on the edges of this community in shallow sand. well-drained sands. It grows closely spaced on the megabarchans of Al Kidan and can be seen in the ‘Uruq al Mu’taridah growing in lines 1–2 m above the sabkhah. 1990). 1986). It is sometimes associated with Haloxylon persicum. Ad Dahna and An Nafud.2. Common associated species include Calligonum comosum.2. prefers interdune locations and can also occur on hard gravel. It occurs widely throughout the southern and north-eastern parts of this desert.6 Cornulacea arabica community This prickly shrublet dominates plant communities in the northern and central Rub‘ al Khali from Al Kidan to Al ‘Ubaylah and as far south as 19° N.. Artemisia monosperma. as in the ‘Uruq al Awarik in the central south-western Rub‘ al Khali (Mandaville. The subspecies Calligonum crinitum arabicum is endemic to the Rub‘ al Khali. as well as flexible stems adjustable to sand movement and abrasion. Stipagrostis drarii prefers the lee slopes of large dunes and has sand-binding roots. Stipagrostis plumosa and Cyperus conglomeratus. 1986. 5. Limeum arabicum and Dipterygium glaucum (Mandaville. Dipterygium glaucum may dominate. generally with Dipterygium glaucum and the ubiquitous Cyperus conglomeratus. This psammophytic species forms stands up to 1.7 Calligonum crinitum and Dipterygium glaucum community Calligonum crinitum occurs widely in the Rub‘ al Khali and is a woody shrub up to 2.8 Haloxylon salicornicum community This community is common in the plains of north-eastern Arabia from Iraq to the northern Rub‘ Al Khali.82 Chapter 5 this community are Artemisia monosperma and Echinops spp.2.2.9 Rhanterium epapposum community Generally widespread over the plains of north-eastern Arabia. this community also occurs to the north-east of An Nafud in Al Labbah plateau and was observed . Plant communities found in non-dune or shallow sand environments are: 5. Some other species in the community are Cyperus conglomeratus.5 m tall. preferring higher. Scrophularia hypericifolia.5 Stipagrostis drarii community Found on sand sea areas over the entire Arabian Peninsula.2. 5. 5. especially on steep slopes of sand mountains of Nafud ath Thuwayrat. 5.6 m tall.

Ever since the oil industry in Saudi Arabia established the Tapline with numerous pumping stations and available water. 8.Ecology of Arabian deserts 83 in pure strands near Qaryat al ‘Ulya south of the War’iah ridge (Mandaville.1 Effects of overgrazing The introduction of herds of goats and camels.2. It is also dominant near Umm Qasr in southeastern Iraq (Guest. The ever growing rural population of Arabia has certainly caused increased aridity. especially in northern Arabia. The result has been destruction of vegetation in a 50 km wide strip some 250 km long south of Rafha and in Ad Dahna sands. 5. Camels graze happily on thornbush and on almost any other vegetation in desert areas. . Among these are overgrazing. this community also likes internal. On sandy edges around sabkhah. construction. undrained depressions and is called ‘shin’ by the Bedouin. especially the higher stems and branches. (2000). 1966). Because of their adaptability to dryland conditions goats are widely used by rural Arabs. by man into desert areas of Arabia has caused considerable loss of natural vegetation and undoubtedly increased the aridity of the region. and Karnieli and Tsoar (1995) have shown how this cyanobacterial crust has been removed in the Sinai Desert of Egypt by the activities of man. it is frequently accompanied by Haloxylon salicornicum.. It has been suggested that the rapid accretion of dunes in the north-eastern Emirates is the result of intensified human occupation coincident with expansion of the Abbasid Empire Goudie et al. and have been removing native vegetation for thousands of years. Planned settlement of Bedouin in the Wadi as Sirhan area near bores has also caused extensive overgrazing there (Heady. 2003). vehicular use.3 THE INFLUENCE OF HUMAN OCCUPATION ON ARABIAN DESERTS The advent of man to the fragile desert environments of Arabia has had many adverse consequences. 5. primarily overgrazing. 1990). and flocks of sheep. Herds of goats are particularly destructive of native vegetation. Bedouin have changed from nomadic grazing to yearlong grazing by increased livestock as new water supplies opened up areas that were previously less accessible seasonally.3. woodcutting. cultivation. and recreation. where there is a greater rural population.10 Seidlitzia rosmarinus community Dominant on coastal and inland sabkhah areas. A biogenic crust develops even on desert sand dunes in moist northern areas. A great reduction in natural vegetation has occurred.21). 5. whereas in the Negev sands this dark biogenic crust is still present (Fig.

The construction of paved roads in many areas helps to alleviate .3. which is situated in the heart of the Rub‘ al Khali Desert. as seen in Nafud as Sirr and Nafud ath Thuwayrat. In addition.5 Vehicular use and recreation The extensive use of vehicles. While it can be said that the waste from desalinated water pumped to Ar Riyadh has made the desert bloom in areas like Al Kharj. Wheat and other crops are now grown unnaturally in desert areas. and new industrial sites are occupying an increasing area of desert. such as Ash Sharawrah. so that cities like Ar Riyadh now occupy large areas of desert. Asphalted roads and numerous buildings. like Ash Shaybah (Fig. on the southern edge of the Rub‘ al Khali Desert. often between the dunes.000 years of human occupation although Prosopsis juliflora is still exploited around Sayun. This also applies to areas of sabkhah and khabra’ or claypan.10. in desert areas has seen the destruction of fragile desert surfaces. pipelines. In the Hadramawt.9). 5. which will never be replenished. In Arabia. Settlements.4 Construction Population growth and industrialization have led to a rapid expansion of urban centres. 5.84 Chapter 5 5. mangroves (Avicennia marina) have been removed in great quantities along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts. now claim a population of 40. and its giant dunes as shown in Fig. Thin soils built up over thousands of years never recover from the passage of vehicles.000.3. The preferred plants for wood users in desert sand seas are the shrubs Calligonum comosum and Haloxylon persicum. when compared with the huge size of the Rub‘ al Khali. as well as the many roads and airfields leading to them. 2004). where population density is quite high. little remains of the native vegetation after at least 7. Oil exploitation has also led to construction of settlements.3. This has been caused by centre-pivot irrigation based on wells drilled into ‘fossil’ aquifers (Elhady. which is a military base.2 Woodcutting The continual search for firewood by pastoral groups has also led to reduction in vegetation and is especially noticeable in najd areas where there is usually a low density of native plants. an increasing number of villages have cut down surrounding shrubs and small trees for cooking.3. Groundwater depletion has been very rapid causing the death of palms and tamarisks. These facilities are still on a small scale. 5. it has also led to a rapid rise in the saline water table. and gas/oil separation plants (GOSPS) have impacted on the fragile desert ecosystem.3 Cultivation In the last 30 years there has been a very rapid expansion in cultivation in arid areas of Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent in Oman. 5. 5. mostly four-wheel drive.

Lakes of oil deliberately released in Kuwait by the Iraqi Army in the 1991 Gulf War were up to 2. and pilots reported a doubling of dust storms following the Iraq–Iran war in the 1980s.5 m deep and contaminated the environment. quite apart from the deadly contamination by depleted uranium in ammunition. A ditch 2.5 m wide and 2 m deep was dug along the entire border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to prevent smuggling.jpg) the problem. Kuwait and many areas of Iraq. mainly gas-oil separator plants (GOSPS) between the megabarchanoid dunes of the ‘Uruq ash Shaybah in the eastern Rub‘ al Khali. new dunes blocked roads in northern Kuwait (El-Baz. after two military campaigns using massive military vehicles. but kept rapidly filling with wind-blown sand. In many Arab countries. was ineffective and recommended to be filled in (Edgell. but the desert is scarred by their sports utility vehicles. In Iraq. .aramcoexpats. 1988a).Ecology of Arabian deserts 85 Fig. it is customary to camp in the desert during cooler parts of the year as a form of The movement of armies and their vehicles during the first Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq war in 2003–2005 has caused the fragile desert pavements laid down over thousands of years to be broken and destroyed over large areas of north-eastern Saudi Arabia. 1992). 5.9 Oil development facilities of Ash Shaybah. (Photo credit AramcoExpats www. there is great destruction to the desert environment. This caused a dramatic increase in the number of violent sandstorms and dust storms. as well as the north-eastern shores of Saudi Arabia. but the natural balance in desert dune areas is never regained.

where the arid environments. 2002). With increasing global warming. which altered the configuration of dunes in part of the Sinai Peninsula (El-Baz. Image width is 11. .3. in front of slip faces. the most widespread land degradation is vegetation degradation in rangelands caused by overgrazing and woodcutting. especially for Arabia.6 Desertification Desertification is the process by which susceptible areas lose their productive capacity. the climatic changes in the last 50 years has been entirely negative. mainly as a result of human activities and climatic “Dryland degradation affects a billion people and up to 70% of arid and semi-arid land world-wide” (FAO. and encroaching dunes were always a problem. among giant megabarchans showing their relatively small scale in relation to the huge dunefield in which they are situated. now understood to be anthropogenic. 1991).7 km. and land degradation occurs in arid. 5. 5. In Arabia. Facilities include gas/oil separation plants (left). in the eastern Rub‘ al Khali. Estimated elevation of the airfield is 75 m and the dune to the SW has an estimated elevation of 148 m.10 A satellite view of oil development facilities at Ash Shaybah. thin soils. Another example is the bulldozing by Israeli forces of a 40-ft wall of sand called the Bar Lev line on the eastern side of the Suez Canal in 1974. It is a measure of the stability of these old megadunes that roads have been constructed across them. numerous roads and housing and administration (right).86 Chapter 5 Fig. and even along their crests (middle right). airfield. Part of a dune NW of the airfield has been cut back to make extra space. courtesy of nasa. and dry sub-humid areas. (NASA Landsat 7 image 2000 series.

has led to the establishment of many new settlements at Thumrayt. but severe desertification occurs in Jordan. In addition. Much of Arabia is hyper-arid. Shisur.11 Areas of desertification in Arabia. Use of groundwater in the najd of interior Dhofar. western Syria. Moderate desertification occurs in the Arabian Shield and Oman Mountains. but is only slight in the inner Hadramawt and Jddat al Harasis of Oman. Dhofar. and by unwise use of limited ‘fossil’ groundwater resources in the pivot irrigation areas of Saudi Arabia (Elhady. but their long term existence is in doubt due to rapidly falling groundwater levels. Syria and much of Iraq. The artificial settlement of man in the fragile environments of Arabian deserts is unsustainable over a prolonged period. Dawkah and Mugshin. The Arabian Shield. 16.26). Fasad. 2004). as also the Tihamah and adjacent highlands. 5.) . A study of desertification of arid lands (Drenge. 2002) has shown that almost all of Jordan. (Extract from a map of desertification in Asia by Drenge 1986. 1986. southern Oman.Ecology of Arabian deserts 87 There has also been land degradation by salinization of irrigated land in southern Iraq. wind erosion and soil destruction has been greatly speeded up by increased vehicular use on fragile soils and desert pavements (Fig. Al Hajar. Fig. Hadramawt.11). and most of Iraq suffer from severe desertification. 5. and most of northern Saudi Arabia are classed as areas of moderate desertification (see Fig.