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Physically, Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly desert and desert scrub (about 95% by land area). There is variety within the desert landscapes, though – there are rocky outcrops, wadis and even some irrigated areas growing crops. There are also some mountain ranges, and some areas of semi-desert. The Arabian mountains dominate the west-central part of the country. They descend to a plateau, then a broad plain in the east and a very narrow one in the west. Saudi Arabia is poorly watered, having no permanent rivers, and less than 2% of the land is arable.
Saudi Arabia is politically divided into 13 provinces, which are usually combined into the five geographical regions detailed below:
The sparsely populated North region contains the provinces of Al-Jawf and Northern Borders – the latter has frontiers with Jordan and Iraq. There is some agriculture, chiefly around the oases.
The Hejaz is made up of four smaller regions, three of which have a Red Sea coastline: Tabuk, Medina, Mecca and Bahah. The region consists of a narrow coastal plain leading to uplands, and contains two of the country’s three largest cities. Mecca is famous for being the holiest city in Islam, and the destination point of the world’s greatest pilgrimage, the Hajj, centred on the Grand Mosque. Over 2 million Muslims made the Hajj to Mecca this year. Medina, Islam’s second holiest city, also forms part of the circuit of pilgrimages.
Until very recently, Mecca and Medina were also known for the rich heritage of their historic and culturally significant buildings. Most of these – about 95% – have now been destroyed, largely to make way for hotels, shopping malls and car parks. This destruction is also due to the fanaticism among the country’s religious leaders, who have maintained that such buildings might encourage idolatry.
To the west of Mecca, on the coast, is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city. The country’s largest port, it has grown to this size also by virtue of being an entrepôt for Hajjis travelling to Mecca and Medina. Jeddah is a major commercial and industrial centre and is the most cosmopolitan and relaxed city in the country.
The Najd region, in the centre of the country, contains Ha’il, Qasim and Riyadh regions. The main city is Riyadh, which is the nation’s capital and largest city. It is unusual for such a large city in that it has no water sources, and has to rely on water being piped in. Being the main administrative city in the country, the public sector is the largest employer. Riyadh is also important for manufacturing and finance.
Eastern Province contains the vast majority of the country’s oil wealth. The largest urban area comprises the three cities Dammam, Dhahran and Khobar. These are close together enough to form a single metropolitan area. Dammam is best known for its oil and natural gas exploitation, but is also a major port and commercial centre. Dhahran contains the headquarters of Aramco, and also has oil extraction plants. Khobar is also a port and has a large desalination plant.
In contrast, the south of Eastern Province, in fact the entire south and south-east of the country, consists of the Rub’ al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. This beautiful area is the largest expanse of sand-dune desert in the world and contains no permanent dwellings. The northern area of this desert also has extensive oil reserves.
Sections in LIVING IN SAUDI ARABIA:
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» Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Saudi Arabia
» Regions and Cities for Expats in Saudi Arabia
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If you are considering moving to Saudi Arabia or are soon to depart, you can find helpful information and advice in the Expat Briefing dedicated Saudi Arabia section including; details of immigration and visas, Saudi Arabian forums, Saudi Arabian event listings and service providers in Saudi Arabia.
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