Geology of the Arabian Peninsula; shield area of western Saudi Arabia

Professional Paper 560-A
By: , and 



Western Arabia lies within the low-latitude desert of north Africa and the Middle East, the core being the Arabian segment of the African Shield. The core of complex basement rocks accounts for about 670,000 km2, or one-third of the Arabian Peninsula. Reconnaissance mapping of these crystalline rocks, together with bordering sedimentary rocks and volcanic flows, begun in 1950, resulted during the next 13 years in a series of geologic and geographic maps without extensive texts. The maps served as general guides for development of natural resources, including water supplies, ore deposits, and building materials. An intensive exploration program that began in 1963 and involved numerous geologists has vastly increased geologic information.

Rainfall in Arabia is meager and episodic, and vegetation is sparse except in isolated copses on the crest of the Hejaz Range. Comparison of flora with similar species in the Sudan, where records of rainfall have long been kept, allows evaluation of mean annual precipitation. Wandering bedouin following fodder created a delicate balance between population and water supply-now disturbed by wells drilled in alluvium and lava fields.

A trapezoidal region of Precambrian crystalline rocks lies along the northeast flank of the Red Sea, with two long prongs extending northwest and southeast for a total of 1,800 km. These basement rocks of the Arabian Shield are well exposed on the uplands, scarp mountains, and coastal pediments where the Phanerozoic cover rocks have been stripped as a result of Paleozoic epeirogeny and Tertiary ramping. The shield outcrops are divided into three tectonic provinces by N. 45°W.- trending shear zones of the Najd fault system of latest Proterozoic and possibly earliest Paleozoic time. The southwestern province, the 'Asir1 upland, was sharply uplifted and tilted to the northeast during the Neogene. The northwestern province, consisting of the Ash Shifa'- Hisma upland as well as Jabal Shammar farther east, similarly was uplifted and tilted. These two provinces are separated by the flat-lying median N ajd province, which is chiefly bounded by the principal Najd faults.

The outcrops of the shield rocks are of the Late Proterozoic Eonupper Riphean to Vendian or Infracambrian epochs, including the Ediacarian System. The most reliable isotopic ages range from about 900 to 560 m.y., but some Middle Proterozoic rocks may be present in the easternmost shield. The rocks are divided into six lithostratigraphic sequences, two plutonic suites, and an ophiolitic suite. The mafic and ultramafic volcanic and plutonic rocks of the ophiolitic suite everywhere were emplaced tectonically and are probably of different ages in different places. Some ophiolite occurs as obducted blocks, but most is highly deformed and altered to serpentinite in fault zones that mostly define sutures between different tectonic blocks or terranes within the shield.

Three of the lithostratigraphic sequences consist of mafic to silicic volcanic rocks and volcanic-derived clastic rocks which, with their subvolcanic plutonic rocks of a dioritic suite, probably formed in oceanic island arcs during convergent plate tectonism. These rocks make up the primary, or first-formed, crust of the shield. Chemical analyses show that the primary shield rocks, regardless of age, are principally calc-alkalic with some associated tholeiitic varieties. Most of the layered rocks are andesitic, but they range from basalt to dacite and in places contain intercalated pillow basalt, marble, chert, and carbonaceous or graphitic schist. Most of the plutonic rocks of the dioritic suite are dioritic, but they range from gabbro to trondhjemite and rarely contain potassium feldspar. The sequences and an associated dioritic suite become younger toward the eastern shield, that is, the primary crust of the shield youngs toward the east.

Two western sequences consist of the Jiddah (Samran) and BaishBahah Groups and range in radiometric age from about 900 to 800 m.y.; the eastern sequence consists of the Halaban (Hulayfah) Group and ranges from 800 to about 700 m.y. During subsequent orogeny, most of the rocks were intensely deformed and mostly metamorphosed to upper greenschist facies, but rising in places to the almandine-amphibolite facies.

Two other lithostratigraphic sequences with an associated plutonic granitic suite are the products of two mountain-building episodes during which the primary crust was greatly thickened and converted into craton. The two sequences, including largely the Ablah (Al Ays) and Murdama (Shammar) Groups, consist of abundant sedimentary rocks, commonly arkosic, that are the erosional products of the orogenic mountains. They are several thousand meters thick. Less abundant calc-alkalic to alkalic volcanic rocks, commonly dacitic and rhyolitic, are intercalated with the sedimentary rocks. The plutonic rocks of the granitic suite in association with both sequences have syntectonic and posttectonic phases, are products of the orogenies, and are the principal new ingredients making up the craton.

Gneiss domes were a significant part of these cratonization orogenies. In association with orogenic crustal heating, some of the low-density, more silicic tonalitic and trondhjemitic rocks of the primary crust rose as gneiss domes. Partial melting in the middle or lower crust below the gneiss domes produced large volumes of granitic magma that intruded the gneiss domes as granodioritic batholiths.

The Ablah Group and the older part of the granitic suite are about 775 to 740 Ma old and are associated with the Ablah orogeny and early cratonization in the western and earlier formed half of the shield. The Murdama (Shammar) Group and the younger part of the granitic suite are about 660 to 580 Ma old and are associated with the culminant orogeny and late cratonization that was shieldwide. The granitic suite during both orogenies consists of early, syntectonic granodiorite batholiths associated with the gneiss domes and late, posttectonic monzogranite plutons. Only during the culminant orogeny, late magmatic evolution produced syenogranite and alkali-feldspar granite commonly in circular and ring-structured plutons and with associated explosive volcanic deposits (Shammar Group); final products, some of which have economic potential, were peralkalic and peraluminous. The late plutonism of the culminant orogeny was distinctly bimodal in that subordinate gabbroic rocks are associated with the granites.

Various building blocks or terranes of the andesitic and dioritic primary crust were collisionally agglomerated during the Ablah orogeny, early cratonization, whereas the entire shield as currently exposed was further collisionally accreted and compressionally consolidated during the culminant orogeny, final cratonization. Thousands of kilometers of oceanic crust had to be subducted in about 300 m.y. to form the large primary crust of the Arabian Shield. The inevitable collisional events during consumption of such a large volume of oceanic crust invariably led to numerous collisional orogenies that collectively encompass the widely known Pan African tectonic episode.

The youngest lithostratigraphic sequence, the Jubaylah Group, is essentially postcratonic, although it is the end product of the collisional culminant orogeny. Final east-west compression of the entire shield from about 580 to 560 m.y. caused the craton to fracture along the large northwest-trending, left-lateral faults and elsewhere along lesser, northeast-trending, right-lateral, conjugate faults of the N ajd fault system. Erosional products of this more localized deformation were the sedimentary rocks of the Jubaylah Group, which also includes intercalated andesitic to basaltic volcanic rocks of a mafic alkalic compositional trend.

The collisional edge of an old continental plate (or tectonic fragments thereof), suspected on the eastern edge of the Arabian Shield, has not been shown with certainty to be exposed. Presumably, widespread contamination from such an old continental crust affects U/Pb, Sm/Nd, Rb/Sr, and common lead ratios in the young plutonic rocks of the easternmost shield. One mass of anorthosite near Jabal Khida' on the central eastern edge of the shield may be a fragment of this old continental plate in that associated granodiorite may be as old as 1,600 to 1,800 Ma.

Epeirogenic uplift, erosion, and cooling of the uppermost shield during Early and Middle Cambrian time is indicated by an average fission track age of 510±52 m.y., on sphene from diorite (hornblende K-Ar age of 615±12 m.y.) in the southwestern part of the shield. The hiatus was followed by extensive deposition of the Cambro-Ordovician Saq Sandstone in the north and northeast and the Wajid Sandstone in the southeast and south of the shield. The Cambrian Siq Sandstone had already been deposited in the northern part. During the middle and late Paleozoic, broad epeirogeny caused further erosion of the shield until marine transgression deposited the Upper Permian Khuff Formation at least in the eastern part of the shield. In the southwestern shield, the nonmarine Upper Triassic Khums Sandstone was deposited variably on Wajid or Precambrian rocks and is overlain by limestone of the middle Upper Jurassic Amran Formation.

Except for shallow marine sandstone of problematic Cretaceous age deposited on the Amran Formation in the south.western shield and on Precambrian rocks in the northwestern shield, the younger beds on the shield are Paleocene and younger, with the possibility that the lowermost are upper Maestrichtian. The early Tertiary beds contain vertebrate fossils of coastal marine or estuarine environment 250 km east of the Red Sea in the central shield. Marginal marine sediments were deposited in a western tongue of the latest Tethys Sea as late as Eocene on the western shield and at least as far south as Jiddah.

The great harrats of flood basalt erupted on th~ western shield during late Oligocene and early Miocene at the same time a 2,000-kmlong continental rift valley developed along the future Red Sea axis. Within this rift valley, Baid freshwater tuffaceous lakebeds were deposited between mafic and silicic volcanoes. During late early Miocene time, the Red Sea opened at a rate of 4.4 cm/yr in a firststage movement while continental dikes and swarms of oceanic tholeiitic dikes, gabbro, and granophyre plutonic rocks were intruded into the rift sedimentary and volcanic rocks at the newly formed continental margin. The continental margin was deformed and greatly extended at this time. About 14 or 15 m.y., as the first-stage spreading stopped, the Red Sea Escarpment rose; its erosion caused deposition of coarse conglomerate of the Bathan Formation. About 3,000 m of evaporite was deposited on the young Red Sea oceanic crust during the late Miocene desiccation crisis.

A second stage of sea-floor spreading about 4-5 m.y. produced the Red Sea axial trough, consisting of oceanic crust, as well as renewed uplift and tilting of the three tectonic provinces in response to compression from counterclockwise rotation against the Dead Sea Rift. This late movement caused widespread major stream capture, especially along the wadis that formerly drained southwesterly or northwesterly, the channels turning westward through narrow gorges to the coastal plain and the Red Sea.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Geology of the Arabian Peninsula; shield area of western Saudi Arabia
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 560
Chapter A
DOI 10.3133/pp560A
Year Published 1989
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Description Report: x, 189 p.; Maps
Country Saudi Arabia
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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