Geology of the Arabian Peninsula: Sedimentary geology of Saudi Arabia

Professional Paper 560-D
By: , and 



Systematic mapping of the sedimentary geology of Saudi Arabia by Arabian-American Oil Co. (Aramco) began in 1933. By 1959, exploration parties of one type or another had surveyed more than 1,300,000 square kilometers (500,000 square miles) of sedimentary outcrop.

The foundation for sedimentary deposition is the Arabian Shield a vast Precambrian complex of igneous and metamorphic rocks that occupies roughly one-third of the Arabian Peninsula in the west and crops out sporadically along the southern coast. Since the outset of the Paleozoic Era the shield has been amazingly stable, subject only to gentle, epeirogenic movement. On this rigid land mass was deposited an aggregate total of nearly 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) of sedimentary rocks ranging in age from presumed Cambrian to Pliocene(?).

Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and lower Tertiary strata are magnificently exposed in central Arabia where they crop out in a great curved belt bordering the shield. Here the landscape is dominated by a series of essentially parallel west-facing escarpments, each supported by a resistant limestone cap. Exposures are unusually good, and many rock units can be traced without significant interruption for 500 to nearly 1,000 km. Beds reflecting buried basement configuration dip gently and uniformly away from the escarpment region into the Persian Gulf and Rub' al Khali basins.

East of the escarpment belt is a broad expanse of relatively low-relief terrain in which Tertiary and younger deposits effectively mask older units. Clues to the character of pre-Tertiary rocks in this large area, which includes the Rub' al Khali desert and most of northeastern Arabia, are afforded only by widely scattered bore holes and oil wells.

In extreme northwestern Arabia, largely lower Paleozoic sedimentary rocks are exposed, although a basinal area bordering the Paleozoic rocks on the north is characterized by thick Upper Cretaceous to Tertiary strata. Tertiary to Recent volcanic rocks cover substantial parts of the area.

In general the older sedimentary rocks are exposed in north-central and northwestern Arabia near the Precambrian basement where as much as 2,000 m of lower Paleozoic rocks are present. Although unfossiliferous, the lower 600 m can be equated, at least in part, to rocks of certain Cambrian age in Jordan. Higher beds contain intervals confidently dated as Lower Ordovician, Silurian, and Lower Devonian. Lower Paleozoic rocks are chiefly coarse-grained sandstone of terrestrial origin, although marine shale occurs at several levels and the upper 300 m is mainly shale with thin beds of limestone.

Lower Paleozoic strata are succeeded in the central escarpment region by a thick sequence (about 1,000 m) of Upper Permian and Triassic sedimentary rocks. The initial deposit, the Khuff Formation, is mostly shallow-water limestone; overlying beds are nonmarine elastics except for thick carbonate units in the middle part of the section.

Above the Triassic System is some 200 to 500 m of Lower and Middle Jurassic rocks which, near the middle of the escarpment region, are interbedded marine shale and shelf limestone. These grade to sandstone, in part continental, in the northern and southern areas of outcrop. The Middle Jurassic is overlain by a great sequence-of nearly pure carbonate rocks, highly fossiliferous and accurately dated as Upper Jurassic and early Lower Cretaceous.

The Jurassic System is spectacularly displayed in central Arabia where it forms the backbone of the escarpment region the Tuwayq Mountains. Carbonate sedimentation was interrupted several times in the closing stages of the Jurassic b^ the onset of evaporite conditions which gave rise to cyclic deposits of anhydrite and calcarenite. The resulting sequence the Arab Formation is of prime importance for its porous carbonate members contain billions of barrels of proved oil reserves

The carbonate sequence is succeeded by a thick body of late Lower and Middle Cretaceous sandstone. (The Middle Cretaceous Series and Epoch, as defined by European geologist-, are used in this report.) Late Lower Cretaceous rocks are nonmarine and appear only in the middle and southern parts of the escarpment region. Middle Cretaceous rocks, nonmarine in the south, become progressively more marine in the north where they follow a transgressive path northwest across older beds as far as Jordan.

Upper Cretaceous and Eocene rocks, almost exclusively in limestone and dolomite facies, are extensively exposed alorc the eastern edge of the escarpment belt and continue northwest into Iraq. The sequence, with an average thickness of about 5^0 m, includes rocks of Upper Cretaceous, Paleocene, lower Eocene, and middle Eocene ages.

The stratigraphic sequence above the Eocene consists of 200 to 600 m of Miocene and Pliocene rocks, mostly of nonmarine origin. These deposits a heterogeneous assemblage of marly sandstone, sandy marl, and sandy limestone blanket the Rub' al Khali and northeastern Arabia.

Above the Miocene and Pliocene rocks are unconsolidated Quaternary deposits which comprise great sand deserts and widespread gravel sheets. Sand of the Rub' al Khali Desert alone covers about 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq mi) or most of southern Arabia.

Two major structural provinces are recognized within the Arabian Peninsula and adjacent areas. One is the comparatively stable interior region whose rigidity is controlled by the Precambrian basement. The other is the great mobile belt of Taurus, Zagros, and Oman Mountains, bordering the stable region on the north and east. Saudi Arabia falls entirely within the stable region.

The interior stable region contains the Arabian shield as well as the Arabian Shelf an extension of the basement thinly veneered with little-disturbed sedimentary rocks. Widespread structural events, presumably related to epeirogenic movement within the basement, have divided the Arabian Shelf into several distinct and significant structural elements the Interior Homocline, the Interior Platform, and several basinal areas.

Bordering the shield is a great belt of sedimentary rocks whose dip basinward is so slight and uniform as to be impreceptible to the eye. This Interior Homocline has an average width of about 400 km and a persistent dip varying from slightly more than 1°00' in older units to less than 0°30' in the youngest. One structural feature of the homocline the central Arabian arch has greatly influenced the present surface distribution of sedimentary rocks in the interior escarpment region. The arch, which affects all rocks from the basement up, marks the area of maximum curvature of the homocline in central Arabia. Although the arch has a varied history, it is apparently a residual high between the periodically sinking Persian Gulf and Rub' al Khali basins rather than a true independent positive feature. Support for this concept conies from the presence of a great arc of tensional structures the central Arabian graben and trough system near the crest of the arch and along the hinge line between the Persian Gulf basin and the stable western block.

Bordering the homocline is the Interior Platform, a remarkably flat area of varying width in which systematic dip off the crystalline core no longer prevails. Superimposed on the platform are several major north-south anticlinal trends which include the great oil fields of Arabia

Adjacent to the platform are several basinal areas that have from time to time received thick sedimentary deposits. Such basinal sags have developed on the shelf in the northeastern Rub' al Khali, northern Persian Gulf, Dibdibah and Sirhan-Turayf areas.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Geology of the Arabian Peninsula: Sedimentary geology of Saudi Arabia
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 560
Chapter D
DOI 10.3133/pp560D
Year Published 1966
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Description p. D1-D147; 10 Plates: 44.20 x 21.43 inches or smaller
Country Saudi Arabia
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details