COWRIE READINGS OF THE QURAN
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Children are still a status symbol of wealth and fertility. Guests are usually seen to the door, or even to the end of the corridor or garden. Traditionally this represents the safe passage of guests across your tribal territory. If you have Arab visitors, make sure you do the same! The 18th-century traveller Lady Montague noted that Arab women were more at liberty to follow their own will than their European counterparts and that the abaya which she described as the 'black disguise' made it easier for women to take a lover.
Less exercise, more stress and a fast-food diet high in fats, sugar and salt have led to an increase of diabetes in Arabia. Alarmingly, five of the 15 countries with the world's highest rates of diabetes are on the Peninsula, namely the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. If you chose one feature that distinguishes art on the Arabian Peninsula and Arab art generally from other traditions, it is the close integration of function with form.
In other words, most Arab art has evolved with a purpose. That purpose could be as practical as embellishing the prow of a boat with a cowrie shell to ward off 'evil eye', or as nebulous as creating intricate and beautiful patterns to intimate the presence of God and invite spiritual contemplation. By this definition the Arabian passion for falconry can be described as an art form; arising out of a need to hunt, the sheer aesthetic beauty of flying a wild bird is celebrated today in most of the countries of the Gulf.
Camel and horse-rearing are two other regional activities that combine art, sport and leisure; in fact, beauty contests identifying the most beautiful animal are taken as seriously as contests of speed, and attract high prize money. Poetry is part and parcel of the great oral tradition of storytelling that informs the literature of all Peninsula countries, the roots of which lie with the Bedouin.
Stories told by nomadic elders to the wide-eyed wonder of the young serve not just as after-dinner entertainment, but as a way of binding generations together in a collective oral history. As such, storytelling disseminates the principles of Islam and of tribal and national identity. It extols the virtues of allegiance, valour, endurance and hospitality — virtues that make life in a harsh environment tolerable. All the best-known figures of classical Arabic and Persian literature are poets, including the famed Omar Khayyam, the 11th-century composer of rubai quatrains , and the 8th-century Baghdadi poet, Abu Nuwas.
The great Arab poets were regarded as possessing knowledge forbidden to ordinary people and, as such, they served the purpose of bridging the human and spirit worlds. To this day, poetry recitals play an important part in all national celebrations, and even the TV-watching young are captivated by a skilfully intoned piece of verse. Arabian song and dance have evolved for a purpose. Generally, music was employed to distract from hardship — like the songs of the seafarers marooned on stagnant Gulf waters or the chanting of fishermen hauling in their nets.
There are also harvest songs and love ballads, all of which are either sung unaccompanied or to syncopated clapping or drum beats. East African rhythms, introduced into local music from Arab colonies, lend much Peninsula music a highly hypnotic quality, and songs can last for more than an hour. While the austere Wahhabi and Ibadi sects discourage singing and dancing, no wedding or national celebration on the Peninsula would be the same without them. Men dance in circles, flexing their swords or ceremonial daggers while jumping or swaying.
If they get really carried away, volleys of gunfire are exchanged above the heads of the crowd. Women have a tradition of dancing for the bride at weddings which are generally gender-segregated, with the women gaining the better part of the bargain in feasting and dancing. Unobserved by men, they gyrate suggestively in their revealing dresses as if encouraging the bride towards the marital bed. While traditional music plays a big part in contemporary Arab life, it is not the only form of music.
Arab pop, especially of the Amr Diab type, is ubiquitous, while radio stations and nightclubs featuring DJs showcasing the latest international trends are also popular, particularly in the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. A classical orchestra in Oman and military drum and pipe bagpipes bands have won international acclaim. Function and form are most noticeably linked in the rich craft heritage of the Peninsula, encompassing jewellery, silversmithing, weaving, embroidery and basket making. Take jewellery, for example — the heavy silver jewellery, so distinctively worn by Bedouin women, was designed not just as a personal adornment, but as a form of portable wealth.
Silver amulets, containing rolled pieces of parchment or paper, bear protective inscriptions from the Quran, to guarantee the safety of the wearer. Jewellery is traditionally melted down rather than handed on — the ultimate pragmatic gesture. The sad fact of practical craft is that once the need for it has passed, there is little incentive to maintain the skills. What is the point of potters in Al Hofuf and Bahla making clay ewers when everyone drinks water from branded plastic bottles? Many regional governments encourage local craft associations in the hope of keeping the craft heritage alive, resulting in successful ventures such as the Bedouin weaving project at Sadu House in Kuwait City and the women's centres in Manama and Abu Dhabi.
The Omani Heritage Documentation Project is another worthwhile enterprise.
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Launched in to document Oman's great craft heritage, it resulted after eight years of study in a two-volume definitive guide, The Craft Heritage of Oman. In common with other arts, Peninsula architecture is also steered by purpose. The local climate plays an important role: the wind towers of the Gulf, for example, not only look attractive, but also function as channels of cooler air; gaily painted adobe walls and window frames help waterproof homes in the Asir.
Positioning forts around rocky outcrops gives them solid foundations. And then there's the question of space: in the mountains whole villages appear to be suspended in air, storeys piled high to save from building on precious arable land. The love of the tower block in modern architecture stems perhaps from this common heritage, but the use of materials such as glass and concrete, inappropriate to the desert heat, have corrupted the balance between function and form.
It will take more than traditional Arab motifs, such as a pointed window or a wooden screen, to bring back a harmony between architecture and its environment, but this is a challenge taken up across the region, resulting in energy-efficient urban projects such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. There is no greater example of the marriage of function and form than Islamic art.
For a Muslim, Islamic art remains first and foremost an expression of faith, and many Peninsula Arabs are cautious of art for art's sake, or art as an expression of the self without reference to community. The prime example of instructive, inspirational art is calligraphy. Arabic is not just a language for Arabs — for Muslims throughout the world it is the language of the Quran and, as such, plays a cohesive, unifying role.
Islamic calligraphy, the copying of God's own words, is seen by many as a pious act and remains to this day the highest aesthetic practised in the Arab world. In all the museums of Arabia there are magnificent examples of this highly refined art with its repetition of forms and symmetry of design. The most visible expression of Islamic art, however, is surely the mosque. It too is built on mostly functional principles. In fact, the first mosques were modelled on the Prophet Muhammad's house. To this day the basic plan with courtyard, domed prayer hall and vaulted niche indicating the direction of Mecca provides a safe, cool and peaceful haven for worship and has changed little, although the first minarets appeared long after Muhammad's death.
Before that time, the muezzin prayer caller often stood on a rooftop or some other elevation so that he could be heard by as many townsfolk as possible. Traditionally mosques had an ablution fountain at the centre of the courtyard, often fashioned from marble. Today most modern mosques have a more practical row of taps and drains alongside. The mosque in Arabian Peninsula countries serves the community in many ways. Young children run on a hand-loomed carpet, their siblings receive Quranic lessons beneath tiled domes, their parents sit in quiet contemplation of carved panels and the elders enjoy a peaceful nap in the cool of flowering gardens.
Art, in other words, remains at the service of people. Not all artistic expression on the Peninsula shares the same Islamic roots, and increasingly there is a trend across the region to explore international lines of aesthetic enquiry through challenging contemporary exhibitions and the opening of museums that showcase a broader tradition. Opened in late , this magnificent gallery, with a canopy issuing a rain of light inspired by palm fronds, exhibits work from the Paris Louvre and other museums in France. Recently, Arab cinema has attracted world attention, largely thanks to the growing popularity of international film festivals held in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.
The people of the Arabian Peninsula love sport, and Qatar and the UAE in particular have become major hosts and patrons of international events. An interest in sport is no new phenomenon. For centuries Arab men have been demonstrating their prowess in agility, speed and courage. Most of these traditional games, which involve barefoot running, ball games, wrestling and even rifle throwing, are hard for a visitor to fathom, but since the Gulf Cooperation Council GCC countries have been trying to encourage greater participation in these kinds of sports, and they may well receive more popular promotion in future.
Camel racing is a grumbling affair of camels who'd really rather not run and owners who make sure they do. The rider, traditionally, is almost immaterial. Racing usually involves a long, straight track camels are not very good at cornering with very wide turns. Camel fanciers race alongside in their 4WDs to give their favourite camel encouragement. Camel racing can be seen throughout the region from October to May. Authorities, sensitive about the bad press associated with the traditional recruitment of young jockeys, outlawed child riders nearly a decade ago, obliging owners to replace child jockeys with lightweight adults, or even with something more imaginative.
The breeding of horses, shipped from ports such as Sur in Oman, has been a source of income in Arabia for centuries. Now, partly thanks to the efforts of Lady Anne Blunt, a 19th-century British horse breeder, the fleet-footed, agile Arabian horse is raced all over the world. Horse racing is a major spectator event for Peninsula people, and the event is at its most expensive and glamorous at the Dubai World Cup. Heads of states, royalty, celebrities and top international jockeys gather for the occasion. Like Ascot in the UK, it's the place to be seen.
The Meydan Racecourse in Dubai holds regular events. The ancient art of falconry is still practised across the Peninsula. It dates back at least to the 7th century BC, when tradition has it that a Persian ruler caught a falcon to learn from its speed, tactics and focus. Modern owners continue to admire their birds and lavish love and respect upon them. Many raptors are bred for falconry on the Asir escarpment in Saudi Arabia, but the easiest place to see a peregrine up close is in the Falcon Souq in Doha.
The magical spectacle of birds being flown can be seen in Dubai and at most festivals, such as the Jenadriyah National Festival in Riyadh. A curiosity of the east coast of Arabia, bull-butting is the pitching of one Brahman bull against another in a contest of strength.
Much effort is taken to ensure the animals are not harmed, but occasional injuries occur to ears or necks. Bull-butting takes place in a dusty arena where the animals are nudged into a head-down position, and push and shove from one side of the arena to the other. The bulls are precious to their owners and much beloved so the minute the going gets tough, thankfully the tough get going.
A range of modern sports are popular in the region, including rally driving, quad biking, volleyball and even ice skating. At Ski Dubai there are even five ski runs with real snow. You can't possibly talk about sports in the area, however, and not mention football.
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At 4pm on a Friday, the men of just about every village in Arabia trickle onto the local waste ground to play, all hopeful of joining international European clubs one day like some of their compatriots. Football is usually a shoeless business, on a desert pitch, played in wizza cotton underskirt and nylon strip, but it is taken just as seriously as if it were played in a multi-million-dollar stadium…which of course at least one Gulf country owns in another part of the world! For the nomadic Bedouin, life is lived on the move. Permanence, beyond a month or two, is virtually unknown — even the footsteps that mark their passing shift with the sands.
The artistic expression of their culture has evolved to be similarly portable — weaving that can be rolled up and stowed on a camel, beadwork that can be tucked in a pocket, stories unfurled around the campfire. Bedouin tales, with their endless digressions, allegories and parables, are used to clarify a situation, to offer tactful advice to a friend, or to alert someone diplomatically to trouble or wrongdoing.
More often, they lampoon corrupt leaders and offer a satirical commentary on current affairs, particularly those of the mistrusted 'townspeople'. They can be very funny, highly bawdy and verging on the libellous, depending on the persuasions of the teller. There is said to be a tale for every situation. Travellers may be surprised at how often the Bedouin resort to proverbs, maxims or stories during the course of normal conversation. It is said that the first proverb of all is: 'While a man may tell fibs, he may never tell false proverbs'! Sadly, the modern world has encroached on storytelling.
The advent of TV and other forms of entertainment has led some to fear that this valuable oral patrimony is in danger of disappearing forever, but look at any national-day gathering and it's clear that it still has the power to touch Arab hearts.
Re: Taweez (Amulets) in light of the Quran and Sunnah
Traditionally, camels were raced by child jockeys, who were often 'bought' from impoverished families in Pakistan and Bangladesh, trained in miserable conditions, kept deliberately underweight and then exposed to the dangers of regular racing. The plight of these young boys attracted international condemnation, with the result that the practice has now died out. In finding something similarly lightweight to replace child jockeys, inventors came up with the 'robo-rider'. These robotic jockeys are remote controlled, look vaguely humanoid and can crack an electronic whip.
Until very recently there was no time in the lives of the indigenous population, beyond the demands of work and family, to devote to other pursuits. With the wealth that oil brought to the region, however, the concept of leisure has become a reality. Alas, it's fair to say that the infrastructure to support the new-found leisure time has been slow to catch up.
Take the seaside as an example. Two decades ago the coast was considered a place of work for fishermen; now it is teeming with walkers and joggers, swimmers and footballers, but still few facilities exist to cater for these activities. This is beginning to change, however, and most capital cities now sport a corniche — a road with a wide footpath running along the coast, giving access to sandy beaches, cafes, water sports and toilets. For the visitor, one of the best ways to watch each nation at play is to walk or cycle along these attractive thoroughfares.
Sit nearby long enough and you're bound to be seconded to the local volleyball team. It's worth buying just to see how wisdom is universal — not to mention the thoroughly enjoyable illustrations.
The Art of Cowrie Shell Divination
They are told, night by night, by the beautiful, beguiling narrator, Sheherazade, to save herself from beheading by a vengeful king. In the souqs of eastern Arabia, silver jewellery was often sold according to weight, measured in tolahs Tolahs are sometimes called thallers after the Maria Theresa dollar, an 18th-century Austrian coin used in much of Arabia's currency in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Bedouin are known for their mischievous sense of humour, which they list — alongside courage, alertness and religious faith — as one of the four secrets of life, encouraging tolerance and humility. Betting is against Islamic principles, but at camel races, vast sums of money change hands in the form of prize money, sponsorship and ownership.
During the flying season October to February , 10, birds are tended at Doha's Falcon Hospital, a measure of how popular the sport remains. On the Arabian Peninsula, as distinct from other countries with mainly Muslim populations, such as Turkey, there's little distinction between politics, culture and religion: each flows seamlessly through the other. Recognising the religious integrity of Peninsula people makes sense of certain customs and manners. In turn it guides the traveller in appropriate conduct and minimises the chance of giving offence, whatever one's own beliefs.
Muhammad receives his first revelation. Considered by Muslims as the word of God, the revelations gathered in the Quran lay the foundations of a new, monotheistic religion. Muhammad and his followers flee Mecca for Medina, marking the beginning of the first Islamic state. The new religion spreads across the Peninsula. Muhammad dies. The Muslim capital moves to Damascus. Mecca and Medina grow as the spiritual homes of Islam.
Ali Bin Abi Taleb, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, becomes caliph as the fourth of Muhammad's successors. His followers are known as Shiites 'partisans' of Ali. Ali is assassinated by troops loyal to a distant relative of Muhammad. From this point on, the Muslim community separates into two competing factions, Sunnis and Shiites. Ali's son Hussein is murdered at Karbala in today's southern Iraq , an event that further widens the gap between the two sects. Today, only Bahrain has a Shiite majority among Peninsula nations. You don't have to stay on the Arabian Peninsula for long to notice the presence of a 'third party' in all human interaction.
Every official occasion begins with a reading from the Holy Quran. A task at work begins with an entreaty for God's help. The words alhamdulillah thanks be to God frequently lace sentences in which good things are related. Equally, the words inshallah God willing mark all sentences that anticipate the future. The concept of mashallah, said when giving a compliment or celebrating good news, is a reminder that all good things extend from the will of God. These common expressions, ubiquitous throughout the region, are not merely linguistic decoration. They evidence a deep connection between society and faith, a shared lexicon of social experience that extends beyond the common language.
In other words, for most Muslims on the Peninsula, Islam is not just a religion, it's a way of life. It suggests what an Arab should wear and what an Arab should eat. It directs how income should be spent, who should inherit and by what amount. It guides behaviour and social intercourse and defines punishment for transgression. The Peninsula's social cohesion, built on the Islamic faith, stems not just from the religion itself but from the particular sect of Islam followed by most Peninsula Arabs.
Most Arab people across the region are Sunnis, with only Bahrain encompassing a majority Shiite population. Islam split into the two main sects shortly after its foundation in the early 7th century. The division was based not so much on theological interpretation, but on historical events. When Prophet Muhammad died in , he left no instructions as to who should be his successor, or the manner in which future Islamic leaders known as caliphs should be chosen. The community initially chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's closest companion and father-in-law, as the new leader of the Muslim faith, but not everyone agreed with this approach, preferring the claim of Ali Bin Abi Taleb, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law.
Ali's supporters became known as Shiites 'partisans' of Ali. Ali eventually became the fourth of Muhammad's successors but was assassinated after five years as caliph. From that point the Muslim community separated into two competing factions, the Sunnis and the Shiites, who believed that only a descendant of Muhammad should lead the Muslims. As with any religion approaching one billion adherents, Islam has produced many sects within the traditional Sunni—Shiite division.
The two most important Sunni sects in the Gulf States are the Wahhabis, whose austere doctrines are the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and the Ibadis, who also espouse a strict interpretation of Islam and are the dominant sect in Oman. With its emphasis on direct relationship with God, Islam historically appealed to the scattered people of the Peninsula, who were given access to a rich spiritual life without having to submit to incomprehensible rituals administered by hierarchical intermediaries.
Believers needed only to observe the transportable Five Pillars of Islam in order to fulfil their religious duty. In a region where almost the entire population espouses a single religion, there is a tangible sense of shahada, or the profession of faith. In many secular countries the declaration 'There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet' represents a private or even internalised act, but in Arabia it is a lived daily experience that is knitted into the fabric of society.
No one can miss salat, or the five-times-daily call to prayer.
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It is an audible part of the Arabian soundscape, hovering above the noise of daily lives, even in the Gulf cities where one eye is kept on Mammon. Whole communities across the Peninsula stop work or study at these times or pause by the side of the road with an unfurled prayer mat facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia and let their prayers stream across the desert wind.
On the Peninsula the duty of alms giving, where Muslims must give a portion of their salaries to those in greater need, is carried out through formal schemes. One-fortieth of each individual's annual income is deducted for this purpose. Perhaps it is because of the proximity to the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace, perhaps it is because of the shared experience of hardship in the heat of a desert climate, but Ramadan has a particular resonance across the Peninsula.
This holy month, with its dawn-to-dusk fasting, marking the time when Muhammad received his first revelation in AD , isn't a lifestyle choice: for most people across the region it is a fervent act of communal worship, as evidenced by joyous iftar fast-breaking suppers in tents across the region. Although many Peninsula people have a greater opportunity to visit Mecca at other times of the year in a journey known as umrah, the 'lesser pilgrimage' or 'visitation' , the undertaking of a 'true' hajj , performed during a few specific days of the Muslim year, is considered a crowning achievement.
During the eid holiday that follows hajj, towns across the Arabian Peninsula come alive with convoys of pilgrims, their car horns hooting, cheered on by those welcoming the hajjis' return. Of course, hajj is richly rewarded: all past sins are forgiven and the addition of Al Haj a to a pilgrim's name evokes much respect across Peninsula communities. For many Muslims the Quran, believed to be the literal word of God, is not just the principal source of doctrine in Islam, but also a source of spiritual rapture in its own right.
It is recited often with emotional elation, as a blessing to the reciter and the listener. For Arabs on the Peninsula, there is the added connection that the 'sacred' language of the holy book is their mother tongue. Arabic, with its unique rhythms, gives the recitation a sacramental quality that eludes translation, and many Muslims around the world still learn large portions of the Quran in its original form fus-ha, or formal Arabic to feel closer to the words of Allah.
Those who can recite the Quran well are highly respected across the region, and many formal occasions, including conferences, government meetings and graduations, commence with a reading from the Holy Quran. The Arabian Peninsula has a reputation, not wholly deserved, for extreme forms of punishment meted out to transgressors in the strict interpretation of Sharia law: amputation of limbs for repeat-offending thieves, flogging of those caught committing adultery, public beheading for murderers. In fact, these punishments are associated mostly with the austere Hanbali school of jurisprudence practised in Saudi Arabia and are intended as a deterrent first and foremost.
As such, they are only occasionally enforced. Across all Peninsula countries, Sharia is quite specific in areas of inheritance law and the punishments for certain offences, but in many other cases it provides only guidelines. In Arabia most Arabs are inclined to associate the word 'jihad' with its literal meaning of 'striving' or 'struggle'.
Far from 'holy war', it more often means 'striving in the way of the faith' — struggling against one's own bad intentions, or rooting out evil, indecency or oppression in society. Islam dictates that this struggle should occur not through anger and aggression but through peaceful, just means so that wisdom prevails. If the local papers are anything to go by, the rise of militancy in neighbouring countries is viewed mostly with fear and consternation. Much has been gained in terms of peace and prosperity over the past 50 years with the exception of Yemen , and the common sentiment expressed on social media within the region shows a fear of losing these gains through sectarian violence fuelled by religious intolerance.
Modern life requires daily compromises with religion, but then it always has. As such, there's not much that separates a Peninsula life from any other life, except perhaps in the degrees of temptation and opportunity. But even that is changing as access to foreign cultures becomes more prevalent in the region.
Except in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, alcohol is widely available and has become a source of curiosity and experimentation for many youngsters and a way of life for some Arabs who have studied and worked abroad. Drugs, largely smuggled in from across the Gulf, have led to addiction together with the familiar misery, shame in the community and family disruption in a small but growing number of youths who seek to emulate the kind of rock-star lifestyles they see celebrated on satellite TV.
All of these temptations and opportunities are causing a new generation, educated to think and research the truth for themselves, to question the knowledge handed down from their elders. The uprisings of the Arab Spring of were partly symptomatic of the pull in two directions between a traditional life, governed by Islamic principles and concern for society, and the realities of a modern life, where the individual and his or her own personal needs and satisfactions take priority.
All the indigenous people of the Peninsula today are Muslim. One or two Muslim converts to Christianity wander in a state of miserable purgatory on the periphery of society, barred from all social interaction with family and friends by a decision that most Muslims would consider not just heretical but also a rejection of common sense, history and culture. This is not the case with expatriate Christians, whose religion is respected and provision for worship catered for in church services across the region.
There are also Hindu and Buddhist temples tucked away in small suburbs of the region's big cities and travelling missions visit expat camps in rural areas to bring comfort to those separated from the familiar props of their home communities. Small enclaves of Jewish people have lived on the Peninsula for centuries. Saudi Arabia, as keeper of Islam's holiest shrines, is the exception: no religious observance is formally permitted other than Islam.
This table shows the approximate distribution of Sunni and Shiite Muslims across the Arabian Peninsula. For updates of this information, consult www.
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After exchanging pleasantries with acquaintances on the Peninsula, the conversation inevitably tends towards three subjects from which many people around the world shy away: sex, politics and religion. The level of frankness involved in some of these discussions can come as a surprise. Forewarned is forearmed, however, and there's no better way of getting under the skin of a nation than talking about the things that matter most in life. While all three subjects may seem like potential minefields don't talk about sex with the opposite gender, especially if you're male; if you're talking politics, avoid saying 'you' when you mean 'your government' , religion is the one topic of conversation that takes a bit of practice.
For most Muslims, tolerating Christians, Jews both 'People of the Book' , Buddhists or Hindus is easy — knowing what to do with a heretic is the problem. Stating you don't believe in God is as good as saying you doubt the very foundation of a Muslim's life. So how do you say you're an atheist in Arabia without causing offence? Try saying 'I'm not religious'. This will likely lead to understanding nods and then, on subsequent meetings, a very earnest attempt at conversion.
Phrases such as 'You'll find God soon, God willing' should be seen as a measure of someone's like for you and not as a rejection of your 'position'. A reasonable response would be 'shukran ' 'thank you'. Muslims comprise There are large Shiite minorities, however, spread across the Middle East. Bahrain is notable for its Shiite majority. A scholar or judge learned in Sharia law has to determine the proper 'Islamic' position or approach to a problem using his own discretion. This partly explains the wide divergence in Muslim opinion on some issues — such as with regard to jihad today.
Spend time in Arabia after rain and it becomes immediately apparent that the Peninsula is far from a barren wasteland of undulating sands. On the contrary, the diverse desert landscapes support uniquely adapted plants and animals, particularly in the region's wadis valleys and oases. This extraordinary environment forms the backdrop for dramas of survival and endurance by the hardiest of inhabitants, and is a revelation and a joy to visitors.
The Arabian Peninsula is a treasure trove for geologists. Though not particularly rich in metals, minerals or gems except the copper that is found in northern Oman , the Peninsula reveals the Earth's earliest history, supporting theories of plate tectonics and continental drift.
Indeed, geologists believe the Peninsula originally formed part of the larger landmass of Africa. As Arabia slipped away from Africa, the Peninsula began to tilt, with the western side rising and the eastern edge dropping, a process that led to the formation of the Gulf. Extensive flooding millions of years ago led to the remains of marine life being deposited in layers of sediment across the tilted landmass, as indicated by the rich fossil remains found across Arabia.
When sufficient dead organic matter is laid down and trapped under the surface, where a lack of oxygen prevents it from decaying to water and carbon dioxide, the raw material of hydrocarbons is produced — the origin, in other words, of oil and gas.
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The conversion from dead organic matter to hydrocarbons is subject to many other conditions such as depth and temperature. Arabia's geology is uniquely supportive of these conditions, and 'nodding donkeys' drilling apparatus, capable of boring holes up to 5km deep can be seen throughout the interior. Governments across the region speculate endlessly on the quantity of reserves remaining.
Given that the economies of all the Peninsula countries rely to a lesser or greater extent on oil and gas, this is one issue that can't be left to inshallah God's will. As such, Peninsula countries are busy diversifying their economic interests in case their reserves run out sooner rather than later. Stand on top of Kuwait Towers and the eye roams unhindered along flat country. The low-lying coastal plains and salt flats stretch along the limp waters of the northern Gulf until the Mussandam Peninsula brings the plain to an abrupt close.
This is the environment of mudhoppers, wading birds and long stretches of dazzling-white sands. Much of the interior is flat too, but some major mountain ranges, such as the Hajar Mountains of Oman and the Asir Mountains of Saudi Arabia, bring an entirely different climate and way of life to the high ground.
There are no permanent river systems on the Peninsula. Water-laden clouds from the sea break across the mountains, causing rainfall to slide along wadis with dramatic speed. Smaller tributaries of water collect in the wadis from natural springs and create oases in the desert. On much of the Peninsula, the water table is close enough to the surface to hand dig a well, a fact not wasted on the Bedouin who, until very recently, survived on a system of wells and springs discovered or made by their ancestors.
Irrigation, in the form of elaborate ducts and pipes called aflaj in Oman , helps channel water through plantations, allowing more extensive farming in the region than might be supposed. The harsh lands of Arabia have for centuries attracted travellers, from the 14th-century Moroccan Ibn Battuta, to a host of Europeans from the 18th century onward. A great stretch of sand, welcoming locals, lots of activities, this place ticks all the boxes but where is it?
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