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January 9, 2019

The diversity of modern Arabians

Filed under: arabia,Saudi Arabia — Razib Khan @ 9:01 pm
Genetic variation of Arabians

At the confluence of Europe, Asia, and Africa, it is no surprise that the Middle East is genetically diverse and varied, just as its complex history would suggest. With numerous ancient peoples, from Egyptians to Sumerians, and Arabs, Persians, and Turks today, along with minorities such as the Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds, the region is a palimpsest of cultures.

And so it is genetically due to its central position. The plot above shows results for people from different parts of the world. To the right are people from India. At the top of the plot are Africans from Kenya. In blue and green at the bottom, you see Greeks and Lebanese. Of note is that people from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates exhibit much more genetic variation in relatedness to Africans and Asians than either of these two groups.

A Dhow

Though the Arabian peninsula is one of the most arid inhabited regions of the earth, with no perennial rivers, it is surrounded by seas and oceans on three sides. Arab sailors pushed down the coast of East Africa, and on eastward toward the Spice Islands of modern Indonesia. The legends of Sinbad the Sailor are based on these voyages, with the Elephant Bird of Madagascar likely being remembered in the legends of the giant Roc.

Gene-flow from Africans to Saudis

The legacy of African slavery is felt the world over, and it has also left its imprint in Arabia, with large populations of African origin, identity and ancestry spread through the indigenous Arab population. If you model the genetic distances between the groups in the plot above, you see that an arrow representing gene-flow often points to one of the Arabian groups from Africans. The plot to the left illustrates that to a great extent the difference between Saudis and Lebanese is the ancestry Saudis have from Africa.

Further east, in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the influence of Persians and Indians makes itself felt. For thousands of years, there has been a connection between this part of Arabia and the lands which border the seas to the east. As early as 4,500 years ago, during the time of the Sumerians, Indians were traversing the islands and peninsulas of eastern Arabia, north to Mesopotamia. This is seen in the genetic analyses, as Qataris and Emiratis in particular, are shifted toward Indian populations.

Philip the Arab, Roman Emperor

History teaches us about the Arabs who left the peninsula to make their fortunes in the wider world, from the Roman Emperor Philip to the armies of Islam which swept from the Indus to the Atlantic. But the genetic evidence from the modern people of the Arabian peninsula shows that people also came and settled down from Africa and Asia. Today Mecca is one of the most diverse cities in the world due to its role in the Islamic religion, and believers from all over the world arrive every day. Historically a certain number would settle down, and intermarry with the local Hejazi people of western Arabia.

To the east, Persians, Indians, and Malays arrived and made their homes in the towns relying on trade. Over time they intermarried with the Arabs who shifted between the sea and the desert and laid the foundations of the cosmopolitan city-states which stud the modern Gulf.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The diversity of modern Arabians was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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