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Basement tectonics of Saudi Arabia
as related to oil field structures

by H. Stewart Edgell




All the oil fields of Saudi Arabia are of the structural type and they all lie in the northeastern part of the country, including the Saudi offshore portion of the Persian Gulf.

EDGELL, H.S. (1992) –  Basement tectonics of Saudi Arabia as related to oil field structures. In: M.J. Rickard et alii (eds.), Basement Tectonics 9, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, p. 169-193, 1 table, 13 figures.

with kind permission from Kluwer Academic Publishers © 1992



These oil field structures are mostly produced by extensional block faulting in the crystalline Precambrian basement along the predominantly N-S Arabian Trend which constitutes the 'old grain' of Arabia. This type of basement horst, which has been periodically reactivated, underlies the world's largest oil field, Ghawar, and other major oil fields, such as Khurais, Mazalij and Abu Jifan. The basement horst beneath Ghawar Anticline has been suggested by Aramco (1959), from a positive Bouguer gravity anomaly which practically mirrors the field, and more recently, in greater detail, by Barnes (1987).

All Saudi Arabian offshore oil fields, and some near coastal fields, such as Abu Hadriya, Abqaiq and Dammam, are also produced by basement faulting which has cut the saliferous, Upper Precambrian Hormuz Series, triggering deep-seated salt diapirism. Consequently, Saudi Arabian offshore and coastal fields are denoted by distinctive negative gravity anomalies. Some of these oil fields are circular, such as Dammam, Abu Hadriyah and Karan, whereas others are elongated, due to salt wall diapirism, as in the case of Khafji, Kurayn, Jana and Jurayd. The latter oil fields all follow a NE to NNE trend believed to be due to left-lateral strike-slip faulting in the basement, as seen in Kuh-e Namak on the Iranian side of the Gulf. One large offshore oil field at Manifa trends NW-SE, paralleling the Persian Gulf and is due to right-lateral strike-slip faulting in the basement along the well-known Erythraean Trend (von Wissman et alii 1942). An undeveloped offshore oil field at Hasbah trends E-W, due to basement faulting in this direction. Some major, elongated offshore oil fields with negative gravity anomalies trend almost N-S along the Arabian Trend, including Berri and Qatif, as well as the nearby Bahrain and Dukhan fields. All the known oil fields of Saudi Arabia and its offshore are thus related to four major directions of basement faulting, namely N-S, NE-SW, NW-SE and E-W. The major fault trend is the N-S Arabian Trend, which has produced repeated basement horsts and grabens due to extensional tectonics. In the Saudi offshore portion of the Persian Gulf, NE-SW, left-lateral strike-slip faulting of the basement is also important in forming oil-field structures.



A major difference between Saudi Arabian onshore and offshore oil fields is that the former show strong positive gravity anomalies due to block uplift of basement, whereas the latter have pronounced negative anomalies due to deep-seated salt diapirism induced by faulting in the crystalline basement.



Detailed analysis of the potential field of gravity in the oil-field areas of Saudi Arabia, both offshore and onshore, substantiates these major basement-fault directions and shows the marked coincidence of oil-field outlines with large basement-induced gravity anomalies. The regmatic shear pattern of basement faulting is also clearly shown by mapping the second derivative of the potential field of gravity.




Anticlinal or domal structures in the sedimentary sequence of the northeastern Arabian Platform and its offshore extension, contain all the known oil and gas fields of Saudi Arabia (ministry of Petroleum 1984). These currently comprise some fifty six oil fields and four gas fields (Fig. 1), all of which owe their origin to deep-seated tectonic movements in the Precambrian crystalline basement (Edgel 1987). The thickness of the sedimentary sequence varies from 4,500m to 13,700m by gradual thickening towards the northeast.


Figure 1. Oil and Gas Fields of Saudi Arabia.

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Underlying these sediments in most of onshore northeastern Saudi Arabia, there is a faulted Precambrian basement, with alternating horsts and grabens directed along the N-S Arabian Trend. This is the 'old grain' of the Arabian Peninsula formed by repeated, E-W, extensional tectonism (Henson 1951). As a result, almost all the onshore oil fields of northeastern Saudi Arabia exhibit distinctive positive gravity anomalies due to the presence of denser uplifted basement beneath them. As in the case of Ghawar, the world's largest oil field, the presence of an underlying, N-S directed, horst block was first suggested by Aramco (1959). Further refined computerized study of the potential field of gravity, including running difference gravity (Barnes 1987), shows a gravity high almost exactly underlying Ghawar Oil Field. Study of the second derivative of the potential field of gravity shows the location at depth of basement faults bordering this underlying horst, as well as some oblique, cross-cutting faults, which are apparently left-lateral, strike-slip faults in the basement. Many other oil fields to the west and south of Ghawar also show a striking coincidence of positive gravity anomalies with their known extent, as in the cases of Mazalij, Abu Jifan, Tinat, Khurais, Bakr and Faridah (Barnes 1987). They are all underlain by uplifted basement blocks and their crestal stratigraphic sequences indicate repeated rejuvenation of their underlying basement uplifts.



In offshore northeastern Saudi Arabia and adjacent coastal areas, more than 20 oil fields occur, all marked by distinctive negative gravity anomalies (Edgell 1987). This is because basement faulting has also penetrated the Upper Precambrian halite beds of the Hormuz Series, thus triggering deep-seated salt diapirism and producing domal oil-field structures. Some of these oil fields, such as Karan, Abu Sa'afah, Abu Hadriyah and Dammam, have the typical circular shape of diapiric oil structures. Most offshore oil-field structures are elongated, doubly plunging anticlines, such as Safaniyah, Khafji, Kurayn, Jana and Jurayd. They are elongated along a general NE to NNE direction (Aualitic Trend of von Wissmann et alii 1942) and are due to left-lateral, strike-slip faulting in the basement, which has also penetrated the salt beds of the Hormuz Series causing diapiric salt-wall structures at depth (Player 1969), which have uplifted the overlying strata in elongated anticlines.



Uplift of an elongated oil-field structure, in the Manifa Field, parallels the coast of northeastern Saudi Arabia and also exhibits a strong negative gravity anomaly. It is interpreted as originating from basement faulting along a NW trend (the Erythraean Trend of von Wissmann et alii, 1942) which has also cut the Upper Precambrian salt beds of the Hormuz Series, allowing the lighter salt to move upwards as a broad salt wall, thus pushing up overlying Phanerozoic strata into a NW-SE elongated, doubly plunging, anticline. Only one, undeveloped, oil field at Hasbah/Farsi (Mina et alii 1967), near the Saudi/Iranian offshore border, is clearly developed along an E-W structural alignment (i.e. the Tethyan Trend, Henson 1951). This is the Hasbah structure, which is also an elongated doubly plunging anticline with a negative gravity anomaly (Player 1969), due to basement faulting and rupture of the Hormuz Series salt beds, causing deep-seated diapirism and consequent structural growth. A close examination of the gravity pattern, especially of the second derivative of the potential field of gravity, shows quite a number of basement elements aligned along the Tethyan Trend.



Four trends of basement faulting control the oil fields of Saudi Arabia (Henson 1951), most prominently the N-S Arabian Trend, as well as the N-E Aualitic Trend and the N-W Erythraean Trend in offshore diapiric fields. Least conspicuous is the E-W Tethyan Trend.



Geological Background

The oil-field areas of Saudi Arabia are all located in the northeast part of the Kingdom, both onshore and offshore, in a tectonostratigraphic province referred to as the Arabian Platform, or Unstable Shelf (Henson 1951). It is composed of a sedimentary sequence, which is virtually subhorizontal, except for a few basement-induced and diapiric folds (Greig 1958), comprising the Arabian Platform, and thickening northeast from 4,500m to 13,700m. To the southwest of the Arabian Platform, the NE-dipping, scarp-forming, Mesozoic and Paleozoic strata form the Interior Homocline, which rests nonconformably on the northeast edge of the Arabian Shield. Crystalline Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks, similar to those exposed in the Arabian Shield, underlie both the Interior Homocline and the Arabian Platform, where a few deep wells have cored crystalline basement. 



Figure 2. Plate Tectonic Setting of Arabia.

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On the northeast side of the Persian Gulf, and especially in southern Iran and northeast Iraq, the Zagros Fold Belt (Falcon 1967, 1969), with row upon row of NE-SE trending anticlines forms a separate tectonostratigraphic province, to the northeast of the Arabian Platform. The Main Zagros Reverse Fault (Berberian 1976, 1981), sometimes called the Zagros Thrust, limits the Zagros Fold Belt along its northeast side and separates it from the Iranian Plate.



All these tectonic units (Fig. 2), from the opening Red Sea, across the Arabian Shield to the Interior Homocline, Arabian Platform, Zagros Fold Belt, Zagros Thrust, Iranian Plate, Convergence Zone, and Eurasian Plate, form part of a dynamic, plate tectonic system (Jackson et alii 1981). The separation of the Arabian Plate from Africa along the Red Sea, which is widening at 1.2 cm per year in a NNE direction (NASA personal communication), has propelled the Arabian Plate towards Iran, buckling, folding and faulting the Zagros Ranges until their sediments are subducted beneath the Iranian Plate along the Main Zagros Reverse Fault. There is every evidence that the Arabian Plate extends beneath southern Iran, as pointed out by Falcon (1967), Morris (1977) and Jackson et alii (1981).



Within the Arabian Platform (Fig. 3) there are very few fold structures paralleling the Zagros Fold Belt, although both structural zones are subparallel and elongated in a NW-SE direction. The few weak folds of the Iranides are seen in an indistinct ridge, joining Dammam-Bahrain and northern Qatar, and in some NW-SE folds in the Gulf of Bahrain and at Al 'Uqayr (Kassler 1973). Another NW-SE trending anticlinal fold along the northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia forms the Manifa Oil Field. However, the major fold structures in the Arabian Platform trend almost N-S along the Arabian Trend and are due to extensional faulting of the crystalline Precambrian basement, giving rise to an alternating system of horsts and grabens (Edgell 1987), which have pushed up overlying Phanerozoic strata. This has produced major elongated, doubly plunging, anticlinal oil fields, such as Ghawar (140 km long), Khurais Oil Field (75 km long), Qatif Oil Field (55 km long), and numerous other, N-S directed, oil fields of basement origin, such as Abu Jifan, Mazalij, Harmaliyah, Bakr, Juraybi'at, Wari'ah, El Haba, Faridah, Rimthan, Dibdibah, and Jaham. The recently discovered Permo-Carboniferous sand-reservoir fields at Al Hawtah, Dilam, Hilwah, Ragibh and Nu'ayyim also lie along the Arabian Trend, and form an exception in that they lie within the Interior Homocline, where Jurassic and Cretaceous strata are exposed. Outcrops in the Arabian Platform, on the other hand, are predominantly Upper Tertiary (Neogene) with minor areas of Lower Tertiary strata (U.S. Geological Survey 1963). 



Figure 3. Major Tectonic Zones of Arabia (modified from Henson 1951).

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In coastal parts of northeastern Saudi Arabia, and in the Saudi offshore portion of the Gulf, different structural trends and structural types exist, but are all basement related. A NE to NNE trend is clearly seen in major offshore oil field structures, such as Safaniya, Khafji, Marjan, Kurayn, Jana and Jurayd, as well as onshore in oil fields, such as Abqaiq and Khursaniyah. These fields are all related to faulting of the basement along a NE trend as seen in Kuh-e Namak (Talbot and Jarvis 1984). The underlying basement faults are considered to be left-lateral, strike-slip faults, which have also cut the thick saliferous Precambrian Hormuz Series providing release for the lighter halite. As a consequence, deep-seated diapirism of the salt-wall type has pushed up overlying Phanerozoic strata producing elongated doubly plunging anticlines in the Saudi offshore and coast and forming major oil fields. In some cases, intersecting NE and NW basement faults have provided a focal point for salt diapirism and typical circular salt domes have been formed, as at Abu Hadriyah, Abu Sa'afah, Karan and Dammam.



Salt diapirism is also associated with some of the trends of oil-field structures, where deep-seated diapirism has been caused by basement faults. These include the old N-S Arabian Trend, as seen in the Berri Oil Field, the NW-SE Erythraen Trend as seen in the Manifa Oil Field, and the E W Tethyan Trend as seen in the undeveloped Hasbah Oil Field.



Surface strata are mainly subhorizontal in the oil-field areas of northeastern Saudi Arabia, with only very gentle dips (less than 1°) on the flanks of anticlines. However, structural closure increases with depth in the Saudi oil field anticlines by two methods. Firstly, repeated rejuvenation of the major onshore fields has occurred by repeated intervals of basement uplift. These fields are marked by thinning, or truncation, over the fold axis, accompanied by a number of unconformities (Edgell 1987). The oil-field structures of coastal and offshore Saudi Arabia represent a second type and exhibit gradual growth as the deep-seated salt diapirs have slowly pushed up overlying strata. These diapiric structures are usually due to salt growth from Mid-Cretaceous to Recent and, in some cases, have started growth as far back as Late Jurassic. They originate from basement faults cutting the salt beds of the Hormuz Series, which are up to 2 km thick in the Gulf (Rönnlund and Koyi 1988; Player 1969). Intersecting basement faults may produce typical, circular, salt-dome structures, whereas single faults allow salt-wall diapirism to dome up more elongated structures. In general, oil fields with a deep-seated salt diapiric origin are either domes, such as Dammam, Abu Hadriyah, and Khursaniyah, or brachyanticlines, such as Berri, Manifa, Jana and Kurayn.



Nature of Basement in Northeastern Saudi Arabia

The evidence for the type of rocks forming the Precambrian basement under the sedimentary cover in the oil-field areas of northeastern Saudi Arabia is only direct in a few instances. This applies in the case of some deep wells which have been drilled to basement as at Jaham No.2, El Haba No.2, Haradh No.51, Abu Jifan No.23, Al Hawtah No.1, Ain Dar No.196 and Qirdi No.5. All these wells have encountered crystalline igneous or metamorphic rocks, similar to those found in the Arabian Shield.

As can be extrapolated, these Upper Precambrian crystalline rocks dip beneath the sediments of the Interior Homocline and the Arabian Platform, so that they are found at depths of from 4,500 m to 13,700 m in the Saudi oil-field areas.



Much of the evidence regarding depth to basement has been deduced from geophysical surveys, primarily gravity and magnetic investigations. In the case of the newly discovered oil fields at Al Hawtah, Dilam, Raghib and Nu'ayyim, there is also direct seismic evidence of the depth to basement.



Sedimentary Cover

The sedimentary succession in the oil-fields area of northeastern Saudi Arabia can be generally described as a Lower Paleozoic clastic supergroup, unconformably overlain by a Permian to Lower Tertiary carbonate supergroup, which is in turn disconformably overlain by an Upper Tertiary (Neogene) clastic group.

In descending stratigraphic sequence, the typical units of sedimentary cover overlying the Precambrian crystalline basement in Saudi oil-field areas (Powers et alii 1966; Powers 1968) are as shown in Table 1.



Table 1. Stratigraphic Succession of the Saudi Arabian Oil Fields Areas.

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These stratigraphic units comprise the normal stratigraphic sequence in most of the oil-field areas of Saudi Arabia. However, there are lateral variations in lithology and a considerable thickening of most of these units towards the northeast. In addition, the Upper Proterozoic salt beds of the Hormuz Series are found in coastal northeastern Saudi Arabia (Greig 1958) and in the Saudi Arabian offshore (Fig. 4) but do not occur in major onshore fields, such as Ghawar and Khurais, where the Saq Sandstone rests directly on Precambrian crystalline basement.



Figure 4. Geological Cross Section of the Persian Gulf Basin with Halokinetic Proterozoic Hormuz Series.

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A striking feature of sedimentation in the Arabian Platform is the very extensive lateral persistence of many formations over distances of up to several thousand kilometres. The lateral continuity of these blanket lithosomes, such as the Anima, Wasia, Arab and Khuff formations (Edgell 1977, 1987), is noticeable in a NW-SE direction paralleling the Gulf, but across the Gulf, as seen in Iran, almost ail these units are replaced by different lithostratigraphic units (James and Wynd 1965). Many unconformities, or disconformities, occur within the stratigraphic succession of the Saudi oil-fields areas. One of the most pronounced of these is the sub-Unayzah (or sub-Haushi) unconformity (Powers et alii 1966; Al-Laboun 1988), which is of regional extent, affecting not only the Arabian Platform but also the Mobile Belt of northeast Iraq and southern Iran. A second most significant unconformity, or nonconformity, exists between the crystalline Precambrian basement rocks and the overlying sedimentary sequence. There is evidence to suggest that the basement was already faulted along the Arabian Trend in the Late Precambrian, so that the Proterozoic Hormuz Series sediments were deposited in a series of N-S troughs, between uplifts or headlands. Repeated rejuvenation of these uplifts, or basement horsts, particularly along the N-S Arabian Trend, is reflected in the pattern of deposition throughout the Phanerozoic. It is seen in many formations, such as the Arab Formation, which has oolitic facies in the Arab C and D member over these highs (Steineke et alii 1958), and in the Rus Formation, which is a dolomite over basement highs and a thicker anhydrite-marl sequence in the intervening troughs. 



Structure of Basement in Saudi Oil-Field Areas

Most of the deductions concerning the structure of basement in the Saudi Arabian oil-field areas have been based on interpretations of gravity data (Aramco 1959; Barnes 1987). In areas near the Arabian Shield, as with the new oil fields at Al Hawtah, Dilam, Raghib and Nu'ayyim, the shallow basement can be interpreted by seismic profiles.



The dominant structure of crystalline Precambrian basement is a series of N-S trending basement horsts with intervening graben structures. These are due to E-W extensional tectonics and the pattern is so regular that Khatieb and Norman (1982) have suggested a series of basement-induced lineaments with a systematic spacing of about 40 km. It is improbable that basement faulting is so precisely regular, and many of the basement uplifts are not simple horsts but complex horst blocks with step faults on either side, as is the case with Ghawar. Similarly, the troughs in the basement are quite broad and also appear to be complex, as with the Central Basin to the west of Ghawar. These horst and graben structures do not trend exactly N-S but mainly in a N l7° E direction, which Henson (1951) noted as the main alignment of the Arabian Trend. The structural relief of basement horst blocks is interpreted as being up to 4.5 km. with regard to adjacent basement troughs. It is not implied that such horsts were originally so elevated, or were suddenly uplifted by such a magnitude. Instead, it is considered that repeated reactivation along the original faults bordering the basement horst blocks has accounted for most of the structural growth, as can indeed be demonstrated by thinning of overlying formations onto the axes of the uplifts (Sugden 1962) and by truncation of strata in their axial areas.



The most pronounced of these basement uplifts has produced the En Nala Axis (Steineke et alii 1958), extending 280 km from Haradh through the greater Ghawar Anticline to Fazran, Fadhili and near Khursaniyah. From west to east across the Arabian Platform, there is a succession of basement uplifts (Fig. 5) and intervening basins (Edgell 1987) including:
1) Hail-Rutbah Arch
2) Widyan Basin
3) Khufaisah-Mubayhis Uplift
4) Jaham-Ma'aqala-Faridah-Wariah Uplift
5) Dibdibah Trough
6) Burgan-Wafra-Juraybi'at-Khurais Uplift
7) Central Basin
8) En Nala Axis Uplift
9) Gulf of Salwa Depression
10) Qatar Arch
11) Duwayhin Depression
12) Matti Uplift
13) Nahaidin Anticlinal Uplift
14) Mushash Anticlinal Uplift
15) Bu Hasa-Kidan Anticlinal Trend



The predominance of SW trending, left-lateral basement shears, already wall documented in southern Iran (Fürst 1970), has given rise to a number of NE trending anticlinal structures in the Saudi Arabian offshore and the adjacent coastal areas. Such structures have distinct negative gravity anomalies caused by the basement faults, cutting through the salt beds of the Proterozoic Hormuz Series and triggering salt diapirism, which has updomed overlying strata (Player 1969). Some examples of oil-field structures along this NE-SW basement shear trend are Abqaiq, Kurayan, Jana, Jurayd, Safaniya and Khafji. This trend has been interpreted by Hancock and Bevan (1987) as due to extension, which does not fit the regional tectonic pattern.



Basement faulting parallel to the shoreline of northeastern Saudi Arabia has also transacted the Hormuz Salt Series causing diapiric updoming, as in the Manifa and Abu Hadriyah oil fields. It is thought that basement faults along this NW trend arc right-lateral, strike-slip faults, due to offsetting of the median gravity low in the Safaniya Anticline, and also parallel to a right-lateral component on the Main Zagros Reverse Fault (Berberian 1976, 1981). An E-W basement fault trend is less clearly seen in the oil fields of offshore Saudi Arabia and appears as alignments of gravity highs along this direction, both onshore and offshore. Only one undeveloped oil field, at Hasbah, shows this E-W Tethyan Trend, and is attributed to basement faulting cutting the Hormuz Series salt beds and causing salt wall diapirism, which has domed up overlying strata forming an elongated anticline. This E-W basement fault is clearly seen in the Central Arabian Graben System (Al-Kadhi and Hancock 1980; Hancock and Al-Kadhi 1985; Hancock and Bevan 1987), which continues eastward to truncate the southern end of the En Nala Anticlinal Axis (Fig. 11).



Figure 5. Late Precambrian Salt Basins of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.

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Intersection of basement faults in offshore and coastal northeastern Saudi Arabia has permitted salt diapirism from the Hormuz Series along pipe-like pathways causing circular, salt-dome oil fields, as seen at Abu Sa'afah, Abu Hadriyah, Dammam and Karan. In the case of the Abu Sa'afah Oil Field, the second derivative of the potential field of gravity indicates deep basement faults intersecting along NW-SE and N-S directions. The Dammam Dome contains a typical keystone graben (Fayyad 1966) trending NW and also lies on a basement fault trend. 



Figure 6. Continuous Structural Growth of the Jawb Anticline from Late Jurassic to Tertiary due to Halokinesis (modified from Benzakour 1986).

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An indirect method of interpreting deep salt diapirism in the formation of oil-field anticlines has been proven by Sugden (1962) for the Dukhan Oil Field by comparing thicknesses of stratal units in flank and crest wells. This shows a steady growth of the Dukhan Anticline with time from Mid Cretaceous to Miocene, which is consistent with slow growth of a basement-induced salt-wall diapir and not with an irregular basement uplift. A similar steady growth curve (Fig. 6) has been shown for the Jawb Oil Field (Benzakour 1986), proving that it is deep-seated salt diapir induced by basement faulting along the Arabian Trend. Abu Hadriyah and Khursaniyah are known to show similar steady growth curves, as also Dukhan Oil Field (Sugden 1962).



As stated by North (1985) 'some of the great productive oil regions of the world are characterized by traps due either to basement horst-block uplift, halokinesis (deep-seated salt movement) or a combination of the two. In the salt basin of the Persian Gulf, the great domes of Burgan, Bahrain, and Dukhan form obvious surface features'. All these salt-dome oil fields lie in the Northern Gulf Salt Basin (Edgell 1987; Husseini 1989) of the Arabian Platform, adjacent to northeastern Saudi Arabia.



Geophysical Evidence of Basement Tectonics

Most of the data on geophysics of the basement underlying the Arabian Platform in the Saudi oil-field areas is confidential and restricted by major oil companies, such as Saudi Aramco and the Arabian Oil Company.



A small amount of information has been published, such as on Ghawar (Aramco 1959), and more recently on the onshore northeastern Saudi Arabian oil-field areas by Barnes (1987). A report by Player (1969) contains some generalized gravity information on the Persian Gulf, as also in Kassler (1973). In addition, limited information has been released in open meetings, such as the recent SPE-Dhahran Geological Society Meeting (26th-27th May 1990). Geophysical evidence of basement tectonics in the Saudi Arabian oil-fields areas is from seismic, magnetic or gravity methods.




Until recently, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to carry seismic reflection right through the overlying strata to detect basement structure. Saudi Aramco have now improved seismic shooting and recording techniques, as well as processing, so that they can now obtain data as deep as six seconds two way return. In a NNW-SSE seismic profile across the western Rub' al Khali from Ash Shuqqan to 'Uruq al Mawarid, Dyer et alii (1990) have shown the deep, extensional block faulting of Precambrian, crystalline basement, underlying the Phanerozoic strata in this area. Similar basement has been shown in the eastern Rub' al Khali (Aigner 1989; Aley and Nash 1985). These block faults trend NNE and have been repeatedly reactivated, so that most of them extend through the overlying Lower Paleozoic, while a few even cut Lower Cretaceous strata. This extensional block faulting, with grabens flanked by step-faulted horsts, seems typical of the basement in Saudi Arabia and is seen again in the Dilam, Al Hawtah, Raghib, and Nu'ayyim oil fields area, where these fields are basically underlain by sub-'Unayzah Unconformity block uplifts along the N-S Arabian Trend. Faults bordering these block uplifts are clearly defined by seismic profiles, together with rollover to the west in the overlying Permo-Carboniferous strata, induced by further rejuvenation of block uplift.




Data from airborne magnetometer traverses now covers almost ail of Saudi Arabia. In the oil-fields areas of the Kingdom, such data shows the predominant N-S Arabian Trend in the Ghawar, Mazalij and Abu Jifan fields. It also shows the basement highs which underlie the newly discovered fields at Ai Hawtah, Dilam, Hilwah, Raghib and Nu'ayyim. The map of aeromagnetic anomalies for northeastern Saudi Arabia is most useful in indicating variations in the magnetic attraction of basement due to different lithological types in these crystalline Precambrian rocks. In particular, subcircular plutonic intrusions in the basement are distinct.



A broad, N trending belt of magnetic highs, about 100 km wide, lies between about longitude 45°E and longitude 46°30'E. It is considered by Stewart (1990) to lie part of a major Late Proterozoic island arc in the basement rocks and may represent the substratal continuation of the Al Amar-A1 'Idsas area, where ophiolites and ultrabasic rocks mark on old plate margin (Stacey and Hedge 1983, Sustras 1980, Davies 1984).



Figure 7. Bouguer Gravity Map of Ghawar Anticline and Comparison with Field Outline (after Aramco 1959).

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The most definitive evidence of the structure of basement in the Saudi Arabian oil-fields areas has been provided by detailed measurements of the potential field of gravity and the enhancement of this data into various types of map. The earliest of these maps, published by Aramco Staff (1959), was a Bouguer Gravity Map of the greater Ghawar Anticline contoured at 2 milligal intervals (Fig. 7). This map shows the outline of the field distinctly coinciding with a positive gravity anomaly, which is clearly comparable with a structure contour map on the top Arab-D Member for the same oil field. From this survey, it was deduced that the Ghawar oil Field was underlain by an upfaulted basement hock, or horst (Fig. 8), which has updomed overlying strata.



A considerably more detailed analysis of gravity data for onshore oil-field areas of northeastern Saudi Arabia has been presented by Barnes (1987), based on observations at one kilometre intervals, later resampled and interpolated into a grid spacing of 0.5 km. A Bouguer Gravity map prepared at 1 milligal intervals already shows the broad outlines of Hic Ghawar and Khurais oil fields (Fig. 9). Image enhancement processes that approximate the second derivative were used to reduce the dominant, northerly Arabian Trend and to show subtle cross trends. One of the most effective of these was the running difference method, in which the value of a grid point was compared with the weighted average for a square region of 11 x 11 grid points. Local gravity maxima thus appear as dark areas and the correlation with the known outline of Ghawar and Khurais oil field is striking (Fig. 10). In addition, many basement fault trends can lie deduced from the running difference map cither by optical filtering (Bronchi grating) or by performing Fourier filtering. Some of the major basement trends seen in this gravity map are N 5°E, N 20°E, N 70°E, N 25°W, and N 80°W. Of course, the N and NNE trends arc most striking, but the presence of basement faults along the other trends is clearly recognizable.



The running difference method and the second derivative of the potential field of gravity both produce maps which clearly define the structure of basement. Underlying most onshore Saudi oil fields there are distinct positive gravity anomalies which almost mirror the shape of these anticlinal structures. The reasons for these underlying positive gravity anomalies are basement horst uplifts which have been repeatedly reactivated. Onshore oil fields which exhibit underlying basement uplift include the giant Ghawar Field, as well as Khurais, Abu Jifan, Mazalij, Jurabiy'at, Jaham, El Haba, Wariah, Rimthan, Dibdibah, Bakr, Fazran and Harmaliyah.



Figure 8. Uplifted Basement Block Updoming Ghawar Anticline; Schematic Cross-Sectional Representation (after Aramco 1959).

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In the coastal area of northeastern Saudi Arabia and in the Saudi offshore, there are a number of circular oil-field structures and brachyanticlines (Fig. 1) which cannot be explained, except as salt domes induced by intersecting basement faults transecting the Hormuz Series salt beds and releasing diapiric salt. Greig (1958) realised that basement faults provided a mechanism for deep salt diapirism, as shown in his NE-SW structural section across the Persian Gulf (Fig. 4). The subcircular Dammam Dome is clearly shown as a salt dome, while its shape, and the NW-SE keystone graben across its center, are clear evidence that it is a salt dome (Fayyad 1966). It is also a distinct negative gravity anomaly, as is also shown in the nearby Bahrain Dome and Dukhan Anticline (Edgell, 1987).



Abu Hadriyah Oil Field, in coastal northeastern Saudi Arabia, also shows a very similar, subcircular shape to the Dammam Dome and is believed to be another diapiric structure induced by intersecting basement faulting which has allowed deep-seated upward movement of the lighter salt beds of the Upper Precambrian Hormuz Series. Khursaniyah and Fadhili oil fields are similarly domal and are difficult to explain by uplift of basement blocks. They are also considered to be due to deep-seated salt diapirism. Fuwaris and Wafra fields, in the Saudi-Kuwait Neutral Zone, also show a similar structure and are clearly salt structures, as is Burgan Oil Field (Fox 1956, North 1985).



In the Saudi offshore area of the Persian Gulf, there are a number of subcircular oil fields which almost certainly have a diapiric origin by upward movement of Hormuz Series halite, triggered by intersecting basement faults. Amongst these are Karan, Harqus, Lawhah, Abu Sa'afah, Ribyan and Maharah, as well as the undeveloped Arabiyah structure.



There are also a number of brachyanticlines in the offshore area with a slightly elongated form, similar to the Bahrain Dome. These are all thought to be due to halokinesis, probably as deep-seated salt-wall structures produced by basement faults. Offshore Saudi oil fields with this type of brachyanticlinal structure include Jana, Jurayd, Kurayn, Safaniya, Khafji, Marjan/Fereidoon (Iran), Manifa and Zuluf, as well as Berri with its bulbous north end, which is mostly offshore.



In contrast to the larger onshore oil fields of Saudi Arabia, those in the offshore area and near the coast are almost exclusively basement fault-induced, deep-seated, diapiric salt structures, and can be shown as gravity negative features by examining the gravity residuals after removing the regional gravity gradient. These fields all fall within the Northern Gulf Salt Basin (Edgell 1987; Husseini 1989). This northern Proterozoic salt basin of the Hormuz Series (Fig. 5) also extends onshore, especially in Kuwait, southernmost Iraq, coastal northwestern Saudi Arabia and extends regionally into southern Iran, between Kuh-e Namak and Bushire. It also connects through Fars Province (Iran) with the Southern Gulf Salt Basin, which covers southern Iran, the U.A.E. and most of the southern Persian Gulf as far east as the Strait of Hormuz. The persistence of old Precambrian basement uplifts, such as the Qatar Arch, the En Nala Axis and the Kuwait-Wafra Khurais Axis are often not realized. It can be shown that the Northern Gulf Salt Basin extended as an embayment in the Late Proterozoic to the south of Bahrain, along the trend of the present Gulf of Salwa, reaching as far as 23° N in the Jawb and Lughfah oil fields. A study of the Jawb brachyanticline has been made by Benzakour (1986) on the basis of detailed well-log correlation. Using the classical method of Sugden (1962) and comparing flank and crestal wells, Benzakour (1986) has demonstrated conclusively that the Jawb Structure exhibited continuous steady growth from Mid Cretaceous to the present (Fig. 6), as is characteristic of the Dukhan salt-wall diapiric structure (Player 1969).



Figure 9. Bouguer Gravity Map of Main Saudi Onshore Oil Fields (1 milligal intervals). Oil fields outlined by solid lines, modified from Barnes 1987.

 Click to enlarge!

Figure 10. Gravity Map-Running Difference (digitized) of Main Saudi Onshore Oil Fields. Oil fields outlined by solid lines, modified from Barnes 1987.

 Click to enlarge!

Oil-Field Structures and Basement Tectonics

Major Saudi Arabian oil-field structures, such as the Ghawar Anticline, show a very clear relationship to a complex underlying basement uplift along the N-S Arabian Trend. On running difference gravity maps (Barnes 1987), the edges of the Ghawar Anticline are quite sharply delineated. When maps of the second vertical derivative of the potential field of gravity are prepared on a larger scale for Ghawar, the two major basement faults on either side of the anticline are clearly shown. It is also possible to show that the divergence of the structure into the Shedgum and Am Dar axes at the north of the field is due to oblique basement cross-faulting along the NNE left-lateral, strike-slip trend (i.e. Aualitic Trend). In a similar way, the southern edge of the Ghawar Anticline is truncated south of Haradh by a major basement cross fault which trends NW-SE (i.e. the Erythraean Trend). Many other onshore Saudi oil fields are also underlain by fault- controlled basement uplifts, as can be seen on the running difference map of Barnes (1987). Offshore and coastal Saudi oil fields are primarily controlled by deep-seated diapirism from the Upper Proterozoic salt beds of the Hormuz Series, triggered by intersecting basement faults, as in Dammam and Abu Sa'afah, or by basement strike-slip faults, as in Kurayn, Jana and Jurayd. A provisional map of basement structure in the Saudi Arabian oil field areas, with emphasis on basement fault lines indicated by gravity and regional geology, is shown in Fig. 11.



Structure Forming Mechanisms Affecting Basement and Cover Rocks

After the formation of successive island arcs which accreted to form the Precambrian crystalline rocks of the Arabian Shield, E-W block faulting took place with the formation of the collapsed Central Arabian grabens accompanied by transcurrent faulting along the Najd Fault and the Wadi Fatima Fault. These are attributed by Davies (1984) to converging plate boundaries up to 700 Ma ago. Late Proterozoic uplift of the Arabian Shield led to extensional tectonics. This E-W extension, due to the initial updoming of the Arabo-Nubian Shield, stretched the brittle crystalline, Precambrian rocks, causing a series of subparallel N-S horsts and grabens and initiated the 'old grain of Arabia', now widely known as the Arabian Trend. Repeated, periodic uplifts of the Arabian Shield have continued this faulting and basement uplift until historic times, as shown by the N-S trending Late Tertiary-Quaternary lava fields (Harrat) and cinder cones along fractures in the shield, with eruption as recently as 1250 AD in the Harrat Rahat, south of Al Madinah. This uparching of the shield probably also led to the formation of less pronounced, E-W fault trends, which can be seen clearly on the running difference gravity map of northern onshore Saudi Arabia (Barnes 1987).



Figure 11. Basement Fault Structures in the Saudi Arabian Oil Fields and Adjacent Areas.

 Click to enlarge!

Oil fields outlined by solid lines. By the Late Proterozoic, about 600 Ma ago, N-S basement block uplifts with intervening grabens had already developed. These include such major features as the Qatar Arch, the En Nala Axis, the Burgan-Wafra-Khurais Axis and the Hail-Rutbah Arch. It is thought that evaporites, dolomites and shales of the Upper Proterozoic Hormuz Series were deposited in embayments along the troughs between these uplifted N-S basement blocks. In the Gulf of Salwa area, and onshore to at least 23°N latitude, it can be shown that Hormuz Series evaporites extend between the eastern edge of the En Nala Axis and the western side of the Qatar Arch, just east of Dukhan Anticline. It is thought that similar, though smaller, embayments of the Hormuz Series exist in the northern part of the Central Basin and in the Dibdibah Trough.



Figure 12. Computer Enhancement of Gravity Residuals in Azimuts from 15° to 75°, Indicating NE Basement Fault Trends (modified from Barnes 1987).

 Click to enlarge!

The significance of the extent of the Hormuz Series in the Northern Gulf Salt Basin is that it underlies all offshore Saudi Arabian oil fields, and many onshore ones. The Upper Proterozoic Hormuz Series consists largely of bedded halite and these salt beds are cut by many basement faults, triggering salt diapirism as the major structure-forming mechanism. 



During the Mesozoic, and especially in the Triassic and Late Cretaceous, and even probably during the Permian, the N-S uplifts and basins of the Arabian Trend were intermittently reactivated, as seen in the Ghawar Anticline, Dibdibah Trough and Qatar Arch. There is even evidence in the Ma'aqala Arch, and by truncation of the Lower Eocene, Rus Formation in Ghawar, that tectonism along the Arabian Trend extended to at least Mid Tertiary times. The prominence of the Hofuf Formation, and its topographic expression over the Ghawar Anticline, indicates that intermittent reactivation of these N-S trends probably continued until the end of the Pliocene. With the NNE drift of the Arabian Plate, and its separation from the African Plate from Oligocene onward (McKenzie 1972), a new set of stress conditions prevailed in basement beneath the Saudi oil fields. In this movement, the Arabian Plate was not only pushed north-northeast but was also stressed in a shear couple formed by the left-lateral, Aqaba- Dead Sea Fault (Freund et alii 1970) and the right-lateral Masirah Fault and Owen Fracture Zone (Jackson et alii 1981).



Figure 13. Evolution of the Stress Field in the Basement of the Saudi Arabian Oil Field Areas as indicated by the Stress Ellipse.

 Click to enlarge!

With the greatest principal-stress axis directed NNE towards the Zagros Ranges of southern Iran, two major vertical shears were produced at about N 36° E and N 20° W. The NW direction of vertical shear stress has produced right-lateral, strike-slip faults in the basement parallel to the shoreline of northeastern Saudi Arabia, and roughly parallel to the Najd Fault Zone (Agar 1985) and the axis of the Red Sea. This basement fault trend offsets the axial trace of the Safaniya Anticline in a right-lateral fashion, as shown from running difference gravity.



It is also thought to underlie the Manifa Oil Field, which is a broad, doubly plunging anticline with a NW-SE trend. The Manifa Anticline is also considered to be caused by basement wrench faulting, cutting the Hormuz Series salt beds and giving rise to deep-seated diapirism which has pushed up overlying strata. It is said that the Manifa structure lies near a regional gravity high, but when the regional gradient of gravity is removed it appears as a broad, negative gravity feature.



A whole series of left-lateral, strike-slip faults were also produced in the basement along the N 36° E trend (i.e. Aualitic Trend), as can be clearly seen in southern Iran, where rows of Hormuz Series salt-piercement structures are aligned along this trend (Fürst 1970). These transcurrent basement faults extend southwestward beneath the Persian Gulf and even under the main oil fields of Saudi Arabia, as shown by computer enhancement of gravity residuals in azimuths from 15° to 75° (Fig. 12) by Barnes (1987). In many of the Saudi offshore oil fields, this series of left-lateral basement faults is also evident and has extended up into the Hormuz Series salt beds, causing salt-wall type halokinesis and pushing up overlying strata to form doubly-plunging oil-field anticlines. Some of the Saudi oil fields which have this type of origin are Kurayan, Khafji, Jana, Jurayd and Safaniya. Most probably, the large Abqaiq Field is also of this type, and by removal of the outermost structure contours (Levorsen 1954) it can be seen that the majority of closure on the Arab-D (more than 1,000 ft) forms a distinctive, NE trending brachyanticline, which is difficult to explain except as a deep-seated salt diapir induced by this NE-SW left-lateral, basement wrench-fault trend.



An interpretation of the evolution of the stress field in northeastern Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf from Late Proterozoic to Late Cenozoic is shown in Fig. 13 by the changing stress ellipse.




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The author 

H. Stewart Edgell is a well known geologist and educator, for more than 40 years in the Middle East and North Africa. He is also an Editor of the GMEOP site.

© 1992 Kluwer Academic Publishers

© 1992 Kluwer Academic Publishers

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