This attractive separately-issued map embraces all the Arabian Peninsula. It was published in 1977 by the Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography under the Council of Ministers of the USSR, the Kremlin’s official mapping agency. The text is entirely in Russian Cyrillic script, and the main map employs colour coding to denote elevation, while international boundaries, including those of an undefined nature, are delineated. All major cities and towns are labelled, as are all elements of transportation infrastructure, plus other interesting details, such as archaeological sites.
Interestingly, the work is augmented by two informative insets. In the upper-right corner is a population density map, showing that while the Arabian Peninsula had some populous urban areas, large sections of the region, such as the ‘Empty Quarter’, were completely devoid of humans.
The inset in the lower-left corner features a sophisticated economic map, which most importantly showcases the peninsula’s petroleum industry. Areas of oil and gas exploitation are marked, as are the locations of refineries and oil and gas pipelines (including the great Trans-Arabian Pipeline, which runs along the north of Saudi Arabia). Also noted are facilities for manufacturing of various kinds, electricity plants, and details with respect to the agrarian and fishery sectors.
The present map was issue by the Soviet government at a key juncture in the region’s political history, within the context of the ongoing Cold War. While Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were close allies and economic partners of the West (namely America and Britain), the Middle East was on the eve of an extremely tumultuous period. The KGB would prove eager to exploit the unstable and rapidly changing situation in its favour; the Soviet Union had long desired direct access to Gulf oil, as well as the region’s warm water ports. It was believed by many that gaining control over countries peripheral to the Arabian Peninsula would ‘shake up’ the state of play in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, perhaps opening them up to Soviet influence. For this reason, the present map wold have been of great interest to Russian readers.
To begin with, the hitherto pro-American Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution (1978-9). This severely weakened the West’s authority in the Middle East, although the advantages to the Soviets were yet unclear. The USSR backed the socialist South Yemen side during the brief and inconclusive Yemeni Civil War (February-March 1979), while Saudi Arabia and the USA backed North Yemen. While this conflict changed little on the ground, it was a clear reminder of the Soviet presence in the region. At the end of 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, in part to destabilize Iran, to the benefit the Iranian Communist (Tudeh) Party. However, this ended up bogging the Soviets down in an unwinnable eight-year-long guerrilla war, while the Tudeh Party was successfully supressed by the Islamist regime in 1983. When the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) broke out; the Soviets were initially neutral but by 1982 backed Saddam Hussein; however, the war proved costly, yet indecisive. All considered, the Soviets went to immense effort and expense to influence or control these events, most of which yielded little advantage to the Kremlin. The burden of these misadventures greatly contributed to the collapse of the USSR in 1991.