Weather & Climate in Saudi Arabia

The CIA World Factbook describes the climate of Saudi Arabia as "harsh, dry desert with great temperature extremes." That Saudi Arabia is a desert country is common knowledge — but what does "great temperature extremes" mean?

In early May (which, as you will recall, is still spring) 2012, my colleagues and I travelled to Riyadh and Jeddah, as part of our trip to visit our client hospitals in the Middle East. For most days of our visit, Riyadh, set in the desert center of the Kingdom, saw a high of 45C (113F), with very low humidity. Out in the desert, at an area of the Tuwaiq escarpment known as the Edge of the World, it was 48C (118F). Jeddah was a few degrees cooler, about 37C (99F), but also quite humid, thanks to its location along the Red Sea.

Or consider our previous trip in September 2009. Our first stop was Jeddah. As I recall from the morning television on the first full day of our visit, the forecast had us stewing in temperatures of about 38C (100F), with humidity in the high-80% range.

However, that same day, we were being taken on a road trip to Taif, located about 2.5 hours drive southeast of Jeddah.

Taif, located in the Sarawat Mountains at an elevation ranging from about 1,500 to 1,700 meters (4,920 to 5,600 feet) is considerably cooler and drier than Jeddah. When we visited, it was about 30C (86F) and 31% humidity, with a lovely cool breeze — and it had recently rained! If you want to illustrate the difference using the humidex (a similar calculation to the American heat index), it was like going from about 58+C (136+F) to 31C (86F). Honestly, I don't think it was quite that extreme, but the difference was obvious, and it makes it abundantly clear why the Saudi government relocates to Taif during the summer months.

Also, during the 2009 trip, our flight from Jeddah landed in Riyadh around 8:30pm — a couple of hours after sunset — and by the time we had exited the airport, more than a half-hour later, it was still 39C (102F)! But at least the humidity was about 18%. So while it is true that deserts will have cold nights in the winter, don't count on it in the summer!

And just because a place is a desert, it doesn't mean that place dry 24/7. A few years ago, while in Riyadh in the month of February, my coworkers and I were visiting one of our client hospitals. The sky was gray as we set out from the hospital's housing compound to walk to the hospital (rather than take the shuttle), and halfway along our 10-15 minute walk, it began to rain. Obviously we had not packed our umbrellas when we prepared for our trip to Saudi Arabia ...

But rains far heavier and more serious than those resulting in damp recruiters also occur. During the hajj pilgrimage in November 2009, heavy rains caused flooding and resulted in the deaths of approximately 100 people in Jeddah and in areas along the highway to Mecca. Earlier, in January 2005, heavy rains resulted in the flooding of Medina and its neighboring villages, which killed dozens of people, caused a dam to collapse, and caused extensive damage to roads, bridges, and homes. Riyadh itself received a soaking in early May 2010, with heavy rains resulting in flooded roads.

Wind can also cause major problems in the Kingdom. This past May 2012, as our flight was attempting to land in Riyadh, we had to abort our landing and try again, due to the winds and zero visibility of a sand storm.

Perhaps the storm shouldn't have been a surprise: An April 7, 2003 article on the website of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that dust storms in the Middle East usually occur in spring and summer, thanks to the northwesterly shamal winds. In addition to "our" sandstorm, in March 2009, a major sandstorm hit Riyadh, and it was so spectacular, that images were shown worldwide on major news services. For a view, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD7IedPZvt8 .

Here are some items of interest about temperatures and precipitation in Saudi Arabia:

Temperatures:

  • Highest Temperature on Record: An April 7, 2003 article on the website of the NOAA reports that Saudi Arabia's all-time recorded high was set in Dhahran, on the Arabian Gulf, when it reached 124F (51.1C). (Wikipedia reports that this high was recorded in 1956.)

  • Lowest Temperature on Record: A January 13, 2008 Arab News article on a cold spell occurring in Riyadh that month reported that the lowest-ever recorded temperature in Saudi Arabia was -11C (12F) recorded in the northern town of Turaif, in 1973.

  • Month with the Highest Average Temperature (Riyadh): Tie — June, July, August 42C (108F)

  • Month with the Highest Average Temperature (Jeddah): Tie — July and August, 37C (99F)

  • Month with the Lowest Average Temperatures (Riyadh): January, with a range of 8C-21C (46F-70F) — but it certainly can be colder! The above-mentioned Arab News article reported that Riyadh was in an "icebox" in January 2008, with a nighttime temperature that dipped to 0C (32F). The article also notes that Riyadh's coldest recorded temperature was -4C (25F) in winter 1992.

  • Month with the Lowest Minimum Average Temperature (Jeddah): February, with a range of 18C-29C (64F-84F). The Arab News article reported that Jeddah's lowest temperatures also occurred in winter 1992, when it reached 11C (52F).

Precipitation:

The World Meteorological Organization's World Weather Information Service reports the mean number of rain days per year and mean annual rainfall per year as follows:

*based on data from 1981-2000

In Riyadh, the rainiest months are January to May, and in Jeddah, the rainiest months are November to January.

Snow is rare in the Kingdom, but can occur up in the northern areas and in the mountains. For example, the January 13, 2008 Arab News article reported that during the recent cold snap, snow had fallen for the first time in many years in the cities of Tabuk, Arar, and Hail.

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