Advertisement Close

Economic History and Trade Routes of Arabia

posted on: Jul 6, 2021

By: Noureldin Mohamed/Arab America Contributing Writer The Arabian Peninsula has seen a vast transition from Ancient trade routes to modern business centers—let us look at the ancient trade routes of the Arab world. The vast expanse of Arabia is mostly taken up by the Arabian Desert, one of the largest and driest in the world. Until 1,000 BCE, most of the region could not support significant human populations or long-distant trade routes due to the desert. The histories of the civilizations of ancient Arabia show that nomadic peoples formed the societies of the region.

The History

The regions conquered in the Muslim conquest included rich farming regions in the Maghreb, the Nile Valley and the Fertile Crescent. In addition, agriculture dominated the economy until the modern period, with livestock grazing playing a particularly large role in the Arab world. Significant trade routes included the Silk Road, the spice trade, and the trade of gold, salt, slaves and luxury goods, including ivory and feathers out of sub-Saharan Africa.

Around the 9th century, the Arab people understood the significance of gold and its economic impact. Arabs participated in the gold trade, specifically within the Ghana goldfields near the 9th century. The people of Ghana also participated in the gold trade from its beginning and began to dominate this trade. North African regions expanded financially as well through shipping gold to various territories. Gold was a commodity to the Arabs near the 8th Century, which Africa would supply. As silver was declining in worth, access to gold allowed the economic value of silver to be saved.

Furthermore, Mansa Musa, a leader from West Africa, impacted the Arab world with the vast amount of gold he transported to Mecca during a religious pilgrimage. During his trip, he proved extravagant with his gold. Although he is said not to have traded his gold, Mansa Musa proved his wealth to the Meccans by handing out the gold he brought on his trip. Mansa Musa and his people specifically harmed the Cairo economy due to the tremendous amount of gold they spread in the area.

Important Trade Centers of Ancient Arabia

The Egyptians had traded in the Red Sea, importing spices, gold and different kinds of wood from the “Land of Punt” (a kingdom that was part of Egypt, now Eritrea) and from Arabia. Indian goods were brought in Arabian and Indian vessels to Aden. These goods were transshipped at the port of Ophir (now India). Baghdad and the cities to the north of the Arabian Peninsula became popular among traders using the old Silk Road. Almost one million people lived in Baghdad by 1200 CE (Common Era). It was one of the most important commercial centers in the world, its leaders controlling all overland trade between Europe and China.

In addition, the Nabateans built Petra, which stood halfway between the opening to the Gulf of Akaba and the Dead Sea. The Nabatean control over trade increased and spread to the West and the North. Cities like Palmyra and Petra on the edge of the Syrian Desert flourished mainly as centers of trade that supplied merchant caravans and helped to police the routes. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where different ethnic and cultural backgrounds came to meet.

In the ancient period, it would seem that South Arabia and the Horn of Africa were the major suppliers of incense, spices, silk and other commodities. On the other hand, commercial center for trade in gums was in Aden and Oman. Early ritual texts from Egypt show that incense was brought to the upper Nile by land traders around 1500 BC.

Phoenician colonists from modern-day Lebanon founded Carthage, a city in current-day Tunisia, around 814 BC. After Carthage’s control of Sicily brought it into conflict with Greek colonists, it established commercial relations in the western Mediterranean, including trade with the Etruscans. Carthage traded in almost every commodity wanted by the ancient world, including spices from Arabia, Africa and India. Carthage also sent caravans into the interior of Africa and Persia, while its ships traversed the maritime trade routes. The discovery of large petroleum deposits in the early 20th century revolutionized the economy of the region, particularly the states of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar surrounding the Persian Gulf, which are among the top oil or gas exporters worldwide. Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan all have smaller but significant reserves.

Carthage (Tunisia) and Roman comparison.


The trade routes were communication highways of the ancient world. New inventions, religious beliefs, art, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted for business and trade. Today, three of the largest economies in the Arab world are Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt. Many things have changed, but the Arabian Peninsula’s historical economic activity had an impact on the world.

Check out our Blog!


Introduction: The Arab region has had a central impact on the economic prosperity of the world from ancient trade routes. Bringing ethnic customs, art, and commodities to the trade centers allowed for cultural exchange. Arab America Contributing Writer, Noureldin Mohamed, sheds light on the history of the Arab economy, trade routes, and its impact on today’s technological age.