The Iraqi-Saudi Neutral Zone: A Diamond in the Sand


Those of you reading this older than, say, 25 years old may remember an odd diamond-shaped anomaly sticking out of your atlases when gandering at maps of the Middle East. Appearing as late as the early 1990s on various maps (I can distinctly remember it showing up in Encarta CD-ROMs as late as 1992 or 1993) was a large plot of desert sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia often labelled simply as ‘Neutral Zone’. So just what was this zone and why was it there?

The 3 520 km2-to –7 000 km2 anomaly stemmed from 1922 negotiations (the Treaty of Muhammarah) between the Kingdom of Najd (the predecessor of modern Saudi Arabia) and the United Kingdom (holder of a League of Nations mandate over Iraq, as well as a protectorate over Kuwait). For ease of colonial administration (i.e. to keep the empire of Ibn Saud from expanding northward into Iraq and to keep Bedouin raiders from entering the country), the UK was seeking firm delineated boundaries. This was in opposition to the traditional nomadic desert lifestyle practiced in the region which paid little attention to boundaries. The logistical difficulties of drawing artificial lines in the desert are something encountered throughout the past century on the Arabian Peninsula. More recently, countries have been actively attempting to consolidate land and firm borders in order to determine jurisdiction over oil fields. In the past, however, before the days of petrodollars, it was a subject to be avoided. If boundaries between countries were set in stone, desert nomads crossing the border back-and-forth practicing their traditional ways of life would suddenly be causing international incidents. For this reason, the treaty made no mention of any actual boundaries.

Ibn Saud eventually agreed to a protocol appended to the treaty on the conditions that there would be no fortifications or placement of troops by either party at wells or watering places, and that nomadic Najdi tribes would be granted free movement toward watering places on the Iraqi side of the boundary. The treaty itself assigned jurisdiction over certain tribes to Iraq and jurisdiction over other tribes to Najd. The boundary line would be drawn according to the locations of wells frequented by the tribes in question. The Neutral Zone concept came from the British side in order to placate the opposing parties. As no fortifications or troops were permitted along the border under the protocol, placing a neutral zone between the two countries could allow tribes to access traditional watering holes without having to cross a border (not to mention absolving themselves of any quarrels that took place within the zone itself). A second neutral zone existed was also negotiated to the east between Najd and Kuwait.

As oil came into play in the ensuing decades, it became necessary to delineate jurisdiction over every slice of the desert to make sure that there would be no disputes over ownership of petroleum resources; nomads be damned. The Saudis and Kuwaitis split their zone in 1969, and the Saudis and Iraqis split theirs in 1975, cinching it with a 1981 treaty and splitting oilfield revenues in the zone 50/50. For whatever reason, though, the two countries never bothered ratifying it with the international community via the United Nations, and so legally the Neutral Zone continued to be recognised by every other country round the world. It took Saddam Hussein’s belligerence prior to the Gulf War in 1991 to finally wipe the Neutral Zone off the map. When Hussein nullified all post-1968 agreements with Saudi Arabia, the Saudis responded by registering the 1975 and 1981 agreements with the UN in June 1991, closing the book on the Neutral Zone for good.


This 1991 map of Iraq displays both the Neutral Zone arrangement and the de facto boundaries negotiated by Iraq and Saudi Arabia that would ultimately be accepted as law by the United Nations in 1991. Courtesy Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

The CIA still showed the zone on maps in 1991 and included the zone in editions of The World Factbook (despite the presence of nomadic tribes and petroleum, the CIA listed the population of the Neutral Zone as ‘uninhabited’ and natural resources as ‘none’), but showed it divvied up between the two nations by 1993, two years after the United Nations ratified the border agreements between the two neighbours. Belonging to no country meant that the Neutral Zone was eligible for things like an ISO 3166-1 code; in this case, NT, which was revoked in 1993. Had it stuck around for a couple more years, it theoretically could have received a country code top-level Internet domain (I could absolutely envision a clever domain hack such as ‘do.nt’, ‘ca.nt’ or ‘blu.nt’ popping up).

Further Reading

Adams, C. (1991). What’s up with the “neutral zones” near Saudi Arabia? The Straight Dope, 1 February 1991. Available at Accessed 21 November 2010.

Central Intelligence Agency (1990). Iraq – Saudi Arabia Neutral Zone. In The 1990 CIA World Factbook, 440-441. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency. Available at;=440. Accessed 21 November 2010.

Chapin Metz, H. (ed.) (1992). Geography. In Saudi Arabia: A Country Study. Washington, DC: GPO for the Library of Congress. Available at Accessed 21 November 2010.

McMillan, J. (2006). Saudi Arabia and Iraq: Oil, Religion, and an Enduring Rivalry. United States Institute of Peace Special Report 157. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace. Available at Accessed 21 November 2010.

Office of the Geographer, United States Department of State (1971). International Boundary Study No. 111 – June 1, 1971: Iraq – Saudi Arabia Boundary. Washington, DC: Department of State. Available at Accessed 21 November 2010.

University of Texas Libraries (2010). Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. Available at Accessed 21 November 2010.

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