The middle Cretaceous carbonate deposits in the Middle East are among the most productive oil-bearing stratigraphic intervals in the world, containing numerous giant fields in, for instance, the United Arab Emirates (Mauddud and Mishrif formations), Iran (Sarvak Formation), and Oman (Natih Formation). One of the main reasons for this concentration of hydrocarbons is a geological factor: the coexistence of both reservoir facies and source rocks in the same depositional sequences due to the repeated creation of organic-rich intrashelf basins. This is demonstrated in a high-resolution sequence stratigraphic study of the Natih Formation in Oman, which shows distinct and predictive patterns in the distribution and geometries of reservoir, source rock, and seal facies. The sequence stratigraphic model presented here may serve as a reference for time-equivalent deposits in the Middle East.

The sedimentological analysis showed that the Natih Formation was formed by the alternation of two types of depositional systems: (1) a flat-bedded, mixed carbonate-clay ramp, dominated by benthic foraminifera, and (2) a carbonate-dominated ramp bordering an intrashelf basin, with abundant rudists in the mid-ramp environment and organic-rich basinal facies.

Three fully developed third-order sequences are distinguished, showing a similar evolution of the depositional system, with a mixed carbonate-clay ramp system at the base, followed by a carbonate-dominated ramp system in the upper part. Variations occur on this pattern, however, depending on the relative influence of eustasy, environmental factors, and tectonism. The late Albian-early Cenomanian sequence I shows an evolution from a mixed, flat ramp to a carbonate-dominated ramp and organic-rich intrashelf basin, and sedimentation is predominantly controlled by eustatic sea level. In the middle Cenomanian sequence II, the evolution from a mixed ramp to a carbonate ramp is also observed, but no intrashelf basin topography was developed in the studied area. This may be due to the high influx of clay that influenced the environment in this sequence, inhibiting the carbonate production, probably in combination with the lack of sufficient creation of accommodation space. The late Cenomanian-early Turonian transgressive part of sequence III shows a similar evolution to that observed in sequence I, with the development of an organic-rich intrashelf basin. During highstand, however, a tectonically controlled sedimentation pattern is observed, with the development of forced regressive wedges (due to the flexural bulge of the foreland basin).

Intrashelf basin formation occurred twice in the transgressive part of the third-order depositional sequences of the Natih Formation. Our study shows that this is mainly the result of differential sedimentation rates, that is, the dynamics of the carbonate sedimentary system itself in response to (rapid) rises in relative sea level, probably of eustatic origin. Tectonism was only a minor factor in the creation of the basin topography, possibly through the creation of small initial relief. The accumulation of the organic matter is not only a result of the creation of a sufficiently deep-water column to guarantee dysaerobic conditions for its preservation. The late Albian and late Cenomanian-early Turonian were also periods of generally favorable conditions worldwide for high organic matter productivity.

The time lines and stratigraphic architecture of the third-order sequences presented here have an application potential at the scale of the Arabian plate. The general sedimentation pattern is predicted by our model, but modifications due to different local conditions are likely to occur.

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