The tectonic evolution of the southeastern margin of the Red Sea Rift in western Yemen has been investigated using a multi-disciplinary field study of an east-west transect between Al Hudaydah and Sana'a. Slow subsidence of up to 1 km occurred over the area during a 100 m.y. period before rifting. There was a major episode of flood volcanism between ca. 30 and 20 Ma, and important extensional faulting began after the eruption of the volcanic rocks and ceased before middle to late Miocene sediments and volcanic rocks were deposited unconformably on top of rotated fault blocks on the coastal Tihama Plain. Surface uplift has produced the Yemen highlands, whose highest peak reaches an elevation of 3660 m. This is attributed to plume heating and eruption of >3000 m of volcanic rocks. Apatite fission-track ages indicate early to middle Miocene exhumational cooling ages, postdating the major volcanic phase and contemporaneous with rifting.
Volcanism was accompanied by emplacement of subvertical dike swarms, which generally strike north-northwest to northwest, broadly parallel to the Red Sea coastline. Major faults indicate northeast-southwest-directed extension. Large granitic sheets and plutons (up to 25 km wide) intruded the volcanic rocks. Approximately 30 km of extension has taken place across a 75-km-wide zone (β = 1.7) in 6-8 m.y.
The relative timing of volcanism followed by extension and uplift does not fit conventional models of passive or active rifting. We suggest that the proto-Red Sea Rift was caused by regional plate stresses that exploited lithospheric weakening caused by the Afar plume. Appreciable doming only occurred after the main episode of volcanism, which suggests that magmas extruded before maximum thermal expansion of the lithosphere took place.