Saudi researchers have mapped the first Arab genome in a project to put the Arab world on the global genetic map and improve healthcare.

Geneticists from Saudi Biosciences say unlocking the genetic profile of 100 people from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries will help tackle medical problems in Saudi Arabia and encourage sorely-needed scientific research.

The collaboration between the private Saudi company, Danish firm CLC Bio and the Beijing Genomics Institute will make their sequencing of Arab genomes available on a public database.

"The advantage of the project is that it studies the differences between peoples, and that will explain the spread of specific illnesses such as diabetes, heart diseases, etc.," said Saeed al-Turki, Arab Human Genome Project Coordinator.

"Twenty-five percent of the Saudi population has, or is liable to have diabetes and that will form a big burden on health services," he said.

Almost one in four Saudis over 30 has diabetes, according to the World Health Organization. The project will help establish if the high incidence is due to a shift to urban living and rich diets among rural and Bedouin populations, as often claimed.

The project, with the backing of Prince Ahmed bin Sultan, a son of the crown prince, could also help establish a clearer picture of the historic migration of the Semitic peoples, who include Arab tribes, ancient Jews and others, from Africa into the Arabian peninsula.

Turki said the program, costing up to $133 million, could stimulate research in Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Genome Project this year completed initial sequencing and analysis of its first volunteer, an anonymous tribal figure from Saudi Arabia, in the space of six months. By contrast, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has spent six years trying to map the genome of a camel.

The genome team wants to complete 100 results by the end of 2010 as part of an international "1000 Genomes Project" to establish a detailed map of DNA variations the world over (www.1000genomes.org).

There is likely to be some sensitivity in the historically and culturally diverse Middle East around the mapping, given the importance many people place on being of Arab descent.

Some Muslims are keen to claim Arab ancestry because the Prophet Mohammad was an Arab, and Islam and Arabic spread hand-in-hand.

"Tribes of the Arabian peninsula will account for 50 genomes and 50 will be from other Arab nationalities such as Egypt, Syria, Libya, etc.," said geneticist Ibrahim al-Abdelkarim. "It's a sensitive subject. People who speak Arabic call themselves Arabs but 'the Arabs' involve different groups."

Tribes of the Arabian peninsula pride themselves on having "pure" Arab origins and there are groups throughout the Arab world that embrace and reject Arab identity.