The Rub’ al Khali Experience

The sun is setting over the Arabian desert in a blaze of orange and gold.  As I take my first step into the sand, my bare feet sink comfortably into the cool, soft, powdery sand.  I inhale and try to breathe in the history surrounding this place;  the time before Land Rovers and Pajeros, when the only way to travel was riding a camel.  A cool breeze flaps the loose end of my hijab.  I look up and see the moon trying to outshine the dimming sun.  So much peace and tranquility.  As a child, I have always been fascinated with the deserts of Arabia;  I’d associate the desert with magic carpets, jinn, prince and princesses, camels, and castles.  I have always preferred Aladdin and Jasmine over Snow White and her dwarves. Before I arrive here, I went online and did some research on Rab al Khali.  This knowledge made my experience with the desert even more special.

Rub al Khali

Creating an arid wilderness larger the size of France, Belgium and Holland combined, the Rub al Khali—literally translated as the “quarter of emptiness”—is the world’s largest sand sea. The Sahara is fifteen times larger in size, yet the Empty Quarter holds roughly half as much sand! It takes in a substantial portion of Saudi Arabia, parts of Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. Geologically, the Empty Quarter is one of the most oil-rich places in the world. And although one might easily assume this part of the world to be uninhabited, Bedu tribes have survived here since before recorded time.

Writer and photographer, Tor Eigeland, wrote about his experience traveling with the Bedouins in the Empty Quarters, drinking camel milk for the first time, and the inconvenience of not having a proper toilet:

When nature calls and there is no toilet around, where does one go? The Bedouins are covered by their long robes which serve as built-in toilets. They simply move away a few meters and squat in the sand. Around the camps it seemed that no matter how far I walked with my roll of toilet paper – there was a Bedouin coming over the next sand-dune. Nothing goes unnoticed here. They can even tell whether a woman is pregnant by her footprints.

The Arabian Nights

Luckily, I am at a time and place where there is a bathroom available.  And it’s not just any bathroom;  it sparkles like gold and contains a bath tub where you can swim in.  After a warm bath, Masood and I wrap ourselves up in soft cotton robes, sit in the terrace, and quietly sip tea infused with mint.  I notice that the sky glitters with stars;  this reminds me of the Dubai sky, where stars are so few one can count them easily.  But out here in Rub al Khali the sky suddenly explodes with stars, the air is crisp and cool, crickets chirp, and there’s the constant sound of water flowing nearby.  We don’t speak much—the stillness of the moment is too precious to break— and just hold hands while sipping our tea.

For some reason we can not sleep well in our soft beds.  Perhaps it is excitement on my part.  When Masood wakes up for the tahajjud prayers, I walk out into the darkness and feel so much peace that I wonder whether I’m dreaming the experience.  Masood follows me, and we both sit outside until dawn.

Bertram Thomas, an English civil servant, was the first documented Westerner to cross the Rub al Khali.  He wrote a book about his expedition, called Arabia Felix, which I am looking forward to read.  The book is available to be read online here.

Lost City Under Rub al Khali

Faraz Omar wrote in Saudi Life:

To say this place was once luscious green, with lakes and ponds and springs, chirping birds, grazing deers, sleeping water buffaloes, and of course devouring humans would be an unaccepted blasphemy, a madman’s dream, and a creative myth. Yet it’s all true – facts are stranger than fiction.

Much has been written about this Quarter by experts. Archeologists and geologists have found remains of thousands of lakes (in two periods: between 37,000 and 17,000 years ago and between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago), fossils of cattle and hippos, and of flint tools including knives, scrapers, borers and arrowheads.

Complete article found can be found here.

So although our experience wasn’t really an authentic one—where one sleeps in a tent, or drink warm milk directly from the camel, or worry about snakes and scorpions, or fret excessively about where to go if nature calls—it is still one of the most memorable twenty-four hours of our lives.


  1. Salam,

    Absolutely beautiful photographs! Much more beautiful than any of the desert I have seen as we travel between Riyadh and Makkah or Riyadh and Dammam or UAE!

    The little village looks so idyllic; where is it? Saudi… UAE?

    1. Walaikum Assalam, Umm Ibrahim!

      Thank you so much! I had so much fun taking pictures during our stay there. What appears like an idyllic village in the picture above is actually part of this resort – Qasr al Sarab – that we stayed at. It’s part of Abu Dhabi.

  2. You made me wonder how it’s like to be alone and lost in a great desert like this one…. miles and miles of sandy view and nothing else, isolated from civilisation….


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