The Rub ‘al-Khali desert (in Arabic: الربع الخالي, which means the Empty Quarter) is the largest sand desert in the world, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi) (the area between long. 44°30′ −56°30′E., and lat. 16°30′ −23°00′N). It is part of the larger Arabian Desert. The terrain is covered with sand dunes with heights up to 250 metres (820 ft), interspersed with gravel and gypsum plains. This is one of the most inhospitable areas of the planet, and with the reduced number of Bedouin nomads in the region, it is hardly crossed by one today; the region is classified as “hyper-arid”, with typical annual rainfall of less than 30 millimetres (1.2 in). Daily maximum temperatures average at 47 °C (117 °F) and can reach as high as 56 °C (133 °F). The relatively hermetic borders also make it very difficult to cross from side to side.
These conditions have made it a breathtaking place, a quiet and where you can find themselves completely alone.
Along the middle length of the desert there are a number of raised, hardened areas of calcium carbonate, gypsum, marl, or clay that were once the site of shallow lakes. These lakes existed during periods from 6,000 to 5,000 years ago and 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. The lakes are thought to have formed as a result of “cataclysmic rainfall” similar to present-day monsoon rains and most probably lasted for only a few years. However, lakes in the Mundafen area in the southwest of the Rub’ al Khali show evidence of lasting longer, up to 800 years, due to increased runoff from the Tuwaiq Escarpment.
Geologically, the Empty Quarter it seems to be the most oil-rich site in the world. Vast oil reserves have been discovered underneath the sand dunes. Sheyba, at the northeastern edge of the Rub’ al Khali, is a major light crude oil-producing site in Saudi Arabia. Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world, extends southward into the northernmost parts of the Empty Quarter. Lots of other plants and refinery are still under construction, including one of the largest refineries in the world, by Italian leading company in the O&G sector (Saipem).
Despite the hostile environment, at the end of 2009, the first luxury hotel in the desert was opened, on the edge of the Empty Quarter: Qasr Al Sarab, an idyllic sanctuary nestled on the legendary Liwa Desert, about 3 hours from Abu Dhabi.
The dazzling light can be a problem when you want to take pictures: sunrise and sunset are the best time to get some good shots. Having polarizing filters and in extreme cases of adverse weather conditions (wind with sand or water) protective filters, can help the photographer.
It’s always windy: the power of nature sculpts the sands, creating the dunes’ intricate formations.
Linear dunes are locally known as ‘Seif’; Arabic for sword. They can soar to a height of 90m, and stretch a 100km into the desert. The rains are rare but sometimes you can encounter sandstorms that in a few minutes transform the surroundings, a sight not to be missed.
I use to go into this sea of sand almost often, and every time I cannot sit by, while looking this powerful spectacle of nature.