Empty Quarter

Travel Guide Middle East Arabian Peninsula Empty Quarter

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Introduction

The Empty Quarter (Arabic: الربع الخالي‎, Rub'al-Khali) is the expansive desert in the southeastern interior of the Arabian Peninsula, the largest continuous body of sand in the world. It's tempting to call the Empty Quarter "no man's land", but that's not quite correct. Nomads do in fact inhabit parts of the Quarter at various times of year. And the territory is spoken for: the interior borders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen are in here... somewhere. It's just that no one has bothered to actually draw those lines in the sand. The Empty Quarter was filmed as the planet Jakku in the 2015 film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Geography

The desert is 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) long, and 500 kilometres (310 miles) wide. Its surface elevation varies from 800 metres (2,600 ft) in the southwest to around sea level in the northeast. The terrain is covered with sand dunes with heights up to 250 metres (820 ft), interspersed with gravel and gypsum plains. The sand is of a reddish-orange color due to the presence of feldspar. There are also brackish salt flats in some areas, such as the Umm al Samim area on the desert's eastern edge.

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.

Evidence suggests that the lakes were home to a variety of flora and fauna. Fossil remains indicate the presence of several animal species, such as hippopotamus, water buffalo, and long-horned cattle. The lakes also contained small snails, ostracods, and when conditions were suitable, freshwater clams. Deposits of calcium carbonate and opal phytoliths indicate the presence of plants and algae. There is also evidence of human activity dating from 3,000 to 2,000 years ago, including chipped flint tools, but no actual human remains have been found.

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Cities

There are some towns and villages, but no major cities in this part of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Sights and Activities

The Empty Quarter is all about nature and wildlife. Expect to see a lot of sand.

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Weather

Hot! But can be chilly during winter nights. And dry of course, although in winter showers are indeed possible.

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Getting There

In the UAE, the very northern edge of the Empty Quarter, is accessible from the Liwa Oasis, a 200 km drive from Abu Dhabi on excellent highways. The larger road, to Huwayiah, is lined with green date palms, and the other road (closer to Abu Dhabi), to Al Hamai'm, now has them growing as well -- nice for Emiratis looking to visit an oasis, but blocking the view of the desert for foreigners.

From Saudi Arabia, visits to most of the Empty Quarter require permits from the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development, and are most easily arranged through tour agencies. The usual gateways are Wadi al-Dawasir (Sulayyil) and Sharurah, both reachable by road from Riyadh (a 550-km drive) or via Saudia flight from Riyadh or Jeddah. Najran, 300 km west of Sharurah, is also a reasonable starting point.

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Getting Around

Never drive in the biggest sandbox of the world alone! A caravan of 4WD vehicles or camels are the only sane options for entering the soft sands of the desert. If you aren't a confident, experienced, well-equipped sand dune desert driver, Wikivoyage cannot prepare you for something like the Empty Quarter.

On paved roads, in the UAE, a road passes through the oasis towns, and a drive is possible to Tal Mireb, the tallest dune in the country, which gives a few minutes of perspective on how vast and inhospitable this place is.

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Eat

The Empty Quarter's population is scarce compared to the other places in the UAE. You would have to carry your own food and be well equipped for the journey.

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Drink

Alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. In the UAE and Oman, alcohol is permitted subject to certain restrictions. In the Empty Quarter, certain hotels on the UAE side do serve alcohol.

Take plenty of water with you before heading out.

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Sleep

Luxury hotels at the edge of the Empty Quarter can be found in Liwa Oasis, UAE.

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Safety

As with all deserts, bring lots of water, make sure that your vehicle can handle the desert sands and be certain that you have a reliable means of divining direction (such as a GPS). Also, bring a reliable means of communication in case of trouble.

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This is version 1. Last edited at 11:15 on Oct 1, 19 by Utrecht. 1 article links to this page.

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