desert
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Asia > Middle East > Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter (Arabic: الربع الخالي‎, Rub'al-Khali) is the large, expansive desert encompassing a large part of the Arabian Peninsula. It's the largest continuous body of sand in the world.

Understand

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Sunset in Rub al Khali

One may be tempted to call the Empty Quarter "no man's land", but that's not entirely correct; various local tribes are based here. The Saudi borders with the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen are situated here... somewhere, but nobody has bothered to actually draw those lines in the sand.

Talk

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If you do encounter people here, your best bet for communication is Arabic.

Get in

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Liwa Desert near Hameem
  • 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.

Get around

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Towing the 4WD out of a sand dune in the Liwa Desert

A caravan of 4WD vehicles or camels are the only sane options for entering the soft sands of the desert.

You need to bring your own gasoline and drinking water if you go into the EQ. There are no gas stations. There are roads that traverse it, though, mainly driven by trucks.

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.

The Empty Quarter is all about nature and wildlife. Expect to see a lot of sand and many forms of wildlife. If you want to see wildlife, your best bet is to camp overnight, as practically all the animals there are nocturnal.

There’s also a large crater, and a lake formed by a drilling accident.

You can drive around, or, if you're feeling adventurous, you can walk around. Dune bashing is a popular activity for tourists visiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and there are numerous tour companies that organise this.

There are no restaurants in the region. You must bring your own provisions.

Drink

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You should carry lots of water with you.

Sleep

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

Stay safe

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See also: Arid region safety

Never drive alone, even if you're an experienced driver. Much of the Empty Quarter is barren and you can get easily lost if you don't know what you're doing. For all you know, you can unexpectedly end up in a completely foreign land and you may find it difficult to get back to where you started.

Another danger is the extreme, arid heat. Carry lots of water with you, make sure your vehicle can handle the harshness of the desert, and make sure you have a reliable communication device in the event you get into trouble.

Go next

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