Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter, the largest and least-explored sand desert on Earth, is a passage between old Arabia and the modern UAE and well worth a long weekend. Yalla fills you in on how best to venture into its vastness.
The Rub ‘Al Khali desert, which so intrigued the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, stretches across vast swathes of Arabia, including the south western corner of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. In its centre, a vast ocean of dunes blankets the landscape providing one of the most forbidding tracts of wilderness in the world. Though camping under the stars provides the ultimate desert experience, there are also myriad ways to enjoy the Empty Quarter for those less inclined to rough it.
A visit to the Abu Dhabi western region provides intrepid visitors the opportunity to visit this vast sand desert for even a day—it’s that close to the city, but Yalla suggests that you spend a bit more time exploring the world's largest sand desert. From camping to glamping, festivals to tours and 5-stars to a sky full of stars, here are Yalla's top tips for exploring the Empty Quarter like a pro.
Live like a nomad
Journeying into the Empty Quarter is a way to experience the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin people, traditional roamers who travelled with their homes across Arabia. You'll travel from morning to night with everything you need being carried with you. The Bedouin are more settled nowadays but your guide may have Bedouin heritage and can tell you more about their traditional culture.
How do I get to the UAE's Empty Quarter?
Getting to the UAE’s Empty Quarter is easy! You can get there by car. Visitors can drive southeast on modern thoroughfares which rapidly become bumpy, unkempt roads that eventually give way to sand. You know you've arrived in the Empty Quarter proper when the roads have disappeared and there's nothing but enormous sand dunes in all directions. A four-wheel vehicle is highly recommended, if not a requisite depending upon how far you care to venture.
Transport in the Empty Quarter is either by 4x4 or camel. You can travel further and see more by four-wheel drive and driving through the dunes is exhilarating. Riding a camel, on the other hand, takes you back through history, travelling as ancient explorers once would have. Whichever you choose, a separate 4x4 vehicle will travel ahead with your camping gear, while your guide accompanies you.
Glamp It Up in the Desert
The UAE has a few options for those who prefer their explorations on the more opulent side. Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa is located just 50 kilometres away from the city, but the resort offers guests a full desert immersion in the lap of luxury. For those who seek a glimpse into Bedouin life, don’t miss out on spending an evening at the Al Mabeet Desert Camp at Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa, which surprisingly one can do without being a resort guest. On the other hand, Qasr Al Sarab is a few hours away from the city. While it also gives visitors a luxurious desert experience, its seclusion is worth the effort it takes to reach it. Perched atop rolling dunes on the edge of the Empty Quarter, this resort is as much fortified village as palace. Powdery dunes roll with the desert winds, like waves and gently lap the hotel’s sand-coloured walls like a sea.
Camp under the stars
In clear weather, the Empty Quarter is one of the best places on Earth to watch the stars as it's completely free of light pollution. If you’d like to trade five-stars for five million stars, a night of camping should be your choice. Fortunately, there are numerous providers scattered throughout the UAE who provide the service, but Yalla highly recommends that you ride with the Desert Diva, if you can catch her.
Marina Bruce is a legend in the UAE. Though a Scot by birth, Marina’s got a Bedouin sensibility, and, ask any local, she knows how to get around the Empty Quarter as well as her
male counterparts or just about any Emirati guides. She can assist you in arranging anything from a desert outing to a desert evening to a full-on exploration of the Empty Quarter if you’ve caught the Lawrence of Arabia bug. Learn more by contacting the foremost desert tour company Xpedition Arabia at Thedesertdiva.com
When to go
The best time to travel is from October through to April when the temperature ranges from warm to cool. Temperatures during the summer months can be exceptionally high.