Rub’ Al Khali – The Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi friend of mine recently made a 2.5 week excursion into the Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter.  For those of you not aware what or where the Rub al Khali is, according to Wikipedia:  The Rub’ al Khali (Arabic: الربع الخالي), which translates as Empty Quarter in English, is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including southern Saudi Arabia, and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) (the area between long. 44°30′–56°30′E., and lat. 16°30′–23°00′N), more than the combined land areas of the Netherlands, Belgium and France. It is one of the most inhospitable places on earth, and entirely uninhabitable.


Largely unexplored until recently, the desert is one thousand kilometers (600 miles) long, and 500 km (300 mi) wide. Even the Bedouins only skirt the edges of the desert. Nonetheless, tour companies do exist that offer GPS-equipped excursions into the desert. The first documented journeys made by Westerners to the Empty Quarter were those made by Bertram Thomas in 1931 and St. John Philby in 1932. Between 1946 and 1950 Wilfred Thesiger crossed the area several times and mapped large parts of the Empty Quarter and the mountains of Oman.


With summer temperatures up to nearly 55 degrees Celsius (131 F) at noon, and dunes taller than the Eiffel Tower — over 330 meters (1000 ft) — the desert may be the most forbidding environment on Earth. However, as nearly everywhere else, life flourishes. Arachnids, rodents and plant life can all be found throughout the Empty Quarter. As an ecoregion, it falls within the Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands.


Desertification has increased through the millennia. Before desertification made the caravan trails leading across the Rub’ al Khali so difficult, the caravans of the frankincense trade crossed now virtually impassable stretches of wasteland, until about 300 AD. For example, Iram of the Pillars, a lost city, depended on such trade. More recently, tribal populations were also present in certain parts of the Empty Quarter, with the largest in the Najran region. A few road links were connected with these tribal settlements to the water resource and oil production centers.


Geologically, the Empty Quarter is one of the most oil-rich places in the world. Vast oil reserves have been discovered underneath the sand stacks. Sheyba, in the middle of the desert, is a major Arab light crude oil-producing site in Saudi Arabia. Also, Ghawwar Field, the largest oil field in the world, extends southward into the northernmost parts of the Empty Quarter.”


My friend had the opportunity to be the photographer of an official group which went into the Rub’ al Khali to conduct a geological survey. During the 2.5 weeks he traveled as part of this group through the Rub’ al Khali the temperatures ranged from 3 to 33 degrees celsius.  With the exception of one night spent at an Aramco camp, all of their nights were spent camping among the open skies.  I learned from him so much about the hidden treasures and beauty of this vast and perhaps at first glance, desolate desert.  He told me how they first entered into the empty quarter through an area that has been preserved as an official wildlife reserve.  To his surprise and delight, he was able to see (and photograph) a herd of 11 arabian oryx in their natural habitat.  What makes this sighting even more significant is that the oryx is on the endangered species list and it is believed that there are less than 300 of them in existence.  To see so many at one time is nothing less than a miracle.  Many people who enter the wildlife preserve in the hopes to see even just one oryx will go away disappointed.  The oryx is a medium sized antelope. 


I further learned that within the Rub’ al Khali (about 5-7 days into the trip) the group came across a desert lake.  Yes; you read that correctly – a lake in the midst of one of the world’s largest sand deserts.  It had rained three years ago and enough water still remained to qualify as a desert lake.  Here is where my friend was able to view a wide variety of foliage which even included a seagull who had found its way to the water.  Due to the location and composition of the ground, the water in the lake was composed more of sulphur water and emanated a sulphuric odor.


The group skirted the borders of the Rub’ al Khali between the Kingdom and UAE, Yemen and Oman.  Much of the trip was actually on a paved road but naturally there were times when their SUV’s were driven across the sand dunes.  They also stopped at several of the Aramco sites and saw the airstrips that had been built for Aramco.  These same Aramco sites were not only well-secured but equipped with comfortable installations and lodging facilities.

  Taking a tour into the Rub’ al Khali has been a dream of mine even before coming to the Kingdom.  I have learned through my friend that tours can be arranged by knowledgable beudion guides.  I hope to receive this contact information and will be happy to share it once received for others who may have this same dream.  However it will be unlikely that I would take such a tour during 2008 as the prime season to go into the empty quarter is just about over.  The sand storm season across the desert has started and then that season is followed the intense searing heat which exceeds 60 degrees celsius so in all likelihood such a trip will have to be planned for Spring 2009.

25 Responses

  1. The thought of the Empty Quarter scares the hell out of me. Even with the pretty pictures I’ve seen.

    But I’d defenitely go if I had the chance! Hope you will get to go next year then.

  2. For some reason the thought of the Empty Quarter just draws me like a magnet! If I am lucky enough to go, you’ll all know all about it with accompanying photos…that I promise you!

  3. If you ever come back…

  4. Oh ye of little faith…..

  5. I’d truly love to be able to do something like that. I hope you do get to go!

  6. Thanks Molly and happy to see you here!


  7. SOUNDS FABULOUS! I wanna go too! Maybe I can hop the border here in UAE and we’ll meet on the edge eh? That would be wild!
    Of course it attracts me too. I grew up in the deserts of Arizona and the heat is firce but still workable. WATER WATER WATER!!! I loe the desert and i bet the sky at night would be brilliant. Mash’Allah

  8. I am trying to get the contact information of a company that in fact provides tours into the Empty Quarter. Of course this is an adventure one must do properly accompanied and equipped. As I mentioned in the post, it must also be done at the appropriate times of the year and well away from sand storm season.

    I’d love to hear from anyone who has had the opportunity to venture there!

  9. You could also come to the Netherlands and learn bicycle-swimming, which is what I did yesterday to get my shopping done.

    Take lots of sattelite-phones, and GPS-ses, and make sure you put the exact date of return on your blog so we can raise hell if you’re not back then.

  10. bicycle-swimming? You must tell more about that…will that be a post on your own blog?

    Don’t worry…I would certainly let you all know when we get ready for the Great Adventure as well as post about our preparations!

  11. I could tell you all about bicycle-swimming right now, but as I need boring subjects for my own blog I’ll take your idea and use it for my next post.
    Besides I don’t want to fill your blog with off-topic remarks.

  12. this site sucks you didnt tell how the empty quarter got its name…!

    im not that impressed

  13. Anonymous, you certainly have an eloquent way with words!

    The Empty Quarter got its name due to how barren the vast area is. A good read about desert life is:

  14. Wauw, thanks for that link bedu, although, I did get a sort of an impression by the name: ”Empty Quarter” that it would be sort of…Empty.
    And given it geological situation sort of , sandy, and hot, and dry, and very uncomfortable.
    And very Empty.

  15. You’re welcome, Aafke!

  16. Thank you tremendously for sharing all of this information! I have been wanting to travel across this great desert for nearly ten years now. Would you be so kind as to include any helpful information on crossing this miracle of creation with the appropriate tour guides? I have many other questions pertaining to visiting and working in The Kingdom. Please contact me at your earliest convenience. Thank you and God bless you, Matt.

  17. This is the wrong time and season now to consider a trip across the Rub al Khali but as the cooler and more appropriate months near I will try to acquire information on appropriate tour guides.

    It is my pleasure,

  18. Hey! That’s lovely ^^
    I live in KSA but I never visit the Empty Quarter:/ It sounds scary but it’s lovely😀
    Lying in the smooth sand in the night is wonderful😉 You can see the starry sky clearly in the desert.
    Also, driving a car in the desert is something fantastic!

    Visit us in Saudi Arabia😉

  19. And the weather is finally starting to cooperate to the time of year when such trips are not beyond the imagination. Actually if one drives overland to the UAE you must drive through parts of the Empty Quarter.

  20. Wao..pleased to read about 1978 i travelled for a comapny name ARGAS.I stayed 18 days in great desert.What a wonderfull tripp.i workd for ARGAS for few weeks.Night stay in camp was great.We were agroup of Pakistanies there working for company.Beduans came one night and took lot of food from us.They were having 4×4,s and i can,t forget when every body was frightened.
    My old coligues told me that we hav a crow flying with us for last 8 years as he will die if leave camp.
    There was a small bush a green branch of a bush,every body was posing pic with him.I still remember Sher Zaman,Ashraf,Irfan of Hazara Nwfp.
    Thank u for lovely site

  21. Iftikhar – your memories of your trip sound so lovely and special! Thank you for sharing and I would certainly enjoy hearing more!!

  22. I heard the singing of the sands near the UAE border – magic

  23. @ynotoman – that sounds like such a special moment!

  24. Am Bedu…did you ever go on the trip to the Rub’ al Kali? Is there any way to do it WITHOUT a car? Has anyone ever Walked across it E to W? How far apart are the wells spaced?

  25. Hi All ,
    I’m currently working in JED , I’m planning on a trip to Ruba Al Khali , if anyone’s interested please mail me at


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