Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter), Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia

The Rub al-Khali in the south of the Arabian Peninsula is the largest sand sea in the world and is one of the most hostile regions on our planet. The completely uninhabited area lives up to its name "Empty Quarter".

The Rub al-Khali in the south of the Arabian Peninsula is the largest sand desert in the world, covering an area of around 780,000 square kilometres - almost as large as Turkey. Many believe that this title belongs to the Sahara, but only 20% of the Sahara consists of sand desert and the largest so-called Erg (sand area) in northern Algeria "only" covers an area of about 150,000 square kilometres.


PICTURES: Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter)

Photo gallery: Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter)

The "Empty Quarter" is indeed empty

The Rub al-Khali is located in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and stretches across the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman. It lives up to its name "Empty Quarter", because hardly a soul actually lives in the Rub al-Khali. Only spiders, a few rodents and isolated plants can be found in the Rub al-Khali, which can withstand the huge temperature fluctuations from freezing point at night to 60°C during the day.

The first crossing of this completely hostile area was also not made until 1946, when the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger wanted to find out where the pests came from after the locust invasion and received permission from King Ibn Saudi, the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, to search for their nests.

Tip: If you want to know more about Thesiger's research trips, you should visit the museum in Salalah.

To this day, the Rub al-Khali has hardly been explored- apart from satellite images. The Bedouins have retreated completely to the edge of the desert, and even the caravan trains that were still on the move until around 300 AD and helped the legendary city of Ubar to its wealth no longer take the risk of crossing.

On the Road in the Rub al-Khali

Without desert equipment, excursions through the sand dunes by off-road vehicle are only possible at the edge of the fascinating Rub al-Khali, Oman - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

Despite its hostile conditions, the endless emptiness of the Rub al-Khali exerts a fascination on people. Nowhere else can one leave the stress and noise of the business world behind as much as in the complete silence of the desert.

However, excursions into the spectacular sea of sand should never be undertaken alone and only with a local guide! Only at the edge of the desert can you drive into the first, already very mighty dunes with an off-road vehicle, even without complete desert equipment.

Tip: Some tour operators organise expeditions with off-road vehicles into the Rub al-Khali. The tours lasting several days including the breathtaking starry sky at night are absolutely unforgettable experiences!

Liwa Oasis

In the south of Abu Dhabi, which belongs to the United Arab Emirates, the green crescent of the Liwa Oasis, which is about 100 km long, shimmers in the middle of the golden-yellow sand desert. The huge oasis in the north of the Rub al-Khali is not entirely planted and actually consists of 50 smaller oases and almost 40 villages, where about 20,000 people live. The life-giving spot in the Rub al-Khali can be reached via the two roads E12 and E65, each of which continues on the E11 towards Abu Dhabi City.


Camel race at the Liwa Oasis

Tourists and Omanis alike roam the vast Rub al-Khali sand desert on dromedary backs - © David Steele / Shutterstock
© David Steele / Shutterstock

If you are fond of camels, you should definitely visit the Liwa Oasis in mid-December. Every year at this time, the traditional Al-Dhafra Festival takes place. On this occasion, camel owners from the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia meet for the annual camel race.

In a fascinating city of Bedouin tents, not only the fastest but also the most beautiful camel is crowned, and there are also numerous markets and traditional events.

Moreeb Dune

The gigantic Moreeb Dune is considered the largest sand dune in the Rub al-Khali, also called the Empty Quarter, Oman - © David Steele / Shutterstock
© David Steele / Shutterstock

The seemingly endless sand dunes of the desert reach a height of over 200 metres. The highest of them is the Moreeb Dune. From Mezairaa, the centre of the Liwa Oasis, an asphalt road leads for about 25 km through the spectacular desert landscape to the Moreeb Dune. The journey alone is worth the trip!

The steep sand dune rises seemingly vertically with a slope angle of 50 degrees. At a height of 120m, the Moreeb dune is over 200m above sea level, making it also one of the highest sand dunes in the world.

No wonder the Moreeb Dune was chosen as the perfect venue for the so-called Dune Racing. The sensational spectacle of the "Moreeb Dune Cars and Bikes Championship", in which participants in tuned vehicles try to drive up to the ridge of the dune, attracts sports tourists from all over the world every year.

Wabar Crater

Spectacular sunsets and breathtaking starry skies are the top sights of the Rub al-Khali in southern Oman - © Frantisek Staud / Shutterstock
© Frantisek Staud / Shutterstock

In 1932, the British explorer Harry Philby roamed the Rub al-Khali in search of the legendary desert city of Ubar, which according to the Koran was swallowed up by the desert at the behest of Allah. After about a month, he came across an area the size of half a square kilometre covered in white sandstone boulders and black glass.

The analysis showed that some of the chunks came from an iron meteorite; the roundish depressions, some of which had almost disappeared in the sand, confirmed the assumption of a meteorite impact in the Rub al-Khali. He called the crater landscape "Wabar" due to a mistranslation of "Ubar".

The vast sandy desert in southern Oman lives up to its name "Empty Quarter", because hardly a soul actually lives in the Rub al-Khali - © David Steele / Shutterstock
© David Steele / Shutterstock

Three impact craters are now visible on modern maps, the largest of which has a diameter of 116m. The most massive piece of alien iron recovered from it has a mass of 2.2 tonnes and is now on display in the National Museum of Saudi Arabia.


All three craters have now almost completely disappeared into the sand. It is not clear when the impact of the 3,500 tonne meteorite occurred, estimates range from 260 years ago to several thousand years ago.

Recommended accommodations: Oman


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