Inter Continental

Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter)

Category: Desert

For all its worth, artistic minds, probably thinking it’s as good as it gets, see the aesthetics in this sea of dunes called Rub al Khali, popularly, Empty Quarter as the Arabic term transliterated reads “quarter of emptiness.”

 Known as one of the largest sand deserts in the world, it baffles everyone to think how the Bedus, the desert’s original inhabitants, had survived Rub al Khali’s harsh inhospitable conditions.

What’s probably less intriguing is that this barren landscape, home only to spiders and rodents, has captured the imagination of creative minds, adventurers, and oil investors.

‘Ocean of Fire’

The Empty Quarter was where the fictional “Ocean of Fire” horse race was set in John Fusco’s  Hidalgo, a 2004 film based on the story of an American distance rider, Frank Hopkins, and his mustang, Hildago, who raced against Arabian purebred horses. The film was actually shot in the U.S. and Morocco.

The Empty Quarter also had  an important role in horror genre star, Clive Barker's Jericho, a supernatural-themed first person shooter video game.

Barker’s dark fantasy Weaveworld, which deals with a parallel world theme and  released in 1987, also had Empty Quarter written all over.

American science fiction and fantasy author, Tim Powers extensively used the book, The Empty Quarter by the British explorer and Arabist, St. John Philby, as resource in his 2001 novel, Declare, a supernatural spy novel about the Cold War.

There are more.

Empty Quarter also served as the site of Machine City, Zero-One, in the Matrix series; Gerald Seymour's novel, UnknownSoldier was almost entirely set there too.

 Crossing the Quarter

Just as one climb a mountain because it’s there, more and more extreme sports enthusiasts have been entering Empty Quarter, attempting to cross it for the same reason – it’s there.

They sign up every year to the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a multi-disciplined, five-day endurance event in the United Arab Emirates that cuts through the emirate with routes that include at least three days into the Empty Quarter.   Several other race events cut through portions of the Empty Quarter.

The first documented crossing of the Empty Quarter was in 1931 by explorer Bertram Thomas, an English civil servant, whose feat was quickly followed in 1932 by Philby. Between 1946 and 1950 Wilfred Thesiger,  a British explorer and travel writer from Addis Ababa, crossed the area several times and mapped large parts including the mountains of Oman.

In 1924, the famous English explorer, Rosita Forbes was to cross the Empty Quarter with Philby but was advised against it by British authorities saying it was too dangerous to do so. Forbes had in the winter of 1920-21 crossed some 600 miles of desert on to the Libyan Kufara oasis the exact location of which was unknown at the time.

Eighty years later today, another woman, Hajar Ali would attempt to pursue Forbes’ dream. On March 22, 2012, Ali, a lady from Singapore who runs her own off-the-beaten- path luxury travel company, set to cross the Empty Quarter (details of her journey in the next edition of Travel Arabia).

Riding a vehicle, Ali was scheduled to take the route from Abu Dhabi(Al Ain) to Salalah in Oman, and will be going through the Umm As Samim, “Mother of  Poison,” an area known for its sabkha, or salt flats, and quick sands.  

 Not empty after all

The lifestyles of the Bedus  were forever changed due to the discovery of oil in the Empty Quarter. 

The Empty Quarter is the second most oil-rich site in the world. Vast oil reserves have been discovered underneath the sand dunes. Sheyba, at the northeastern edge, is a major Arab light crude oil-producing site in Saudi Arabia. Also, Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world, extends southward into the northernmost parts of the Empty Quarter.

The area, which covers 650,000 kilometers, encompasses most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including most of Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The desert, which is 1,000 kilometres long, and 500 kilometres  wide, has surface elevation varying 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.  The Empty Quarter has a daily maximum temperature average of 47 °C  that can reach as high as 51°C.

(Photos sourced from Flickr)