The Rub’ Al-Khali

The most mythical desert in the world

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The Rub' Al-Khali, whose name literally means "Empty Quarter", was coined by the Swiss geographer Burckhardt in his 1829 book "Travels in Arabia". It was later used by the English traveller Charles Doughty who quoted this explanation from Arabs stating that "Two quarters divided God and the children of Adam, the third he gave to Ajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog), the fourth part of the world is called the Rub' Al-Khali". Today this name has become the official one of this legendary desert, even among Arabs.

Grandiose extent of massive sand dunes in the Rub' Al-Khali (photo: Florent Egal)

Grandiose extent of massive sand dunes in the Rub' Al-Khali (photo: Florent Egal)

Some parts of this mythical desert spread until United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen but most of its vast extend is in Saudi Arabia, mainly in the Eastern Province, but also in Najran and Riyadh Provinces.

Satellite view of the Rub Al Khali in the Eastern Province where the dunes reach as high as 250 meters (Google earth image)

Satellite view of the Rub Al Khali in the Eastern Province where the dunes reach as high as 250 meters (Google earth image)

The Rub' Al-Khali accumulates superlatives. It is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world; it contains some of the highest dunes as some reach 250 meters; its hyper-arid climate is among the harshest in the world with typical annual rainfall of less than 3 centimeters;  its temperatures reach above 50°C in summer... whereas sub-zero temperatures are frequent during winter nights!

Another dangerous feature of the Rub' Al-Khali is the sabkhas. Feared by locals, sabkhas are plains in between massive dunes that can be easy to cross in most cases but in some parts the ground is so soft that vehicles would get badly stuck.

Sabkhas between massive sand dunes in the Rub' Al-Khali (Florent Egal)

Sabkhas between massive sand dunes in the Rub' Al-Khali (Florent Egal)

The tough conditions the Rub' Al-Khali imposes on any presence of life made of it one of the last places on earth not explored till the beginning of the 20th century, and the world had to wait for the expeditions of Bertram Thomas in 1930 and Harry Saint-John Philby in 1932 to have the first descriptions of this​ mythical place.

But animal life hasn't waited that long to populate this desert as snakes, scorpions, spiders, but also more "friendly" inhabitants, such as birds, have succeeded to adapt the toughness of the climate.

Shades on dunes of the Rub' Al-Khali (photo: Florent Egal)

Shades on dunes of the Rub' Al-Khali (photo: Florent Egal)

Moreover this place has not always been that hostile to life as it is believed to have hosted lakes for extended periods of time thanks to monsoon rains pouring into the Arabian Peninsula further north for thousands of years.

Lake in the Rub' Al-Khali resulting from drillings (photo: F. Egal)

Lake in the Rub' Al-Khali resulting from drillings (photo: F. Egal)

As surprising as it sounds the Rub' Al-Khali was once populated with hippopotamuses, water buffalos, and long horned cattle, and today shells can still be found on the desperately dry ground of its vast plains.

Nowadays some drillings in the Rub' Al-Khali that brought underground water to the surface give an idea of how it could have looked during more humid periods.

It is really tempting to face the dangers of the Rub' Al-Khali in order to admire its grandiose landscapes and live the true experience of the desert, but given the extreme conditions of the Rub' Al-Khali it is strongly recommended to go there only with accredited tours. Clearly, it is just madness to explore it alone or with one car only, even if fully equipped. Unfortunately deadly accidents still happen, and in recent years people have got stuck in the vast expanse of sand far away from any phone coverage and human presence.

Mountain-like dune in the Rub' Al-Khali (photo: Florent Egal)

Mountain-like dune in the Rub' Al-Khali (photo: Florent Egal)

On the 10th of December 2015, after years of preparation, Mark Evans's project to recreate the trip made by Bertram Thomas 85 years earlier finally took place. That day the "Crossing the Empty Quarter" team left from Salalah in Oman, went through the Rub' Al-Khali from south to north, and after 49 days and 1 300km on foot and by camel, Omani explorers Mohammed Al-Zadjali and Amur Al- Wahaibi, with Brit Mark Evans successfully reached Al Rayan Fort in Doha, so completing the first crossing of the Empty Quarter in 85 years

Mark Evans and the "Crossing the Empty Quarter" team during their crossing of the Rub'Al-Khali in Saudi Arabia (photo: F. Egal)

Mark Evans and the "Crossing the Empty Quarter" team during their crossing of the Rub'Al-Khali in Saudi Arabia (photo: F. Egal)

Tours organizing trips to the Rub' Al-Khali

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The most mythical desert in the world (author: Florent Egal)

About the Author

My name is Florent Egal, I am a French national living in Riyadh since January 2010. After six years of exploration of Saudi Arabia I have decided to show with this website that KSA has much more to offer than the stereotype landscape of empty extends of sand dunes. I hope that after reading through these pages people will feel the same willingness and amazement than I have to discover this fascinating country

james geddes - April 15, 2017

breath taking

    Florent Egal - April 17, 2017

    Thank you James. Florent

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