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The Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali)

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                                       The Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali)


    Until recently my perceptions on the geographical composition of most parts of the world was virtually the same, however, this completely changed during my stay in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While there I toured the northern Saudi Arabia region, the Rub al Khali or simply the ‘Empty Quarter’, one of the largest sand deserts in the world that juts into four countries of Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. I intended to have fun and all that during the short stay, but I could not help, I found myself abandoning my prior intentions, as there were too much geographical mysteries to be unearthed. For instance, I wanted to unearth the mystery as to why the ‘Empty Quarter’ has remained largely unexploited and unexplored despite it being the largest sand desert in the world.

                                                   Research Observations

                I utilized all potential sources of information such as interviewing of the few people that I came across, visiting of the nearest tour firm offices and administrative offices, and historical ruins found on the desert. My main aim was to gather information as much information concerning the ‘Empty Quarter’ as possible, information such as the annual climatic conditions of the area, the size of the desert, forms of transport that are commonly used in the desert, minerals (oil) available in the desert, administrative boundaries that divides the desert into the respective parts that each of the four countries hold, the economic viability of desert to the four countries, and other information that could be of substantial help to my research.

                Though the weather was not all that friendly my study was a success and I gathered enough information to answer my research question. I found out that the desert covers some 650, 000 sq. kilometers between the longitudes, 44, 30’ – 56,30’ east, and latitude, 16,30’ – 23,00’north. This area is larger than the size of land areas of Netherlands, Belgium, and France and approximately the land area of Texas. Until recently the desert was largely unexplored, the only memorable visit was a scientific excursion organized by Saudi Geological Survey that comprised of environmentalists from world over conducted a substantial geographic exploration. The excursion discovered meteor rocks, fossilized creatures, 31 new plant species, and 24 animal species. These findings led the geologists to “rename” the desert Rub ‘al-Ghali, the “Valuable Quarter.”

                Other people (Europeans) who made journeys in the desert were Bertram Thomas in 1931 and St. John Philby in 1932, and between 1946 and 1950 Wilfred Thesiger made several incursions into the desert whereby he drew a map of the Empty Quarter.

                The main reason that the desert has not been explored is due to its extreme climatic conditions, with summer temperatures observed at nearly 55 degrees at noon, and sand dunes that reaches 330 meters in height – it is virtually the most forbidding environments of the earth. The forbidding nature of desert supports minimal life, for instance, the only known life that exist in the desert is made up of arachnids and rodents (animals) and xeric shrubs (plants).

                Another forbidding factor that bar any forms of excursions into the desert is the fast approaching desertification that has increased through out the years making the desert more severe than it used to be. The once tracts that were used by the caravans to crisscross the desert are now virtually impassable. The few groups of people who used to live in the desert are long gone with ruins of their buildings found near oasis acting as the only signs of their existence. The only people living in this place are the Bedouin who live on the edges of the desert, and gun traffickers are also known to ply their trade along the borders of the desert.

                Geologists have found out that the numerous sand dunes that dots the Empty Quarter are rich sources of oil making the desert one of the richest oil-fields in the world.  For instance, Sheyba, which is right in the middle of the desert is a major Arab light crude oil-producing site in Saudi Arabia. The Ghawwar Field, which extends to the northern part of the desert is the largest oil field in the world.


                It is true that Empty Quarter is one of the most environmentally unfriendly places to visit. However, it has more to offer in terms of beauty; it has lots and lots of sand that rolls on and on, the sand dunes are equally captivating, not to mention the sparse oasis. On the other hand, now that oil-exploitation and explorations goes on right into the middle of the Empty Quarter a lot stands to be done in terms of making the desert more economically viable rather than a large wasteland whose use is only for oil extraction. The proceeds of the oil exploitation should be used to make the place more human friendly, make roads, drill boreholes, carry out artificial agriculture, among other activities that will attract human population and hence make the desert easy to explore.


    Books References:

    Delano, F. (1999). Desert. National Geographic Books, 1999, accessed on March 20, 2009
    This is valuable source for general information about the desert, in my research it was instrumental as it gave me a hint on the earliest human beings to have lived in desert, the Bedouin. In a special way it offers explanations of the fables and myths that underlie the desert, how the earliest people lived, earliest caravan roots, and even the history the city which was discovered recently buried under the sand stacks.

    Core, R. (1979). “The Desert” National Geographic (November 1979), 586-639, accessed on March 20, 2009
    This book offers invaluable information about the desert, much of the history on Empty Quarter is recorded here. Much space is dedicated to small detail such as sizes of various sceneries in the desert; it also dedicates much space on the explanation of various species of animals and plants that are found in the desert. The book was extremely useful in my paper.

    Theisiger, W. (1985). Arabian sands. Penguin Books, accessed on March 22, 2009
    This book offers a detailed account on the Empty Quarter. In the book explanations on the formation of various sand desert features such as dunes, oasis is given. The book also gives an explanation about the potential economic importance of desert in terms of the oil wealth that the desert is made of. Information about the early inhabitants and explorers to the desert are given. It is a generally a source that anyone seeking a great deal of information about the desert would think of first reading.

    Wilkinson, D. M. (1978). “The Empty Quarter”. New Harbinger Publications, accessed on March 21, 2009
    This book offers a fictional story about the woes that faced two oil drillers in the middle of the Empty Quarter. Wilson Logan and Jamie Strong both oil drillers are engulfed in a personal tussle that has a long time ago history. Right in the middle of the Empty Quarter the writer (himself a former oil driller) uses their tussle to explore the drilling technology, oil wealth in the desert and how stressful it is to work in those conditions. This is a nice source for detailed information about the Empty Quarter.

    Clark, A. (1989). “Lakes of the Rub’ AL-Khali, Saudi Aramco World.” Aramco World, (may/June 1989) pp. 28-33, accessed on March 20, 2009
    This journal article carries with it a lot of information about the history of the desert; it gives a detailed account of what is expected to have inhabited the desert in 10,000 ago. I would rather call it more of an historical source than a geographical one because it dedicates much of its rhetoric on historically materials, fossils, remains, and other information that portray the desert as once a nice habitable place.

    Other References:

    Bhala, T. “Humming across the Empty Quarter”, available at;, accessed on March 20, 2009
    This site gives a point by point account of the Empty Quarter, the literature is given inform a report about an excursion visit that was carried by a group across the desert. However, it gives all what one want to know about the desert, size, habitation, climate, and even tips on the best ways to navigate the desert. I found the site very useful in my research study; it helped me make a coherent order of data collected in the study.

    George, S. (2005). National Geographic Magazine, accessed on March 20, 2009
    This site offers an extensive account of what was, and what is the Empty Quarter through vivid descriptions that are aided by quality work of photography. The illustrative pictorials I got a glimpse of the Empty Quarter even before I set foot into the world’s greatest sand deserts. It was very useful in my research study since it doubled as a source and a guide to various interesting sceneries.

    Great Desert Explorers, available at;, accessed on March 20, 2009

    This site offers a compressive account on the early visitors/explorers especially the Europeans, gun traders, who crossed the inhospitable Empty Quarter and also the deserts earliest inhabitants (Bedouin). It also gives a contrasting account of the climate during those days and now. An explanation of the deserts major attractive sites that the desert boasts of is given in the booklet. It is a useful source for a quick glance of what the desert is made of.

    Faulkner, A. (1999). Rub al Khali Desert Oman, Available at;, accessed on March 22, 2009

    This website explains on the best ways of going walking (exploring) into the desert from the Oman stretch, for instance the best time is during the cooler months. It offers brief information on some of the desserts natural features and animals to be commonly found in the area such as the Agama lizard. Unlike the other sources that I used this one considers the Empty Quarter as more of Oman’s entity than Saudi Arabia.

    Explorer Mikael Strandbergs trip to Rub Al-Khali plus fantastic pictures,  available at;, accessed on March 20, 2009

    This is a pictorial booklet that displays fantastic pictorial descriptions the beautiful desert; it also offers brief history of some of the remaining structures that gives evidence of the early forms of human activity in the middle of the desert. It vividly describes some of the most interesting places within the desert, e.g. the ruins of the “ruined city” and sections of the desert that have trees.


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    Frequently Asked Questions

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    What is the meaning of Rub al Khali?
    Rubʿ al-Khali, (Arabic: “Empty Quarter”) also spelled Al-Rubʿ al-Khālī, vast desert region in the southern Arabian Peninsula, constituting the largest portion of the Arabian DesertArabian DesertClimate of the Arabian Desert. The Arabian Desert spreads across 22° of latitude, from 12° to 34° north; although much of the desert lies north of the Tropic of Cancer, it usually is considered a tropical desert. › place › Arabian-Desert › ClimateArabian Desert - Climate - Encyclopedia Britannica.
    What is the the Rub Al Khali Empty Quarter in English in Saudi Arabia?
    Rubʿ al-Khali, (Arabic: “Empty Quarter”) also spelled Al-Rubʿ al-Khālī, vast desert region in the southern Arabian Peninsula, constituting the largest portion of the Arabian DesertArabian DesertClimate of the Arabian Desert. The Arabian Desert spreads across 22° of latitude, from 12° to 34° north; although much of the desert lies north of the Tropic of Cancer, it usually is considered a tropical desert. › place › Arabian-Desert › ClimateArabian Desert - Climate - Encyclopedia Britannica.
    Where is the Rub Al Khali Empty Quarter located?
    Sprawling over parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, the Empty Quarter—or Rub' al Khali—is the world's largest sand sea. Roughly the size of France, the Empty Quarter holds about half as much sand as the entire Sahara Desert.
    Why is Rub al Khali called Empty Quarter?
    The Arabic name Rub al Khali means “empty quarter.” The name was given to it because it's a huge stretch of unbroken sand desert that has bested kings, adventurers, and nomads for thousands of years. In a region defined by deserts, the Rub al Khali came to be known for being especially daunting and inhospitable.

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