Rub' al Khali

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Coordinates: 20°N 50°E / 20°N 50°E / 20; 50

Rub' al (الربع الخالي)
Empty Quarter
sand desert
Rub al Khali 002.JPG
Sand dunes in the Rub' al Khali.
Countries Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Length 1,000 km (621 mi)
Width 500 km (311 mi)
Area 650,000 km2 (250,966 sq mi)
Empty quarter Arabia.PNG
Location of the empty quarter in Arabia.

The Rub' al Khali (Arabic: الربع الخالي‎‎ ar-Rubʿ al-Khālī,[note 1] "Empty Quarter") is the largest continuous sand desert (erg) in the world,[1] encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. The desert covers some 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq mi) (the area of long. 44°30′−56°30′E, and lat. 16°30′−23°00′N) including parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.[2] It is part of the larger Arabian Desert.


Typical pale gravel plains surrounded by huge sand dunes
Water found below ground level in the Rub' al Khali


The desert is 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) long, and 500 kilometres (310 mi) wide. Its surface elevation varies from 800 metres (2,600 ft) in the southwest to around sea level in the northeast.[3] The terrain is covered with sand dunes with heights up to 250 metres (820 ft), interspersed with gravel and gypsum plains.[2][3] The sand is of a reddish-orange color due to the presence of feldspar.[3]

There are also brackish salt flats in some areas, such as the Umm al Samim area on the desert's eastern edge.[3]

Lake beds[edit]

Along the middle length of the desert there are a number of raised, hardened areas of calcium carbonate, gypsum, marl, or clay that were once the site of shallow lakes. These lakes existed during periods from 6,000 to 5,000 years ago and 3,000 to 2,000 years ago, the lakes are thought to have formed as a result of "cataclysmic rainfall" similar to present-day monsoon rains and most probably lasted for only a few years. However, lakes in the Mundafen area in the southwest of the Rub' al Khali show evidence of lasting longer, up to 800 years, due to increased runoff from the Tuwaiq Escarpment.[2]

Evidence suggests that the lakes were home to a variety of flora and fauna. Fossil remains indicate the presence of several animal species, such as hippopotamus, water buffalo, and long-horned cattle. The lakes also contained small snails, ostracods, and when conditions were suitable, freshwater clams. Deposits of calcium carbonate and opal phytoliths indicate the presence of plants and algae. There is also evidence of human activity dating from 3,000 to 2,000 years ago, including chipped flint tools, but no actual human remains have been found.[2]


The region has a hot desert climate typical of the larger Arabian Desert, the region is classified as "hyper-arid", with typical annual rainfall of less than 3 centimetres (1.2 in). Daily maximum temperatures average at 47 °C (117 °F) and can reach as high as 51 °C (124 °F).[3]


Fauna includes arachnids (e.g. scorpions) and rodents, while plants live throughout the Empty Quarter. As an ecoregion, the Rub' al Khali falls within the Arabian Desert and East Saharo-Arabian xeric shrublands.[3] The Asiatic cheetahs, once widespread in Saudi Arabia, are regionally extinct from the desert.


Geologically, the Empty Quarter is the most oil-rich site in the world.[citation needed] Vast oil reserves have been discovered underneath the sand dunes.[citation needed] Sheyba, at the northeastern edge of the Rub' al Khali, is a major light crude oil-producing site in Saudi Arabia. Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world, extends southward into the northernmost parts of the Empty Quarter.


Satellite image of sand dunes in the Empty Quarter.

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 AD 300,[4] it has been suggested that Ubar or Iram, a lost city, depended on such trade.[5] The traces of camel tracks, unidentifiable on the ground, appear in satellite images.[6]


Today the inhabitants of the Empty Quarter are members of various local tribes – for example, the Banu Yam and Banu Hamdan (in Yemen and the Najran region of southern Saudi Arabia), and the Bani Yas (in the United Arab Emirates). A few road links connect these tribal settlements to the area's water resources and oil production centers.


The first documented journeys by non-resident explorers were made by British explorers 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 including the mountains of Oman, as described in his 1959 book Arabian Sands.[7]

In June 1950, a US Air Force expedition crossed the Rub' al Khali from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to central Yemen and back[8] in trucks to collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and to test desert survival procedures.[9]

In 1999 Jamie Clarke became the first Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter of Arabia in fifty years, his team of six, including three Bedouin, spent 40 days crossing the desert with a caravan of 13 camels.[10]

On 25 February 2006, a scientific excursion organized by the Saudi Geological Survey began to explore the Empty Quarter, the expedition consisted of 89 environmentalists, geologists and scientists from Saudi Arabia and abroad. Various types of fossilized creatures as well as meteorites were discovered in the desert, the expedition discovered 31 new plant species and plant varieties, as well as 24 species of birds that inhabit the region, which fascinated scientists as to how they have survived under the harsh conditions of the Empty Quarter.[11]

In 2012, Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron pulled a specially designed cart from Salalah to Dubai,[12] they produced a documentary film about their journey and how it compared to those of Wilfred Thesiger.[13]

On 4 February 2013, a South African team including Alex Harris, Marco Broccardo and David Joyce claimed that they became the first people to cross the border close to Oman of the Empty Quarter unsupported and on foot,[14] in a journey which started in Salalah and lasted 40 days, eventually ending in Dubai. The team only made use of three water stops along the journey, and pulled a specially designed cart which housed all the supplies necessary for the entire expedition.[15]

In 2013 from 18 February to 28 March, South Korean explorer Young-Ho Nam led a team (Agustin Arroyo Bezanilla, Si-Woo Lee) on a crossing through the Empty Quarter on foot from Salalah, Oman, to Liwa Oasis, United Arab Emirates. The crossing was performed with permission from the governments of Oman and UAE. Dewan Ruler's Representative for Western Region, Emirate of Abu Dhabi recognized it as the world's first on-foot crossing of the Empty Quarter following the border of Oman and ending in UAE.[16]

In fiction[edit]

Additional images[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Other standardized transliterations include: ar-Rubʻ al-Khālī / ar-rubʿ al-ḵālī. The ar- is the assimilated Arabic definite article, al-, which can also be transliterated as al-.


  1. ^ Peter Vincent (2008). Saudi Arabia: an environmental overview. Taylor & Francis. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-415-41387-9. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d Clark, Arthur (June 1989). Amdt, Robert, ed. "Lakes of the Rub' al-Khali". Saudi Aramco World. 40 (3): 28–33. ISSN 0003-7567. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands". Terrestrial Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  4. ^ Van Beek, G. W. (1958). "Frankincense and myrrh in ancient South Arabia". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 78 (3): 141–152. JSTOR 595284. doi:10.2307/595284. 
  5. ^ Thomas, B. (1993). "Ubar—the Atlantis of the sands of rub' Al Khali". Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society. 
  6. ^ Fisher, J.; Fisher, B. (1999). "The use of KidSat images in the further pursuit of the frankincense roads to Ubar". IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing. 37 (4): 1841–1847. doi:10.1109/36.774697. 
  7. ^ Morton, Michael Q. (December 2013). "Thesiger and the Oilmen". Journal of the Petroleum History Institute. 14: 125–39. 
  8. ^ "Photographic image" (JPG). Retrieved 2017-08-10. 
  9. ^ Ted A. Morris. "US Air Force Air Sea Rescue in Saudi Arabia 1950–1951". Retrieved 2011-04-09. 
  10. ^ Everest to Arabia. Clarke J. Azimuth Inc. 2000
  11. ^ Saudi Geological Survey. "Desert Studies". Retrieved 2011-10-28. 
  12. ^ John Henzell. "In the footsteps of Thesiger: two Britons on a hotter, unexpected desert adventure". Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  13. ^ "Into The Empty Quarter". Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  14. ^ "Feature Report- 17 March- Empty Quarter Expedition". City 7 News. 
  15. ^ "empty quarter expedition website". Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  16. ^ Kyu Dam Lee. "ExWeb interview with Young-Ho Nam, life is like crossing a desert". ExplorersWeb. 
  17. ^ Los Angeles Times (3 December 2015). "Digging up secrets of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' filming in desert sands – LA Times". Retrieved 23 December 2015. 

External links[edit]