x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rub al Khali: empty, but for how much longer?

Bedouins are growing increasingly prosperous as tour guides in the desert with the use of modern means of transport and navigation.

Sea of sand: the Empty Quarter covers 585,000 sq km and spans four countries.
Sea of sand: the Empty Quarter covers 585,000 sq km and spans four countries.

IBRI, OMAN // Their camels have been replaced by air-conditioned jeeps. Their ability to navigate the wilderness, handed down through generations, is augmented by GPS instruments. Now the Bedouins who once traversed the Empty Quarter in trade caravans are becoming increasingly prosperous as tour guides in the Omani desert.

Sprawling over four countries - Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Yemen - the Rub al Khali, as it is called in Arabic, covers an area of 585,000 sq km of beautiful yet often forbidding orange-yellow sand dunes that hold a treasure of wildlife and, for many, produce a unique calm. For visitors, the vastness of the Empty Quarter, its eerie silence and the loneliness of the night are therapeutic. Ahmed al Abrawi, 43, an urbanised Bedouin living in Ibri, 450 kms northwest of the Omani capital, Muscat, has six four-wheel drive vehicles for his small tour-guide business, as opposed to the 24 camels his father had before his death in 2002. He employs only fellow Bedouins as drivers. While the equipment is new, the purpose to which it is put is not: Mr al Abrawi sees it as his calling to continue the Bedouin tradition of hospitality and helping visitors explore the desert. Not that he and his ancestors still would see eye-to-eye.

"My grandfather would have been upset with my attempt to replace the camels with machines," he said. Still, the increasing profits of his tour business are vital for his family at a time when Bedouins can no longer survive on the nearly extinct trade in the animal skins, dates, wool and pottery that the desert caravans once supported. Although it had been used by Bedouins as a transit route for centuries, the Empty Quarter achieved modern-day renown due to British explorer Wilfred Thesiger and his book Arabian Sands, which recounted his treks through the desolate region between 1945 and 1950.

For contemporary travellers, it takes five to six hours to reach the Empty Quarter. While more than 20 tour companies shuttle foreign and domestic tourists there throughout the year, most of the expeditions never cross paths because of the sheer size of the desert. "You may think you are the only one camping, but there are others somewhere behind the thousands of dunes around you," said Salim Busaidy, owner of Golden Sands Tour. "It makes you think you have got the place to yourself."

Jean Claude La Cheaux, a 70-year-old retiree from France, cannot count the number of times he has been to the Empty Quarter during his lifetime. "The great silence, the stillness and the endless sands during the day makes you reconcile with your troubles. The stars during the night makes you wonder about God even for those who don't believe in him," Mr La Cheaux said. Bedouins have never settled in the Empty Quarter, and they have a joke that the expanse is God's chosen site for "Eternal Hell". It has few water holes for the occasional camel caravans that one still sees when Bedouins cross the quarter on their way to Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

The caravan routes, marked by the imprint of camel hooves that meander between the sand dunes, are fast disappearing. More common are the imprints of four-wheel drive vehicles, which tourists prefer to climb the sandy hills in search of a perfect view over the plains. For Mr al Abrawi, the real romance of the Empty Quarter died long ago when the previous generation began to settle in Oman's towns and cities. His grandfather, he said, never needed an instrument to guide engineers to survey the desert looking for oil and gas.

"He would have been ashamed of me that I use a GPS to navigate," Mr al Abrawi chuckled. "The beauty of this land is to use the instincts you are born with to get around, but it is a dying breed now." Mr al Abrawi was born in Ibri, an adjacent town north of the Empty Quarter. In his 20s, he accompanied his father on many government-sponsored expeditions to document the wildlife of the Empty Quarter.

Tourists today never realise that life actually exists in that stretch of desert, Mr al Abrawi said. They are oblivious to the lizards, wild cats, leopards, gazelles, vultures and even ants that blend with the sands, invisible to the casual visitor. Mr La Cheaux agreed, saying that only those visitors who have developed a close relation with the Empty Quarter notice the wildlife. "I have to say I have been enjoying a great romance with this desert over the years for it to show me its wealth. I feel privileged, and that's why I keep coming back," he said.

At nightfall, it is easy to see why. The desert comes into its own, both tour operators and campers say. The incredible multitude of stars compete for places in the pitch- black night sky. "Like millions of strewn pearls, the stars mesmerise you and put you at ease to forget your worries," said Mr Busaidy, who has been running his tour company, Golden Sands Tour, since 1996. "I never get tired of the desert nights I spend here, no matter what month of the year it is."

Mr al Abrawi encourages his clients never to kill the camel spiders or the scorpions that come out in the night. They are part of the great richness of the desert, he said. "If you enjoy the tranquility and the peace that comes with it, then you must acknowledge the right to exist for these crawling creatures," salshaibany@thenational.ae