If you stand in the middle of what the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger called “The Empty Quarter” – the vast tract of desert that makes up most of Abu Dhabi emirate – and look around, what you will see is… emptiness. Mile upon mile of emptiness, as far as the eye can see. Pale yellow sand, orange sand, flat sand or rolling dunes, but sand all the same.  

Abu Dhabi Empty Quarter
An endless vista of sand in the Empty Quarter

But look a little closer, and you will notice that in fact it is not empty at all. Here and there the odd bush or tree has found enough water to flourish and, every so often, irrigation pipes have allowed the building of a remote farm or palace.

Occasionally you come across a date farm, wresting fertility from the desert. At one point we reached an area that was grandiosely described as “forest”. Perhaps it will be one day; at the moment it is more like lots of little trees struggling for growth.

Camels, and Other Animals

Then there were the camels. First the occasional one, then a whole herd as we passed the racetrack near Madinat Zayed. Tents had been erected for the forthcoming camel races, and we stopped to watch the training of the young camels.

Camel trainers, Abu Dhabi
Camels being put through their paces

Of course, it was not entirely empty even in Thesiger’s day. Apart from the wandering nomads, the desert was populated by a whole variety of other species. When we ventured out for an early morning walk, before the wind had rearranged the sand, we saw tracks. A snake, a fox, and some kind of small rodent.  

Animal tracks in the desert
Early morning animal track

We stayed in the luxurious Tilal Liwa Hotel, almost literally in the middle of nowhere, with a spectacular backdrop of multi-coloured dunes and palm trees. It is a landscape of its own: sand of red, and orange, and yellow, its formation varying from day to day.

Tilal Liwa Hotel, Abu Dhabi emirate
Not your usual hotel patio – the Tilal Liwa Hotel

Tourism… And Oil

Then there are the tourists. Not in sufficient numbers to disturb the emptiness of the desert, but activities such as dune-bashing and desert safaris are popular with locals and visitors alike.

Increasingly, there are other types of activity here, too. There are inland oilfields, and preparations are being made for the construction of the UAE railway. You can see the infrastructure everywhere: pipelines, pylons, workers’ huts. The desert is gradually being reclaimed to make way for new towns and enterprises. Perhaps future generations will bemoan the loss of the desert environment.  

Desert in Abu Dhabi
Tents and pylons vying with one another

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