Whimsically known as the Empty Quarter, the Rub Al Khali desert encompasses about a third of the Arabian Peninsula, including land in Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In total, it is over 1000km long and 500km wide and it consists of wave upon wave of huge sand dunes.
Historically, many traders lost their lives attempting to transport their goods through this treacherous terrain along the 'Frankincense Trail' to the Arabian Sea. Today, camping out in the Empty Quarter for a night or two is an unforgettable experience not to be missed when visiting Abu Dhabi.
A desert road trip south of Abu Dhabi takes you away from the city's hustle and bustle and transports you to vast open spaces, sandy dunes, and lush date palm groves. The Empty Quarter can be reached from the north via two roads, with the journey taking an hour over a four-lane asphalt road.
To get around the Empty Quarter, you'll need a car. Hire a 4x4 and keep an eye on your gas levels. There is one modern station along the route, with several older-style stations.
If you want to explore the dunes, you will need the help of a professional 4x4 guide. You can also do organised day trips or overnight tours to the Empty Quarter from Abu Dhabi.
Madinat Zayed is the last town before the desert and is the gateway to the Empty Quarter. This small town is the hub of the Al Dhafra region, which makes up two-thirds of the Abu Dhabi emirate. Many desert tours start from here, otherwise, it'll probably just be a quick stop on your way through.
Madinat Zayed also hosts the highly popular Al Dhafra Festival in December, celebrating Emirati heritage and traditions. The festival lasts for 11 days and features a range of events such as camel races, beauty pageants, and contests involving falcons, Arabian horses, salukis (Arabian dogs), in addition to traditional souqs and foods. It’s an experience not to be missed!
The Liwa Oasis is the ancestral homeland of the Bani Yas Bedouin tribe that gave rise to the ruling families of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The oasis is home to hundreds of date palm farms passed down through generations and is nestled among lush forests of palm trees. Historical forts stand tall amongst the dunes, offering a glimpse into the rich history of the area. Liwa has been a hub for date cultivation and trading for over 300 years.
The crescent-shaped oasis stretches for over 100km along Hwy E90, from Umm Hisin in the west to Hamim in the east. The most exciting time to visit is during the Liwa Date Festival which is held in July. The festival celebrates the fruit and its cultural significance through camel races and competitions in air-conditioned tents.
Less than an hour from Liwa, you will reach Tel Moreeb, one of the largest sand dunes in the world standing 300m high and 1.6km long. While the name 'scary hill' might seem intimidating, the dune looks peaceful despite its steep incline.
Locals like to drive up to the top, and 4x4 enthusiasts flock here for the Moreeb Hill Climb event during the Liwa International Festival. Visitors can also climb the dune themselves, but it's important to bring sunscreen, water, and a hat.
The climb is worth it, as the view from the top offers stunning scenery extending into Saudi Arabia. It's incredibly beautiful, especially at sunset, so prepare to take lots of photos.
Staying at the Liwa Oasis allows you to spend the most time in the desert and fully appreciate the stunning scenery. Here are a couple of
Qasr Al Sarab is the ultimate place to stay in the Empty Quarter to immerse oneself in the wonders of the desert. This luxurious resort is nestled in the dunes and has a surreal feel - the surrounding desert was a film location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The resort's towers and turrets are reminiscent of a grand desert fortress, and the accommodations are equally grand, with private villas featuring plunge pools. There's plenty to do onsite with four restaurants and a spa, or you can join in one of the excursions into the desert which include camel treks, sunset walks, sandboarding, and trips to ancient forts.
Check availability at Qasr Al Sarab
Discover more about the rich culture and history of the area at Liwa Nights, a luxurious glamping retreat hosted by a local bedouin. Authentic experiences are dedicated to showcasing the traditions and customs of the area and complimentary activities include camel feeding and riding, hiking, falcon photo-ops, and bonfires.
For an additional fee, you can experience thrilling dune-bashing throughout the Empty Quarter, take falcon hunting lessons, tour and taste organic date farms, and explore historical forts (based on availability).
Surrounded by the seemingly endless dunes of the Empty Quarter, the retreat is just minutes away from the famous Moreeb Dune and Liwa Dates Factory.
Check availability at Liwa Nights
Immerse yourself in the ancient sport of falconry at Al Qasr Sarab, where you can witness the incredible speed and precision of nine ultra-fast Peregrine and Saker falcons. Catch the twice-daily falconry shows, where four falcons soar and swoop in pursuit of prey. In addition to falconry, witness the loyal Saluki dogs in action as they transform from placid to fierce in the pursuit of bait. It's an unforgettable experience that offers a glimpse into the traditional hunting practices of Arabic nomads.
Experiencing the sand dunes is a must when spending time in the desert. You can choose from a variety of options, including a thrilling 4x4 ride with the dunes almost touching your window, the rhythmic sway of a camel, or the more modest saddle of a fat-tire bike. Local hotels and resorts provide an array of desert activities that can be booked by guests and visitors alike.
Whether you're an architecture enthusiast or not, learning about the origins of a culture is always captivating. Al Jabbanah Fort, located near the turnoff to Qasr Al Sarab, is a three-towered structure with a large courtyard and a well. The nearby Muquib Tower is also worth visiting. The cubic structure with captivating Arabesque window framing can be found on the right side of the road after the Liwa Hotel roundabout.
The best time to visit the Empty Quarter is between October and April when temperatures are relatively moderate. During July and August, the highest daily temperatures reach an average of 47 °C (117 °F) and can go as high as 51 °C (124 °F).
Keep in mind that it can get cold in winter. Even though the average daily low temperature in January and February is 12 degrees Celsius, there can be frost and the temperature can change quite a bit over the course of the day.
Last Updated 16 February 2023