Deserts of the Emirates

The endless dunes between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain are golden waves of lifeless sand, dead and uninviting. They are also increasingly defaced by power lines, pipes and water tanks and demarcated by endless walls and fences as tenure and utilisation are settled. They are still traversed by camels but now also four wheel drives with tyres flattened to grip the flowing sand. Only the high dunes on the edge of the vast Rub’ Al Khali around Liwa and the sabkhas or salt flats that are located adjacent to the coast are impenetrable to all.

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A choppy sea of endless dunes and an isolated camp site.

In the right hands, vehicles charge up the shallow dune slope and tip over the top with no knowledge of the downslope. Routes are picked with a practiced eye and it all looks so easy until you find yourself behind the wheel and soon sinking in the clutching sand; too few revs, the wrong pace and, worst of all, a wee bit of hesitation at the crucial moment and it’s time to roll out the winch and be pulled sheepishly off a flattened crest or out of a sunken dip.

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Temporarily stuck on the dune crest.

The silent days of Thesiger, camel trains and Bedu tribesmen are long gone. Now great highways streak black between the towering coastal cities and the oases of the interior, the latter transformed into sprawling towns with endless avenues of huge villas. Second homes are not on the sweltering coast but inland near the cool-shaded wadis and date palm-fringed water sources of Al Ain.

We spent most time in our three years in the UAE up in the mountains, on the mangrove coasts or meandering huge farms and wetlands, in fact anywhere where there was some water or an escape from the heat. The deserts are not only inhospitable but also too dangerous for solitary exploration as well as being sadly empty of their wildlife. This degeneration is due in large part to too much hunting as well as chronic overgrazing by camels. Keeping and racing camels are passionate past-times for many Emiratis; and numerous camel herds roam the deserts.  Camel trainers exercise strings of much-prized animals morning and evening either across the wide plains or around one of the many enormous racing circuits.

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Neatly attired racing camels escorted by riders.

Today much of the wildlife is no more than tame game, having been released from captive-breeding facilities. Their wild ancestors were hunted with falcons for centuries and more recently with rifles, which was sustainable from the back of a camel but not from a vehicle. Some say that the advent of the Land-Rover in Arabia enabled the eradication of most large mammals and birds of the interior. Conservation over the past forty years has been about restoring many of these species. The cause célèbre is the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), once widespread in Arabia but extinct in the wild in the 1970s and then reintroduced from captive stock from the 1980s such that today there are thousands within great fenced reserves.  Very few are hunted by Arabian leopards (Panthera pardus nimr) or wolf (Canis lupus arabspacks and none by the long extinct Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) which now only clings on in the empty plains of central Iran.

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Arabian oryx in a reserve near Bab Al Shams, just 20 km from Dubai, in no hurry to run.

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A recently released and entirely accepting Houbara bustard striding through the well-tended Acacia

Even with a paucity of top predators and their mammal prey, the deserts have a distinctive ecology principally driven by subtle variations in rainfall patterns and humidity. As you travel north from Abu Dhabi past Dubai and into Sharjah on the outer bypass (the 8-lane Emirates Road), the landscape becomes less bare and more vegetated. The sheltering base of many dunes hold loose clumps of distinctive deep green ghaf trees (Prosopis cineraria)

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Dawn in the desert; a grove of ghaf trees is a distinctive sight in the northern half of the UAE.

The vegetation throughout the Emirates is under enormous pressure from the huge numbers of camels that now roam the deserts.  ‘Then and now’ photographs show how the vegetaion that once clung to the base of dunes throughout even the driest deserts has disappeared and turned to bland, blown sand over recent decades. The ghaf trees are also grazed and cut for firewood, so now it is much less common except in a few reserves.

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Camels are kept in great numbers and rounded up seasonally to be sold at gatherings like this one at Al Faqa’a.

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Fodder is sold to camel herders off the back of trucks.

The results are that just a few grazing tolerant species hang on in the emptying deserts such as the unattractively named Sodom’s apple (Calotropis procera). This is a small, odd-looking tree that could easily have been the inspiration for the surreal landscape of the The Magic Roundabout but an important nectar source for many insects.

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Overgrazed desert with an isolated Calatropis tree (there are gazelle tracks visible in front of the tree), the desert sedge Cyperus conglomeratus another grazing tolerant species, and sparse patches of desert squash Citrullus colocynths on the tops of small hillocks of sand.

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The leathery leaves, strange flowers and seed pods of Calatropis procera.

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Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus) feeding on Calatropis; the exotic, perhaps primitive, flowers attract many beetles, wasps, bees and butterflies.

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The desert squash is an astonishingly successful plant; the mini-gourd will swell to the size of a large apple.

The animals of the deserts are thinly distributed and mostly nocturnal. This includes extremely rare mammals such as sand cats (Felis margarita) and their prey, such as the rapid running and still widespread Cheesman’s gerbil (Gerbillus cheesmani). Arabian leopards are extinct in the Emirates but a few cling on in the remotest mountains of Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The one species worth braving the wilder deserts in the far west of the UAE is the honey badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis), which is a totally fearless and huge mustelid; an ugly omnivore with a penchant for honey.

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Mountain gazelles (Gazelle gazelle cora) on a sand ridge often seek shelter in the heat of the day beneath the Calatropis and ghaf trees.

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Pharaoh eagle owls hunt the nocturnal small mammals and breed in old corvid nests in ghaf trees as well as ledges on cliffs.

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Greater hoopoe-larks hide from the summer sun within reptile and other burrows. These have a wonderful tumbling display flight, looking like an unkempt shuttlecock of black and white feathers tossed in the air.

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Cream-coloured courser is spectacular in its understated way; an upright desert wader with a wonderfully curved bill.

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A black-crowned sparrow-lark on a nest hidden beneath Tetraena simplex.

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On the same gravel plain a pair of pin-tailed sandgrouse; the male on the right. These are probably not wild but released from captive stock.

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Spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx aegyptia) is the most impressive reptile but never strays far from the sanctuary of its deep burrow dug into the soft, gravel plains; this dinosaur feeds solely on plants and thus populations are susceptible to disturbance and especially the overgrazing of the plains by camels.

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The Arabian toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus arabicus) is fleet of foot and beautifully camouflaged.

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The distinctive side-winding tracks of an Arabian horned viper (Cerastes gasperetti), run up a bank having been firmed for a few hours in the early morning dew.

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Arabian horned viper – the sidewinder.

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The smaller but much more deadly saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) in a patch of rough desert a few miles from Dubai’s sky-high Burj Khalifa.

Both these viper species were captured by my friend Josh, who used them to run training course on how to handle snakes safely when found, often trapped, in a pit or quiet corner in the many oil production facilities in the desert. The training begins with a dummy snake made of rubber and then progresses to a harmless species like a sand boa (Eryx jayakari) before tackling a deadly viper. The courses were surprisingly successful and now when a snake is found, a trained handler removes it; before it would have been summarily dispatched with a shovel.

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An Arabian cicada (Platypleurini arabica) sitting out the summer sun on Calligonum comosum, a shrub of deep sand, commonly found around Liwa.  

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A dung beetle, I think Scarabs christatus, excavating its burrow.

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The endless inhospitable sand; the elegant flow of sand rudely punctuated by a distant pylon.

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