At that precise moment when you find yourself surrounded by a vast sea of dunes whose end can’t even be seen from the furthest horizon, there are no signs of modern civilization and the deepest silence is only broken by the growl of camels and the warm welcome of the local Bedouins, you start wondering:
Am I still in that luxurious and pretentious Gulf country called the United Arab Emirates?
Because no one can argue against the idea that the Liwa Oasis and the Empty Quarter (Rub al-Jali) represent the most authentic, wild and pure image of the often underrated Arabian Gulf.
This guide to the Liwa Oasis contains everything you need to know, including things to do in Liwa, accommodation and transportation tips.
Don’t forget to check the best desert safaris in Dubai
The oasis is situated on the north-eastern edge of the Empty Quarter (Rub-al-Jali), a vast desert spread across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen, which is the largest continuous sea of dunes in the world.
It extends over an area of 650,000km² and measures 1,000km in length by 500km in width.
The Bedouin who lived in the oasis of Liwa (the Bani Yas tribe) tapped underground, freshwater recourses to cultivate dates and, as a result, a large number of villages and settlements appeared in Liwa during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Liwa was the birthplace of the Nahyan family, the current ruling family of Abu Dhabi and the UAE, which, back then, was the leading family of the Bani Yas tribe.
However, at the end of the 18th century, the Nahyan family decided to move to Abu Dhabi to work in the pearl industry as, during that century, collecting and trading pearls had become a key element of the region’s economy.
Nevertheless, some Bedouin remained in Liwa and, for the next couple of centuries, they built forts and towers to protect all their resources.
Today, the cultivation of dates in Liwa is so important for the country’s economy, that they are even building a train to Liwa with the sole objective of taking the dates to the capital and making them ready for exportation.
The Liwa is Oasis is absolutely breath-taking but, on top of that, this is the only place in the country where you can experience the real, ancient Emirati culture.
There are a few hotels, two of them very close to the main Liwa Oasis attractions and the other in Madinat Zayed, a small town 60km away from the actual oasis.
If you are planning to visit Liwa during high-season, do book in advance, as they tend to be quite busy.
The cheapest – Liwa Hotel – The hotel is all right, nothing fancy but the location is quite unbeatable, right in the middle of the sea dunes, from where you get stunning views of the Empty Quarter.
A bit nicer (but further away) – Tilal Liwa Hotel – The hotel itself is nicer than Liwa Hotel, especially because it has an amazing pool and the rooms are definitely better. However, the location is not that great, as it is 60km away from the core of the oasis.
The best – Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort – This resort is the most awesome desert hotel in the country. With some of the most stunning views ever, this 5-star hotel is real Emirati luxury combined with tradition. Even if you are not staying here, it is worth checking out.
The culture and history of the UAE might be interesting but, the landscape of the Empty Quarter is simply stunning, to the extent that there’s a famous dune called Moreeb (or Tal Mireb, meaning scary hill) that is 300 meters high, 1,600 meters long and has an inclination of more than 50 degrees.
It’s considered one of the highest and biggest dunes in the world and climbing it to the top is a real sport but very rewarding at the same time.
Such is the importance of this dune, that the Government has built a road to the dune itself, so you don’t really need a 4WD to reach it.
Moreover, at the bottom of the dune, there is a huge complex that holds camel racing and cultural festivals such as the Liwa Dates Festival.
The Moreeb Dune is one of the top things to do in Liwa.
If you like driving, the road that goes to Tal Mireb passes by vertiginous sand mountains that will make you want to stop at every one.
You don’t really need a 4WD but, sometimes, because of the wind, some parts of the road might be covered with sand, so just drive carefully!
This journey is another great thing to do in Liwa.
One piece of advice: bring a bottle of wine and drink it at the top of a dune while you watch the sunset over the largest sea of dunes in the world, the Empty Quarter.
Nowhere else I have been to, have I been surrounded by such a huge amount of sand.
This was, indeed, my most favorite moment of my trip to Liwa.
Due to the country’s strong economic growth and the endless luxury resources the government provides for its citizens, nowadays, there are not many Emirati Bedouin who still keep their traditional way of living.
However, the few Bedouins who do remain are settled along the road in Liwa, where they live in small shacks and make a living from cultivating dates and raising camels.
Only a small bunch of tourists decide to come to this area, so if you ever find one of these shacks where the Bedouin live, stop there and you’ll get all their attention. They don’t speak English at all, but they will be happy to take you around the farm and offer you camel milk.
What seems incredible to me is that, if they wanted, they could live a comfortable life thanks to the help of their government but, they have so much love for the desert and their camels, that they have decided to live as their ancestors used to.
You will never see as many camels as in Liwa Oasis.
They are everywhere, either walking randomly among the dunes or in camel farms, which are often run by real Emirati Bedouin and, like I said, if you are lucky and brave enough, you can have some fresh camel milk.
Besides desert adventure, a top Liwa Oasis tourist attraction is visiting the few fortresses which have been amazingly restored and, somehow, look like sand castles.
I am not a big fan of that but, if you are into dune bashing, quad riding, etc. your hotel can organize absolutely any activity you want. Actually, you are likely to see a few people riding over the dunes.
From Dubai, it is a good 3 to 4-hour drive, depending on how fast you go and the only way to come here is by car.
This isn’t a day trip, and you should really spend the night here in order to enjoy it to its fullest.