Adventure, arid deserts, and diplomacy rarely go hand in hand. But in December 2015, when British explorer Mark Evans set off on an 808-mile trudge across The Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sandbox, the daring 54-year-old and his entourage were the living embodiment of Omani soft diplomacy.
After all, nothing says “let’s celebrate a shared Arabic experience,” quite like an expedition across Rub al-Khali – where the mercury frequently rises to 56 degrees Celsius. Factor in social media, and you have a veritable celebrity. Mr Evans set up Outward Bound Oman in 2009 – an offshoot of the British outdoor educational charity – and when news of this venture got out the switchboard was soon jammed by representatives of communities dotting the fringes of the itinerary clamouring for a processional visit en route.
A special website set up to document the trip enabled people to tap in remotely, follow the progress on a map, and find out what had gone on each day. One of Mr Evans’ entries describes how the unruliest of his camels was sent home. Another camel was brought as a gift and became supper. Presumably it was stewed for a very long time.
As well as representing the very best (or the worst, depending on the vantage point taken) that an expedition can throw up, the arduous trek from Salalah in southern Oman to Doha in Qatar was also a re-enactment of the route taken in 1930 by British civil servant Bertram Thomas. Back then, warring tribes were one of the biggest worries as well as finding watering holes. With two well-supplied vehicles and a dedicated doctor or two, plus the pre-requisite photographer, Mr Evans faced a slightly altered set of challenges.
But safety net aside, this unspeakably harsh environment is not for the fainthearted. Stretching 900 miles from the fringes of Yemen to the foothills of Oman, and 500 miles from the southern coast of Arabia to the Persian Gulf, Rub al-Khali is a vast and desolate wilderness utterly deserving of its name, which translates as the quarter of emptiness.
In the 1940s, another Englishman, Wilfred Thesiger, captured the spirit of southern Arabia and the remarkable hospitality of the tribal Arabs – known as Bedu – in Arabian Sands, a widely-acclaimed account of his desert excursions. Mr Thesiger, who felt suffocated by the trappings of materialistic Western civilisation, documented his trip with surprisingly good photographs. These are included in his coffee table tome, The Last Nomad.
The vast and seemingly sculpted sand mountains of Rub al-Khali can reach soaring 300-metre heights. In colour photographs they look as if they were designed as movie backdrops. But despite replacing the proverbial thousand words, a photograph can never convey the unbearable intensity of desert heat or the frigidity of its bleak night-time temperatures which helps explain why Werner Herzog’s 2015 Queen of the Desert was filmed mostly in Morocco.
The film tells the tale of Gertrude Bell, a formidable British lady explorer, who is essentially womankind’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia. A negotiator extraordinaire, Ms Bell went out to the desert with Winston Churchill and assorted Arab leaders and helped define the borders between Iraq and Jordan that still exist today. What the patriarchal Arab tribal leaders thought of her stern female influence remains a mystery. The film, sadly, was a flop.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it two out of five stars stating: “Werner Herzog’s biopic of English adventurer Gertrude Bell is impeccably mounted, competently made, entirely respectable – and a bit of a plod.” Matters of taste are not to be discussed.
But nothing is more of a plod than a two-month 808-mile journey through Rub al-Khali. Like Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesiger before him, Mark Evans found the heart-warming hospitality of the desert people buoyed him on. Perhaps it is the greatest voyage of discovery of all to find that in the harshest of environments, humanity is capable of great kindness. And that the best shoes of all for desert trudging are knitted booties – double-layered sheep wool socks.
It must be remembered, that just 75 miles from the expedition’s starting blocks in Salalah, Yemen was being ripped apart. Oman, quietly known as the mediator of the Middle East, sent the Rub al-Khali expedition as diplomatic outreach to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two states have been at a stand-off since they took a different stance on supporting Islamic movements.
Sponsored by His Highness Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said and HRH Prince Charles, The Empty Quarter expedition comprised Arabs and non-Arabs of all persuasions. As a way to ease tension and broker peace, it seems an inspired choice of weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.