The Author
More West
The Sands
The Remote


Wilfred Thesiger

From the book "Arabian Sands", by Wilfred Thesiger © 1995 by Wilfred Thesiger - All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by special permission of Curtis Brown Ltd. - Photo Credits, © Wilfred Thesiger - Web Production and Design, OneWorld Magazine.




Arabian Sands describes the journeys I made in and around the Empty Quarter from 1945 to 1950, at which time much of that region had not yet been seen by a European. I returned to Arabia in 1977 at the invitation of the Oman Government and Emir Zayid of Abu Dhabi.

Even before I left Arabia in 1950, the Iraq Petroleum Company had started to search for oil in the territories of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They soon discovered it in enormous quantities, and as a result the life I have described in this book disappeared for ever. Here, as elsewhere in Arabia, the changes which occurred in the space of a decade or two were as great as those which occurred in Britain between the early Middle Ages and the present day.

I was aware before I returned to Oman that considerable changes, both economic and political, had taken place there. In 1954 Muhammad at Khalili, the xenophobic Imam of Oman, had died. He was succeeded by his son, Ghalib, but the following year the Omani Sultan, Sayid Said bin Timur, took the opportunity to invade and occupy his domains and to abolish the Imamate. This caused great resentment and Talib, Ghalib's brother, backed by Sulaiman bin Hamyar of the Bani Riyan and a considerable following, rebelled. After their forces had been defeated in 1957 they withdrew into the almost impregnable Jabal al Akhdar; however, the British SAS Regiment, acting on behalf of the Sultan, scaled the mountain and overcame their resistance.

In 1965 a rebellion in Dhaufar, instigated and actively supported by the communist regime of the People's Democratic Republic in South Yemen, led to years of fierce fighting in the Jabal Qarra, which was finally suppressed in 1976 with the help of British and Persian troops. Meanwhile, in 1970 Qaboos had deposed his reactionary father, Sayid Said bin Timur and, as the new Sultan of Oman, he immediately set about developing and modernizing the country.

I was anxious to see the ancient Arab seaport of Muscat which I had not yet visited, to climb the Jabal al Akhdar, the unattainable goal of my last journey in Arabia and, above all, to meet once more the Rashid and Bait Kathir who had accompanied me on my journeys; but I was filled with misgivings at going back.

In this book I have described a journey in disguise through Inner Oman in 1947 and I wrote: 'Yet even as I waited for my identity to be discovered I realized that for me the fascination of this journey lay not in seeing this country but in seeing it under these conditions.' The everyday hardships and danger, the ever-present hunger and thirst, the weariness of long marches: these provided the challenges of Bedu life against which I sought to match myself, and were the basis of the comradeship which united us.

For the three weeks I was in Oman, aeroplanes, helicopters, cars and even a launch were put at my disposal; during this time I covered distances in an hour that previously had taken weeks. Soon after my arrival in Muscat I was flown to Salala, from where I had started my journeys into the Empty Quarter. Salala had been a small Arab village adjoining the Sultan's palace; now it was a town with traffic lights. Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha met me when I landed. They had been my inseparable companions during the five most memorable years of my life. When I had parted from them in Dubai in 1950 they had been young men; now they were the grey-bearded fathers of grown-up sons. I was deeply moved to meet them again. I had thought of them so often. They went off next day to prepare a feast for me at their tents in the desert. Meanwhile, old friends from the Bait Kathir, led by Musallim bin Tafl, escorted me in a procession of cars, with blaring horns, up the highway to the new town on the top of Jabal Qarra, where they entertained me in the concrete houses in which they now lived, near the military airfield.

The following day I was flown in a helicopter, accompanied by a television crew, to bin Kabina's black tents near Shisur. Here the Rashid were assembled, their Landrovers and other vehicles parked behind the tents. None of them now rode camels, though some still lived in tents and owned camels. Many of them had travelled with me on my journeys to the Hadhramaut, but several of my old companions had died or been killed. Bin Kabina had slaughtered a camel and provided a lavish meal; while we ate the television cameras whirred. I flew back to Salala in the evening, accompanied by bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, who remained with me while I was in Oman, Together we climbed the Jabal at Akhdar; here, too, was an airfield with jet planes and helicopters landing and taking off. I realized that after all these years and under these changed conditions the relationship between us could never again be as in the past. They had adjusted themselves to this new Arabian world, something I was unable to do. We parted before I went to Abu Dhabi, which I found an Arabian Nightmare, the final disillusionment.

For me this book remains a memorial to a vanished past, a tribute to a once magnificent people.

    Wilfred Thesiger

When I went back to Oman and Abu Dhabi in 1977, for the first time since I had left there in 1950, I was disillusioned and resentful at the changes brought about by the discovery and production of oil throughout the region - the traditional Bedu way of life, which I had shared with the Rashid for five memorable years, had been irrevocably destroyed by the introduction of motor transport, helicopters and aeroplanes. When I arrived at Abu Dhabi and saw the high-rise buildings and the oil refineries, spread over what had previously been empty desert, the town symbolized all that I hated and rejected: at the time it represented the final disillusionment of my return to Arabia.

I visited Abu Dhabi once more in February 1990 for an exhibition of my photographs, organized by the British Council under the sponsorship of His Highness Sheikh Zayid. On this occasion I found myself reconciled to the inevitable changes which have occurred in the Arabia of today and are typified by the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is now an impressive modem city, made pleasant in this barren land by avenues of trees and green lawns. I stayed in the Emirates for twelve days and I was deeply moved by the warmth of the welcome and the overwhelming hospitality I received in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah.

Wilfred Thesiger, 1990


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