Most of the Middle East is desert. Sounds boring, but a desert does not mean a monotonous landscape, instead, the desert here is very varied. There is, for example, the world’s largest sand desert, the Rub al Khali, or “Empty Quarter,” which stretches across Yemen and Saudi Arabia, touches Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and reaches into Qatar. Then, there are rocky deserts all across places like Saudi Arabia. They make for wondrous natural and historical sights, such as Hegra, the sister city of Petra in Jordan, both part of the Nabataean Kingdom. There are imposing mountain ranges, such as the Hajar Mountains in Oman, and the simple stretches of flat, rocky desert across all of the countries.
Of the countries mentioned, Lebanon is by far the greenest with its famous cedar trees. But, generally, desert scenery is pronounced in the Middle East and it makes for some truly stunning sights.
Having lived in Oman, the UAE, and Qatar, and visited all the others, here are my personal favorite natural wonders — in no particular order — to search out in the Middle East.
1. The Empty Quarter
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
I remember driving inland from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, toward the oasis of Liwa. On the car’s GPS monitor, at first there was a road, then nothing. All around, there were endless, beautiful red-hued sand dunes, smoothly undulating to the horizon. If you’ve never seen a sand desert without people, touristy camel rides, or anything as far as the eye can see, this is a sight to behold. It’s pure magic. The Rub al Khali offers 251,000 square miles of sand dunes, dotted with the occasional oasis, and once made for a formidable place to live for the now mostly sedentary Bedouin tribes that used to call this place home. To get a feel for the Empty Quarter, but with a touch of luxury as a reward, drive from Abu Dhabi to the Qasr al Sarab Resort by Anantara. The resort’s name translates to “Palace of the Mirage,” and it truly feels like that.
Pro Tip: Read Across the Empty Quarter by Wilfred Thesiger, an insightful account of the desert and its people.
2. The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea’s fame has spread across its borders, which include Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. What looks like a mirage in the desert, the green water is indeed so salty that you cannot swim or dive but instead float awkwardly on the top. Known for its high mineral content, bathing is supposed to be healthy, but only advised if you have no cuts or open wounds — it stings like crazy.
Pro Tip: There is a lot to see in the area, so it’s best to stay overnight and combine your salty dip with a visit to Wadi Rum or Petra on a tour from Amman.
3. The Arch
In the middle of what feels like nowhere — but is in fact a short drive outside the palm oasis of AlUla, Saudi Arabia — lie some eerie rock formations that can be rather hard to find if you don’t know where to look. I must have driven up and down the track for more than an hour before I found the little turn-off, or recognized it for what it was. But once I arrived at the Arch, also called Rainbow Rock, it was a wonderful sight. There’s not only its delicate shape, but when you look closer, you see layers of pebbles in its foundations, eroded over millennia.
4. Bimmah Sinkhole
Oman is a country blessed with so many great natural sights, from the Indian Ocean coast to the endless desert, from the imposing Hajar Mountains to the incredible wadis. For nature lovers, this is a haven. But one sight that stood out for me was the huge hole in the ground filled with turquoise water — the Bimmah Sinkhole, a 1.5-hour drive outside of Muscat along the highway to Sur. According to local legend, the hole was created by a falling star, although the name suggests otherwise. Close to the coast, the sinkhole is fed by both freshwater and is also connected to the ocean underground. For a swim, you will need to head down a set of steps with good handrails.
Pro Tip: Going on a guided tour from Muscat not only takes in the sinkhole but also the lovely Wadi Shab.
5. Socotra Island
For a disclaimer straight away: I have not visited this island personally, despite having previously traveled to Yemen. Alas, the political situation, as well as the remoteness of the island, still makes this a dream to be fulfilled. But as natural wonders in the Middle East go, it does not get better than Socotra Island. In fact, this archipelago located between Yemen and Somalia has been listed as a UNESCO-recognized natural wonder because of its unique plant and animal life. More than 30 percent of the listed 800-plus plant species and 90 percent of its reptiles are unique to the islands. The best-known trees here are the small baobabs and the truly amazing dragon’s blood trees, named for their red resin used in dyes.
Pro Tip: It is possible to visit, they even have a visitors’ website, but it is so off the beaten path that it takes a little bit of determination. See you there?
6. Jeita Grotto
As I mentioned, Lebanon sticks out a little in this collection of Middle Eastern countries because it is relatively green and the desert is less dominant. But like a few of the other countries, it does have mountains; and where there are mountains, there are often caves. One of the best sights to explore in Lebanon is the Jeita Grotto, just 13 miles from Beirut. The cave system is a little touristy, but amazing to visit, nevertheless. A lake, stalagmites, stalactites, and even a cable car, make for a fine day out at a quite unusual natural wonder in the region.
Pro Tip: After visiting, why not head on to the lovely Wadi El Salib, a popular hiking area in the mountains with a stream and plenty of greenery?
7. The Inland Sea
The eastern stretch of the Empty Quarter runs its course in Qatar, but not without first forming a UNESCO-listed natural sight that is breathtakingly beautiful. An inlet of the Persian Gulf creates the veritable Inland Sea, with turquoise waters hemmed by white, smooth sand dunes. In winter, the migrating flamingos add a pop of pink. An easy drive from the capital of Doha roughly an hour away, this is a weekend hotspot for locals and expats. Here, you can go dune-bashing up and down the sand dunes, have barbecue picnics on the beach, go scuba-diving, and do some swimming.
Pro Tip: You can visit for a few hours, spend a night watching the sunset and sunrise, camp in the desert overnight, or base yourself in the nearby Sealine Resort. The options are endless with Inland Sea Tours.
8. The Tree Of Life
On the main island of Bahrain, there is plenty to see and do — from exploring the modern capital of Manama and seeking out ancient tombs, to marveling at the causeway heading to Saudi Arabia and participating in plenty of water sports. But at the southeastern end of the island, things thin out, roads get fewer, buildings become sparse, and the rocky, flat desert takes over. But in the middle stands a tree, with its branches spread to the ground and plenty of leaves thriving on it. It is called the Tree of Life because there does not seem to be a recognizable source of water feeding it. There are no other trees nearby, and yet, the tree is reportedly some 400 years old and still going strong. It is a sight to behold just for its determination to be a tree in the desert.
9. Jebel Akhdar
High up in the Hajar Mountains, the weather is milder, much cooler than along the coast. Many locals take up residence over summer in the mountains, and farmers grow roses and pomegranates. Jebel Akhdar, appropriately translated as “Green Mountain,” is one of the must-see places in Muscat. Experience Oman’s Grand Canyon, which offers amazing hikes, several abandoned villages, and those beautiful farms that bring color and a subtle floral aroma to the region.
Pro Tip: You can visit on a day trip from Muscat. A much better idea, however, would be to book yourself into the rather swanky Anantara Jebel Al Akhdar Resort, which allows you to either get active, explore the neighborhood with a guide, or simply sample the roses and pomegranates grown locally in the spa.