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desert And OASES

The Natural Environment
Nature Tour of the UAE
Wildlife in the UAE
Key animals
Captive breeding of rare breeds
Whales and dolphins in the UAE
Scorpions and snakes
Ornithology in the UAE
Environmental agencies
Fossil hunting

Desert is certainly a dominant landscape in the UAE, from the massive rolling dunes in the Empty Quarter to flat sandy and gravel plains stretching towards the mountains. Seemingly forbidding and hostile, this desert environment can also be an extremely beautiful place and it is not quite as empty as we imagine.

Although few animals can tolerate the extreme heat of the desert for long, those that thrive here have adopted clever strategies for survival. For many this involves burrowing, spending long periods resting in holes well below the surface, whilst others such as the sand skink and the sand boa move rapidly just beneath uncompacted sand to keep out of the heat. A high proportion of species are nocturnal, coming out only at night when it is cooler, and some aestivate, i.e. spend the summer months underground in a condition of torpor similar to hibernation. As a result, it is often difficult to see wildlife, nevertheless it is there!

Birds are probably the most obvious although the actual number of species resident in the desert are very few. The most desert-adapted species resident in the UAE are the hoopoe lark, the cream-coloured courser and the black-crowned finch lark. The long legged buzzard, little owl and desert eagle owl maintain small breeding populations, and the brown-necked raven is not uncommon. Although birds cannot burrow or aestivate, they do migrate and in the autumn and winter months resident birds are joined by a range of migrants that breed in Central Asia – various species of lark, wheatear and warbler, as well as the much-prized houbara bustard. To find out more about desert birds

It is not surprising really that cold-blooded reptiles have successfully colonised the desert. These include a number of lizards, ranging from delicate geckoes to the larger dhubs or spiny-tailed lizards (a protected species) and a giant of desert lizards, the monitor, which can be nearly a metre in length. Several species of snake also inhabit the desert, the commonest being the poisonous horned viper. To find out more about desert reptiles

It is not just the inhospitable environment that has taken its toll on the few mammals that have adapted to desert life, man has also added to the pressures experienced by these creatures. Within the last few decades the desert has experienced local extinctions of wolf, oryx, striped hyaena and jackal. On the other hand, the fearless honey badger, which was previously thought to be extinct in the UAE, has survived. Two species of gazelle have also survived, though both are rare and with limited ranges. The sand gazelle is present to the south of the Liwa and the mountain gazelle occurs in an area bordered by the major roads between Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain. The sand cat is believed to have been reduced to a seriously low level but data is lacking because this is such a shy nocturnal animal. The beautiful little Rueppell’s fox and even the cape hare are probably far less numerous than they used to be. However, the main stronghold for these species is thought to be the western part of Abu Dhabi emirate. The lesser jerboa and three species of hedgehog are also extant, but again are shy creatures and therefore difficult to see. To find out more about desert mammals

We do not often think of the desert in terms of vegetation, and it is true that one can travel for many miles without seeing much in the way of plant-life, but the flora is there, specially adapted to the inhospitable conditions, like the palm trees growing in the dunes, their roots reaching down to shallow lenses of water under the sand. Other valiant plants such as Tribulus species manage to survive extremes of heat and drought, providing grazing for domesticated and wild ungulates. Ghaf trees (Prosopis cinerea) also provide shelter and grazing. And then there are the spring rains which can really bring the desert to life with veritable fields of grasses and brightly flowering plants carpeting sandy expanses. To find out more about desert plants


Oases are scattered throughout the country: on the plains on either side of the Hajar Mountains and in many desert locations in Abu Dhabi emirate. The largest desert oasis occurs in the Liwa crescent, which really a series of individual oases stretching for more than 100 kilometres.


Near the mountains, oases such as those in Al Ain, are irrigated by aflaj (sing. falaj). This is an ancient system that dates back at least 3000 years. Underground water is tapped from aquifers and diverted along channels to its final destination in the oasis. In the mountains, the ghayl irrigation system is common. Here water is extracted from the upper reaches of the wadi bed and is fed along open watercourses built into the sides of the wadi and channelled to terraced fields.


Date-palm plantations dominate oases, but other crops are also cultivated and many wild species of plants take advantage of increased moisture and shade. Wild fauna are also attracted to the cultivated areas and insects such as beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshopper and crickets thrive in these conditions.

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