The Sharqiya Sands used to be one of the most inaccessible parts of Oman. Today you can reach them in a less than two-hour’s drive from the capital city of Muscat, on a modern, three-lane highway. And there is now a growing adventure travel industry in the northern periphery of the sands; employment opportunities have been created for the local Bedouin people, and local handicrafts are kept alive in what is a narrow winter window, when temperatures drop to single digits at night.
Despite the new road, the sands remain one of those unique, increasingly scarce, silent places where mobile phones don’t work, and where there is little evidence of human activity beyond the local Bedouin community.
As such, the desert, previously known as the Wahiba Sands and recently renamed the Sharqiya Sands, provides an ideal platform for Outward Bound Oman, the only Outward Bound school in any Arabic-speaking nation to run wilderness courses each winter, when temperatures drop to a tolerable level. Mostly young Omanis attend multi-day courses where you sleep out under the stars by night, and by day travel on foot, or by camel. They learn key life skills needed to enter the world of work, while increasing their awareness of and connectivity to the environment.
With the support of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Al Said, ruler of Oman, the completion of Oman’s first purpose-built centre of outdoor learning was formally celebrated in Muscat on 1 October by HRH Prince Andrew, Chairman of the Trustees of The Outward Bound Trust in the UK, and His Highness Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Minister of Culture and Heritage in Oman. Located some 12km into the sand sea, it is the first of three such outdoor learning centres that will be constructed in the next two years.
BACK TO THE SANDS
In addition to being a base for outward bound courses, the new desert centre will act as a national, regional and global hub for arid environment, geographical and biological research, so ensuring a benchmark study undertaken by the Royal Geographical Society back in the 1980s remains of continued value.
To this end, the centre is equipped with basic fieldwork equipment, including camera traps, for use by residential research groups from schools, colleges and universities. An automatic weather station has been fitted to the roof of the building, enabling groups to monitor the prevailing conditions remotely, and to compare and contrast them with their home area.
Importantly the building is the first self-reliant, self-sustaining building of its kind within Oman, and generates 100 per cent of its power through solar energy, – seen as being the future of energy provision throughout the country.
In January 2018, supported by grant aid from the Anglo Omani Society in London, and in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the Geographical Association and the Institute for Outdoor Learning, a group of four geography teachers will fly out from UK to Oman as part of the ‘Discovering Oman’ project for a week’s fieldwork visit, the outcome of which will be a series of curriculum-linked lesson plans that will go some way to embedding Oman, and the desert, in the UK’s school geography curriculum.
They will be followed in 2019 by a similar group of UK teachers who will focus on creating teaching resources for GCSE and A-level students.
In addition to a series of academic journals and research papers, at the end of the 1980s research programme a high quality educational resource – The Wahiba Sands Study Pack – was produced for teachers, with a series of lesson plans and activities linked to the geography curriculum.
2018 will see the RGS-IBG partnering with Outward Bound Oman to upgrade and digitise that original resource pack, making it accessible once again to all teachers with an interest in arid and extreme environments.
BACK TO THE SANDS
The RGS survey in the 1980s, the first integrated geographical survey of one of the greatest sand sea deserts in the world, showed the area has a unique range of mobile, stable and cemented sands (aeolianite) and a diverse flora and fauna. At the time, the Sands were home for some 3,000 settled and nomadic Bedu communities.
Earlier, the government of Oman – through the office of the Advisor for Conservation of the Environment, Ralph Daly – had invited the RGS to undertake a six-month geographical survey of this little known sand sea – an area estimated to be 9,400 square kilometres. Dr John Hemming, then Director of the RGS called on Durham University’s geography department – and in particular Dr Roderic Dutton, who had specialised in community development in Oman since the early 1970s.
The academic survey, called the Oman Wahiba Sands Project, was given unprecedented support from the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces, local and international business community and individuals keen to see Oman’s natural heritage better understood. The model the RGS adopted, designed by Dutton, was to study the earth sciences, the biological resources and the people in an integrated way, trying to understand change, influenced by the fundamental geomorphological processes at one end, and the onset of oil generated socio-economic change at the other. The findings surprised all involved.
The results were published in a monograph of the Journal of Oman Studies: Special Report No. 3. The earth scientists, led by Andrew Warren, confirmed a great variety of sand dune types from the stable mega dunes of the ‘high Wahiba’ to the more mobile ‘low Wahiba’. An ancient cemented sea of ‘aeolianite’ underlie the sands, creating remarkable formations and patterns, an attraction to all tourists who travel through the area. A significant feature of the Sands was the sea mists and high moisture levels of the sands that serve as a sponge – providing a rich ecosystem full of life, including remarkable woodlands of Prosopis cineraria.
The flora of the sands comprised eight lichens, four micro-fungi, one macro-fungus, one fern and 162 flowering plants. The Prosopis woodlands, the dominant vegetation feature of the Sands and their margins, provide shelter and food for the Bedu and their livestock and a habitat for wildlife such as Sand Cats and Ruppell’s fox. The avifauna numbered 115 species and the abundant invertebrates represented 31 taxonomic groups.
The biologists, led by Paul Munton, advised that the primary management objectives are to: preserve the diversity of the dunes and the raised channels (to the west); to maintain the populations of Prosopis trees and other plants and of the gazelle and other animals: to conserve and enhance the rangeland resource; to protect the relic Prosopis woodland for its economic and wildlife importance.
Roger Webster, who led the social science team, advised on recognising the special needs the Bedu have for the utilities and mobile services that are so designed and located that the Bedu can maintain their preferred lifestyle, obtaining a share the amenities the government was providing everyone in Oman.
Today Oman’s tourism revolution is putting pressure on all natural and cultural heritage assets – and the Sharqiya Sands is one of the pressure points in the country, due to the rapid growth of domestic tourism, off-roading and international visitors staying at the growing number of lodges that have been established both on the edge and also in the interior.
Fortunately, there is a growing community of academics and field scientists in Oman interested in the future of the Sharqiya and their role to maintain Oman’s natural and cultural heritage. Topics considered a priority for future research teams included a repeat multi-disciplinary survey to monitor and understand the changes that have taken place in 30 years. This change to assist future conservation strategies.
More recently the National Field Research Centre for Environmental Conservation published a monograph, Field Research in Oman: Past, Present and Future (2014), with suggestions for topics to be undertaken by research teams in the future. This included the proposal to create a conservancy within the sands, limiting access by tourists on agreed tracks and to ban off-road driving. The Outward Bound Oman Desert Centre will offer new opportunities to address these and other recommendations arising from more recent research.
At present, Oman is situated in one of the most water scarce regions in the world. The Arabian Peninsula has experienced temperature increases of 0.7ºC in the last decade. With a 40 per cent reduction in rainfall predicted by 2040, the region’s water scarcity problem is set to increase making both the ecosystem and the population increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
Repeated cyclones hitting Oman in recent years have enhanced the country’s climate vulnerability. Cyclone Chapala, in 2015, was the second strongest to hit the region on record and they are predicted to continue to increase in frequency and intensity in the future.
It is not only the physical characteristics of the region that are contributing to Oman’s vulnerability. Social demographics are making Oman’s population highly susceptible to the consequences of climate change. An increasing population has followed modern development within Oman’s cities. More than 50 per cent of the population lives in Muscat, increasing the ‘urban heat island’ effect, in turn enhancing the region’s vulnerability to heat-related consequences.
An expanding tourism sector has similarly resulted in the development of the coastal areas. With 56 per cent of the Omani population living on the low-lying coastline, vulnerability from natural climatic events is being increased.
Despite having a history of civil war during the Dhora rebellion (1963 to 1976), since the rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said (beginning in 1970), modern thinking and development policies have increased the internal and international stability of the country; Oman has been suggested by the World Economic Forum as being the fourth safest country on the planet at present.
Qaboos’ foreign policy agreements, aimed at maintaining friendly regional and international ties, have helped to increase Oman’s stability. Growing peaceful relations with its maritime neighbour, Iran, through economic incentives, as well as maintaining a neutral ground in surrounding Middle Eastern conflicts, are examples of this.
In 1981, Oman became a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council another attempt to establish economic and political stability.
Oman’s 187-mile border with Yemen is seen by some as a potential threat to Oman’s foreign security through the possibility of conflict with Yemeni Sunni extremists. A strong military force on the Oman-Yemeni border has recently been deployed.
With an estimated 1,500 species of fish inhabiting its coastal waters, the region is an ecological treasure and is home to one of the largest fishing economies in the region.
There are 200 square miles of coral reefs scattered along coastline extending through the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. However, the area has been battling both physical and anthropogenic elements and increases in both tourism and economic development in the region have been cited as causes of the extensive coral bleaching along the coastline. The Indian monsoon is also a major climatic threat. Occurring in the summer months, strong upwelling along the coast created by the strong winds generate temperature extremes, high-nutrient concentrations and algal blooms which diminish the area’s coral cover. After Cyclone Gonu hit the coastline in 2007, 36 sites were found to have diminished in coral cover by two-thirds.
Increasing tourism and urbanisation in the area has also threatened some of Oman’s critically endangered mammals. With currently fewer than 200 Arabian leopards roaming the mountainous wild, stretching from Saudi Arabia and moving southwards through Oman and into Yemen. Illegal hunting of the leopards in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as limestone quarrying in the leopard habitats, are considered to be main causes of the animal’s near extinction.
Laws against hunting and capturing, as well as large-scale conservation efforts, provide a glimmer of hope. Similar conservation projects were aimed at the endangered Arabian Oryx, which was successfully reintroduced into the wild after being declared extinct in 1972.
Located at the southeastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is bordered by the United Arab Emirates to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west and Yemen to the southwest. Situated on the Arabian tectonic plate, the peninsula is considered a sub-continent of Asia, with a land area of 119,499 square miles. Bordered by the Arabian Sea, Oman strategically neighbours the oil and natural gas-rich Persian Gulf as well as the Oman Gulf, a valuable transport hub.
Oman is unique in its greatly contrasting landscapes; the region varies from desert to rocky mountains and from built-up cities to tranquil seas. While the 3,165km coastline is home to the capital city, Muscat, the Al Hajar mountains boast the highest range in the Arabian Peninsula. The range divides the low coastal area of Oman from its widespread deserts.
The Rub’ al Khali desert is found to the west of the mountain range. Consuming the southwest region and spreading 250,000 square miles across a total of four Arab states, this landform is considered the world’s largest continuous sand desert. Despite being 15 times smaller in area than the Sahara desert, the Rub’ al Khali is credited for containing as much as half the amount of sand as its rival. The extremes of this expansive sand area resulted in it once being among the most unexplored regions of the world, with British explorer Bertram Thomas attracting Western attention when he battled its elements in 1932 (followed by Mark Evans in 2016).
Ninety-three per cent of soils found in Oman are infertile. Alluvial deposits from the Al Hajar mountains provide the small area of the region’s most fertile land on the Batinah coastal plain. The organic matter content, slow soil formation rate and nutrient level (such as magnesium, potassium and phosphorous) of soil are all vital for efficient crop growth. Being located in a zone of arid climate, the soil here has high levels of salinity due to the widespread water scarcity issue experienced throughout Oman. These elements all contribute to prohibiting the effective growth of crops and have resulted in the 4.7 per cent decrease in agricultural land seen between 2006 to 2010.
This was published in the November 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.