Lost in the Empty Quarter: How one man survived four days alone in the desert

An Emirati's story of being stranded while rescue teams scoured the sands to find him

Emirati man survives four days stranded in Saudi desert

Emirati man survives four days stranded in Saudi desert
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An Emirati father stranded alone in the sprawling desert for four days said he felt like he was caught "between life and death" as he waited to be rescued.

Ahmed Al Menhali, 39, thought he was embarking on a routine desert adventure in Saudi Arabia last month, when he found himself low on fuel and his vehicle stuck in the sand.

The father of three's ordeal began after he set off for Rub' al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, one of the largest deserts on the planet.

Mr Al Menhali was driving to his farm to join his family but he ran out of fuel and lost communication with the outside world.

It was not until four days later, on January 2, that a rescue team found him.

“It was the hardest situation in my life,” said Mr Al Menhali, a government employee. "I was certain there was a search operation to find me but I felt real fear especially after the second night."

He described the sensation "when I was there all alone", of being "between life and death".

His family's farm is 400km from the main road in the desert. He was on his way to join them before his Nissan Patrol run out of fuel after covering 350km.

The low fuel caused him to attempt a short-cut over much finer sand, where his wheels became stuck.

“My car was trapped in the sand in rough terrain. All tyres were covered with sand, and I couldn’t move forward. After several unsuccessful attempts to get out of there, I ran out of fuel,” he said.

“It was tough as there is no phone signal. My chances of encountering another soul in this remote part of the desert were slim.”

Supplies were a lifeline

He checked his resources in the car and counted his blessings that he had previously stocked up on croissants, sweets and 10 boxes of small bottles of water from a petrol station in the Taweelah area before hitting the desert.

“I put my trust in Allah and decided to stay near the car believing that others would come to the rescue," said Mr Al Menhali.

His family alerted his brothers after he failed to arrive when expected and they could not reach him on his phone.

“There were no sounds, lights or anything," he said. "Just the sands and me. I didn’t encounter any animals.

"It is a strange feeling to hear nothing and it's scary as well, knowing you are alone.

“I managed to collect wood in an attempt to light a fire but I had no lighter.”

Mr Al Menhali was spending his time leaving traces for others to find if they came looking for him.

He was also reading the Quran and praying for survival.

At night, he slept near his car, covering himself in blankets.

“I wasn’t worried on the first night but after the second night, I started rationing my food and water for the worst-case scenario. I was close to desperate on the fourth day,” he said.

After days of intensive search operations by Saudi and Emirati tribes in the area, a group scouring the desert in cars found him.

“It was on my fourth day, I was preparing to perform the Maghrib prayer when I heard the noise of car engines," he said.

"I couldn’t believe my ears for a second. I ran with joy in the direction of noises.”

“I was yelling and waving but they didn’t stop as they were checking the sand for traces and didn’t look up.”

Mr Al Menhali returned to where he had been and performed Maghrib prayers and it was here he saw the lights in the distance from the convoy of 12 cars.

With his heart pounding with a mixture of relief and gratitude, he ran towards them, waving a light from his mobile phone.

“It was an unforgettable moment, full of joy when they noticed me," he said. "I was thrilled when they stopped.

"Finally, I was not alone and realised I would soon be back home with my family."

Rescue operation

Saudi search-and-rescue organisation FAO had teamed up with hundreds of volunteers after receiving a report from Yabreen Police Station in the kingdom.

The volunteers from the UAE and Saudi Arabia were given petrol, food and tools to carry out an extensive search.

“The group that found me were Emiratis. They have Thuraya satellite phones," he said.

"The first thing I did was call my worried mother to comfort her and tell her I was alive."

He was taken to the family farm after being rescued before returning to Abu Dhabi, where hundreds gathered to celebrate his safe return.

“I want to thank the UAE and Saudi governments, as well as all the search teams for what they did," he said.

"They spent nights searching for me in the desert. I will be forever thankful."

He urged people going to the desert to travel in pairs and make sure they have extra fuel, water and food for emergencies.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 5:44 AM