Sabkha Flats

The coastal landscape that stretches south of Abu Dhabi city along the coast is bleak and desolate. Sabkha flats, or salt plains, extend like ghostly fingers towards the Arabian Gulf. The water that seeps through the sand on these plains is inextricably tied to the rhythmic patterns of the tides. It is salty and undrinkable. Unable to quench the thirst of travellers who used to travel across this parched landscape with their camels, who tolerate brackish water. Their milk in return quenching the thirst of their human companions.

The sand here glitters like tiny fragments of crushed glass. Refracting the rays of the sun, and creating an enticing mirage of shimmering water that stretches from horizon to horizon. Retreating with every advancing step. The eyes play tricks on the mind where every step crunches on the thick crust of salt. Hard one moment, soft the next. Underneath, sticky black mud awaits careless feet.

The dunes that break the flat monotony are low and the colour of rich cream, but instead of providing a reprieve for the eyes it simply enhances the dullness of the monochromatic landscape. A landscape that seems endless under the washed-out denim blue sky.

It is hard to believe that millions of years ago this was the bottom of an ancient sea. A sea in which small plants and animals lived, thrived, and died. Where their bodies were covered with mud, which gradually grew hard and turned into rock. A place where just the right combination of heat and pressure turned the tiny decaying remnants of life into a sludge of rich crude oil.

Trapped for millennia, pockets of liquid black gold, patiently lay waiting underneath this inhospitable landscape. Above, countless generations of humans toiled and struggled to survive.

Today, thousands of litres of oil flow across this wilderness every day in the thin, black pipes that criss-cross the desert and sabkha flats like the discarded innards of old cassette tapes.

Kilometre upon kilometre of bright green fences dissect the landscape. Dividing it into gigantic parcels of land from where the oil is pumped. Mini cities have mushroomed in their embrace, and in them, thousands of workers scurry around like industrious ants. Improving the lives of their families, and helping to make the UAE one of the richest countries in the world.

Red and white electricity pylons, like over-sized dancers, hold arcs of wire between two sets of outstretched arms. They walk gracefully and in pairs over the endless horizon. Carting, invisibly, the comforts of modern life with them: air-conditioners, refrigerators, hair dryers, electronic devices. In their arms comfort and the good life, in their wake a heavy carbon footprint.

On the straight asphalt road that follows the coastline, trucks, strung like beads in a necklace, trundle behind one another. Red, white, blue, orange, yellow. Bright, faded, dirty. They belch dark exhaust fumes that scent the air with the smell of progress and prosperity. Their deep rumble cleaves through the landscape that once was trapped in a cloud of silence. Altering it forever.