Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter

Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter
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The Dubai-based Italian explorer Max Calderan crossed the vast, empty, undulating sand dunes of the Rub Al-Khali desert, the so-called Empty Quarter in the east of Saudi Arabia, on foot via an unexplored route. (Empty Quarter Studios)
Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter
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The Dubai-based Italian explorer Max Calderan crossed the vast, empty, undulating sand dunes of the Rub Al-Khali desert, the so-called Empty Quarter in the east of Saudi Arabia, on foot via an unexplored route. (Empty Quarter Studios)
Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter
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The Dubai-based Italian explorer Max Calderan crossed the vast, empty, undulating sand dunes of the Rub Al-Khali desert, the so-called Empty Quarter in the east of Saudi Arabia, on foot via an unexplored route. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 05 February 2020

Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter

Explorer saw nature’s sheer beauty and power in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter
  • Max Calderan has joined famous group of men who have crossed Rub Al-Khali desert
  • Calderan completed his 16-day journey on foot using unexplored West-East route

DUBAI: Rub Al-Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

It is a landscape of ever-changing endless dunes made famous by expeditions undertaken between the 1930s and 1950s by Bertram Thomas, Wilfred Thesiger and their Arab companions. Max Calderan, a long-time Dubai resident originally from Italy, has just become the latest man to join that famous group.

Previous explorers are known to have crossed shorter sections of Rub Al-Khali on camels or in off-road vehicles, whereas Calderan completed his journey on foot via an unexplored route.

With his latest feat, Calderan has realized at once a lifelong ambition and, as he puts it, “the dream,” not “a dream.” For the compulsive record-setter, the journey was also a humbling reminder of nature’s awesome power and beauty.

The father of three — and soon-to-be father of four — set off on his 16-day Empty Quarter expedition on Jan. 18 in Saudi Arabia, from Najran, located 880 km from Riyadh.

His plan was to cross on foot one of the world’s hottest and most-brutal deserts, one that covers about 650,000 square km and includes parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen.

“When I was only seven years old in 1974, I was reading the encyclopedia where it was written that Saudi Arabia’s Rub Al-Khali is the biggest sand desert around the world,” Calderan recalled during an exclusive interview with Arab News.

“No camels could enter that part of the desert, there was no water and even migratory birds were making diversions.

“So, I drew a picture and told my mother that I would be the first man to enter that area and understand why camels can’t. And on that day, I had a dream of an older man, just like me now, walking alone in the Empty Quarter.”

Calderan’s dream came true when he trekked through 1,100 km of desert from west to east, covering over 800 km of “virgin territory” armed with little more than a backpack and a sleeping bag.

He said on most days he trekked for an average of 18 hours in temperatures that ranged from 2.7 degrees Celsius in the early hours of the morning to 35 degrees Celsius during the daytime.

He routinely woke up at 1:30 a.m. and began his exploration in the darkness by 2 a.m., venturing out into the desert to cover about 80 km before setting up his sleeping bag for another night under the stars, often between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Despite planning 67 meeting points along his route, each 18km apart, his support team, which traveled by car and supplied him with food and water, was unable to ensure their paths crossed on a daily basis due to unpredictable weather conditions and diversions.

So Calderan’s exact location was tracked through his satellite phone every 15 minutes by a team based in London that oversaw his entire expedition.

FASTFACT

Rub Al-Khali is part of the larger Arabian Desert, covering 650,000 sq km and including parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen.

“From my previous experience, I was best prepared — and had the capability to stay totally alone in the desert — when I had enough food and water in my backpack to last at least 250 km,” he said.

About 200 km into his journey, Calderan encountered a community that he referred to as “original, pure and genuine Bedouin tribes.

“I stopped several times to talk to them because I needed as much information as possible about Rub Al-Khali, as what had been written in the books was not totally accurate,” he said.

He was advised to take either the north or south route across the Empty Quarter since these had been previously explored.

The tribesmen tried to convince him that walking straight down the middle of the largest continuous sand desert on Earth was extremely “unsafe” and nearly “impossible,” Calderan said.

“They said: ‘You have to understand that the more you will move ahead, the less you will find animals, trees and water. There’s nothing there.’”

Calderan said he remained undeterred by the tribes’ advice, having made up his mind to stay the course even as he began what he described as a “spiritual conversation with mother nature.”

He told Arab News: “I asked permission from Rub Al-Khali. “I said: ‘Please let me go inside, let me explore your land.’

“The desert replied: ‘Now I will gift you something so you can start to understand who I am.’”

After watching a beautiful sunset, Calderan was caught in a severe sandstorm and was unable to meet his support team at the next agreed point.

“During the sandstorm, you couldn’t see more than two meters in any direction,” he said.




It took Max Calderan 16 days to cross the Empty Quarter. (Photo by Max Calderan/Empty Quarter Studios)

“If you took seven steps and turned around, you could just about see your fifth footstep and, for sure, your seventh would be gone.”

Once the storm had passed, Calderan said he once again called out to nature.

“Dear Rub Al-Khali, I now understand your power,” he said as he as he ventured into a terrain that, to this day, has stayed largely out of humanity’s sight.

Calderan said the landscape was now barren and the silence was deafening.

“This section of the desert was totally empty,” he recalled.

“I didn’t see a single animal track. I didn’t see any other footprints or camel waste. I didn’t even see or hear the sound of an aircraft in the sky.

“If I tried to shout, the sound came out from my mouth, but within a meter from me it would be absorbed by the sand.”

Calderan said it was difficult to form clear thoughts about daily life during the journey. He felt the power of nature had had the effect of silencing his mind.

“The power of the mind cannot do anything in front of thousands of kilometers (of empty desert). You stop thinking and start communicating with nature,” Calderan said.

“I thanked nature for the sights I was witnessing and, at a certain point, I said to it: ‘Do as you want with me — clean my mind, clean my body, clean my thoughts. I have only one mission and that is to see myself with my family again.’ That was indeed my goal.”

After notching up over 100 Empty Quarter sites on his GPS instrument — areas that included waterbeds, wolf footprints and an oryx corpse — Calderan began what he calls the “toughest” trek of all: The final 200km of the expedition.




Max Calderan’s location was tracked through his satellite phone every 15 minutes by a team based in London. (Empty Quarter Studios)

He was mentally prepared for encounters with dangerous creatures ranging from wild cats to deadly scorpions. But what turned out to be the biggest danger was the desert itself, Calderan said, recalling a moment when he stood before a “mountain of dunes” as high as 300 meters.

“It was as if I had travelled to hell — and it was the first time in my life I started to pray in order to come out,” he said.

Reaching the finishing point involved negotiating many more monstrous sand dunes, as a result of which Calderan often found himself exhausted, dehydrated and in a hallucinatory state.

“I was destroyed, but what happened is I got the awareness to understand that we as human beings, with all our arrogance and technology, are nothing in front of nature,” he said.

“We are searching for water in Mars while we are destroying our water resources on Earth.

“At this point, all my training, my strength and my previous experience amount to nothing. All I can understand is that it is time to start giving back to the environment.”

As he poured out his thoughts and emotions about his epic journey during the interview, Calderan said he is still overwhelmed and will need time to fully absorb the lessons of the last couple of weeks.

His hope is that his feat will go down in history alongside other famous expeditions of the Empty Quarter, but with an important difference: The newly created west-east "Calderan Line" will be used by generations of explorers to come.


Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
Updated 7 min 33 sec ago

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
  • Residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city of Taiz and human rights activists said the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city
  • Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe: Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthi criminals

ALEXANDRIA: Yemen human rights activists, politicians, journalists, and residents of Taiz have demanded that government and international mediators include the lifting of the city’s siege by Iran-backed Houthis in any peace initiative to end the war in the country.

Fearing being shut out of the current UN-brokered peace initiative that largely focused on Sanaa, residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city and human rights activists said the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city’s densely populated districts under any deal to bring the conflict to a close.

In a tweet as part of an online campaign to focus world attention on the Taiz siege, Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe said: “Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthi criminals who imposed the siege.”

According to Yemeni and UN officials, and Western diplomats, the UN-brokered peace initiative calls for an immediate nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa airport, the lifting of restrictions on Hodeidah port, and the resumption of peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.

But Taiz residents claim too much focus has been placed on easing restrictions in Houthi-controlled areas without including the Houthi siege as one of the peace conditions.

However, UN Yemen envoy spokeswoman, Ismini Palla, told Arab News that the Houthis would lift their siege of Taiz at the same time as the warring factions put into place a ceasefire.

“The proposed nationwide ceasefire in that plan aims not only to halt all forms of fighting but also result in the opening of main roads connecting the country from north to south, including Taiz, for the free movement of civilians, commercial goods, and humanitarian aid,” she said.

The Yemeni government said it would not agree to any peace plan that did not include lifting the siege of Taiz and removing Houthi checkpoints from Yemeni cities.

“Opening roads, ensuring freedom of movement for citizens, and lifting the siege on cities, especially the city of Taiz, are among the basic issues that the government puts at the forefront of its priorities,” the Yemeni Foreign Ministry said.

Facing stiff resistance from army troops and resistance fighters in the city, the Houthis have imposed a siege on Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, since early 2015, in the process disrupting the distribution of vital humanitarian and medical assistance to thousands of hungry residents and turning a deaf ear to international calls to lift the blockade.

At the same time, the group has reportedly deployed snipers near its checkpoints to shoot any residents trying to enter or leave government-controlled areas of the city.

Speaking to Arab News from Taiz, Aqmar, a housewife, said people had been forced to use dangerous and unpaved roads to get food and medicines into the city and that the Houthi siege had pushed up transportation fares and exacerbated the suffering of the people.

“We travel only when there is an extreme necessity as bus fares are between 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) and 15,000 rials per passenger,” she added.

She pointed out that over the years the siege had gone on, the Houthis had clamped down on freedoms of movement and that her sick grandmother who lived in a rural area outside of Taiz had died while on her way to the city to receive medical treatment.

Local rights groups claim Houthi shelling of the city has killed and wounded thousands of civilians over the past six years. Taiz Human Rights Center has put the civilian death toll from Houthi missile and artillery strikes at 1,462, including 443 children and 180 women, with 8,996 people left wounded.


Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
Updated 16 June 2021

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
  • El-Sisi pledges half a billion dollars to rebuild besieged enclave after Cairo plays key role in brokering a ceasefire
  • Expert says country’s policy toward Gaza and official Egyptian relationship with Hamas are two different things

GAZA CITY: During the recent Israeli conflict with Gaza, a shift in Egyptian policy was evident in President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s pledge of half a billion dollars to rebuild the besieged enclave.
The unprecedented visit of the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, to Gaza, as an official envoy of El-Sisi, came as a major indication of the change in Cairo’s policy toward Hamas. 
The relationship deteriorated following the overthrow of former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013.
Egypt played a key role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on May 21 following 11 days of cross-border fighting last month that left a trail of destruction with more than 250 dead and hundreds wounded. 
Cairo opened the Rafah crossing to dozens of Egyptian vehicles that entered Gaza to remove the rubble of destroyed buildings and pave the way for the reconstruction process. In addition, Cairo is also supplying goods to Gaza in light of strict Israeli restrictions.
However, Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, differentiates between the Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the official Egyptian relationship with Hamas.
He said Egypt’s role in Gaza is strategic due to the factors of history and geography. As for the country’s relationship with Hamas, it falls within the framework of “political tactics” to serve both sides.
Abu Saada believes the shift that appeared in the Egyptian policy toward Gaza rulers Hamas would not have taken place “without the green light from the US administration” following American President Joe Biden’s first phone call to El-Sisi. 
“Egypt and Hamas are beneficiaries of this transformation,” Abu Saada told Arab News. 
“Hamas, which has suffered greatly politically and financially after the years of estrangement that followed the overthrow of the late President Mursi, is keen to develop its relationship with the Egyptian regime.”
As for Egypt, Abu Saada said, it adheres to its position as a major regional player in the Palestinian arena, being the historical sponsor of Palestinian issues.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not completely satisfied with the current Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the country’s openness to Hamas, he said, adding that this may be one of the main reasons behind the dialogue setback that was supposed to be launched in Cairo last Saturday.
“The PA, which has sought over the past four years to besiege Hamas politically and financially by imposing sanctions on Gaza, does not want Hamas to exploit the recent Israeli conflict in its favor through the Egyptian gate,” Abu Saada said.
Following Mursi’s ouster, the Hamas-Egypt ties deteriorated to the point that it was suggested in the Egyptian media that Hamas has supported the Salafists in Sinai and helped them carry out attacks in Cairo.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, believes that Egypt has a great opportunity to regain its regional weight. He also thinks Hamas is ready to identify with the Egyptian side if its demands are met, especially the lifting of the siege on Gaza and the cessation of Israeli attacks on Jerusalem.
Al-Madhoun does not see Egypt making a U-turn on Hamas, but he says it has raised the degree of its interest, concentration, and ability to move in vital files.
Hani Al-Basous, professor of political science and international relations, said the current Egyptian tactic with Hamas is based on recognizing it as a fait accompli. He said the Palestinian force has great weight, gained popular Arab momentum after the latest conflict, and it should be dealt with with new mechanisms and not with a new political orientation.


Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration
Updated 16 June 2021

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration
  • Mattarella says conditions in Africa need to improve so migrants are not forced to make desperate decisions
  • Saied blames migrant problem in Mediterranean region on an unfair ‘distribution of wealth’ 

ROME: As the illegal migrant situation in the Mediterranean Sea continues to escalate — nearly 2,000 people have landed on the island of Lampedusa since Sunday — the presidents from Italy and Tunisia met in Rome to work on a solution.

Security policies “are necessary to fight against human trafficking”, but at the same time “conditions for development must be created in Africa so that people there do not feel compelled to risk their lives and emigrate to look for work or escape hunger,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella said during the meeting with Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Immigration was the key issue during Saied’s official visit to Italy, said Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi.

“Tunisia is a strategic partner in the Mediterranean region on immigration issues and Libya,” Di Maio said in a press conference.  

Most of the migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa depart from Tunisia and Libya. Over the past few years, Italy has provided both countries with equipment, resources, and ships in an attempt to thwart migrant crossings. But they continue to arrive on the shores of Lampedusa, located 105 miles southwest of Sicily, and on other tiny islands scattered across the Mediterranean.

“We must ask ourselves why a mother accepts for herself and her son the risk of becoming food for fish and then maybe to be exploited,” Saied said after the meeting with Mattarella. 

“The problem is that there is no fair distribution of wealth between the north and the south of the world.”

In an interview with RAI, the Italian state broadcaster’s news, Saied remembered how it was the Italians who used to immigrate to his country. The roles may be reversed now but the motive remains the same. 

“Those who migrate are in search of fortune, just as they were in the past,” he said.

Mattarella reaffirmed to his Tunisian counterpart “the great friendship that binds Italy to Tunisia.” He recalled “the great friendship and primary partnership” between the two countries who share “the values of democracy, a geographical proximity, and some common history.”

He also stressed that peacemaking and stabilization in Libya represent a priority of Italian foreign policy. 

“In order to achieve this, mercenaries and foreign troops must leave the country. Libya must be left to the Libyans,” Mattarella was quoted to Arab News by a source in the Italian administration.

While in Rome, Saied also met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese. According to sources in the prime minister’s office, more assistance has been offered to Tunisia, but more “attention and effort in contrasting illegal migration will have to be enforced.”


Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya
Updated 16 June 2021

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya
  • Estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in central Mediterranean in last decade
  • Human Rights Watch: ‘People are drowning while European leaders squabble’

LONDON: Leading rights groups have called on the EU to protect lives on the main Mediterranean route between Libya and Europe. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) on Wednesday published an action plan to promote safe pathways on the precarious route from North Africa.

The 20-point plan gives guidance on how the EU could ensure safe and predictable disembarking opportunities and relocation responses for people rescued. 

“It is shameful and tragic that EU countries can’t agree on something as fundamental as saving lives at sea,” said Judith Sunderland, HRW’s associate Europe and Central Asia director. “People are drowning while European leaders squabble.”

An estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean in the last decade. According to the UN, some 664 people have died or gone missing so far this year. 

HRW accused the EU of “withdrawing responsibility,” noting that the bloc has since March 2019 been withdrawing its ships from areas where unseaworthy boats carrying migrants and refugees are most likely to be. 

Libya’s Coast Guard has intercepted and returned to the country more than 11,700 people this year, with up to 1,000 migrants returned on June 12 alone.

People recovered and returned to Libya face being detained in “nightmarish detention centers and experiencing abysmal conditions, violence, and forced labor,” HRW said.

It added that the EU should abandon its policy of assisting the return of migrants and refugees to Libya, and urgently adopt one that ensures migrants are relocated to a safe place. 

HRW called for new relocation arrangements so EU member states can share the responsibility of migration from Libya more equally.

EU heads of state are expected to discuss migration policy at the next European Council meeting on June 24-25 in Brussels.


Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy
Updated 16 June 2021

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy

Egypt authorities hand documents on student murder to Italian envoy
  • Regeni was carrying out research on independent trade unions in Egypt when he disappeared in 2016
  • Regeni’s mutilated body was found on a roadside and bore signs of torture.

CAIRO: Egypt’s Public Prosecutor, Hamada El-Sawy, on Wednesday handed two official copies of the public prosecution’s report — in Arabic and Italian — on the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni to the Italian envoy in Cairo, Giampaolo Cantini.
The report said there was currently no basis for filing a criminal case because the perpetrator of the crime is unknown, but search authorities have been told to step up their investigation.
Regeni, 28, a Ph.D. student from Cambridge, was carrying out research on independent trade unions in Egypt when he disappeared on Jan. 24, 2016 in central Cairo.
At the time large numbers of police were in the area because of expected protests.
Regeni’s mutilated body was found on a roadside on Feb. 6, 2016. It bore signs of torture.
Police initially said that the student had died in a road accident. But an Italian autopsy showed that his body had cuts, broken bones and other injuries indicating he had been severely beaten.  
Egyptian authorities have denied that police were involved in Regeni’s torture or death.
The case has strained relations between the two countries, with Italy recalling its ambassador in protest. Diplomatic ties were restored in August 2017 after the Italian government said that it would return its envoy and continue the search for the killers.
Also present at the meeting on Wednesday were Giulia Mantini, first secretary at the Italian Embassy, and Badr Abdel Atti, Egyptian assistant foreign minister for European affairs.
The Italian ambassador also received the Kenyan judicial authorities’ response to a request for legal assistance sent by the Egyptian public prosecution.
The request was in response to a Kenyan police officer’s claim that during a security meeting in Nairobi an Egyptian police officer had admitted taking part in Regeni’s abduction.