Sabkha – is it freezing in the desert?


Even with an outside temperature of 20 degrees, two blankets on my bed, and wearing pyjamas I was freezing cold last night. I step out of bed and carefully put my feet on the marble floor. The touch of marble tiles that feel as cold and smooth as ice make me shiver. I sleepily open the curtains and watch the bright sun shimmering in a clear blue sky.  It looks like any ordinary day in the Middle East. Until I notice the plain behind my house. A beautiful white crust covers the sandy earth, like ripe on a winter’s day. My heart rejoices at the sight. Is it freezing in the desert? For a moment I enjoy the most beautiful wonders of nature.

But then I wake up… It doesn’t freeze in the desert. At least not here. The ice I think to see is salt that formed into crystals on the desert soil. Sabkha, as they call it here.

freezing sabkha desert


Sabkha is the Arabic word for salt flat or salt-encrusted desert. Salt accumulation and formation of salt crystals occur when underground water lies close to the surface, due to tidal action on the coast or after periods of high humidity in areas with high salt concentration. The salt crust can be over a meter thick.

The winter landscape of Umm al Samim

Sabkhas are usually devoid of any plants and appear distinctly barren from other landscapes. Only a few plants species are able to germinate in the salty ground as can be seen in the Wetlands of Al Wathba in the United Arab Emirates. But it’s the very image of a large bare white field with sparkling salt crystals that make sabkhas so beautiful and worth visiting.

One of the nicest sabkhas is Umm al Samim or Umm as Samim (Arabic: أم السميم) in Oman, in the East of the Rub Al Khali desert at the border with Saudi Arabia. In this area the water of surrounding wadis and mountains come together forming a vast salt platform creating a beautiful winter landscape with a gigantic ice lake. The shimmering field is so inviting that you would almost put your ice-skates on.

sabkha moeder van vergif is mooi maar verraderlijk

But be careful! Sabkhas don’t only look like large ice fields, they are just as dangerous. The salt layer that lies at some distance above the ground breaks easily. Therefore don’t leave the trails or you will be trapped in the swampy grounds of Umm al Samim,  meaning mother of poison or caring mother  in Arabic.

UTS coordinates Umm al-Samim: 40Q 386162.00560201 2392645.620811

Sabkha in Oman and United Arab Emirates

In the United Arab Emirates sabkhas are mainly located along the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf) and in the beautiful Wetlands of Al Wathba.
In Oman most sabkhas can be found along the East coast. When you visit the island to Masirah you will drive kilometres through bare white plains where the Omani’s  collect salt.