Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — When Salam Al Mazrouei was a boy, he and his friends played a game in the desert that most people would find intimidating.
In the dead of night, despite being too young to drive in most countries, they drove in cars between a sea of sand dunes stretching from the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, to Saudi Arabia, and then turned off their headlights.
With only the moonlight as a light source, they raced to see who could get back to the city the fastest.
It was clearly a risky game.
If you take a wrong turn, or your car breaks down, or you get stuck in soft sand, you will be left alone in the morning, miles from the city, at the mercy of the burning desert sun.
But Al Mazrouei says they have never lost their way.
For Al Mazrouei, these similar sand dunes, which stretch as far as the eye can see, are as familiar as the streets are to city dwellers.
Although high winds can sometimes blow the sand around, the site never loses its familiar features, he says.
This corner of the Liwa Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter, has been home to the Al Mazrouei Bedouin family for generations.
Even after building homes and setting up businesses in Abu Dhabi’s towns and cities, the desert’s place is still ingrained in their hearts and they return to it regularly.
Now the 46-year-old wants to share this passion for the desert.
Through his extensive travels as a student and engineer, he tried to devise ways to help people from outside the UAE interact and enjoy the magic of the Liwa Desert.
He says: “I initially had the idea of setting up a camp in the United States, specifically in California, which would house 70 Arabian camels.”
However, he was not allowed to continue due to concerns about foot and mouth disease, so he thought, “Let’s set it up here.”
Swallowed by the sand
And in this place lies an almost otherworldly beauty, a soft carpet of sand that rolls as gently as the eye can see.
At night the stars bake under the clear sky, and during the day the bright sun and blue sky.
It really is in the middle of nowhere.
It takes a two-hour drive south and west from downtown Abu Dhabi, via Madinat Zayed, and then another hour south until the road reaches about the last mile before being swallowed by the sand.
To accommodate visitors, Al Mazrouei, with the support of his father Ibrahim Al Mazrouei, established Layali Liwa, an elegant tented desert camp that spans a gentle slope on the edge of the Empty Quarter.
From the outside, the white exteriors of the sandstorm-weary tents look functional.
Inside you will find pure glamorous luxury.
The air-conditioned tent’s interior reveals soft curtains, a traditional carpet, and is lit from above by an elegant lamp hanging from the high ceiling of the tent.
There is a large, comfortable bed lined with luxurious cotton sheets, a wardrobe, a full-size mirror and a coffee table with its two chairs.
A side curtain reveals a full bathroom with toilet and shower equipped with luxury soap.
And if you can forget to think about the vast emptiness and gloomy stillness of being far from urban forms, the prospect of a good night’s sleep is a strong factor here.
“I don’t see it as a hotel, it’s like an experience,” explains Al Mazrouei.
As for food and entertainment, Al Mazrouei has built a permanent structure nearby.
The building is designed to resemble a traditional 19th century Middle Eastern house, with imported African wood, and contains a dining room, indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a gift shop.
On warm nights, lit by glowing campfire lights and breezes, the outdoor seating area is perfect for gathering for cool drinks and tales of the desert.
During the day, this area turns into a meeting place and planning activities, including camel rides, falconry or 4×4 drives on the sand dunes.
The best time to visit the camp is during the cooler months, from October to March.
The place remains closed during summer when it is very hot.
Temperatures are said to decrease only in late August when a bright star called Suhail star appears above the southern horizon.
And if Al Mazrouei is behind the wheel of a trek through the sand dunes of Liwa, be prepared for a rollercoaster-like experience.
Using the skills he honed during his moonlight desert races, he sinks his chariot between dunes down semi-vertical cliffs, or tips it sideways along sand dunes.
Navigating the color of the sand, the vegetation and the shape of the terrain, Al Mazrouei takes a direct path to the “Moreeb” hill, a large sand cliff that rises above a flat plain.
Crowds gather here once a year to witness the days-long Liwa Festival, which includes four-wheeled races across the sand dunes.
This year’s event is scheduled for November 22 to December 4.
On the way back, Al Mazrouei parks the wagon on the sand dunes above Layali Liwa camp, close to the giant waters protruding from the sand, to meet the needs of the tents.
It is one of the few signs of human impact on the landscape around the camp, which Al Mazrouei would like to preserve.
Before the camp was built, Al Mazrouei indicated that he hired 60 people to work for two weeks to remove piles of garbage left by people who camped on the site during previous Liwa festivals.
Al Mazrouei is currently installing solar panels with the aim of making the camp 100% sustainable on sustainable energy.
In addition, he planted more than 700 palm trees last year as part of an ongoing planting program to add shade and encourage wildlife in the area.
While the government officials who helped him set up the camp encouraged him to add 10 or 20 tents to the 10 he currently rents for $750 a night, he prefers to keep the camp small.
“We want to keep it an authentic and romantic location where you can escape from city life for a few days,” he says.