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In the 1990s, when Saudi Aramco decided to develop the site, this facility—including a cushy 750-bed residential complex, a network of more than a hundred wells, and three enormous oil-gas separating plants—rose to completion in a year and a half. Its 14,000 workers were housed in acres upon acres of double-wide trailers in the desert. They laid 395 miles (635.7 kilometers) of pipe to carry the oil to the refinery at Abqaiq and poured a 10,000-foot (3048 meters) concrete runway to accommodate the cargo jets that frequently come and go.

All of this, from worker services and housing to construction materials, had to be transported into this inhospitable desert more than 400 miles (643.7 kilometer) from the nearest city or port. The resulting air-conditioned complex, a world in a bubble, feels like an outpost on Mars.

The contrast is even more striking as we pull away, gears grinding under a sun-bleached sky. We push farther south into the Sands, skirting the edge of the Umm as Samim ("mother of poisons"), a desolate sebkha 80 miles (129 kilometers) wide that defines the topographical low point of Oman. Farther west, we also explore the vast Uruq al Mutaridah ("the continuous vein"), where sand mountains tower above us, often with two descending legs of sand running from their summits to the valley floor, making them appear sphinxlike.

And still, as we drive deeper into the Sands, we find no Bedu. Instead we encounter soldiers, lots of soldiers. All across these deepest recesses of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter—near the Saudi border with Yemen and Oman—we find only a string of desolate settlements that appear mostly to be military posts with a few camp followers.

The presence of this many Saudi troops, however, along with the plethora of four-wheel-drive pickups outfitted with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns, leaves me curious. After some asking around, I discover that Saudi Arabia's 1,300-mile (2,092 kilometers) border with Yemen and Oman is a smugglers' hotbed—especially the areas north of the Yemen border. It's estimated, for example, that 200 million dollars' worth of qat—a stimulant plant chewed in Yemen but illegal in Saudi Arabia—is smuggled into Saudi Arabia annually. Far more ominous are the explosives and weapons illegally entering the kingdom.

One evening we come upon yet another Saudi military post. Located in a broad, sandy valley hemmed by dunes near the border, it consists of a water tank (there is no well), a Bedu-style tent, a fire pit, four pickup trucks mounted with .50-caliber guns, a few steel lockers, a gas-powered electric generator, and a single-wide trailer that stands high above the sand on steel stilts. A half-flayed sheep swings in the dry wind on a meat hook beneath the trailer. A live sheep—its days numbered—strolls the sand.

As with all stops in the desert, our arrival sets weaponry in motion, quickly followed by a series of hospitable gestures that start with introductions, followed by several small cups of coffee and tea, followed by the offer of a meal. Finally, after 15 minutes of polite conversation, I ask a Saudi sergeant about smuggling in the area.

"What happens," I ask, "when you actually find smugglers?"

"They rarely fight back," he says. "We have radios. We have more weapons and better vehicles. Coming from Oman or Yemen, they're not on their home desert. They usually come quietly."

 "Do you see other cars here?" I ask. "In five years, how many nonmilitary vehicles have you seen here that haven't been smugglers?"

The sergeant—a sturdy man in his 40s, wearing a desert camouflage uniform and a traditional red-and-white kaffiyeh—ponders the question. He looks at his hands as if counting on his fingers.

He shakes his head. "None," he finally says.

"Not one car in five years hasn't been a smuggler?"

"No," he says firmly. "Would you like some more tea?"

After two weeks and 3,000 miles (4828 kilometers), we finally find our Bedu herdsmen. And, as Imad Khalid thought we might, we find them in a town.

We are in the markaz village of Al Khanjar ("the dagger"), which sits just beyond the Saudi border in western Oman. We've arrived in late afternoon, having driven through small herds of camels, sheep, and goats on our way in. The village itself bears little resemblance to a border outpost in Saudi Arabia. Instead of sandy tracks and grit-blown desert tents, Al Khanjar is fenced and plaster-walled, with paved streets, flat-roofed homes and offices, flowers and landscaping around every building, an impressive new mosque, and tastefully designed streetlights lining every thoroughfare.

At Al Khanjar we are invited into the home of the local imam, Salem bin Suhail, where we're seated on the floor and fed mutton and rice from platters. The rooms are clean and large, and they contain a big-screen TV, a stereo, and a scattering of computer wires and cables. Except for little touches of Arab culture here and there—such as sitting on the floor to eat—we could be dining in a southern California subdivision.

Over our meal I have been asking our host what trade-offs the Bedu have made by leaving the nomads' life for the markaz. I ask him about the abandonment of Bedu culture and traditions, about the creeping claustrophobia of town, and about the inevitable loss of personal freedom. And each time I ask something new of bin Suhail, he smiles and chuckles, obviously at peace with his life at Al Khanjar.

"Eat," he keeps telling me, gesturing with his hand. "Fill your stomach, my friend. After our sunset prayer I will provide answers for your many questions. Now, though, is the time for eating. Please. It makes me happy to see you enjoy a meal. We will talk of traditions afterward."

Thirty minutes later, we have finished our meal and washed our hands. Then, following sunset prayer, as promised, I am led to a quiet corner of the walled town for another meeting and some camel's milk.

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