Fatma Mhmood


The Unspoken Narratives of the Empty Quarter

Advised by Gareth Doherty

The desert, commonly understood as a barren and infertile landscape, is not empty. This thesis aims to create a critical perception of fullness in the Empty Quarter, “Rub Al Khali,” which stretches across the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula including Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The overarching understanding of deserts as a void has obscured the Empty Quarter’s image as a home to Bedouin tribes and a site of natural resource extraction, a fertile land for city building, an agricultural land, and a testing ground for scientific research. Through describing its social, environmental, urban, and cultural dimensions, the thesis renders legible the transient forms of life within the Empty Quarter. The thesis draws from multiple sources including the analysis of archival materials, historic maps, field observation, and tribal poetry leading toward a novel understanding of the Empty Quarter’s ecosystem. It is not a void but a space that cities depend on to meet the social and material needs of the inhabitants.

Hand-drawn 1958 map titled “Saudi Arabia: Main geographical features and agricultural areas” shows features of the Arabian Peninsula. A large sand area in the southeast is labeled “Empty Quarter”. 
Cities and topographic features are noted. Geographic areas highlighted include Sand Area,
Coastal Plains and Plateaux, Mountains, and Agriculture.

Map showing the geographical location and scale of the Empty Quarter, an area on the Arabian Peninsula similar to the size of France.

Satellite image showing Liwa Oasis, the largest oasis in the Empty Quarter, and the artifacts locations.

Artifacts of urban life and human-environment connections include Date Palm Plantation, Desert Tourism, Sabkha (Salt Flat), and The Nighttime, each shown with accompanying photographs.

Line drawing showing Narratives of the Empty Quarter, which include images of oil drilling, trees, leisure activities, tourism, and war.