Obsession…but it feels like a fetish…

A fetish?! …an inanimate object with supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit

I have been living the last ten years in a landscape rich with water, rich with soil and rich with plants, the Berner Oberland in Switzerland. Each day this Berner Oberland landscape inspires me. I am happy in and enthused by this Swiss Alp landscape.

But yesterday, I came across an old folder of images that stunned me. Stunned? Yes, because as I went through all 50 of them, they gradually inserted themselves. Internally, I could not understand how the barren emptiness of the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, could elicit such a strange, such a pulsating attraction.

It was just memories, right? Yeah, ten years ago, I lived and worked there for more than a year as the installation manager for the landscape at this resort destination–that had its own memories–but the desert–the Empty Quarter has its own magnetism.

I feel it; but I don’t understand it.

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Credits to the client TDIC, the architecture team of Dubarch/Northpoint, the interior design by Hirsch, Bedner Associates and the landscape architecture team LMS International.


Comments on the images:

  • Something fundamental, basic. Where there is water, there is life. Where there is no water, there is no life.
  • After water, this Empty Quarter requires protection for safety of life.
  • The sand dunes are the seductive face of the Empty Quarter.
  • Why do you think the Bedouins call it Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter? 

Talk about a dream

The past quickly becomes a dream at best and worst–Dubai Dreamland.

Well, while I was dreaming about walking distance green and blue in local parks…

How does that shopping work if you don’t want to get into your car every day?

And what if I have to be driving through a neighbourhood and need to shop?

…safe at last…or…

Dubai urbanification–this is the Coastal Zone. In fact, it is the heart of a growing 200km long megalopolis connecting Ras al Kaimah in the north to Abu Dhabi in the south. And it was once…Empty Quarter.

The serviceable part of a lot of those hi-rise apartment neighbourhoods is that ground floor has retail space. I don’t want to turn this into some kind of planners manifesto; but if you must live in an apartment building, it is hugely practical to have retail on the ground floor of hi-rise–especially if your goal is to reduce numbers of local auto trips.


Cross Cultural

Lived lots of years in foreign countries–foreign cultures.

Cross-cultural are experiences in which I have been face-to-face with people and behaviours I did not understand and often did not agree.

…as opposed to multi-cultural which is theory only.

In my work as a landscape architect in those foreign countries and foreign cultures, I had to build major projects. Had to reach workable agreements in difficult cross-cultural conditions. Learned so very much from so many different people.

The links below track some of my cross-cultural journeys.

They are all HD, all less than one minute long, and they are all growing from the Empty Quarter, the Rub al Khali.


Rub al Khali Enigma: the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula, what it is.



Dreams: how to get from dreams to fiction to reality, Atlantis Dubai 2008.



Empty Quarter: transforming cross-cultural realties, harsh environments into restful shelter, Qasr al Sarab 2010.



A Golf Academy in the Empty Quarter?


Family Vacations, Dubai Style



In my 2006-2010 search for the Dubai landscape, I found Dubai was two entities. An Emirate, one of the seven that comprise the United Arab Emirates. And a Municipality, in the centre of a burgeoning 230km coastal megalopolis stretching from Ras al Khaymah in the north east all the way south west to Abu Dhabi.

The rulers of Dubai, the Emirate and the Municipality, are the family of Shaik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Shaikh Mohammed, born in 1949, is the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Emir of Dubai.

He has built Dubai and its hospitality offerings as a place for family vacations.

That’s the official story but even in the ‘winter’, I found the weather too hot to be in the sun very long, before seeking AC. And in the summer, sometimes only after midnight it might be ok for casual walks of more than 15 minutes, before seeking AC.

I was in a conundrum. Maybe it was my cultural upbringing, but I thought that family vacations were outdoor experiences. Yet in the Dubai landscape, I found its climatic extremes always pushed me back indoors. Aha! The aha moment–AC shopping–indoors–spectacular architecture and attractions–yes indoor shopping as a family vacation. Hmm.

Family vacation with outdoor landscape as a condiment. Just use it a little. Hmm…

World Hemisphere

…your world?

Dubai sits in the centre of this world.

I visited Dubai in the early 90s for business. Then in 2006, I moved to Dubai for business–four years living and doing business in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Liwa Oasis.

My landscape challenge was a simple question: what is the Dubai landscape? Never found the answer. But in 2007 I put together a short series of seven figures that addressed some important landscape issues in the region.

This one addresses the population dynamic of the humans in a hemisphere that is measured by a six hour or less jet flight from Dubai. This is a Dubai-centric world hemisphere.

Maps: SW Asia

For a visitor not familiar with the cultures of Southwest Asia, this map is a lame short hand code for that trans-dimensional experience.

Southwest Asia is where the first time visitor, having cultural roots in Western Europe or North America, and now having both feet firmly on the ground of this unusual cultural landscape, finds, for personal consumption, placed on the table before him, a plate with four pounds of sweets that all are just too sweet…and then, from the vague mist of too much sweetness, the visitor may realize…the game is on.

The Southwest Asia background geopolitics establish the contemporary context for the large construction projects in the Arabian Peninsula region–the region in which the Empty Quarter and my landscape story, The 23 Club, take place.



Whether visiting as a tourist, on business or a white collar mercenary–hard to tell the difference between them in the public realm–everyone who comes to the Gulf Region inevitably looks for fun; and, everyone is reminded there are rules for expatriates, business people and tourists. The warnings are there.

In this Gulf Region world of international development, design, construction and facility management, the white collar mercenaries, like many of the characters in The 23 Club, build up–in a loosely linked community–a broad network of international contacts. Among them, from time to time, kismet meetings occur.


The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents


Chalmers was strangely ruffled. More than his rift with Madge, more than these last couple hours, it was the last twenty four hours that were now too vivid, almost visceral in his head. His thoughts drifted back to the blood in the streets, to Jean-Claude, to Bahrain, to Ashura. His thoughts drifted back as he recalled yesterday, about mid-day.

On this trip to the UAE, he had had to make an overnight stop in Bahrain. He didn’t think much of it, an extra overnight. He had not checked the Hegira calendar. It was the Day of Ali. He had read about this special Shiite day; but, he had never seen it, and had no reason to think about it until he was at the hotel breakfast buffet that morning. He bumped into an old friend, Jean-Claude Thibaut, who, on his way from Papua New Guinea, coincidently had also stopped over in Bahrain.

Chalmers had first met him nearly twenty years ago, while they were both speakers at a national conference sponsored by the American Society of Landscape Architects. They shared an educational background in Brussels, a landscape fondness for the Alps, and a fundamental agreement on the importance of integrating ethnobotanical cultural roots into contemporary landscape design.

When Chalmers explained he was on the way to the UAE to fix a project in the Empty Quarter, Jean-Claude told him about related research he had done there in the past five years. For both, this was a welcome coincidence. Jean-Claude adjusted his schedule; and they agreed to meet up in the next week to visit the Empty Quarter together and compare notes.

Jean-Claude Thibaut, a forty nine year old Belgian, was a confirmed bachelor who found his pleasures in the ‘hair-shirt’ explorations of cultures, of marginal groups just outside the edge of mainstream society, people still in contact with the land, with the old ways–Bedu, Berbers, Calusa fisherfolk descendants, true Gypsies.

He examined human relationships with plants, through landscape, language, music, life. He was a very broad scale ethnobotanist. He did not write for publication, did not have a PhD; but, he did maintain extensive multimedia digital archives, all collected first-hand:  stories, songs, movies, images, along with plant related artifacts, such as amulets, charms, talismans.

Born into a wealthy entrepreneurial Belgian family, he took birth in the Belgian Congo where he spent the early years of his childhood. He was a polyglot graduate of international schools in Brussels and Gstaad. Following formal education at the University of London, he had travelled and visited all major botanical institutions in Africa and South America, gathering ethnobotanical information before his first post with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Ultimately, he became a director there. He had since retired to focus full-time on his personal research activities.

At five foot eleven and 165 pounds, he looked popularly slender and athletically lean. He had a self-effacing presence, and a manner of dress and hygiene uniquely making him as at home meeting and greeting in a five star Monte Carlo resort, as in a majlis tent on the edge of the Empty Quarter. He was not shy about sharing the realities of the groups he studied–‘over the edge’ would be the polite way to describe his unusual first hand experiences of old, almost forgotten ways of human interactions with plants in the landscape.

Between Chalmers and Jean-Claude, despite their substantial grounds of agreement, were interlaced threads of ambiguous tension, mostly friendly, mostly the subtleties of hidden cross-cultural joking. Those subtleties were built from Jean-Claude’s obsessive frequenting of the boundary edges between humans and plants, inspired originally by his attraction to the writings of William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Carlos Castenada.

Jean-Claude was an explorer. Chalmers was a builder. They were friends, even though their clatteringly different approaches to the landscape often belied that friendship. Nevertheless, Jean-Claude was happy to see Chalmers and greeted him saying, “Well, my old friend, here we are together in the Middle East! Do not tell me you are about to become, once again, the ‘Surveyor of Fabric’ on some new mind boggling landscape extravaganza?!”

  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon


(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

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