The Holocene vegetation history of the Arabian Peninsula is poorly understood, with few palaeobotanical studies to date. At Awafi, Ras al-Khaimah, UAE, a 3.3 m lake sediment sequence records the vegetation development for the period 8500 cal. yr BP to ∼3000 cal. yr BP. δ13C isotope, pollen and phytolith analyses indicate that C3 Pooid grassland with a strong woody element existed during the early Holocene (between 8500 and 6000 cal. yr BP) and became replaced by mixed C3 and C4 grasses with a strong C4 Panicoid tall grass element between 5900 and 5400 cal. yr BP. An intense, arid event occurred at 4100 cal. yr BP when the lake desiccated and was infilled by Aeolian sand. From 4100 cal. yr BP the vegetation was dominated by C4 Chloridoid types and Cyperaceae, suggesting an incomplete vegetation cover and Aeolian dune reactivation owing to increased regional aridity. These data outline the ecosystem dynamics and carbon cycling in response to palaeomonsoon and north-westerly variability during the Holocene. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.