Even before I found love with an Egyptian aboard a minibus on the Sinai Peninsula and eventual matrimony, I’d always loved travelling in the Middle East.
I adore its tangled souqs and rich red carpets; the smoky tang of burning oud; the orange sand dunes and aquamarine seas; the soaring minarets and crumbling mudbrick oasis towns; the ornate language that names one of its desserts “nightingale’s nest”; the fact that this is a part of the world that really knows how to cook eggplant.
I first started visiting the Middle East 15 years ago, touching down in Oman’s capital, Muscat, in 2007. Smitten, on the flip of a coin I moved to Egypt a year later, where I lived for just shy of two years. With the exception of 2020, I return annually for a month or two, exploring the region from my base in Cairo.
I’ve visited more than a dozen times but, even now, many Australians, while not actively avoiding the Gulf, have only experienced “Arabia lite” in the form of a Dubai stopover.
In the decade and a half since my explorations of this part of the world began, I can emphatically state that change is afoot on the Arabian Peninsula. Big, life-altering, society-transforming change, largely driven by tourism as the petro-dollar miracle peters out.
Few years have rivalled this one. In 2022, following the controversial Beijing Winter Olympics, the world’s attention will refocus on the Arabian Peninsula as the first FIFA World Cup to be hosted in the Middle East kicks off in an almost equally contentious Qatar in November.
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More than 1.5 million football fans are forecast to descend on the emirate in an event now well under way and which some contend eclipses even the Olympics in global interest and audience power.
The other blockbuster news in this part of the world is the transformation of an equally, if not more, controversial, Saudi Arabia as the new ultimate bucket-list destination.
Already, some of its most significant barriers to leisure tourism have been torn asunder with the introduction of split-second e-visas for independent travellers and the abolition of strict dress codes for women. There’s even quiet talk that the Saudi ban on all alcohol will soften in coming years.
But a fascination with the region comes hand-in-hand with the recognition of undeniable transgressions in human rights and civil liberties against women and the migrant workers building its skyscrapers and stadiums.
Equally, there’s the use of impoverished Yemen as a battleground between Saudi and Iran; successfully ignored by most of the world until the rude awakening by Houthi-claimed drone attacks on Abu Dhabi airport last month.
Don’t let the bright lights and skyscrapers lull you into complacency: in a region beleaguered by terrorism, heavy security and social monitoring are a part of life. This means no WhatsApp, voice calls and COVID apps that require your location to be on at all times. It pays, too, to keep your social media accounts free of criticism – at least until you’re back home.
Additionally, as the Arabian monarchies wish to keep their emirates free of COVID, masks and vaccines are mandatory, health apps are monitored and the population complies. And in such countries as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where foreign workers comprise an astonishing 88 per cent of the population, who’s going to quibble when their visa is at stake?
But consider the following significant change. On January 1, the UAE, where Dubai has been hosting a cutting-edge World Expo, a bold decision was officially made to move its traditional Friday-Saturday weekend to a Saturday-Sunday weekend. Friday, after all, is Islam’s holy day, the one day when even the most hectic of cities stop to catch breath, as Muslims visit the mosque to pray, and families gather afterwards for a stupor-inducing lunch.
In Dubai, the mood is pragmatic: it’s all about business, right? But what’s more surprising is that the UAE’s neighbour, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – the birthplace of Islam and a bellweather for other Islamic countries – is tipped to follow suit on the weekend designation.
Aside from human rights travesties – and let’s be honest, Australia wears no halo when it comes to violence against women and its treatment of Indigenous Australians – my smaller concern is that the headlong globalisation of the region risks losing Arabia’s uniqueness. But as bare arms and legs appear on the streets of Arabia, as the sexes mingle more freely and flat whites appear on the menu of every hipster cafe, there are still dates served on the side of my coffee.
There’s also a rush to protect and celebrate the region’s spectacular wildlife. Often overlooked is the fact the Arabian Peninsula is fringed by the most inviting azure waters that, even in the depths of winter, are warmer than some parts of Australia in high summer.
But you be the judge as to whether you decide to visit though, as you’ll see from this guide to the Gulf, it’s a part of the world that, on every level these days, is impossible to ignore.
Doha city. Photo: iStock
The FIFA World Cup 2022 (fifa.com): the year’s biggest event. Shifted after worldwide complaints from the football fraternity to a more forgiving November to avoid the emirate’s flaming summer mercury, an estimated 1.5 million fans will watch matches in eight stadiums across five cities.
Qatar received widespread condemnation for what Amnesty International describes as slavery and exploitation among its two million-strong migrant workforce. Despite more than 100 new hotels opening in the World Cup lead-up, accommodation will be tight with the erection of desert tent cities and cruise ships moored in Doha Port. Consequently, many fans are expected to commute from neighbouring countries.
It may be insanely wealthy, but Qatar is also extremely tiny – it takes just over two hours to drive from the top to the bottom of this oil and gas-rich country. Happily, some of that wealth has been poured into groundbreaking architecture, including the dramatic National Museum of Qatar (qm.org.qa) by architect Jean Nouvel and IM Pei’s serene Museum of Islamic Art (mia.org.qa). Design fans should also keep an eye out for the new five-star Fairmont (fairmont.com) and six-star Raffles hotels (raffles.com) in the scimitar-shaped Katara Towers (katarahospitality.com) in Lusail.
Doha’s Souq Waqif (visitqatar.qa) is the gentlest introduction to a Middle Eastern market; impeccably clean and patrolled by police in white uniforms astride dazzling Arabian horses. Filled with open-air cafes and restaurants patronised by Qataris, its shops sell every spice and perfume, and has a dedicated falcon souq. Best visited after sunset.
Unless you’re a football tragic, steer clear of Qatar from November 21 until December 18, 2022. Keep an eye out for the new Chedi Katara Hotel & Resort (ghmhotels.com) that’s set to open in July, while luxe wellness group Chiva-Som’s new resort Zulal (zulal.com) is already in soft opening mode. While you have the pick of every five-star hotel brand in the world, nine boutique hotels (tivolihotels.com) are cleverly incorporated into the mudbrick buildings of Souq Waqif. See visitqatar.qa
Easily the most westernised city on the Arabian Peninsula, (almost) anything goes in Dubai. Recently voted the best global destination in Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards, the show still goes on at the World Expo 2020, where Australia has one of the more eye-catching country pavilions. Dubai still has the best flight connections through the Middle East and onward though don’t overlook its low-cost airline, Flydubai.
Luxury doesn’t come cheap, and in fact, nothing comes cheap in Dubai with the exception of taxis and the excellent metro train service.
The beaches of this coast-hugging city are lined with cafes, restaurants and watersports; La Mer is a fun choice for families. Wander the gloriously colourful Bur Dubai souq and Al Seef St on the waterfront, a photogenic (and manageable) maze of mudbrick buildings converted into chic shops and cafes. On the architecture front, keep an eye out for the opening of the appropriately ultra-modern Museum of the Future (museumofthefuture.ae), a landmark on Sheikh Zayed Road. The World Expo (expo2020dubai.com) is an extravaganza of architecture, art, food, music and culture: unmissable when in Dubai, until March 31, and the Dubai Rugby Sevens (dubairugby7s.com) is a major sporting drawcard.
The new Ain Dubai (aindubai.com) on Bluewaters Island is the world’s tallest observation wheel, rising 250 metres above the city for spectacular views. But if you prefer your view stationary, the new View at the Palm (theviewpalm.ae) is a 360-degree viewing platform 240 metres in the air. A couple of floors south you’ll find the world’s highest infinity pool.
Like all of the Gulf, Dubai is best visited in winter: the city empties in summer as everyone who can leaves town to work remotely somewhere where temperatures are under 45 degrees. Experience the desert at the new Sonara Camp (nara.ae) in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve where the oryx roam, otherwise, stand-out openings include the Legoland Dubai Resort (legoland.com), Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk (sofitel-dubai-theobelisk.com) and the Anantara World Islands Dubai Resort (anantara.com) on the man-made archipelago shaped like the globe’s landmass. Only in Dubai. See visitdubai.com
Habitas AiUla, Saudi Arabia.
The world’s newest and most controversial tourism destination, the opening up of this secretive country is a guaranteed conversation starter (and killer). Go now, if you like to be ahead of the pragmatic pack.
The perception of women as mere chattels and the ruthless suppression of its critics – particularly the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – have seen many travellers put Saudi Arabia on their “do not travel” list.
If you do go, “let’s go to Riyadh for the weekend!” is now a catchphrase of Middle Eastern folk seeking an alternative to the bright lights of Dubai. The five-month long Riyadh Season (tickets.riyadhseason.sa), which runs until late March, is emerging as an annual festival of music, food, fireworks and arts, with the biggest names on the planet performing, most recently K-Pop sensation BTS. Jeddah’s glorious old town, Al Balad (visitsaudi.com), is built from whitewashed coral. It is being carefully restored and its position on the world’s great pilgrim and trade routes recorded: it comes alive in the late afternoons.
Amid more than two million date palms of the AlUla oasis (experiencealula.com) you’ll find remote luxury tented camps immersed in red canyons, the world’s largest mirrored building that hosts operatic concerts and a restaurant by a Michelin-starred chef, an ancient desert town being restored an an extraordinary arts program in the desert. It all swirls around the dramatic ruins of the Nabatean city of Hegra, the sister city to Petra, in neighbouring Jordan.
With one third of the country comprising Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter desert), this is a winter destination. Traditionally entered via Riyadh or more laid-back Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, the new little international airport at AlUla has direct flights to Dubai. All the most exclusive names are coming to town: Aman (aman.com) is opening three resorts in 2023 including a tented camp, while Six Senses Southern Dunes (sixsenses.com) is set to open in the Red Sea Project in 2022. See visitsaudi.com
Meet in the middle – with its strict COVID protocols and compliant population, the emirate is positioning itself as a safe midway meeting place for families from Australia and Europe who have been separated the past two years. Pitching itself as more family friendly than arch-rival Dubai, its waterparks and indoor theme parks make it viable even in the hotter months.
The recent and dramatic drone attacks on Abu Dhabi by Houthi rebels in Yemen has called into doubt the UAE’s much-vaunted position as a safe haven on the Arabian Peninsula.
Setting itself up as the peninsula’s premier sporting destination, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (formula1.com) is locked in until 2030, with the next event to be staged in November 2022. If F1 racing revs your engine, add a visit to home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster (ferrariworldabudhabi.com). The emirate also recently signed a deal to host pre-season NBA (National Basketball Association) games – a first for the Gulf – with the first games (nba.com/abudhabi) slated for October. Sadly, the gazillion-dollar Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, isn’t expected to open until 2026.
The new National Aquarium (thenationalaquarium.ae) is the largest in the Middle East: take a shark dive, learn to scuba dive, feed the puffins or learn about its rescue program for native wildlife, including turtles.
Travel between September to April, though even the peak winter months of December and January have temperatures of 22 degrees, so pack your swimmers and hit the new beach at Hudayriat Island or the kid-friendly sands of Saadiyat Island. Emirates Palace (mandarinoriental.com) is still the number one address in town; a brace of recent openings includes the Warner Bros Hotel on Yas Island (hilton.com). See visitabudhabi.ae
Safe, sparsely populated and super traditional, the Omani dress code of white dishdashas and black abayas is a counterpoint to its flashy neighbours.
A little too sleepy for some and with zero nightlife.
The wares in Muscat’s Souq Muttrah (tourismoman.com.au) demonstrate Oman’s strong links with the Indian subcontinent, as featherweight pashminas are traded alongside kummas and khanjars, Oman’s distinctive caps and knives. Summer and autumn are the best time to see turtles hatching on the white-sand beaches of Ras Al Jinz (rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com), the largest turtle reserve in the Indian Ocean, while a desert safari industry flourishes on the border with Saudi. The desert forts of Nizwa, Jabri and Rustaq are starkly beautiful reasons to leave the capital, Muscat.
Drive the mountain-hugging road of the Musandam Peninsula to the Six Senses Zighy Bay (sixsenses.com) in a petrol-guzzling, canary yellow Hummer (no one stresses about oil prices here). Located two hours north-east of Dubai, the journey from the front gate to reception is best reached by being strapped to a skydiver and leaping from the cliffs above down to the luxury property.
Pack your snow gear if you’re staying in the Al Hajar mountains in winter. Around 2000 metres above sea level, Jebel Akhdar can experience sub-zero temps and snowy peaks. It is home to luxury hotels including Anantara (anantara.com) and Alila (alilahotels.com), which also recently opened Alila Hina Bay in Dhofar near the UNESCO-listed Sumhuram heritage site. While the rest of the peninsula swelters in summer, Dhofar remains a green oasis cooled by monsoonal rains between June and September. See tourismoman.com.au
A camel train in Abu Dhabi. Photo: iStock
Driving out to the cheesily named Arabian Nights Village (arabiannightsvillage.com) for an afternoon of swimming, henna tattooing and rolling down towering orange sand dunes, you are just 30 minutes from the city when your four wheel drive brakes to allow a train of camels, on the way to market, to pass.
SKYSCRAPER ROOFTOP DINING UNDER THE STARS IN DUBAI
Even in midwinter, in the shadow of the world’s highest tower, Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, al fresco dining in the clouds is doable. For a sophisticated table free of kitschy dancing fountains, try Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant GÅL in the Address Downtown Dubai hotel (addresshotels.com)
Dune bashing (www.omanhotels.com/desertnightscamp) in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert. The sand sea of Wahiba Sands, on the Oman-Saudi border, sees dunes of up to 100 metres, and your Land Cruiser leaps from the dunes’ crest like a joyous kitten. Note: the louder you scream, the happier the driver,
Floating in the bath-warm waters of the Arabian Gulf at Banana Island Resort Doha hosts a lush, luxury resort (anantara.com). The crescent-shaped isle (hence the name) is only 25 minutes by ferry boat from the Qatari capital’s downtown.
Walking through a guard of mounted white Arabian horses into an orchestral concert in Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building, set in the desert oasis of AlUla (experiencealula.com). Breathtaking in its ambition, effortlessly sophisticated.