In less than a lifetime oil-rich states in the Arabian Gulf have been transformed. Where once there was a desert, dazzling cities have sprung up as quickly as the black gold.
The United Arab Emirates and its neighbouring Middle Eastern countries have sprung from the desert to capture our imagination as some of the most popular new cruise destinations. The Arabian Gulf evokes legends of derring-do and dhows loaded with treasures sailing the turquoise sea.
Where once there was sand, now futuristic buildings light up the landscape with luxurious hotels, opulent palaces and some of the highest skyscrapers in the world.
Stylish new port terminals are attracting modern-day cruise lovers, and excellent flights to the region have also made this an easy destination to reach: it’s an average 6 hours 45 mins from the UK.
You can’t help but gaze in awe at the iconic Burj Al Arab Hotel as you cruise into this mesmerising metropolis. Designed to resemble a billowing sail, this ultra-upmarket hotel is now an iconic feature of the skyline.
The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, also towers over land and sea at an ear-popping 2,722 feet high. Catch the fastest-ever lift to the top for a drink in the lounge.
Dubai’s waterfront is a captivating contrast of old and new. For a glimpse at the city’s past, take a simple boat trip along Dubai Creek or barter for souvenirs at the Spice and Gold Souks.
The Dubai Cruise Terminal is at Port Rashid, and complimentary shopping shuttles are provided to designer stores at Mercato Mall and City Center Drive.
A helicopter ride over Palm Island and the dazzling city is a tour offered by most cruise lines.
Avoid the mainstream crush and head for hipster Al Quoz, where Dubai meets Dalston. Here a cluster of warehouses around Alserkal Avenue has been growing into an independent artsy scene of galleries, live music, food trucks and film nights.
Bedouin may still roam the desert, but Dubai also plays hosts to international tennis and golf tournaments. Tourists flock to its shores while development continues at a frenetic pace, from artificial islands to the astounding Burj Al Arab Hotel.
Dubai is two cities in one: the Khor Dubai, an inlet of the Persian Gulf, separates Deira, the old city, from Bur Dubai.
The largest of the seven emirates and the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is sky-rocketing into the tourism limelight as quickly as Ferrari World’s fastest-ever theme park ride on Yas Island or the Formula One drivers that race here in the annual Grand Prix.
A new cruise terminal opened last year, just in time for the passengers to sail in for the highly-anticipated opening of several museums and art galleries.
Saadiyat Island will soon become a cultural hub of global importance when the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum are complete. These modern-day masterpieces will complement the magnificent, must-see, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, known as the White Fort.
Saadiyat is just one of more than 200 islands in Abu Dhabi’s archipelago and with more than 400 km of coastline, there is no shortage of sparkling sands. One of the finest beaches is still home to the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles which are now protected.
The vast desert known as the Empty Quarter was a location for the latest Star Wars film and is also popular for sand surfing and dune bashing.
Muscat means ‘safe anchorage’ and the beautiful capital of Oman lies on a stunning natural harbour, the corniche still guarded by 16th-century Portuguese forts. Cruise the Omani coastline, home to dolphins and whales, and you can’t fail to be captivated.
In contrast to its Arabian neighbours, the city skyline is not dominated by high-rise towers but the rugged Western Al Hajar Mountains, which provide the backdrop to this serenely seductive country abundant in Arabesque charm.
The cruise port is in Muttrah, the original old town, which has a large souk. A shuttle ferries passengers to the port gate where taxis are available. As well as cruise ships and private yachts, traditional dhows sail around the busy harbour. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is an architectural masterpiece that is on most cruise tours.
Doha has been transformed from flat desert to Qatar’s dazzling, futuristic capital in just a few short years, thanks to a massive investment programme. This includes the building of the new Hamad Port, which should be ready to welcome mega cruise ships by the end of 2017.
Meanwhile, as cruise ships dock at Doha Port, next to the Museum of Islamic Art, a visit to this striking building and fascinating cultural collection should not be missed. The collection spans 1,400 years. The cubist pyramid building, designed by architect I.M. Pei, who created the Louvre’s glass pyramid, stands proud on the waterside against a backdrop of historic dhows and dazzling 21st-century towers. Inside, the beautifully lit collection of calligraphy, ceramics, textiles and glass is remarkable.
Magical dhow sunset dinner cruises also leave from the harbour, giving a view of the horseshoe-shaped Corniche as the skyscrapers light up at night.
Qatari cuisine is a melting pot of Arabic influences. Mezze is made to be shared with kebabs, koftas, seafood and fattush (bread salad). The waterfront is the perfect place to dine, perhaps at the rotating Torch Hotel’s 360 restaurant, which has dizzying views.
The small kingdom of 33 islands on the Arabian Gulf is home to just 700,000 inhabitants and is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 18-mile long King Fahd Causeway.
Most cruise ships call at Manama, the capital city, which offers a blend of ancient, majestic mosques and modern skyscrapers, like the sail-shaped twin towers of Bahrain’s World Trade Centre.
After dark, this vibrant city buzzes with late-night shopping, nightclubs and lively bars. The labyrinthine souk lies in the heart of the old town, near the archway of Bab al-Bahrain.
Bahrain is known, oddly enough, for having the world’s largest cemetery – the Dilmun Burial Mounds – but is also famous for its 400-year-old Tree of Life.
Petrolheads may want to race like their heroes on the Formula One track, or try a 4×4 Experience off the Tarmac.
Water sports are popular, too, especially snorkelling and diving for pearls around coral reefs, while dolphins and flamingos are often seen by voyagers on boat trips to the Hawar Islands.
MIDDLE EAST CRUISE TIPS
When to go?
As temperatures can soar above 40°C in summer, the Arabian Gulf sailing season runs from October to April, when the weather is warm and sunny.
What to pack?
Loose, lightweight cotton or linen clothing is best. In respect of the local culture, women should cover their knees and shoulders when in public places as well as their heads and ankles in mosques. The sea can be blissfully warm, but swimwear is not always allowed on public beaches. Rules tend to be more relaxed at hotel resorts.
In Muslim countries, Friday is a holy day set aside for communal prayer, so shops and restaurants are often shut.
In many Arabian Gulf countries, alcohol is only served in hotels, clubs and bars.
Do not wear swimming costumes away from the beach or hotel pool. Do not display affection with the opposite sex in public. It is also against the law to share a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse, unless it’s a parent or child. All of these actions can land you in jail.
Never shake hands with an Emirati woman unless she offers her hand first. It is considered inappropriate to photograph Muslim women in their traditional dress.
Who sails there?
- Celebrity Cruises will be the first to home port in Abu Dhabi when Celebrity Constellation arrives in November this year. Not only will there be an Arabian Coast Immersion Cruise, but the chance to visit India, too. Destination guide Ben Fogle has also devised an exciting on-shore excursion which combines dune bashing, sand surfing, camel riding and dining under the stars at a Bedouin camp.
- Azamara Club Cruises will offer a 10-night Arabian Gulf & Emirates Voyage on board Azamara Journey departing from Dubai Oct 24 2016 and Nov 14 2017
- MSC Fantasia will cruise UAE, Qatar and Bahrain over seven nights, sailing from Dubai, starting in Dec 2016 and continuing until March 2017
MSC Splendida will have seven and 14-night voyages to UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman from Dec 2017 until March 2018
- Thomson Celebration has seven-night cruises to the Cities of Gold from Dec 2016 – March 2017
- Royal Caribbean International Vision of the Seas will offer 7-night Arabian Gulf voyages from Dec 2016 – March 2017
Cruise lines assist with visas, although guests flying out before a cruise should ensure they have a free 30-day visa. Passports must be valid for six months beyond your date of entry
The super-clean Dubai Metro is best for shopping trips, connecting shoppers between many of the best malls, including Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall, Bur Juman and City Centre. Tickets range from AED1.80-5.80 (£0.30-1.00) per trip depending on how many tiers travelled, and you can travel all over Dubai for a day for AED14 (£2.50).
Currency: Dirham, written as Dh or Arab Emirates Dirham (AED)
Telephone code from UK: dial 00 971 (for the United Arab Emirates), followed by 4 (for Dubai), then the seven-digit number. Time difference: plus four hours