It's hard to believe that four years ago the little Gulf emirates were in a war zone. Now, these curious states welcome Britons in search of modest adventure and Russians avid for consumer goods
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The Independent Culture
DESCENDING the tarmac road, through the last shark-toothed Hajar mountains above Fujairah and down to a glittering Indian Ocean strand, it's pretty hard to convince yourself that until a few years ago these places were as remote as the moon. They were the preserve of the SAS and the hardy oil prospector, distant emirates and sheikhdoms wrapped in circumspection and guarded by intrigue, a collection of desert territories huddled around the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula where a fragment of Oman juts into the Hormuz Strait.

The West fought a war just four years ago (1991) to preserve its interests in this part of the world. But in these quieter corners of Arabia only the faintest trace remains of that mighty military effort: the odd bunch of aerials on a far hilltop, a silver-skinned warship afloat in a hazy sea, satellite television dishes on rural farmhouses.

Today - in what will, no doubt, prove but an interlude between Middle East crises - the mildly adventurous winter traveller can spend a comfortable and absorbing break in the small group of emirates from Dubai on the Gulf to Fujairah on the Indian Ocean. These are not the most liberal societies on earth. But unlike their great brooding neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Iran, they are easy and welcoming places for the foreigner who behaves with discretion. Women need to dress modestly but are not obliged to shroud themselves in a veil. Some emirates enforce the religious ban on alcohol and a rather sedate air of sobriety reigns in their silent hotels. Others, such as Dubai, do not, and from margaritas at a Tex-mex bar to icy vodka with your Iranian caviar the place is cheerfully afloat. (A word of advice from one who has spent a night in prison in an entirely different part of the Gulf - do not, under any circumstances, drink alcohol and drive). That proviso apart, the emirates are cosmopolitan and discreetly tolerant of infidel vices. From the visitor's point of view, it is all a matter of tact.

In return, these curious states offer an opportunity unavailable anywhere else to see at first hand a traditional Islamic society in the throes of its collision with technology and cash, to prowl unhassled through gleaming souks heaped high with gold, to drive for miles through moonscape deserts, to chance upon the splash of fertile green that marks an oasis and drink in the purest air blowing out of Saudi Arabia's vast Empty Quarter across to the shores of the Gulf of Oman.

You can also stay in some of the most luxurious hotels east of Suez, enjoy the Maktoum family's exotic horse-racing, play tennis and golf, lounge by any number of pools and dine on the finest seafood between Bari and Singapore. I first travelled through the Emirates as a way station en route to Tehran, then returned, with dozens of other journalists, to follow the naval battles of the forgotten Gulf war - the one between the US and Iran that ended in 1988. I liked it so much I came back for a winter tour, breaking the long haul from south-east Asia to London on a fare deal with Emirates, the local airline that reporters covering the Middle East regard as the best in the region.

There's another great advantage to the Dubai stopover from Singapore or Bangkok. It means that you fly for no more than eight hours at one go, then refresh yourself for a day or so. This, of course, is heresy in the get-there-quicker, time-efficient Nineties. But it is much more civilised, a bit like flying as did an earlier generation, with stops in the outposts of empire on the way to the east. I was playing tennis by Dubai's creek a few hours after a dawn touchdown from Singapore, and that night I slept like a baby. There is an Emirates daytime connection to London, whereas British Airways only offers a redeye overnight flight.

Dubai is the easiest port of entry because British citizens get a visa on arrival with a minimum of formality. It's also the best base from which to strike out into the desert and towards the Indian Ocean beaches across the peninsula. But it is, above all, a compelling place in its own right.

Its broad creek curves in from the Gulf, bearing hundreds of vessels each day, most of them the old wooden dhows which ply the waters between the Emirates and Iran. The dhows tie up alongside banks, skyscrapers and souks to disgorge their eclectic array of cargo: Persian carpets and cashew nuts from Bandar Abbas, South Korean televisions and microwaves destined for the clandestine Iranian market, bales of fabrics and crates of machine parts trans-shipping between Europe and Pakistan. Their turbanned crews squat by the quayside. For about 10 pence you leap on to an abra, one of the small ferry boats that take passengers across the creek, weaving in and out of the dhows to the opposite bank. Dubai is the classic trading port, making its money by shifting goods, currencies and commodities between the Indian subcontinent and the world of Islam.

The ruling Maktoum clan - once described disarmingly by Harpers and Queen as "the family who own the country" - oversees its mixture of commerce and culture-clash with a relatively light hand. Horsebreeders and Anglophiles, they scored an enormous success with the last Derby winner, Lammtarra, one of a string of horses whisked from the Newmarket winter to a balmy training season in Dubai. The local horse-racing track is a centrepiece of Dubai life, its crowds rivalled only by the devotees of the traditional desert camel races.

The British were the first European power here, a presence still reflected in the cosy links between the local security forces and chaps in dark suits from Le Carre-land, symbolised by the imperial location of the British embassy conveniently situated near to the old ruler's palace.

But there are new actors on Dubai's commercial stage: flabby, white skinned and florid-faced, bulging out of their synthetic fabric clothes as they traipse through the souks, their plastic luggage stuffed with cheap consumer goods. The Russians have arrived. You can see the overloaded Aeroflot Ilyushins groaning up into the bouncing thermals over the Gulf, watch the passengers from Tashkent and St Petersburg heading straight for the cheap waterfront hotels, observe the blonde young ladies at play - or rather at work - in the bars and nightclubs. There is a new word in the local Arabic for a woman of easy virtue. The "Natashas" have displaced Filipinos and Thais in the marketplace that dare not speak its name.

A few days of all this can leave one yearning for the desert of Lawrence and Doughty. Then it is time to take to the road. Plenty of expatriates own four-wheel-drive vehicles, for "wadi-bashing" is a popular weekend pastime. The less experienced visitor should probably keep to the roads and stick to a rental car from one of the numerous companies touting cheap deals in Dubai.

The customary lessons about Arab driving aside, there is one unusual hazard in the Emirates - stray camels. This is not a joke. Along the highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi lie the rusting remains of Cadillacs and Chevrolets, victims of stray ships of the desert. Put simply, when a car hits a camel at speed, the beast's tall legs break like sticks and its heavyweight carcass smashes through the windscreen, almost invariably killing the people in the front seat. So: beware of camels. And don't drive through the desert at night if you can avoid it, since headlights attract these curious animals from afar.

The best road runs due north from Dubai to the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah, a strange place with a large Iranian population (the strongest drink available is that vile curdled milk that accompanies kebabs and curries), a disputatious ruling family and a severe economic problem. Sharjah's shortage of oil and gas rather curb the local style. The ruler erected an elegant souk, tiled in arabesque blues and greens, to house the gold merchants and carpet sellers. But it is often deserted, coming to life only when the inevitable coach party of bargain-hunting Russians appears. After they depart, Sharjah's souk relapses into a noonday somnolence until its idle traders are roused to answer the muezzin's call.

The road branches east out of Sharjah across the desert. It reaches the small town of Dhaid, where a pure white minaret rises above date-palm and citrus gardens. The city-dwellers of the Gulf coast keep country houses here, in their vain search for a few degrees of cool in the summer. From October to May, however, the climate is tolerable throughout the area, and when you breast the Hajar mountain range and head down for the sea, the dazzling blue of the Indian Ocean comes like a draught of refreshing air.

Welcome to Fujairah, a Ruritanian little emirate which hugs the fertile coastline. The town's fort still exhibits the signs of a bombardment by a Royal Navy gunboat in the 1920s, in the days when the British went in for that sort of thing. But that was perhaps the last exciting event in Fujairah. It sleeps by the pearly beaches, its whitewashed courtyards wreathed in bougainvillea. In a fit of dynastic rivalry, the local ruler has built an international airport, as did his counterpart in Sharjah. Alas, Fujairah international is not at the hub of the business travel itinerary and its new terminal echoes to ghostly announcements. Drawn up on the pristine taxiways are - guess what? - half a dozen Aeroflot Tupolevs. In Cold War times, their arrival would have sent the chaps from Le Carre-land scuttling round to see the sheikh. Nowadays nobody cares, and the Russians pay lower landing fees than at Dubai.

After Fujairah you encounter at last the treasures of the eastern coast. Broad, silvery beaches with not a soul in sight. Majestic cliffs on which perch abandoned forts and watchtowers. Tiny fishing villages where the bright blue boats come in during late afternoon and the catch tumbles from nets spread out on the sand. A few miles north, heading up towards the Straits of Hormuz, the port of Khor Fakkan occupies a spectacular natural harbour. The snorkelling and scuba-diving here is wonderful, the ocean crystalline. There are one or two comfortable hotels in Fujairah and Khor Fakkan but they cater for divers and shipping brokers, for there is practically no tourist industry at all.

There is no doubt that electricity, drinking water and metalled roads have sanitised Arabia Deserta. Yet along this remote coastal road, the traveller still gets a hint of its vastness and mystique. You feel as if you are clinging to the very rim of the Arab world, with only the breakers and swells of the sea between these devout Muslim fishing villages and the bustling towns along the coastline of India. Far out, the tankers plough their stately path to the industries of Osaka and Seoul. Occasionally, the greyhound silhouette of a western warship slides across the horizon.

These are the sinews of the modern world, viewed from a landscape of deep antiquity. And just as the crumbled forts once watched for distant marauders, the sentinels of our industrial might protect the tanker routes.

A few miles north of Khor Fakkan, the road runs out at a village called Dibbah. Here begins the enclave of the Sultanate of Oman, which occupies the very tip of Arabia and faces Iran at the mouth of the Gulf. Barbed wire and boulders block the beach, a dead-looking town occupies the next mile of seafront. Visitors, especially casual ones, are not welcome. For this is a patch of territory that bristles with surveillance technology and military installations, a land fought over by the SAS in a covert campaign to deny it to rebels against the Sultan. The Sultan, you see, went to Sandhurst, so the chaps in dark suits think he's a jolly good sort. It's just that one can't quite drop in. !

It's a good moment to haul the car around, drive back to Dubai, and enjoy a few cold beers and a plate of fat Gulf shrimps at Thatcher's bar. After all, in this part of the world you never know how long such pleasures will last. TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: From January Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) has flights to Dubai from London with Olympic Airways for pounds 329 return. Cruxton Travel (0181-426 8444) has flights with Emirates airline for pounds 485 return. British Airways (0345 222 111) r eturn flights cost pounds 726.

GETTING AROUND: Hertz car hire (0181-679 1799), pounds 159 a week.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Holders of British passports do not require a visa for visits to the United Arab Emirates of up to 30 days. UAE Embassy (0171-581 1281), 30 Princes Gate, Resource Centre, SW7 1PT, provides tourist information. Information on Dubai is available from the Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board (0171-839 0580), First Floor, 125 Pall Mall, London SW1 Y5EA.