It may not be the easiest region in the world to get into, but the Gulf states can be well worth the effort - their greatest riches can be found in places other than the bottom of an oil well. If you have a taste for the desert, the Gulf has every sort under the sun, including the largest sand desert in the world. Fancy a spot of shopping in a souk, a day at the races, or even a well-stocked museum? You can do all of these things all over the Gulf. And this is the place in which Old Arabia stands in c...
How do I get there?

Half a dozen different airlines will get you there, but Gulf Air (0171- 408 1717) has a more extensive network around the Gulf than any other carrier, with direct flights from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Doha and Muscat. A return fare to any of these points is currently pounds 471.30; in the new year, prices will begin to come down, and from mid-January a return ticket should cost pounds 376.30. Open-jaw tickets, allowing you to fly into, say, Bahrain and out of Muscat, are possible for the same fare. There is also an airpass, which must be bought in the UK in connection with a long-haul flight on Gulf Air. This is currently on special offer; tickets cost either US$45 (pounds 28) or US$80 (pounds 50) per sector, for a minimum of three sectors. Flights on Emirates or Qatar Airways are also worth checking out.

Do I need a visa?

Visa regulations are subject to change at any point, often without notice, so it is always worth checking the latest situation with the appropriate embassy before departure. Currently, British passport holders do not need visas to enter the UAE. Visas are needed for Bahrain, and the Bahraini Embassy (0171-370 5132) recommends buying them at Manama airport, where they will cost 5 dinars (about pounds 8.25). In theory you need a letter from your employer, a hotel reservation, and a return ticket, although this is not always the case.

Single-entry visas for Qatar (0906 8633233) should be acquired before you travel, and cost pounds 36. Getting into Kuwait (0891 600160 or 0171 590 3400) is easier if you know someone there; otherwise, arrange accommodation, and get the hotel to issue a no-objection certificate which will enable you to get a visa.

Oman (0891 600567) will not issue visas unless your passport still has six months to run, although this rule is sometimes waived. Single-entry visas cost pounds 40, although it may be more useful to have a multiple entry visa (pounds 54) if you are planning to go to the Musandam peninsula as well.

Tourist visas are not issued for Saudi Arabia (0171-917 3000), although you may be able to get a business visa if you have an invitation from a company or a Saudi individual.

So I shouldn't bother with Saudi at all?

If you can cope with the bureaucracy and seemingly harsh regulations, there is a lot to see there. If you prefer not to go it alone, Bales Worldwide (01306 732700) runs a 10-day escorted trip around some of the country's highlights. Tourism, such as it is, is mainly concentrated around Riyadh and the nearby ruins of Dir'aiyah, the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and Madain Salah, an ancient city once ruled by the Nabataeans. Non-Muslims are not allowed to visit Mecca. About half of Saudi is accounted for by the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert area in the world, where conditions are so harsh that even the Bedouin are thin on the ground.

Is the desert just a load of sand then?

Yes, but it is amazing how varied sand can be, and the desert is one of the most exciting features of the whole region. As you travel around, the landscape changes dramatically. In the northern part of the region, Kuwait and Qatar are pretty flat and gravelly, and there is very little vegetation. Bahrain is also flat, but there is more greenery because of the island's many underground springs.

The UAE and Oman are punctuated by reddish-gold dunes which stretch for miles. Their appearance changes with the light at various times of day, and if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle it is worth going out into the desert just to enjoy the scenery. Several companies offer desert tours from various starting points; try Arabian Adventures in Dubai (00 971 4303 4888), Sunshine Tours (00 971 2 4449914) in Abu Dhabi, and Bahwan Tours (00 968 706 798) in Muscat.

The various oases in the UAE and Oman break up the sandy landscape with their lush vegetation; one of the most popular is the Liwa oasis, in the southern part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Where should I go first?

Dubai, as the most westernised part of the Gulf, is a gentle introduction to the Arab world. It is a fascinating mixture of old Arabia and late 20th-century city life: against a backdrop of startling architecture, all blue-glass and steel; there are regular calls to prayer from the city's many mosques, and the local men still wear their traditional white robes.

The city is divided by the Creek, an inlet that runs about six miles inland from the Arabian Gulf; on one side is Bur Dubai, the more traditional part of the city, and on the other Deira, where most of the bright lights and modern architecture are to be found. The two sides are connected by a couple of bridges and a tunnel, but it is more interesting to cross on one of the flat-bottomed abras, or small ferry boats, that shuttle between the two.

Traditional life is disappearing fast in Dubai, but if you walk around the Bastakia district you will see the squat white houses, and the old wind towers. The museum at the Al- Fahaidi Fort is worth a visit, and offers an interesting overview of life in Dubai in years gone by.

Not everything in the UAE is modern then?

Certainly the cities are very modern, mainly as a result of the oil boom of the last few decades. Architecturally speaking, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in particular are little more than a collection of skyscrapers that appear to have sprung up out of the sand. But go up the coast, through Dubai, Sharjah and Adjman to the tiny emirate of Umm Al-Quwain, where there is scarcely a modern building to be seen.

This small fishing community appears untouched by the world outside; boats are pulled up on the beach, with semi-circular nets piled up beside them. This is what Dubai and Abu Dhabi must have been like 30 years ago, before the city planners changed them beyond all recognition and built fancy waterfronts. Different again is Fujairah, across the peninsula from the other Emirates, facing the Indian Ocean. Here the scenery is mountainous, and the colours are brighter; the atmosphere is more like that of the Indian sub-continent than other parts of the Arab world.

How do I get around?

One way of seeing the region is to hire a car, but if you are travelling in the desert regions of Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait it would be easy to get lost, as the roads are not well sign-posted, particularly if you don't read Arabic. All the cities have plenty of taxis, and if you want to go somewhere for the day, negotiating a rate with one of them and getting it to take you around is a good way of sightseeing.

Within the UAE there are shared taxis and minibuses. These take a fixed number of passengers, and leave when they are full. While there are frequent services out of places like Dubai, it can be much more difficult getting back from the smaller towns, and you may need to be prepared to negotiate the return journey with a local taxi.

Is it safe for women to travel alone?

Safety is less of a problem in the Gulf than in most other parts of the world, mainly because of the harsh penalties applied to anyone accused of harassment or worse. A surprising number of the local women wear traditional long, black cloaks and headscarves; many also cover their faces. Against this background, western women stand out, and because of this they tend to be treated with curiosity or even suspicion.

In order to avoid being too noticeable, it is advisable to wear modest clothing, even in the cities, keeping shorts and strapless tops for the poolside. In most of the Gulf countries, with the exception of Oman, women going out to restaurants will be expected to sit in designated family areas; and they will always be given the front seats on the local buses.

The exception to all this is Dubai, where visitors are very much a feature of daily life; by contrast, Saudi Arabia is far more restrictive than anywhere else.

Where can I go

sightseeing?

All the capital cities have museums dedicated to the history and development of the region, including the role of the British. They first got involved in the Gulf in the days of the British East India Company, and stayed on to protect the trade routes into India during the days of the British Empire; the many expats who are still living in the region are now mainly working for international oil companies.

Try not to miss the Ethnographic Museum in Doha, which contains a reconstructed house from the beginning of the 20th century, as well as a working wind tunnel, which was the original form of air-conditioning in the Gulf.

Kuwait's National Museum, once home to a priceless collection of Islamic art, is now a ruin, since it was sadly burned and looted during the Iraqi occupation of 1990 - but it has been left as a monument to the Gulf War.

Oman is famous for its forts, mainly built by the Portuguese during the 16th century, although some of them date from pre-Islamic times. Many have been carefully restored. The most famous of these is the one at Nizwa, but it is also worth making a trip that takes in Nakhl, with its furnished rooms; Rustaq, where the fort is warren-like but bare; and Al Hazm, which is built over a spring.

A trip to a market sounds like fun

There are souks, as the markets are known, all over the Gulf, some of which specialise in particular items, while others sell general goods. Bartering is the order of the day in all of them. The best known is the gold souk in Dubai, but far more lively is the souk in Muttrah, the waterfront district of Muscat.

The best known local product is frankincense, which is on sale everywhere, but there are also sections specialising in beautiful textiles, spices, and old Omani silver. There is a wonderful fish souk on the beach at Barka, on Oman's Batinah coast.

And camel markets are always lively affairs: there is one on the outskirts of Riyadh, and another in Buraimi, across the border from Al- Ain in Abu Dhabi, where you can choose an animal for its milk, its meat, or even because you want to race it.

Is that their idea of sport?

Camel racing is extremely popular in both Oman and the UAE, and there are special tracks in several cities. Races usually take place on Fridays or public holidays during the winter months. Horse racing is also popular; Dubai is the main centre, largely as a result of the enthusiasm and huge wealth of the ruling Mahktoum family. Surprisingly, there are also several very good golf courses in the region, with sophisticated irrigation systems to keep the greens green. The Dubai Desert Classic takes place at the Emirates Golf Club, which is on the road between Dubai and Jebel Ali.

Is there anything really ancient to see?

Archaeologists have done a great deal of work in the last few decades, particularly on Failaka Island near Kuwait City, and around Bahrain. The excavations in Failaka and Qal'at Al Bahrain, or the Portuguese Fort, as it is known, outside Manama, have revealed relics of Dilmun, a Bronze Age civilisation which lasted for two thousand years. One of the most fascinating features of Bahrain is its burial mounds, 85,000 of which have been discovered on the island, many of them concentrated around the villages of A'ali and Sar.

When should I go?

As long as you can tolerate heat, any time is fine, with the probable exception of July and August, when there is almost 100 per cent humidity throughout the region. The advantage of this is that hotels more or less give rooms away at this time of year. Winter lasts from November until February or March, and temperatures drop to the mid-eighties. This is also the rainy season, and downpours, if they come at all, can be torrential; the benefit is that the desert immediately starts to turn green, as dormant plants burst into life.

Ramadan began last Wednesday (9 December), and continues until 7 January. During this period, Muslims observe a strict fast from dawn till dusk. Most non-western restaurants are closed during the day, alcohol is usually banned even where it is normally sold, and smoking in public is not allowed. It is worth being in the region during this period to observe the Eid celebrations that continue for three days when the fasting is over. Try to get to the livestock market at Nizwa in Oman; it is a colourful place every Friday morning, but at the end of Ramadan it is full of people bartering for a suitable animal to slaughter for the family feast.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

THE MAIN reason most visitors go to Dubai is to shop. More than any other city in the world, Dubai exists for shopping. Every international designer label and big-name department store is there somewhere.

Bur Juman, Al Khaleej, Hamarain, Lamcy - just a selection of the shopping malls in the city. Usually open from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, these air-conditioned shopping arcades are like a buffer zone, isolating shoppers from the outside world. In addition to the extremely good prices, each one has several restaurants and some have cinemas. Among the most popular is the Wafi Mall, off Oud Mehta Street, and one of the newest is the Twin Towers on Baniyas Road. Shopping malls are not unique to Dubai - the Seef centre in Manama is extremely popular, the Qurm district of Muscat has a selection of malls, and a City Centre mall will be opening soon in Doha.

There is also an annual shopping festival in Dubai (the next one runs from 1 to 30 March 2000), during which even more bargains are to be found than usual. Now in its eighth year, the festival features carnivals and performances; the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race, is also run then.

Duty-free shopping is heavily promoted in the Gulf's main airports. Abu Dhabi airport has a big duty-free area for arriving passengers, in which alcohol is on sale, although there is no alcohol anywhere in the duty- frees at Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait or Saudi.

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL

Khorfakkan Beach, Sharjah

Although the city of Sharjah is on the Gulf coast, this secluded beach is over on the other side of the peninsula, facing the Indian Ocean. The Oceanic Hotel (00 9719 385111) is 20 years old and set in its own private gardens; it has a resident camel to add a bit of local colour. Although this particular Emirate is dry, alcohol is allowed in the hotel rooms. Diving packages can be organised to eight local dive sites, as well as to another six in Oman, just up the coast. There are also boat trips to parts of Oman's nearby Musandam peninsula that can only be reached from the water.

Hatta, Dubai

An hour away from the bustle of Dubai, the Hatta Fort Hotel (00 97185 23211) is in an oasis on the edge of the village of Hatta, in the Hajar mountains. The rooms are chalet-style, and all face towards Hatta's ancient fort. The village itself typifies rural UAE, with little happening outside the mosque. The hotel has extensive sports facilities and it is a good base for trips into the desert.

Al Bustan, Muscat

One of the most luxurious destinations in the Middle East, the Al Bustan Palace Hotel (00 968 799666), a few miles outside the old part of Muscat, is the place for sheer indulgence. Built in Arabic style, this hotel has a private beach, pools, a concert hall, plus opportunities for snorkelling, windsurfing, and floodlit tennis at night.

Comments