The Complete Guide to: The Gulf states

Souks, spices, sand and soaring skylines – the countries of Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are an alluring option for a winter break, says Cathy Packe

Why would I go there?

The states washed by the Gulf have much to offer visitors. The UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia share a climate that, while unbearably hot during the summer, is ideal for an autumn or winter break. Though much of the territory is desert, not until you get there do you begin to realise how varied this arid landscape can be. Kuwait and Qatar are generally flat and gravelly, without much vegetation; Bahrain, with its underground springs, is much greener. The sand dunes of the UAE and Oman change colour in different light according to the time of day. And when you find an oasis, such as Liwa in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, lush palm groves brighten up the surrounding countryside.

Where should I start?

Easiest to reach from airports across Britain, and by far the most flamboyant destination in the Gulf, is the emirate of Dubai. Once a thriving trading post with one of the most important souks on the Gulf coast, it has undergone a metamorphosis, first into a pleasant stopover spot, and now into a holiday destination in its own right and a fast-expanding business hub.

The city that dominates the emirate, and the whole region, is also called Dubai. It is simply larger than life: everything appears more modern, more opulent, more grandiose than anywhere else on the planet. The city grew up around the Creek, the stretch of waterway that divides it in two. Bur Dubai has the more traditional Bastakia district, a maze of narrow lanes, squat white houses and the wind towers that were an early form of air-conditioning.

The Dubai Museum (00 971 4 353 1862), in the restored 18th-century Al Fahidi fort, offers an introduction to the city's cultural heritage, with reconstructions of typical Arab houses and scenes of pearl fishing and date farming. The museum opens 8.30am-8.30pm Saturday to Thursday, 2.30-8.30pm on Fridays; admission is 3 dirhams (50p).

Dubai's liveliest souks, labyrinths devoted to selling gold, spices, perfume and other exotic goods, are on the Deira side of the Creek. Cross between the two districts on one of the flat-bottomed ferries, abras, that shuttle between them. But it is modern Dubai that has most to offer. In addition to an ever-changing skyline that rivals Manhattan's, it boasts more than 50 shopping malls; an indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai (00 971 4 409 4000; skidxb.com); and The Palm, a tree-shaped island built on reclaimed land off the mainland. Here, the extraordinary Atlantis hotel (00 971 4 426 1000; atlantisthepalm.com) has recently opened: the epitome of indulgence, especially its 11 million litre aquarium. "The sensation of watching a whale shark swim by as you head off for dinner is as eerie as it is impressive," wrote Ben Ross in The Independent when it opened in September.

Other parts of the Gulf have excellent hotels, too, albeit usually on a smaller scale. Out in the desert, a 45-minute drive out of Dubai, the Al Maha Desert Resort (00 971 4 303 4222; al-maha.com) is set in a vast conservation area surrounded by sand and desert wildlife. Activities include camel trekking and guided nature walks; there's also a spa. Suites start at $1,305 (£746).

From Dubai to Abu Dhabi

These two emirates are adjacent, with fast and frequent collective taxis between them. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the emirates, and the capital of the union. Though it is a modern city, with skyscrapers reaching up like plants seeking sunlight, Abu Dhabi remains a much more obviously Muslim place than Dubai. Women should avoid wearing revealing clothing, out of respect for local sensitivities, and should not be seen on public beaches in a swimming costume; head instead to the ladies' beach at the southern end of the Corniche road.

The city's main cultural landmark is the White Fort, or Qasr Al Hosn (00 971 2 621 5300; adach.ae), built in the mid-18th century, and home of the ruling family for 200 years. It is open to visitors 7.30am-2.30pm and 5-9pm Saturday-Thursday; admission is free.

Outside the city, the most popular attraction is the oasis of Al Ain, easily reached in a couple of hours by collective taxi. Fortresses and watchtowers are reminders of history; the camel market offers a colourful glimpse of modern life. These desert beasts are traded for their meat, milk and racing potential and, as an exhibit in the Al Ain Museum (00 971 376 4559; aam.gov.ae; open Saturday-Thursday 9am-7.30pm, Friday 3-7.30pm, closed Monday) demonstrates, their shoulder blades were once used for local children to practise their writing on. Among the companies offering trips to Al Ain, as well as other desert excursions, is Sunshine Tours (00 9712 444 9914; adnh.com).

I want some culture

Despite the "Las Vegas-on-Sea" tag that could be applied to Dubai, the Gulf states are rich in heritage. The most accessible historic sites to visit are in Oman, the UAE's eastern neighbour. This vast u o sultanate is also one of the most relaxed, colourful and fascinating destinations in the region.

A mixture of desert, mountains and coast, it was once the centre of a thriving commercial empire, based largely on the production of frankincense, which comes from the gum of a tree that grows in few places outside Oman.

The horizons are punctuated by forts, constructed mainly as defensive measures in the constant tribal conflict. Some have been restored, notably at Jabrin; here you get a strong sense of the feudal society that has prevailed for much of Omani history. Take a trip through the gap in the Hajar mountains to the town of Nizwa, the venue for one of Oman's largest forts. Built by a 17th-century sultan, this impressive structure of solid towers and ornate rooms opens daily from 7.30am-4.30pm. Narwa is also the venue for home to a big new (and pleasingly sensitive) souk.

Other forts worth visiting include Jabrin, remote and beautiful, and Nakhl, which contains some interesting furnished rooms.

If you prefer your history unreconstructed, seek out the old ghost town of Tanuf and the fascinating ruined city of Manah. The roads into the mountains from here are constantly being improved, making possible high-altitude hikes. Serious hikers will want to try the Jebel Shams rim walk: the "mountain of the sun" is Oman's highest, at 3,075m.

Oman's long coastline, with its sandy beaches, offshore islands and coral gardens, is particularly appealing for diving enthusiasts. Regaldive (01353 659 999; regaldive.co.uk) arranges diving trips to various parts of the country, including Salalah in the far south.

City life?

Oman's capital, Muscat, is an attractive coastal city that divides neatly into three parts. Ruwi is a frenetic inland district full of luxury hotels. Muscat proper is the administrative centre, where the sultan resides in a waterfront palace, and which contains the Bait Al Zubair museum (00 968 24 736 688; zubaircorp.com), a treasure trove of Omani culture. It opens 9-10am and 4-7pm Saturday-Thursday; admission is one rial (£1.50). But Muttrah is the most alluring part of town, thanks to its lovely coastal road and lively souk, especially interesting in the morning for its colourful fish quay.

Muscat is the location for one of the finest hotels in the Middle East, the Al Bustan Palace (00 968 247 99 666; ichotelsgroup.com). Set on a private beach, with mountains forming the backdrop, it offers accommodation fit for a king – or any other head of state. It was built as a palace to house the regional leaders who came here for a summit meeting in 1985; when they had all gone home it was turned into a hotel.

Doha is developing fast, which is good news for passengers on stopovers on Qatar Airways. The striking new Museum of Islamic Arts (00 974 485 9888) is expected to open next Saturday, 22 November, after a series of postponements. This startling structure has been designed by IM Pei and is stunningly situated on Doha Bay.

Also in Doha, the Ethnographic Museum (00 974 443 6008) is located in a traditional Qatari house on Grand Hamad Street and reflects life in the country before the oil boom. And the Kuwait National Museum contains a priceless collection of Islamic art. Badly burned and looted during the Iraqi invasion, it has now been restored and most of its artefacts returned. It opens Sunday-Tuesday 9am-noon and 3-6pm, 3-6pm Fridays; admission is free.

How do I get there?

Emirates (0870 243 2222; emirates.com) has the most extensive network of services to the Gulf, flying to Dubai from seven UK airports. From there, it operates onward connections to Bahrain, Doha, Kuwait and Muscat. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic.com), Royal Brunei Airlines (020-7584 6660; bruneiair.com) and Biman Bangladesh Airlines (020-7629 0252; bimanair.com) also link the UK with Dubai.

Abu Dhabi's own airline is Etihad (0870 241 7121; etihadairways.com), which has connections from Heathrow and Manchester. Fares to Abu Dhabi are often lower than to Dubai; also, if your final destination is somewhere at the western end of Dubai, the transfer from Abu Dhabi is barely any longer. British Airways also flies from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.

Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; gulfair.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Bahrain, with connections from there to other Gulf destinations. The smaller emirates are easy to reach by road from Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Shared taxis and minibuses take a fixed number of passengers, departing when they are full. The journeys are easy and entertaining, though the frequency of the services depends on the destination. The smaller emirates are worth exploring, if only to put the larger ones into context. Tiny Umm Al Quwain, for example, still has the feel of a rural community, where dhow-building and fishing are the main activities, while Fujairah, the only emirate that faces the Indian Ocean, has mountainous scenery and an atmosphere that is more Indian than Arab.

Other unmissable destinations?

The small island state of Bahrain is an interesting place for a short stopover in a tour of the Gulf. It strikes a good balance: more liberal than many of its neighbours (just check out all the weekenders from Saudi Arabia), yet with a more traditional, less manufactured Middle Eastern experience than Dubai. There are restaurants that wouldn't look out of place in Notting Hill, as well as plush beach resorts, reams of history (forts, ancient burial mounds and temples) – and sunshine.

Though it comprises 33 islands, few visitors are likely to venture away from the largest, and its capital city, Manama. The outstanding attraction is the National Museum on Al-Fatih Highway (00 973 292 977), which opens 8am-8pm and costs BD0.5 (70p). Its fascinating overview of the island's history, from ancient civilisations to the discovery of oil (Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to strike black gold, in 1932), is a must. Don't miss the Hall of Graves for a reconstructed burial mound and the Hall of Trades and Crafts to learn about the pearl-diving industry.

Exploring outside the capital is best done by hiring a taxi and driver to take you around the highlights, which include 85,000 burial mounds, many of them concentrated around the villages of A'ali and Sar. There have also been extensive excavations at the Portuguese fort, Qal'at Al Bahrain, which have revealed relics of Dilmun, a Bronze Age civilisation that lasted for 2,000 years. Combine this with small, traditional villages, where local women still take loaves to be baked in the communal oven, and modern motorways with specially marked camel crossing-points: it all adds up to what is by all measures an unexpectedly enticing destination.

Red tape?

Visa requirements differ across the region. They are subject to change, so it is worth checking with the appropriate embassy before departure. Currently, British visitors to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the other Emirates do not need a visa.

Oman has simplified its visa rules: so long as your passport has at least six months still to run, you can buy a one-month, single-entry visa on arrival for OmR6 (£8.85). If you are planning to visit the Musandam peninsula, separated from the rest of the country by the UAE, it may be more useful to have a multiple entry visa, which costs OmR10 (£14.75).

For Bahrain, visas are available free of charge on arrival. Qatari visas can be issued on arrival at the airport for all passengers arriving on Qatar Airways, and cost QR55 (£8.60).

Getting into Kuwait is much easier if you know someone there, as you will need some kind of official sponsor before a visa can be issued. This process takes up to 10 working days and costs £30 (020-7590 3415).

No tourist visas are issued for Saudi Arabia, though you may be able to get a business visa (020-7917 3000; mofa.gov.sa) if you have an invitation from a company or a Saudi individual. If you are visiting with an organised tour group, they will arrange a visa on your behalf several weeks before departure.

Opening the door to Saudi Arabia

The Foreign Office does not mince its words about the risks for travellers to Saudi Arabia: "We continue to believe that terrorists are planning further attacks, including against Westerners and places associated with Westerners in Saudi Arabia". In addition, bureaucracy, along with comparatively strict regulations on dress and behaviour, make this a tough destination for tourists. This is a shame, as the most powerful Gulf state has plenty to see.

Half of Saudi is taken up by the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert area in the world, where conditions are harsh even for Bedouin tribesmen. The tourism that does exist is concentrated around Riyadh, the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and Madain Saleh (pictured), a magnificent ancient Nabataean city.

The Traveller (020-7436 9343; the-traveller.co.uk) is offering a 13-day trip, accompanied by a guest lecturer, around Saudi Arabia, departing on 7 November next year. The trip costs £4,635 per person, and will take in Riyadh, Jeddah, Al Jouf, Madain Saleh and Medina, though non-Muslim visitors are not allowed into the city centre; nor may they visit Mecca.

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