For over 1000 years, Middle Eastern tales told by traders and crusaders filtered into our folklore. The vastness of its deserts, the bounties of its oases and the invigorating aromas of Arabian souks all captured European imaginations.
Accented by other worldly architecture and shrouded in theological mystique, the sun-scorched lands that lie between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf have long been a source of fascination for ardent travellers north of the Mediterranean. But in recent years, the Middle East’s history has conceded an increasing amount of limelight to its future, as the whole region undergoes a dramatic transformation. And while Dubai enjoys the lion’s share of publicity, those of us with our fingers on the pulse of luxury travel know that there’s plenty more to shout about on this intriguing peninsula. Below, we’ve highlighted our favourite Middle East destinations to give you better idea of exactly why the desert’s hidden treasures have got us so excited.
Abu Dhabi has taken perhaps the most sensible approach towards a prosperous future. Moving away from its dependency on oil revenues, the emirate has not only invested in tourism, but has also paired up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and put some of the scientific community’s greatest minds to work on achieving sustainability. This forward-thinking strategy has led to the creation of Masdar City, which aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city, powered entirely by renewable energy. From self-driving cars, to climate controlling architecture, since its initiation in 2006, Masdar has already taken huge strides towards achieving Abu Dhabi’s vision for its future.
This conscientious strategy for transitioning into life after oil is possibly most evident on the fantastic Sir Bani Yas Island, a 34 square metre nature reserve just off Abu Dhabi’s coast. Aside from providing a nurturing environment to over 130 different animal species, Sir Bani Yas is also home to three diverse and immersive resorts, Anantara’s Al Sahel and Al Yamm Villas, and the Desert Islands Resort & Spa. Here, you can escape from the hustle and bustle of city living and get closer to nature while enjoying complete luxury and comfort. But this is just one string in Abu Dhabi’s bow, so if you’re looking for a rounded experience of what the Emirati capital is all about, we highly recommend spending a few nights here before or after exploring the delights of its sprawling metropolis.
As you might imagine, the city is full of exceptional restaurants, and in the northeast, you’ll find Saadiyat Island, which is set to become the home of culture in the Middle East, with its own Louvre and the highly anticipated Guggenheim museum opening later this year. Abu Dhabi is also known for its world class golfing facilities, with several courses dotted about the city, but if it’s cultural attractions that you’re after, then visiting the majestic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an absolute must. The city also provides its fair share of enthralment, with Yas Waterworld inviting you to escape the heat and make a splash, while fast car lovers will find petrol-head heaven in Ferrari World. Even all of the above barely scratches the surface of Abu Dhabi’s offerings, but if you’d like to dig a little deeper, then one of our well-travelled experts is only a click or call away.
Ajman enjoys a much quieter pace of life to the rest of the UAE, thanks to being the smallest of its seven member states. The city has an old fort, along with a museum and soft, white, sandy beach, but the city centre doesn’t boast the same opulence, glitz and glamour as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. However, its humble attractions and modestly priced hotels, teamed with the fact that it’s just a 40-minute drive from Dubai, makes it an excellent money saving option, freeing up more dirhams to spend on experiences. So, if you want a more quintessential UAE experience and to enjoy five star luxury for considerably less, Ajman may well be your emirate.
Many westerners aren’t all that familiar with Doha, but it’s a name that we fully expect will work its way into our vocabulary over the coming years, particularly after the 2022 World Cup. Qatar’s capital city shares similar heritage with the UAE, receiving most of its income in the pearl trade, before benefitting hugely from the discovery of oil in the 20th century. Doha wraps around a large natural bay, making its scenic waterfront the perfect setting for a romantic dhow cruise to accompany the mesmeric sun as it sets over the distant Saudi Arabian desert.
One of Qatar’s leading concerns while developing Doha to attract tourists has been maintaining its distinctive identity, which has enabled the local customs and culture to continue flourishing in the face of modernisation. The city is still bursting with traditional souks, markets and museums, each offering an enriching snapshots of the area’s history and character. Doha makes for an excellent stop on a multi-centre trip, whether you’re touring the Middle East or using it as a convenient stopover on your way to a more distant destination.
The UAE’s most famous city has commanded our attention for the last 15 years, working its way onto more and more bucket lists around the globe. Dubai is where the limits of luxury and human ingenuity come to find out how far they can go. It’s the emirate where you can ascend the world’s tallest building and stand so high up in the sky that you can see the curvature of the Earth. It’s a place where you can swim with dolphins, find yourself skydiving over the palm, then lose yourself completely as you reflect on and revere the desert’s vastness with a four by four safari. Dubai is a city of wonder and an emirate of contrasts.
And it’s these wonders and contrasts that have earned it such broad appeal. Families with young children are spoilt for choice when it comes to Dubai. Whether the kids are making a splash at Aquaventure or Wild Wadi waterpark, getting to grips with grown up life at Kidzania, or making new friends from around the world in one of several fantastic resort kids’ clubs around the city, the most difficult part of your family holiday in Dubai will be seeing the disappointment on their faces when it’s time to leave and go home. But the city is as much a playground for adults as it is for kids – particularly adults of the rich and famous variety.
Dubai’s nightlife and fine dining is second to none, and its bars and restaurants embody the notion that with greater competition comes greater quality. As countless world renowned brands compete for your custom, you’ll soon see what we mean when we say that Dubai has the most rewarding culture of one-upmanship on the luxury travel market. But it isn’t just the Arabian nights in Dubai that you can look forward to. From scuba diving and seaplane tours, to prestigious golfing greens and boundless international sporting events, there’s no shortage of thrills to fill your Arabian days with too. Even a simple stroll around the city is an adventure in itself, presenting the opportunity to discover pockets of the old Dubai mingling amongst the new. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, culture vulture, food fanatic or party animal, Dubai exemplifies the phrase ‘something for everyone’.
Located around two hours away from Dubai by car, Fujairah is the only emirate situated entirely on the Gulf of Oman. If you’re a fan of rugged dramatic landscapes and the creature comforts of soft, sandy beaches, then Fujairah is likely to be your kind of retreat. This emirate is home to the world’s oldest surviving mosque, which dates back to the 16th century and was recently restored after bombardment by British forces in the early 20th century. Its more low-key vibe and relatively close proximity to Dubai and Oman make Fujairah an excellent base if you wish to explore neighbouring cities and countries without changing hotels.
Ras Al Khaimah
The name Ras Al Khaimah means ‘top of the tent’, which could be a reference to it being the northernmost emirate or the fact that it has the highest mountain peak in the UAE. Either way, Ras Al Khaimah is geographically unique among the rest of its neighbouring states. You’ll find lush mangroves in the wetlands of the north, home to thousands of animals, and in the winter the Hajar Mountains have been known to receive something that’s completely unheard of in every other emirate – snow. Ras Al Khaimah provides the back to basics bliss of an opulent desert oasis with a rugged mountainous backdrop. It’s the most ideal emirate for lovers of the great outdoors, so if you end up rambling in the mountains, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the several quaint villages that very easily blend into the hills and go unseen.
Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world, something which you gain a sense of within moments of arriving in the low-lying capital city of Muscat. There’s a distinct lack of western-style skyscrapers, unusual for a capital city, which adds charmingly to Muscat’s Omani character. And with the territory of being the oldest state in the region comes a wealth of historical artefacts to explore, from old forts to picture-perfect rural villages. Oman traditionally made its income through the sale of frankincense, but these days, in true gulf-state fashion, its economy relies heavily on the sale of gas and oil. Less like their neighbours, though, Omani’s practise an uncommon brand of Islam, known as Ibadism. Seen as more progressive than other religious sects, Ibadism seems to have fostered the welcoming culture of tolerance that you’ll find among locals and gives the country an altogether different feel from the UAE and Qatar.
Still technically in Oman, but so special it deserves its own section, Six Senses Zighy Bay is located in an exclave known as the Musandam Governate, occupying the southern side of the gateway into the Arabian Gulf. Getting to this intimate hideaway sets an instant magical tone, as you weave and wind through valleys and peaks to a secluded bay looking out to the Indian Ocean. Once the resort is in view, from the top of the mountain range just before it, you’re confronted by two choices. You can either continue on your drive down to the resort’s reception to check in, or you can paraglide your way down, providing a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
Zighy Bay is a place for unrivalled relaxation, offering the perfect accompaniment to help you unwind after a few days in the fast lane of Dubai. Here, you’re free to enjoy mountaintop picnics seasoned by breath-taking views, along with the chance to swim among turtles and whale sharks, and a unique outdoor cinema experience in the evening, just to name a tiny fraction of Zighy Bay’s services. True to the Six Senses ethos, the resort’s architecture almost looks and feels as though it could be naturally occurring, really adding to the ambiance and recognisable satisfaction that only comes from such a perfect balance of comfort and complete seclusion.
The Arabian Peninsula is a huge area to cover in just a single article, so if you’d like more information, get in touch today and one of our Middle East travel experts will be delighted to shed more light.