Less than fifty years ago, the Middle East was an area shrouded in mystique to the rest of the world. An oil-rich but inhospitable desert land, accessible only to the few. Today, it could not be more different. Dubai is one of the most cosmopolitan hubs in the world with Bahrain rapidly following suit; Qatar is seeing growth on an unprecedented scale; the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Iran are now more accessible than ever to the western world.
Before you go
Visa requirements vary depending on which country you are visiting and what passport you hold. Check the requirements closely, because they can vary with little notice and be aware that there are different requirements for business travellers and tourists. Also make sure your visa is valid for the entire duration of your visit, as it is increasingly difficult to get extensions from within country.
Wherever you are travelling and for whatever reason, it is strongly advised that you take out travel insurance for frequent travellers.
There are frequent flights from all international destinations to Dubai, and direct flights to many other cities including Doha, Riyadh, Amman and others.
Oil is still the cornerstone of the economy and low fuel prices mean that taxis are a simple and cost-effective means of local transportation when you arrive.
When to go
Temperatures soar in the Middle East throughout July and August, with the Mercury hitting 50C (122F) on a regular basis. Many visitors prefer to visit in the winter months, when the climate is more akin to English summertime, typically reaching the upper 20s during the day and remaining warm into the evening and throughout the night.
Visitors should also bear in mind the holy month of Ramadan, which typically begins in early June. During this time, most people will be fasting from dawn to dusk each day and while businesses stay open, working hours and the pace of life in general are significantly reduced.
Consequently, food and drink outlets are typically closed during daylight hours and visitors should show sensitivity and not eat, drink or smoke in public places between dawn and dusk.
Dubai is by far the most famous and popular destination in the Middle East. With its towering skyscrapers and thriving economy, it may seem like a business hub transported to the middle of the desert, but there are many other sides to the city.
Six mega shopping malls are dotted across Dubai, the most famous being the Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates. These attract shoppers from around the world and their outlets offer everything from world famous designer fashion labels to bargain price electronics.
The Dubai Marina with its yacht club, restaurants and of course more shops is a popular destination for tourists, business travellers and locals, who mingle in one of the most cosmopolitan settings on the globe.
Holidaymakers flock to the beaches at Jumeirah and The Palm – which includes its artificial islands covered in thousands of tons of imported white sand.
Despite its modern image, there is important history attached to Dubai too. The old city around Dubai creek has changed little over the years. Traditional abra boats continue to ply the waters of the creek and the spice souks give a taste and smell of times past.
Seen as Dubai’s “little brother” the Qatar capital is a city that is going places fast. Nowhere in the world has seen such speed of development and growth – and it shows no sign of slowing.
With its glittering skyline and huge shopping malls, the comparisons with Dubai become obvious. However, while Dubai is famous for its relaxed and almost western atmosphere, Doha has a more traditional Islamic culture that is closer in nature to Saudi Arabia. This makes for some intriguing contrasts between old and new, East and West.
Jordan’s capital offers what many see as a more “authentic” view of the traditional Middle East. One of the oldest cities in the world, it has hit the global business and tourist map relatively recently.
Ironically, the city is loosely divided into the western half, with its more modern cafes, bars and shopping malls, and the eastern, which is still steeped in Jordanian culture and tradition.
Who knows how long this old city will retain its ancient charm before the pull of the western dollar alters it forever?
A whole world to explore
Dubai, Doha and Amman are just three examples of the varying faces of the Middle East. Other destinations, such as Abu Dhabi, Manama, Riyadh and Beirut all have their own unique character.