Gulf gateways let visitors discover the Arab world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 December, 2009, 12:00am

International airports and the host of airlines that jet in and out 24 hours a day make the United Arab Emirates an ideal starting point for exploring the many other fascinating destinations in the Middle East.

A few hours in the air can lead to ancient capitals, bustling townships or touristic icons, all of which are blessed with a host of diversions and attractions.

Cruise operators also woo travellers with the chance to visit the UAE's heritage sites, impressive hotels, duty-free stores, Dubai's indoor ski centre and much more. Some Hong Kong travel agents offer customised tours that give visitors an insight to the Arab world, and Dubai is often the favoured starting point or climax to these tours.

Flights from Dubai or Abu Dhabi make Beirut easily accessible. The capital of Lebanon has long enjoyed a reputation for a cosmopolitan lifestyle. The old adage of being able to ski in the morning and sunbathe by the Mediterranean in the afternoon still holds true most of the year. The city is being rapidly rejuvenated with a restoration programme that is preserving the architecture of days gone by while introducing malls and cultural centres.

Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, tracing its ancestry to 5000 BC. A palpable sense of history certainly runs though the Syrian capital. Conquered by Alexander the Great, subsequent centuries saw it pass into the Greek and then Roman empires before being sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century. Now, the staunchly independent capital of Syria, it has many fine parks and gardens.

In Jordan, the city of Amman shares a similarly ancient pedigree to Damascus, and archaeologists have turned up evidence of inhabitation some 5,000 years ago. Ranging over seven hills, Amman is a fast-growing modern metropolis but has some fine Roman ruins, including a restored 6,000-seat amphitheatre, which is regularly used for arts performances.

Tehran ranks as one of the most interesting cultural destinations in the Middle East. Within the boundaries of the Iranian capital are the Contemporary Arts Museum, an ethnographical museum and the monstrously gaudy Neyavaran Palace, which was the winter residence of the shah, who was deposed in 1979.

Visitors planning to buy a carpet should visit the Carpet Museum to get an idea of the best of what's on offer.

If there's a must-see in the Middle East, it's the pyramids at Giza outside Cairo in Egypt. Despite being one of the most familiar tourist sites in the world, the actual spectacle of the millennia-old pyramids of Cheops and Chephren are perfectly awesome up close. The nightly sound-and-light show at the Sphinx, or Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror) in Arabic, is also well worth experiencing.

Bahrain is an effervescent mirage conjured out of the desert by imagination and determination and copious amounts of oil.

Lacking fresh water, a desalination plant was built. With insufficient land, more was reclaimed from the sea. Hotels and office blocks swayed up above the ground like illusory palm trees and the thriving metropolis was born. This is somewhere that has to be seen to be believed.

Muscat is renowned for being one of the friendliest cities in the Middle East, perhaps because Omanis are drawn from so many different ethnic backgrounds. Most visitors make a beeline for the souk, the traditional downtown market fragrant with incense and stacked with merchandise that reflects Oman's position as the halfway post between two continents. It's a social forum as much as a market, so this is somewhere to relax with a cup of coffee flavoured with cardamom and watch the Arabic world go by.

In Yemen, Sana'a has the distinction of being almost completely off most tourist itineraries. While the outer suburbs have developed rapidly, many of the houses in the Old City are 400 or more years old and are contained within one of the largest completely preserved medinas in the Arab world. The skyline is dotted with minarets, there is a wealth of hammams, or public bathhouses, while beautifully tended gardens nestle behind mud walls. All in all, this is something of a timepiece.

Like many cities in the Middle East, Doha has attracted workers from around the world, and a smorgasbord of restaurants - from relatively high-toned to very inexpensive.

Due south of Dubai, the islands of the Seychelles are spread over some 400,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. The waters between the Emirates and Seychelles are a favourite with yachtsmen.