The Arabian Peninsula has a historical reputation for being a dangerous place, whether for political turmoil, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, the threat of terrorism, particularly in Yemen, and the recent democratic uprisings. However, the trouble spots are usually well defined, and as long as you stay away from these and keep track of political developments, you are unlikely to come to any harm.
Politics aside, the Peninsula is a very safe place compared with much of the West, boasting one of the lowest average crime rates in the world. That doesn’t mean to say you should take unnecessary risks, but it does mean you don’t have to worry unduly about theft, mugging and scams.
Visitors should be aware that most of the Arabian Peninsula comprises desert and this extreme environment can bring its own hazards, especially in temperatures that exceed 50°C in summer. With common sense and a few precautions, however, encountering this unique environment is one of the highlights of a Peninsula visit.
Some dos…Be vigilant in the cities, keeping clear of large public gatherings. Cooperate politely with security checks in hotel foyers and at road checkpoints. Keep abreast of the news in English-language newspapers published locally. Check the latest travel warnings online through your country’s state department or ministry. Consult your embassy/consulate in the region for specific concerns. Register with your embassy/consulate on arrival if there has been recent issues around public order. Trust the police, military and security services. They are overwhelmingly friendly, honest and hospitable, in common with their compatriots.
Some don’ts… Don’t be paranoid – the chances of running into trouble are no greater than at home. Don’t get involved if you witness political protests or civil unrest. Don’t strike up conversations of a stridently political nature with casual acquaintances. Don’t forget to carry some form of identification with you at all times including some or all of the following: passport; labour card; residence card; driving license; and travel permit (Saudi). It’s helpful to carry something with the contact details of your next of kin and your blood type. Don’t touch any unidentified objects in the wilds – ordnance from earlier conflicts is still an occasional issue in Dhofar in Oman, Yemen and Kuwait.
Road Accidents. Some cities across the region suffer from congestion, with rush-hour traffic in Muscat, Doha and Dubai rivalling that of Western cities. With the increase in traffic, traffic accidents have become a major issue (particularly in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have some of the highest number of accidents per capita in the world) and are a cause for concern for visitors and residents alike.
The standard of driving on the Peninsula is poor, largely because driving tests are less exacting or are illegally dodged. Bad driving includes tailgating, queue-jumping, pushing-in, lack of indication, not using mirrors, jumping red lights and turning right across the traffic when sitting in the left lane. Car horns, used at the slightest provocation, take the place of caution and courtesy and no one likes to give way, slow down or wait. During Ramadan, drivers are often tired, thirsty, hungry and irritable (due to the day’s fasting), and everyone is in that much more of a hurry – generally to get home for a nap.
The one good news story of the region is Oman, where (on the whole) drivers stick to the speed limits, let people into their lane and thank others for the same courtesy. Use of the horn is forbidden except in an emergency and you can be fined for having a dirty car.
Hazards to look out for while driving in the region include: animals on the road (particularly camels), dust storms that loom out of nowhere and obscure the road ahead, cars travelling without any lights, heavy rain washing out sections of road, sudden flash floods that sweep away vehicles that cross their path, wash-board surfaces (like a rumble strip) on graded roads that damage tires, batteries that run out of juice without warning as they are quickly exhausted in high temperatures.
If You Have a Car Accident. Don’t move the car until the police arrive. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand in the accident report (as you may be accepting responsibility for an accident that wasn’t your fault). Call your insurance or car-hire company immediately. Try at all costs to remain calm: aggression may be held against you and will only worsen the situation. The traffic police are generally helpful and friendly, and it’s customary for men to shake hands with policemen before commencing discussions.
Extreme temperatures. The major hazard of the region is undoubtedly the weather. At any time of year, the high temperatures of midday, combined with high humidity, can quickly lead to heat exhaustion, sun stroke and serious burns. If you are travelling in the summer, breaking down on an empty road without water can literally be life-threatening. You should bear this in mind when planning a trip outside urban areas and think twice about travelling alone unless you are highly resourceful.
Avoiding problems is largely a matter of common sense: always carry more water than you think you’ll need; cover your head and neck; wear sunglasses; cover up, especially between 11am and 3pm; and avoid too much activity in the summer months – in other words, do as the locals do!
Hazards at Sea. The waters of the Red Sea and the northern part of the Arabian Sea are usually calm and safe for swimming but it’s worth avoiding the following hazards: Strong Currents During the summer in eastern and southern Oman (July to September) and on the northern coast of Yemen, huge swells occur making swimming very dangerous. Every year there are casualties associated with the strong tides and powerful undercurrents. On some stretches of the normally quieter Gulf and Red Sea coasts, lifeguards using internationally recognized flags patrol the beach at weekends. Make sure you obey the red flag directives: in Dubai there are frequent casualties with tourists being swept out to sea in unexpected currents.
Pollution Litter affects many public beaches, despite the best efforts of local authorities, and tar can be a nuisance on a few wild beaches, released from irresponsible tankers. The practice is illegal but hard to police. Occasionally, raw sewage is illegally dumped in the sea to avoid queues and fees at sanitation depots.
Dangerous Marine Life Common hazards of the sea include stonefish (with a highly venomous sting), stingrays, jellyfish (which deliver a fairly innocuous but persistent sting), highly toxic sea snakes, some cones (with beautiful shells the handling of which can causes paralysis) and sharp coral (inflicting cuts that easily lead to infection in the climate). These problems can be avoided by wearing shoes and a t-shirt when swimming (also useful against sunburn). Sharks are common but only very rare incidents of aggressive behavior have been reported and generally in predictable circumstances (such as in waters where fishermen are gutting fish).
Red Tide This bloom of blood-colored algae can affect the waters of the Gulf and Arabian Sea for months at a time making swimming unappetising. It is not fully understood if these tides are harmful.
Hazards on Land. Most of the hazards of the desert are related to overexposure to the sun and the danger of getting caught in a flash flood. This is when a wall of water rolls quickly across land too hard baked to absorb it, sweeping away everything that gets in its path. The key strategy to staying safe is to avoid camping in wadis, don’t approach the mountains during rains, don’t travel alone, and never cross roads where the water is flowing over the red marker signs.
There are a few other land hazards to watch out for such as poisonous plants (eg pink oleander in the wadis, the Sodom’s apples that strew the desert floor), camel spiders, scorpions that deliver a nasty but not fatal bite, large ants with painful bites, and annoying clusters of mosquitoes and wasps at certain times of the year. Snakes are also common in the region. Most problems can be avoided by wearing shoes and resisting the temptation to prod holes and overturn rocks.
Many women imagine that travel on the Peninsula is a lot more difficult and traumatic than it actually is. Unaccompanied women will certainly attract curious stares and glances, and occasionally comments, too, but they will receive hospitable treatment almost universally. It is essential to dress modestly in loose clothing in order to avoid giving offence and attracting trouble (Click here for advice on what to wear).
Gender Segregation. It’s important to be aware that there are ‘men areas’ and ‘women areas’ and that this is something that is enforced mainly by women, not by men. As such, it can be quite uncomfortable for both sexes if a woman sits in a male area; in some instances, it could compromise a woman’s safety.
Traditional coffeehouses, cheaper restaurants, budget hotels, the front seat of taxis and the back seats of buses all tend to be men-only areas and it’s culturally sensitive to avoid them – at some budget Gulf hotels, unaccompanied women may be refused a room. Women areas include family rooms in better restaurants, public beaches on certain days of the week and the front rows of buses.
Harrassment. Sometimes women may be followed (particularly on beaches) or find unwanted visitors in a hotel but this is far less prevalent than in other parts of the Middle East where there is more exposure to tourists. Sexual harassment in some Peninsula countries is considered a serious crime and the incidence of rape on the Peninsula is extremely low (far lower than in the West). Verbal harassment and sexual innuendo are more common.
Keeping Would-be Suitors at Bay. Engaging with locals is always a highlight of travel in the Middle East and it’s easy for women to strike up conversation if they’re travelling alone. The key, when interacting with local men, is to realise that initiating conversation can be misinterpreted. Here are some tips to deter would-be suitors: Master the art of detachment – remaining aloof in a conversation rather than animated – local women are masters at this. Keep the eye contact to a minimum – unless delivering the killer cold stare if someone oversteps the mark. Approach a woman for help first (for directions and so forth) rather than a man. Ask to be seated in the ‘family’ section if dining alone. Avoid sitting in the front seat of taxis and the back seat of buses. Invent or borrow a husband if the situation feels alarming but beware this may lead to uncomfortable questions about abandoning the home and kids. Retain your self-confidence and keep a sense of humor in compromising situations: this is far more effective than losing your temper or showing vulnerability. Insist on being told the family name of pestering individuals and their place of work – the threat of shame is often enough to dampen their ardor.
During local holiday periods (particularly over eid, the Islamic feast) and popular festivals (such as the shopping festivals in Dubai and Kuwait), as well as Western holidays (Christmas and New Year) and major fixtures (like the Dubai Rugby Sevens), travellers should book well in advance. Discounts in the summer (except in Salalah in Oman) are common.
Outside the big cities, accommodation is scarce and choice limited. Rooms in all categories generally have air-conditioning, hot water, telephone, fridge and TV (usually with satellite channels, including BBC and CNN).
The Peninsula offers many opportunities for engaging with the sea and with the desert interior although many of these activities require resourcefulness (such as survival and map-reading skills) or the help of a specialist agency (especially for rock climbing, caving and desert safaris). The Arabian and Red Seas offer some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world.
Camel Treks – Sharqiya Sands, Khor al-Adaid, Socotra
Arrange through local desert camps Choose a mounted rather than a walking guide for a more authentic experience.
Diving & Snorkeling – Jeddah, Muscat, Salalah, Musandam, Socotra
The Red Sea is one of the world’s top diving destinations; the Arabian Sea offers easier access but has less coral. Both are wows in the water but low-key experiences on land.
Dhow Rides & Dolphin Spotting – Manama, Doha, Musandam, Dubai, Muscat.
Go early in the morning for the best chance to see pods of dolphins in action. In Dubai you can swim with them.
Fishing – Manama, Doha, Dubai, Muscat
Negotiate an hourly rate with local fishermen or book through the local marina
Common catches include yellowfin tuna (weighing between 25kg and 60kg), sail fish, barracuda and shark. Fishing licences are not needed on the Peninsula.
Golf – Manama, Doha, Dubai, Muscat
Designer golf courses with grass are becoming a signature feature of modern Gulf cities.
Hiking – Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia
Book through local tour agencies
Oman has an established network of walking paths but signposts are limited. Most hiking in the Peninsula is ad hoc passing through small villages. Allow 1L of water per person per hour, wear light-colored clothing and stay out of wadis during and after rain.
Off-Road Driving – UAE, Oman
Pick up a locally-published off-road guidebook for routes and their challenges
Beware flash floods, soft sand and salt flats and stay on tracks to protect the fragile desert ecology.
Turkish Baths – UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen
A great antidote for aching muscles, the hammam is otherwise known as a Turkish bath. Women should call ahead for a female assistant.
Water Sports – All seaboard cities in the region
Organize through any of the region’s seaboard five-star hotels and resorts
Water sports on offer include jet skiing, kite surfing, windsurfing, sailing and kayaking. Avoid southern Arabia during the summer when currents are ferocious.
Customs regulations vary from country to country, but in most cases they don’t differ significantly from those in the West.
Alcohol It is strictly forbidden to take alcohol into dry or semi-dry regions (Kuwait, Qatar, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia). Alcohol can only be taken into Oman by air. If you’re caught attempting to smuggle in even small quantities of alcohol, punishments range from deportation and fines to imprisonment. In most other countries, foreigners (but not Muslims) are permitted a small duty-free allowance.
Drugs Those caught in possession of drugs (including ecstasy, amphetamines, cannabis and cocaine) can face the death penalty, which in Saudi Arabia, with its policy of zero tolerance, means what it says. Note that syringes and needles, and some medicinal drugs are also banned (such as tranquilizers and even some antidepressants and sleeping pills), unless you have a doctor’s prescription to prove that you need them.
Israel & ‘Incendiary’ Material Books critical of Islam, Peninsula governments or their countries, or pro-Israeli books may be confiscated.
Money There are no restrictions on the import and export of money (in any currency) in and out of Peninsula countries.
Pork products. Some countries make allowances for foreigners but it’s better not to get stopped with a pork chop in your pocket.
Pornography. Officials may construe images in style magazines, or women in swimwear as pornographic and remove the offending page from the magazine.
Video cassettes and DVDs. Censors may well want to examine these and then allow you to collect them after a few days.
GAY & LESBIAN TRAVELLERS.
Homosexual practices are illegal in all of the Peninsula countries. Under Sharia’a (Islamic) law, in some countries homosexuality incurs the death penalty (though punishment usually ranges from flogging to imprisonment or deportation). In other countries infractions solicit fines and/or imprisonment.
Westerners are unlikely to encounter outright prejudice or harassment so long as they remain discreet. However, this may well change if you become involved with a local. Room sharing is generally not a problem (it will be assumed that you’re economizing). Condoms are fairly widely available, though may be limited in selection. You’re advised to bring your own supply.
Camping. Key areas for desert camping include Asir National Park in Saudi, Khor al-Adaid in Qatar, Sharqiya Sands and Jebel Shams in Oman. With a 4WD and your own equipment, wild camping (without any facilities) is a highlight of the region. Avoid camping in wadis, Bedouin areas and turtle beaches (ones with large pits at the top of the tide line) and remove all rubbish.
Budget Hotels. The cheapest rooms are not suitable for women; in the Gulf, very cheap hotels may double as brothels. There’s no established network of backpacker hotels in the region and prices are much higher than international norms. Yemen has the cheapest accommodation. Dormitory-style hostels (men-only) are only available in UAE and Qatar.
Midrange Hotels. Generally offer good value for money and are often family-run.
Top End Hotels. Ranked as some of the best in the world with spas, personal fitness and shopping services, infinity pools, fine dining, world-class architecture and palatial interior design. Often the only venue in town with a license to serve alcohol in countries where alcohol is permitted, so they tend to double as entertainment venues to non-residents.
Resorts. Growing concept across the region offering retreats from the city but often in isolated locations with few surrounding amenities. Range from basic Robinson Crusoe–style compounds (Al-Khawkha on Yemen’s Red Sea) to sumptuous palace-hotels with underwater restaurants (Burj al-Arab in Dubai).
Although the law varies in specifics from country to country, it does share certain similarities. The legal system in all Peninsula countries is based wholly or partly on Sharia’a law, derived mainly from the Quran.
In the West, Sharia’a law is perceived as notoriously harsh and inflexible, but in reality there are basic tenets shared with Western legal values (such as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty). The severest punishment for a crime is in practice rarely exacted (even in Saudi Arabia).
Visitors should remember that they are subject to the laws of the country they find themselves in, and that ignorance of the law does not constitute a defence. In Saudi Arabia, in particular, it is vital that travellers (particularly women) acquaint themselves with the local laws.
If you are arrested and detained, call your embassy or consulate and wait until they arrive before you sign anything. In a car accident you mustn’t move the car, even if you’re causing a traffic jam, until the police arrive.
Security. On the whole, theft is rare in the region. Scams involving ATMs sometimes occur so beware of any unusual-looking key pads or signs of tampering.
The best way to carry money in the Peninsula is to take a supply of US dollars, pounds sterling or euros and rely on ATMs to withdraw additional funds.
The Peninsula used to be world famous as a low-tax area. Nowadays, however, a mixture of taxes, often reaching 17%, is added on top of hotel and restaurant prices.
Bargaining. Bargaining over prices is still very much a way of life on the Peninsula, although to a lesser extent than in some other Middle Eastern countries. Yemen and Oman are perhaps the exceptions, where aggressive bargaining can offend.
Arabs are committed shoppers and they make an art form out it, promenading the main street and popping into a shop to vex the owner without any intention of buying. Buying, meanwhile, is a whole separate entertainment, focused on the business of bartering and bargaining.
Bartering implies that items do not have a value per se : their value is governed by what you are willing to pay balanced against the sum the vendor is happy to sell for. This subtle exchange, often viewed with suspicion by those from a fixed-price culture, is dependent on many factors, such as how many other sales the vendor has made that day, whether “the buyer looks like a person who can afford an extra rial or two, and even whether the vendor is in a good mood or not.
As with all social interaction, there’s an unwritten code of conduct that keeps negotiations sweet:
Bartering is your chance to decide what you are willing to pay for an item so use your interpersonal skills to see if you can persuade the vendor to match it. Haggling is a sociable activity, often conducted over refreshments, so avoid causing offence by refusing hospitality. Don’t pay the first price quoted: this is often considered arrogant. Start below the price you wish to buy at so you have room to compromise – but don’t quote too low or the vendor may be insulted. If negotiations aren’t going to plan, simply smile and say goodbye – you’ll be surprised how often the word ma’a salaama (goodbye) brings the price down. Resist comparing prices with other travellers; if they were happy with what they paid, they certainly won’t be if you tell them you bought the same thing for less.
ATMS. With the exception of Yemen where ATMs are confined to larger urban areas, virtually all banks in the region, from big cities to small villages, have ATMs from which you can withdraw funds from an overseas bank or gain a cash advance with a credit card. ATMs are also widespread in shopping malls and petrol stations.
Cash. Cash in US dollars, pounds sterling or euros is easily exchanged anywhere in the region. In small businesses, including cheap restaurants, bus stations and budget hotels, and in rural areas, you will need cash for most transactions.
Credit Cards. Credit cards are widely accepted on the Peninsula (except Yemen) and almost everything can be paid for by plastic, right down to your morning coffee.
Visa and MasterCard are the most popular credit cards; Amex is less widely accepted. It’s possible to get cash advances on credit cards.
Moneychangers. Easy to find in all Peninsula cities but the rates do not differ much from banks.
Tipping. Tips are not generally expected in the Gulf and the concept of baksheesh, well known throughout the rest of the Middle East, is little known on the Peninsula. That said, those who have contact with tourists (such as guides or hotel porters) have grown to expect tips.
Note that the service charge added to most hotel and restaurant bills is not an automatic gratuity that goes to the waiters. It usually goes into the till and is often the restaurant’s way of making the prices on the menu look 10% to 15% cheaper than they really are. Waiters in the Gulf tend to be paid derisory wages, so a small tip discreetly left on the table, while not required, is greatly appreciated if the service is good.
Travellers Cheques. Are exchangeable in big cities but seldom encountered and are becoming increasingly redundant in the region. With low levels of theft, it is hard to find a good reason to recommend using them in the Peninsula.
Regional & Seasonal Variations Business hours vary from country to country and sometimes from region to region within a country (depending on climatic differences, such as those in highland/lowland Yemen). They also vary from institution to institution and from season to season (especially during Ramadan). Above all, Arabs are not known for blind obedience to rules, and business hours are often taken with a pinch of salt.
Weekend In Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, the weekend is Friday and Saturday; elsewhere it is Thursday and Friday. Shops stay open for six days a week in all countries and many open for a limited period on Friday evening too. Major tourist sights usually open during the weekend – at last.
Banking Hours. Bank opening hours vary throughout the region, but usually operate from 8am or 9am to noon or 1pm, either five or six days a week. Some reopen for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Foreign-exchange facilities usually keep longer hours.
Ramadan Hours. Government offices work shorter hours during Ramadan and businesses tend to open much later and close earlier, or else not open at all during the day but remain open for much of the night. Note that many restaurants close during the day throughout Ramadan – or even remain closed for the month.
Tourist Attractions. You can’t rely on tourist sites opening as prescribed.
Do not photograph anything vaguely military in nature (including the police) or anything construed as ‘strategic’ (including airports, bridges and ports). In general terms, Bahrain and the UAE are the most relaxed countries on the Peninsula when it comes to photography, while Kuwait, Oman and Yemen seem to have the broadest definitions of what constitutes a ‘strategic’ site. In Saudi Arabia it often seems that the authorities just don’t “like cameras.
Photographing People Do not photograph anyone without their permission, especially women. In the more conservative countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and some parts of Yemen, you can cause real offence in this way and may risk having stones thrown at you.
Photographing Poverty People on the Peninsula are often offended when you take photographs of run-down houses or anything that resembles poverty, as the tendency is to emphasise what the country has achieved in the last few decades.
Religious Sites Photography is usually allowed inside religious and archaeological sites (when entry is permitted), unless there are signs indicating otherwise. Avoid taking photos of religious observance.
All Peninsula countries observe the main Islamic holidays. Some of the Peninsula countries also observe the Gregorian New Year (1 January). Every state has its own national days and other public holidays.
Islamic Holidays. Dates of Islamic holidays are dependent on moon sightings and consequently may occur a day later, but not generally earlier, than listed. Not all countries spot the moon on the same day (cloud cover doesn’t count), so regional differences between countries occur each year. In fact, speculation regarding whether or not tomorrow will bring eid is the subject of great public debate and private expat exasperation.
Islamic New Year. Also known as Ras as-Sana, it literally means ‘the head of the year’.
Ashura. The anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein, the third imam (religious teacher) of the Shiites.
Prophet’s Birthday. Known as Moulid an-Nabi, it’s ‘the feast of the Prophet’.
Ramadan. The ninth month of the Muslim calendar, this is when Muslims fast during daylight hours. How strictly the fast is observed depends on the country, but most Muslims conform to some extent. Foreigners are not expected to follow suit, but visitors should not smoke, drink or eat (including gum-chewing) in public during Ramadan. Hotels make provision for guests by erecting screens for discreet dining. Business hours tend to become more erratic and usually shorter and many restaurants close for the whole period. Alcohol is not available in Ramadan except as room service. As the sun sets each day, the fast is broken with something light (like dates and laban ) before prayers. Then comes iftar (breakfast), at which enough food is usually consumed to compensate for the previous hours of abstinence. People then rise again before dawn to prepare a meal to support them throughout the day.
Eid al-Fitr The festivities mark the end of Ramadan fasting; the celebrations last for three days and are a time of family feasting and visiting.
Eid al-Adha This feast marks the time that Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Islamic Calendar. Although most secular activities and day-to-day life are planned in the Peninsula according to the Gregorian calendar (the Western system), all Islamic holidays are calculated according to the Muslim calendar. For visitors this can cause confusion (such as when trying to decipher official documents, including the date of expiry of travel permits and visa). Calendars showing parallel systems are available.
The Muslim year is based on the lunar cycle and is divided into 12 lunar months, each with 29 or 30 days. Consequently, the Muslim year is 10 or 11 days shorter than the Christian solar year, and the Muslim festivals gradually move around our year, completing the cycle in roughly 33 years.
Year zero in the Muslim calendar was when Mohammed and his followers fled from Mecca to Medina (AD 622 in the Christian calendar). This Hejira, or migration, is taken to mark the start of the new Muslim era, much as Christ’s birth marks year zero in the Christian calendar. Just as BC denotes ‘Before Christ’, so AH denotes ‘After Hejira’.
Unlike in other parts of the Middle East, smoking is not particularly prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula. This has something to do with the strict interpretation of Islam and the discouragement of dependency on stimulants of any kind; partly to do with the general lack of advertising in most of the region; and partly to do with government drives to dissuade the young from starting the habit.
That doesn’t mean to say you won’t encounter smoking. The expat communities from India tend to smoke quite heavily and everyone across the region (even fashionably dressed young Arab women in city areas) enjoys a sheesha (water pipe filled with scented or fruit-flavoured tobacco) from time to time.
A government ban on smoking in public places, including restaurants, is in place in UAE and Oman. All top-end hotels offer nonsmoking rooms and there are always nonsmoking sections in more expensive restaurants.
Travel for Arabic people and Asian expats entails large convoys of family groups and great gatherings at the airport. As such, solo male travellers are often regarded either with sympathy or with suspicion, as it is inconceivable to most Arabian Peninsula people that someone might choose to travel alone.
A woman travelling on her own is an even hotter topic of discussion. Women will want to adopt you, men will either ignore you (out of respect) or treat you as a token man. Either way, you will inevitably be showered with well-meaning solicitations for your safe-keeping, extra help on public transport and even offers of accommodation.
Without Arabic, travelling in the Arabian Peninsula can be lonely at times: the roads are long and the deserts wide. Without an established network of tourism facilities, you may spend days without seeing another Westerner.
Single rooms are available in most hotels, though they’re often just a few dollars cheaper than double rooms. Walking around alone seldom presents a safety problem.
One word of caution: if you travel away from urban areas in your own vehicle alone, you need to be quite resourceful. Many roads see very little traffic and you could wait hours before help arrives. It is not recommended that you go off-road alone.
All the Peninsula countries have good networks and International Direct Dialling (IDD) facilities via satellite links.
Most cities and large towns have public telephone offices (either part of the post office, or privately run) from where you can make international calls and send faxes.
International calls cost up to US$2 per minute for most destinations. Rates don’t usually vary during the day or night, but in some countries there are reductions at weekends. Public phones accept coins, phonecards and, in some countries, credit cards.
Mobile Phones. The use of mobile phones is widespread throughout the Peninsula and every country has its own (state-owned) national network. Some of these run on the GSM system (as in Europe), so if your phone works on GSM and your account allows you to roam, you’ll be able to use your mobile on the Peninsula.
In other places you’ll have to buy prepaid SIM cards. Beware though: the cost of using a mobile in some countries is higher than calls made on a landline.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Yemen are three hours ahead of GMT/UTC. The UAE and Oman are four hours ahead of GMT/UTC. Daylight-saving time is not observed in any of the Gulf countries
Women travelling in the Arabian Peninsula will find they encounter far less harassment than in other Middle Eastern countries although inappropriate stares remain an issue. It is imperative to dress modestly both to avoid unwanted attention and to avoid causing offence.
All countries except Saudi Arabia and Yemen issue tourist visas on arrival for most nationalities
The flow of foreigners in, out and around the Peninsula is carefully monitored and strictly controlled. As a result the visa-application process ranges from fairly simple and straightforward (Oman) to nightmarishly complicated (Saudi Arabia). It also means that if you plan to travel from one country to another, where it involves passing through Saudi, you need to plan ahead. Most Peninsula countries require you to carry your passport with you at all times. Spot checks occasionally occur.
An Israeli passport, or an Israeli stamp in your passport, can be a problem. If you have either of these, it’s unwise to leave it to chance as to whether an official will notice it or not. This ‘Israeli Stamp Stigma’ is a game of wits played between travellers and diplomatic consulars across the Middle East. In the Arabian Peninsula, all countries refuse to admit anyone whose passport has evidence of a visit to the Jewish state. Israeli immigration officials will, if asked, stamp only a separate entry card and not your passport. This is fine for travellers flying into and out of Israel, but if you are crossing into Jordan or Egypt overland, the entry/exit stamps into those countries (marked, for example: ‘ taba’ or ‘ aqaba’ ) will be no less incriminating than an Israeli stamp.
The safest option is to arrange your itinerary so that a visit to Israel is the final stop on your tour of the Middle East.
Transit Visas. Saudi Arabia issues transit visas for people travelling overland between Jordan and Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE or Yemen. These transit visas can be sought from Saudi Arabian embassies in any of these countries with proof of onward connections beyond Saudi borders. They are not easy to obtain, however, as you often have to show you can’t reach your destination by other means.
Travel Permits. Travel permits are necessary for travelling in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and are obtainable in the countries themselves. They’re also necessary for Omani residents driving to the UAE although this regulation is not uniformly enforced.
Getting There and Away
Airports & Airlines. The Peninsula, and the Gulf in particular, has some of the world’s best airlines and most modern airports. The national carriers of each Peninsula country links one country to another with regular flights at reasonable prices.
All major European, Asian and Middle Eastern airlines (with the obvious exception of El Al, the Israeli airline) serve the principal cities of the Arabian Peninsula and routes to the Americas and Australasia are increasing.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Doha are the major transport hubs in the region. Dubai, the main link between Europe, Southeast Asia and Australasia, is the destination that offers the best hope of picking up cheaper fares. As such, it may be worthwhile to fly into Dubai and arrange onward travel from there.
Dubai grew as a city by attracting and entertaining stop over travellers between Europe and Asia and as such it has made an art out of the stopover market. Airlines support this continuing trend by offering ‘stop over packages’ which include hotel accommodation, airport transfers and a short tour, all for a very reasonable price.
Border crossings between Oman, Yemen and Saudi are closed. The most usable crossings are between Oman and UAE. Moving between Saudi and some of its neighbors is theoretically feasible for Saudi expats. Other than this, entering one country through another by land is not currently possible. Note that getting a visa for Saudi is highly challenging for independent travellers, including the elusive transit visa.
Bus. The only bus routes entering the region are from Jordan through the Al-Umari border crossing, south of Azraq, Ad-Durra, south of Aqaba, and Al-Mudawwara, east of Aqaba. Services link Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam with Aqaba and Amman.
The following documents are required if you are hoping to enter the region with your own transport: Green Card Issued by insurers. Insurance for some countries is only obtainable at the border. International Driving Permit (IDP) Compulsory for foreign drivers and motorcyclists in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Most foreign licences are acceptable in the other Peninsula countries, but even in these places an IDP is recommended. Vehicle Registration Documents
Sea. Some cruise ships call at Salalah, Muscat, Dubai and Doha and these ports offer passengers the opportunity to go ashore. Cargo boats call erratically at Aden, Muscat and Jeddah on their way to Europe and Asia. Getting aboard is mostly a question of luck and being in the right place at the right time. Your passage may well be dependent upon the whim of the captain. Ask at the port of departure to see what boats are headed where. Some offer comfortable passenger cabins (intended for crew family); for others you may need to come equipped with food, drink and bedding. Several ferry services operate to/from the Peninsula but they are not geared up for tourists.
As fuel is cheap throughout the region and vehicles are relatively inexpensive to buy, road transportation is the most popular means of travel within the Peninsula. Car hire (with or without driver) is inexpensive and travel by taxis and bus are cheap. A train service operates in Dubai, the only passenger service in the region.
The only complication of land travel is obtaining a transit visa for Saudi Arabia, which hampers transport from one Gulf country to another. As such, it’s often easier for the traveller to move from country to country by air and there’s a good air network linking all major Peninsula cities.
You need to have insurance for all countries you’re passing through if driving.
Air. It can take some searching but flights are cheap. prices fluctuate considerably according to the season or if there’s a public holiday (such as eid ).
Airlines in the Arabian Peninsula
The Peninsula boasts some world-class airlines with good safety records, modern aircraft and well-trained crew. Dubai offers a famously slick international airport with superb facilities, including hotels, business centers and extensive duty-free sections. Award-winning Gulf Air, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad and Oman Air are increasing their direct flight networks regularly.
The arrival of budget airlines in the region has recently revolutionized intercity transport on the Peninsula. As in Europe, the airlines tend to us “Europe, the airlines tend to use less-frequented cities as their hubs to avoid the high taxes of major airports. This minor inconvenience is worth considering for the cheap travel they offer.
Fly Dubai (www.flydubai.com). Charges for check-in lubbage. Uses Terminal 2 in Dubai.
Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com)
Al-Jazeera Airways (www.jazeeraairways.com; Kuwait). Prices on search engines don’t include taxes or a service charge. Usually slightly cheaper to book on a search engine than the airline web site.
Bahrain Air (www.bahrainair.net).
Bicycle. The Peninsula offers good cycling opportunities, cyclists are made welcome and police are helpful and friendly to all road users. Repair shops are easy to come by. In most cities, especially in the Gulf, it is very hazardous to cycle as car drivers are not used to anticipating cyclists. Most bicycles in the Peninsula are simple machines: spare parts for mountain or touring bikes are only available in major cities. The heat is a major challenge and cycling is not recommended from June to August or during midday at other times of the year.
Bus. Car ownership levels are so high across the Peninsula that little demand for public bus services exists. Where they do exist, they are often primarily intended for expat workers getting to and from their place of work.
For practical purposes, buses are most useful in Oman and UAE and moving between these two countries.
Bus travel is usually comfortable, cheap and on schedule, roads are good, and air-conditioned buses are the norm. Women accompanied by men can sit anywhere, but women travelling alone are expected to sit in the front seats.
Car and Motorcycle. Car ownership is virtually a must for expats in most Peninsula countries where cities cover large distances and there’s little public transport. Motorcycles are also popular for getting around town. Spare parts are easier to find for Japanese models. The summer months are not conducive to motorcycling.
Desert Driving. Pre-departure Planning: Travel with another vehicle if you’re heading for sandy areas so that you can pull each other out if you get stuck. Don’t travel alone unless you can change a tire (very heavy on 4WD vehicles). Use a local guide if planning an extended dune trip: navigation is not easy. Take a map and compass. A GPS and fully charged GSM phone are also useful but remember that GPS is only useful for knowing exactly where you’re lost (and not how to find the way out) and phones don’t work in some mountainous or remote areas.nBring a first-aid kit, at least 5L of water per passenger per day and enough food to last several days. Dried dates keep well in high temperatures. Check oil, tire condition and tire pressure before leaving. Bring a tool kit with a tow rope, shovel, sand ladders, spanner, jack, wooden platform (on which to stand the jack), tire inflator (and a gauge) and jump leads. Tell someone (and in some countries the local authorities, too) where you’re going.
Driving Tips: In all desert areas follow prior tracks for the sanity of locals and for your own safety. Keep the acceleration up through areas of soft sand and do not stop! When approaching sandy inclines, engage low gear and increase acceleration.
Never camp at the bottom of a wadi, even on a clear day. Be wary of wadis when rain threatens. Flash flooding rips through the narrow channels of a wadi with huge force. Each year many people lose their lives in this way. Engage low gear on extended mountain descents even if it slows your progress to walking speed: many people run into trouble by burning out their brakes.
Getting Stuck in Sand. In sand, the minute you feel the wheels are digging in, stop driving. The more you accelerate, the deeper you’ll sink. If your wheels are deeply entrenched, don’t dig: the car will just sink deeper. Partially deflate the tires (for greater traction), clearing the sand away from the wheel in the direction you want to go (ie behind if you’re going to try to reverse out). Collect brushwood (you’ll wish you brought the sand ladders!) and anything else available, and pack under the tyres, creating as firm a ‘launch pad’ as possible. Plan your escape route or you’ll flip out of the sand only to land in the next dune. In most dune areas, there are compacted platforms of sand. Try to find one of these on foot so that you have somewhere safe to aim for. Engage low ratio and remember that going backwards can be as effective as going forwards, especially if you stalled going uphill: gravity is a great help. Remember that using low ratio consumes a lot of petrol. Make sure you top up when you can and reinflate your tires before rejoining a sealed road.
Bring Your Own Vehicle. Unless you’re coming to live on the Peninsula for an extended duration, bringing your own vehicle may prove more trouble than it’s worth. Obtaining a carnet de passage is expensive and progressing through the Peninsula (due to visa regulations and paperwork) can be challenging. For most short-term visitors, it makes more sense to hire a car locally. For long-term residents it is cheaper and more straightforward to buy a car in-country and sell it before leaving.
Driving License. Travellers from the West can use their own national driving licenses for a limited period in some Peninsula countries (including Oman and Saudi Arabia). For longer stays an International Driving Permit (IDP), obtainable from your own country, is recommended (and required) by some countries.
To obtain a local license you’ll need to have a residence visa, plus the following documents: a valid foreigner’s licence (and sometimes an IDP), a no-objection certificate (NOC) from your employer, your accommodation rental contract, photocopies of your passport, passport-sized photos, sometimes a certificate confirming your blood group, some countries (such as Saudi Arabia) insist on Arabic translations of foreign documents, for some expats a driving test may be required
Car Hire. Availability & Cost Car hire is possible in all Peninsula countries with international as well as local companies represented at international airports and five-star hotels. Costs are about average compared to international rates. Reservations are necessary in some countries during the peak tourism times, particularly during hajj, or major national or religious holidays.
Vehicle Type For desert or off-road driving, you will need a 4WD, available from all hire companies. Don’t cut costs by hiring a sedan for off-road driving – for one thing, your insurance will be null and void as soon as you leave the sealed road and secondly, you won’t know whether the previous person who hired your car similarly abused the vehicle. If you break down, the hire company won’t help you. Bike or motorcycle hire is near unheard of.
Documentation To hire a vehicle you’ll need your driving license and, for some Peninsula countries, an IDP and copies of both your passport and visa. The minimum age varies between 21 to 25. Invariably, credit cards are now a prerequisite.
Insurance. Insurance is compulsory. Given the large number of road traffic accidents, fully comprehensive insurance (as opposed to third-party) is strongly advised. This covers the ancient law of paying blood money in the event of the injury or death of a person (and sometimes animal). Car-hire companies automatically supply insurance, but check carefully the cover and conditions.
Make certain that you’re covered for off-piste travel, as well as travel between Peninsula countries (if you’re planning cross-border excursions). If you are taking the car outside Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) borders, you’ll need separate insurance.
In the event of an accident, don’t move the vehicle until the police arrive and make sure you submit the accident report as soon as possible to the insurance company or, if hiring, the car-hire company.
Carnets. A carnet de passage is a booklet that is stamped on arrival and at departure to ensure that the vehicle leaves the country and has not been misappropriated. It’s usually issued by a motoring organization in the country where the vehicle is registered. Contact your local automobile association for details about required documentation at least three months in advance and bear the following in mind:
You have to lodge a deposit to secure a carnet. If you default (ie you don’t have an import and export stamp that match) then the country in question can claim your deposit, which can be up to “300% of the new value of the vehicle. Bank guarantees or carnet insurance are available. If your vehicle is irretrievably damaged or stolen, you may be suspected by customs officials of having sold the vehicle so insist on police reports. The carnet may need to specify any expensive spare parts, such as a gearbox, you bring with you. This is designed to prevent spare-part importation rackets.
Road Conditions & Driving Amenities. Road Quality With the exception of parts of Yemen, the Peninsula’s road system is one of the best in the world with high-quality two- or four-lane highways. Few roads are unsealed (except in Yemen and Oman) and 4WDs are on the whole only necessary for driving off-road in the desert.
Off-road Routes The term ‘off-road’ refers to unsealed roads that have been graded, or leveled, with a roller, or tracks that have simply been made by cars driving along old camel or donkey tracks). To drive on any of these roads you need a 4WD. Responsible drivers stick to prior tracks and never cut new routes.
Fuel. Petrol stations are widespread along major roadsides and in cities. On the desert roads they can be few and far between. Away from the main towns it’s advisable to fill up whenever you get the chance as remote stations sometimes run out of fuel. Fuel is extremely cheap throughout the region. Most cars (except in Yemen) run on unleaded petrol.
Garages. Found even in the smallest towns and villages in most countries, but are less common in Yemen. Spare parts (and servicing) are available for the most popular car models (Toyota and Land Rover especially).
Signposting. Good throughout the region (bar only Yemen) and uses international symbols. English spelling of place names, however, is erratic and seldom matches the maps.
Parking. A challenge in the cities.
Road Rules. Non-compliance for the following common Peninsula road rules can lead to a hefty fine – although that may be of surprise considering the generally poor standard of driving. Driving is on the right side of the road in all Peninsula countries.
Speed limits range between 100km/h and 120km/h on highways and 45km/h and 60km/h in towns and built-up areas. Speed cameras are in operation in most city areas and on highways. Seatbelt wearing is a legal requirement. The use of hand-held mobile phones while driving is an offence. The use of the horn is discouraged except in an emergency. You should keep your license with you at all times and carrying a first-aid kit, fire extinguisher and warning triangle is required in some Peninsula countries. Driving under the influence of either alcohol (of any quantity) or drugs is not only considered a grave offence on the Peninsula, but also automatically invalidates your insurance and makes you liable for any costs in the event of an accident regardless of fault. Women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Hitching. Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and can’t be recommended. Travellers who still decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. This is particularly the case in the Peninsula, where distances are great between towns and you can be marooned in isolated places with literally life-threatening consequences (for example, if you run out of water in summer). You may also find you end up spending days at someone’s remote desert settlement because your driver wanted you to meet the family. Beware: the novelty of communal living quickly wears off! Women travelling alone should not hitch.
Nevertheless, hitching is not illegal in any Middle Eastern country and in many places it is common practice among locals. It’s considered not so much an alternative to the public transport system as an extension of it. Throughout the Peninsula a raised thumb is a vaguely obscene gesture – instead, extend your right hand, palm down and wag it up and down briskly.
While it’s normal for locals and Asian expats to hitch, it isn’t something Westerners are expected to do. It can lead to suspicion from local police and is disappointing to some: in rural areas there’s an expectation that tourism will bring income, but watching you hitch along with the locals isn’t returning anticipated dividends.
Hitching isn’t free. The going rate is usually the equivalent of the bus or shared taxi fare, but may be more if a driver takes you to an address or place off their route. Negotiate a fare before you get into the vehicle.
As a driver you’ll often be flagged down for a ride: you might need to think what this might entail before offering one. Women drivers should never give a lift to a man.
Local Transport. As cars are relatively cheap to buy and run, public transport (particularly buses and minibuses in towns) tends to be used by less affluent members of the population.
Minibus & Bus. In most cities and towns, a minibus or bus service operates. Fares are cheap, regular and run on fixed routes. However, unless you’re familiar with the town, they can be difficult to use (not all display their destination) and they’re often crowded. In some Peninsula countries, minibus or local bus services tend to connect residential or commercial areas, rather than providing a comprehensive network across the whole city.
Few countries have public minibuses to/from the airport, but top-end hotels and travel agents (if you’re taking a tour) can usually provide a complementary minibus with advance notice. Some hotels provide bus services to city centers too.
Taxi. In the West, taxis are usually an avoidable luxury; in the Arabian Peninsula they are often the best way for travellers to get about town. Many cities have no other form of urban public transport, while there are also many rural routes that are only feasible in a taxi or private vehicle.
The way in which taxis operate varies widely from country to country, and often even from place to place within a country. So does the price.
On the whole, taxi drivers in the Peninsula are helpful, honest and humorous – they’re not, however, so scrupulous when it comes to the tariff. New arrivals are particularly tempting bait and a target for a bit of overcharging.
Be aware that not all taxi drivers speak English. Always negotiate a fare (or insist that the meter is used if it works) before jumping in. Town taxis sometimes have meters, most of which work only intermittently. Don’t rely on street names (there are often several versions). If you’re not going to a well-known place, find out if it’s close to a local landmark. Alternatively, ask someone to write it down in Arabic. Check you’ll be able to find a cab for the return journey: in many places it’s safest to ask the taxi driver to wait. Avoid using unlicensed cab drivers at airports.
Shared Taxi Known also as ‘collect’, ‘collective’ or ‘service taxi’ in English, and servees in Arabic, most shared taxis can take up to four or five passengers, but some seat up to 12 and are indistinguishable from minibuses.
Shared taxis are far cheaper than private taxis and, once you get the hang of them, can be just as convenient. They’re usually a little dearer than buses, but run more frequently and are usually faster (they don’t stop as often or as long). They also tend to operate for longer hours than buses. Shared taxis function as urban, intercity and rural transport.
Fixed-route taxis wait at the point of departure until full or nearly full. Usually they pick up or drop off passengers anywhere en route, but in some places they have fixed stops or stations. Generally a flat fare applies for each route, but sometimes it’s possible to pay a partial fare.