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Best Middle East holiday destinations from Dubai to Egypt & how to cruise there

Author: Deborah Stone

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From the astonishing ancient city of Petra to the jaw-dropping high-rises of the UAE, this amazing part of the world is a sightseers’ paradise.

The Middle East has long been a popular winter sun destination but now this collection of fascinating countries, with their ancient history and cultural diversity, is the hot choice for cruise passengers in 2022 and beyond.

Dubai’s emergence over the past 20 years as a modern architectural wonder first put the Arabian peninsula on the tourist map, but the move by other Arab countries to diversify their oil-dependent economies has had an even greater effect.

Saudi Arabia, where foreign tourism was restricted until 2016, opened its first cruise ship terminal in July 2021, and has launched many new tourist attractions along its Red Sea coast.

MSC Cruises is the first mainstream cruise line to homeport in Jeddah and will be there for a winter 2021/2022 season of Red Sea voyages, while Emerald Cruises is also offering Red Sea and Saudi Arabia itineraries in 2022.

Significantly, the Saudis have an 8.2 per cent stake in Carnival Corporation, which has created a hub for larger ships in Dubai, so we can expect to see more of Carnival’s nine cruise lines in the region, including Princess Cruises and Cunard.

Meanwhile Abu Dhabi, with a dedicated cruise terminal since 2015, has announced plans to build a new terminal at Aqaba, in partnership with Jordan, for better access to the ancient ruins of Petra. And Qatar’s Doha cruise terminal will be completed in 2022, just in time for the football World Cup in November and December.

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Abu Dhabi

The capital of the UAE has positioned itself as a city of culture where East meets West, and it has done it with style.

There are few reminders of the Bedouin tribe that first settled here, but the cloud-like Sheikh Zayed mosque, with its crystal chandeliers and marble columns, is a sight you’ll never forget.

Elsewhere in the city, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a masterpiece of architecture in itself, showcasing not only Western works by the likes of Gauguin and Picasso but also ancient treasures, including a sphinx from the 6th century BC and a two-headed 8,000-year-old statue from Jordan.

- READ MORE: 9 smart hacks for booking a cruise in 2022 -

Outside the city, a couple of hours’ drive brings you to the oasis town of Al Ain, where you can visit 5,000-year-old tombs in the Hili Archaeological Park.

And if you prefer more high- octane thrills, you’ll love the world’s fastest rollercoaster, found at the Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island. Designed to replicate the thrill of driving an F1 car, it’s one of 20 extraordinary rides that will keep all ages entertained.

Get on board

NCL 19-night ‘Mediterranean & Africa’ cruise aboard Norwegian Jade, from Athens to Dubai via Kusadasi, Jerusalem, Port Said (Egypt), Suez Canal, Aqaba (Jordan), Salalah (Oman), Muscat (Oman), Fujairah (UAE) and Abu Dhabi, departing 13 November 2022, from £4,587.

Downtown Dubai glints in the early morning sun. Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai

It has been welcoming ships from India, Asia and Europe for 2,000 years but it was only in the 1990s that Dubai came to the attention of the holiday industry. Since then it has become the major cruise hub in the Middle East, with a purpose-built terminal opened in 2010 and even bigger facilities now being built in partnership with Carnival Corporation.

You can still find a flavour of the old city in the Al Fahidi Historical District, and shop for bargains in the souks along Dubai Creek, but it’s the modern architecture that takes the breath away.

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You can see for miles from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – and from the Palm Tower you can look down on Dubai’s remarkable manmade island, shaped like a palm tree.

Elsewhere in the city, the Etihad Museum tells the UAE’s story in a modern pavilion shaped like a manuscript. Coming soon is the Museum of The Future – but if you want your thrills sooner, splash out at Atlantis Aquaventure Waterpark or sign up for a 4x4 desert safari.

Get on board

P&O Cruises 18-night ‘Dubai to Southampton’ cruise aboard Arcadia, from Dubai (includes overnight stay) via Muscat (Oman), Suez Canal, Valletta and Cadiz, departs 26 March 2023, from £2,499 including outward flight.

Dubai's forest of skyscrapers in the sand. Credit: Shutterstock

Oman

Less glitzy than other cities in the region, the Omani capital, Muscat, is a place of low-rise whitewashed buildings and palm trees by the water’s edge, with ancient forts dotting the surrounding mountains.

It’s also home to the country’s main cruise terminal, in the Gulf of Oman, although some smaller cruise ships call instead at Salalah in the south of the country, on the Arabian Sea coast.

Salalah is famous for its frankincense trees and its location on the historic silk route between China and Europe, but it’s Muscat that draws the cruise crowds. It’s a big place, about 40 miles long, with everything from modern shopping malls to Mutrah Souq, one of the Arab world’s oldest markets, which is accessible from the lovely Mutrah Corniche promenade.

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For the energetic, Mutrah Fort is walking distance from the souq and free to visit, but it’s a steep hike. The city’s most spectacular buildings include Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Zawawi Mosque in Al Khuwair and the Royal Opera House, all with guided tours available.

But if you want adventure, take a 4x4 desert tour of Wahiba Sands or explore Wadi Ghul – even deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Get on board

Princess Cruises 22-night ‘World Cruise’ segment aboard Coral Princess, from Sydney to Dubai via Brisbane, Komodo Island, Singapore, Colombo and Muscat, departing 4 June 2023, from £3,859.

Qatar's national museum, inspired by a crystal formation known as the desert rose. Credit: Shutterstock

Qatar

Expect to hear a lot more about this tiny but hugely wealthy country in 2022 as it gears up for the FIFA World Cup in November and December, most of which will take place in the capital, Doha. But Qatar has been preparing to impress us for years and it’s packed with jaw-dropping attractions.

Opened in 2019, the National Museum of Qatar is a unique design, built to look like a desert rose crystal. Its site is also home to the restored Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani’s Palace.

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Standing on an artificial island at the end of Doha Corniche, the Museum of Islamic Art spans 14 centuries of creative brilliance from the Persian Gulf. Alternatively, Souq Waqif is hard to beat for souvenir shopping – though if you want to combine art and shopping with a few hours on the beach, go to Katara Cultural Village.

Here you’ll find two beautiful mosques, the Al Thuraya Planetarium, a well-serviced sandy beach, plenty of street food and restaurants, plus designer outlets at Galeries Lafayette.

Get on board

Silversea 12-night ‘Dubai to Mumbai’ cruise aboard Silver Spirit, via Doha (includes three nights during the World Cup), Al Manamah (Bahrain), Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah (UAE) and Khasab (Oman), departing 8 December 2022, from £3,450.

Bahrain's skyline at sunset. Credit: Shutterstock

Bahrain

One of the less familiar Middle East destinations, Bahrain is an archipelago consisting of the 30 mile-long Bahrain Island – site of the capital, Manama – plus many smaller islets, some of them manmade. Like other countries in this region it’s a mix of ancient and modern.

There’s the UNESCO-listed Bahrain fort, the treasures within Bahrain National Museum and the antiques and spices for sale in Manama Souq; but you can also browse international designer brands in air-conditioned shopping malls and take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Middle East’s first Formula 1 racing circuit.

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Outside the capital, you can visit the Royal Camel Farm, see the 400-year-old Tree of Life – a solitary mesquite tree in the desert – or simply soak up the sun at one of the hotel beach resorts.

Alternatively, a short taxi ride from Manama brings you to Muharraq Island, where the Bahrain Pearling Trail includes a range of UNESCO-listed buildings and a modern visitors’ centre. Muharraq Souq is also the place to buy traditional perfumes.

Get on board

Oceania Cruises 10-night ‘Middle East Meandering’ cruise aboard Nautica, from Abu Dhabi to Dubai (with overnight stays in both) via Khasab, Fujairah, Muscat, Bahrain, Doha and Sir Bani Yas Island, departing 27 November 2022, from £2,219.

Saudi Arabia's 'Elephant Rock' is reachable from the new cruise port at Jeddah. Credit: Shutterstock

Saudi Arabia

Operational since July 2021, Saudi Arabia’s first cruise terminal is at Jeddah. This city is the country’s most important commercial hub, though the ports of Duba, Al Wajh, King Abdullah Economic City and Yanbu can also be used by cruise ships.

Jeddah has a UNESCO-listed old town dating back to the 7th century, where historic buildings include the Beit Nassif house, featuring 106 rooms packed with traditional art and furniture.

While excursions to Mecca are for Muslims only, everyone can visit the Arab world’s second holiest city, Medina, to see the Dar Al Madinah Museum.

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Among many other fascinating sights in Saudi Arabia is the desert town of AlUla, with a 10th-century citadel, a maze of alleys and squares, and extraordinary rock formations outside the town including Jabal AlFil, otherwise known as Elephant Rock.

A 30-minute drive north from here brings you to the ancient desert site of Hegra, where you can see 2,000- year-old tombs carved out of rock by the Nabataeans – the same people who created Petra in Jordan.

Get on board

Emerald Cruises 11-night ‘Ancient Wonders of the Red Sea & Mythical Greece’ cruise aboard Emerald Sakara, from Jeddah to Athens via AlUla, Aqaba, Sharm el-Sheikh, Suez Canal, Agios Nikolaos and Santorini, departing 4 April 2023, from £5,607.

Luxor on the Nile is an excursion destination from Egypt's Red Sea ports. Credit: Shutterstock

Egypt

The Great Pyramid at Giza is a must-see, and excursions operate from Egypt’s Red Sea ports of Safaga and Hurghada (a former fishing village, now highly regarded for its coral reef diving and snorkelling).

Other options include the chance to see the River Nile at Luxor, where a 3,000-year-old avenue of sphinxes runs between the temples of Luxor and Karnak, and to visit the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922.

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Sharm El-Sheikh on the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is famous for its sandy beaches and brilliant coral reefs, and many cruisers will be happy to spend the day here, relaxing in the sun and sea.

For the more theologically minded, it’s also within touching distance of the site where Moses receives the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus.

Get on board

Azamara 17-night ‘Ancient Trade Routes’ cruise aboard Azamara Quest, from Athens to Dubai via Alexandria, Port Said, Suez Canal, Safaga, Aqaba, Eilat and Muscat, departing 29 October 2022, from £3,623.

The ancient city of Petra is once seen, never forgotten. Credit: Shutterstock

Jordan

A port city for thousands of years, Aqaba became an overnight stop for well-heeled travellers aboard the great liners of the 1920s and 30s.

Today it welcomes cruise guests as the gateway to Jordan’s extraordinary attractions, the most famous being the city of Petra. Carved from massive desert rocks in the 4th or 5th century BC, this is a sight that must be seen to be believed.

You’ll never forget your first glimpse of the famous Al-Khazneh treasury building, appearing as you round a bend in the narrow canyon that helped keep the city hidden for generations.

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Also within range from Aqaba is Wadi Rum, the red desert where wind-sculpted rocks include the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, named after the book by Lawrence of Arabia. Cruise visitors can take off-road vehicle tours across the desert past granite crags to a Bedouin camp for mint tea.

Even if you don’t venture further than Aqaba itself, there is still plenty to see. Aqaba fort was originally a Crusader castle, and next door is an archaeological museum where you can get a good understanding of the city’s rich history.

A stroll of around 15 minutes will then bring you to markets and bazaars, piled high with well-priced local crafts including jewel-like glass light fittings, textiles and colourful pottery.

Get on board

Cunard 20-night ‘Dubai to Southampton’ cruise aboard Queen Victoria, via Salalah, Aqaba, Suez Canal, Naples and Lisbon, departing 3 April 2023, from £3,269.

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