Dubai and Oman -- and, increasingly, Abu Dhabi -- are well established as winter sun or long-haul stopover destinations. So it's no surprise that cruising in the Arabian Gulf should be enjoying new-found popularity. Certainly, there was a time during the last decade when fledgling cruise programs here fizzled out due to the unsettled political situation across the broader Middle East, but the whole region is now enjoying a revival in confidence and a tourism boom.
Recognizing the benefits of warm, sunny winters, gorgeous beaches, an ancient and fascinating culture, a continual stream of new tourist attractions and shopping opportunities galore, cruise lines such as P&O Cruises, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Costa and MSC now offer regular winter seasons in the Arabian Gulf, operating from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Other lines -- among them Silversea, Seabourn and Azamara -- offer a handful of Gulf itineraries, while many a world voyage passes through en route to or from India. German and Spanish lines, like AIDA, TUI and Pullmantur have ships based here, too.
Passengers have discovered that, somehow, cruising this region makes you feel like a VIP. You'll fly on a top-notch airline to cities that are exotic and flashy. There, you'll find shopping that is out of this world, first-rate cultural attractions and limitless sports and outdoor activities. This is a world that's not afraid of glamor and everything gleams in the year-round sunshine.
But best of all, cruising brings an affordable element to a region that can be on the expensive side. Seven nights on a ship is a way to enjoy all the best aspects of the Gulf without having to worry about the prices associated with living the high life ashore. Intrigued? Then let us further convince you with eight reasons you should consider a cruise to the Arabian Gulf.
Even in January, the coolest month of the year, the Arabian Gulf should be warm enough for sunbathing and cool enough for sightseeing. Prolonged periods of rain are unusual, although showers are possible.
The wadis (riverbeds and mountain gullies, dry most of the year) are in bloom with greenery, and on some of the shore excursions in Oman, where all Gulf cruises call, you can swim in the freshwater rock pools. The cruise season starts in late October, when it's still pretty hot, and runs through the end of March, when it begins to heat up again. Choose your month carefully; at either end of the season, the heat can sap your strength.
The quality of everything is high there -- the food in restaurants, for example, is generally outstanding -- but living the high life isn't cheap. The only thing that's really inexpensive is gas. But, being on a budget doesn't exclude anybody from visiting the Gulf, as cruises are sold at such low base prices.
While we'd strongly recommend getting ashore -- seeing the attractions and sampling the local cuisine -- you could, in theory, take all your meals on the ship. You can get around cheaply in the destinations, too: Take advantage of free buses from the ports to the shopping malls, ride Dubai's futuristic Metro monorail, use your Uber account or do your sightseeing on the cheap on the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus Tours.
There's still misunderstanding about the cultural differences between the UAE or Oman and Western Europe and North America. There is nothing to worry about. For a start, there's a real sense of order everywhere that cruise ships call here; the cities are spotless, there's no litter, no graffiti and barely any crime.
You'll experience the traditional -- and genuine -- Arab hospitality. Haggling in the souks is good-natured and not at all aggressive. Communities here are really multicultural; the Emirates in particular feels like one big melting pot, with ex-pats from all over the world enjoying the tax-free life here. You'll see families out together after dark.
There are some rules, but you soon get used to following them. Public displays of affection are not recommended, whether you are gay or straight. Wearing revealing clothes is frowned upon, but it's not as though women have to go out wearing a burka. Mosques are very strict, and you do need to keep covered, or you won't be allowed in.
The Gulf is rich in visual experiences. World-class architects compete to create the most dazzling skyscrapers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and to an extent, Bahrain). New buildings are cropping up all the time; the Louvre Abu Dhabi is an extraordinary structure, designed by French superstar architect Jean Nouvel; its white, cube-like galleries surrounded by water and covered by a vast dome through which light filters as it might through the leaves of a palm oasis.
A Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is in the pipeline. The Grand Mosque in Muscat and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi are both exquisite and packed with superlatives -- the world's largest carpet and largest chandelier in Abu Dhabi, for example. The trip to the top of Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building, is an excursion in itself.
Dubai's newest attraction, The Frame, is just that: a 492-foot tall, gold picture frame with a glass-floored walkway across the top and stupendous views. Longer-established buildings are pretty awesome, too; stroll through the Dubai Mall and you can eyeball the gliding sharks and rays in the Dubai Aquarium without even paying to get in, as the aquarium is in the middle of the shops.
Getting out of the cities on excursions is easy and all part of the experience if you're a lover of the outdoors. From the ship, you can easily arrange trips to the desert to watch the sun rise, followed by dune bashing (exploring sand dunes via an off-road vehicle). In Oman, the thing to do is four-wheel-drive excursions through mountains and wadis (something the locals love doing, too).
From every port, you could enjoy a beach day at one of the luxury resorts or beach clubs, with snorkeling and water sports. There are water parks, too, for really hot days. From Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you can go on desert excursions where you can try sand skiing, camel riding and have dinner in a Bedouin tent and watch falconry displays.
A relatively new attraction is Sir Bani Yas island, southwest of Abu Dhabi, and a cruise ship call in its own right. Here (powder-white beaches aside), there's kayaking through the mangroves, standup paddle-boarding, mountain biking and archery. The island, which was developed by the late Sheikh Zayed, is also a nature reserve, home to more than 10,000 animals, from oryx to giraffe and cheetah -- in an enclosure, of course.
Dubai is a busy hub and is well served by international departures from Emirates. Etihad will get you to Abu Dhabi in style, while British Airways flies to both Dubai and Abu Dhabi from London.
Cruises from Dubai and Abu Dhabi also attract English-speaking expatriates from Southeast Asia, with easy connections on the big Middle Eastern carriers from places like Singapore and Hong Kong.
Getting around is much quicker than you might imagine; driving time from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, for example, is less than 90 minutes. Ajman is only an hour away and Ras al Khaimah, another 90 minutes. On the topic of short distances, sailing times are very short, too, making this the perfect cruise for anybody worried about seasickness. Just about all of your sailing takes place at night, and nearly all cruises offer overnights in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The Gulf is a wonderful combination of ultramodern glitz and ancient Arabic traditions. The call to prayer echoes out over the cities five times a day. You can visit the camel market at the inland town of Al Ain if you're in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi on a Thursday or Friday, while desert safaris from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi take you to see a camel farm where you can pet the camels and admire their calves. The Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi is a fantastic excursion, too. Ancient pursuits like falconry and horsemanship aren't just for the tourists -- they're for real, if mainly as spectator sports.
Shopping, of course, is a local passion, with every designer under the sun represented at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall or Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall. The souks in Dubai are a step back in time, with whole alleyways devoted to the soft, deep yellow 18- and 21-carat gold for which the region is famed. Meanwhile, in the lovely old market in Muscat, the scent of incense wafts through the labyrinth of ancient shops.
Staying in one of the famously lavish hotels in the region is an excellent start or finish to a cruise holiday. Cruise lines and several cruise specialists, among them Cruise Nation, Iglu Cruise and Cruise 1st, offer good-value cruise-and-stay programs.
Think outside the box a little for your hotel stay. Abu Dhabi is in many ways as exciting as Dubai nowadays. Oman is beautiful and serene, with some gorgeous hotels along the beaches outside Muscat. What's really up-and-coming is the idea of bolting on one of the quieter, lesser-known emirates to a cruise; they're all close together. Tiny Ajman, for example, has a Fairmont and an Oberoi Beach Resort, while in Ras al Khaimah, everyone from Ritz-Carlton to Waldorf Astoria and Hilton has a luxurious resort. And no, these two emirates are not dry; you can enjoy a cocktail by the pool or wine with dinner in any of the hotels.
Updated October 10, 2019