For the curious, a cruise around the Middle East is the ideal way to explore this fascinating part of the world. Customs formalities are simplified, and language barriers erased. The Middle East is trying very hard to attract cruise tourism to the region, and there are signs it is having some success. In addition to MSC Cruises, which maintains large presence in the region, sailings from Costa Cruises and Carnival Corporation's German-language brand, AIDA, are prevalent, along with limited seasons from Royal Caribbean, Scenic and Windstar.
Here's what cruising the Middle East is like in 2023 -- and what you should know before you set sail.
Over the course of seven days, we set out aboard MSC World Europa on a sailing to Doha, Qatar; overnights in Dubai; calls on Abu Dhabi and Sir Bani Yas in the United Arab Emirates, and a visit to Dammam, Saudi Arabia.
There is this tendency, particularly amongst North Americans, to think of the Middle East as a sort of amorphous blob: a region of conflict, war, and outright discrimination. And, in some cases, this is true -- but not for every country, city or even region. The same pratfall is often used by many to mistakenly describe Africa as a country, not a continent.
Years ago, I visited Jordan -- a real bucket-list destination, famed for its incredible archaeological city of Petra. Our twentysomething guide described the Middle East succinctly as a family gathering where some of the cousins and uncles just don't get along. Just like Drunk Uncle Frank at your family Thanksgiving festivities, the actions of one can unfairly ruin the reputation of the whole.
This is an excellent description of the Middle East -- a region with countries that have a myriad of policies that can dramatically affect who travels to each country -- and how those people are welcomed.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. Neither the UAE nor Qatar are perfect. The former has baffling restrictions against medications that are common in the West that could land unsuspecting tourists in jail - or worse. Both countries discriminate heavily against the LGBTQ population, and both have religious beliefs, traditions and customs that must be respected by foreigners, even if you don't agree with them. Much of Dubai's lauded wealth, including its symbolic skyscrapers, is built on the backs of poorly-paid migrant workers.
Saudi Arabia takes that further. The human rights violations of Saudi Arabia are well-documented, and disproportionately affect women, those identifying as LGBTQ, and those who are critical of the country and its reliance on the harsh, often corporal punishments meted out by Sharia law.
There are definitely personal considerations potential travellers should take prior to visiting this part of the world, where even amongst heterosexual couples, things like hand-holding and kissing in public are either discouraged or outright banned. Alcohol consumption isn't allowed except in hotels catering to Western tourists, and in many cases, the practicing of any religion other than Islam -- at least in public -- is a strict no-no.
For those comfortable with the journey, however, the Middle East offers a rich tapestry of modernism steeped in deeply-held traditions and values.
Doha, Qatar -- where I embarked MSC World Europa -- falls into this category, too. Doha is a remarkable city, and the Qatari people are endlessly friendly. It is home to the picturesque Al Fafiya Island -- a sandspit in the middle of the sea; the Doha Corniche, a waterfront promenade framing the city's modern skyline; and even a former fire station now dedicated to the arts.
Expect little doses of surprise throughout the city, from its numerous galleries and museums, to its broad promenades and city parks.
Even Doha's Hamad International Airport is a destination in its own right that even features an indoor tropical garden with over 300 trees and 25,000 plants. It's little wonder the city played host to the FIFA 2022 World Cup in December 2022.
It's also inherently safe from petty crime: a dusk walk along the Corniche from my Old Town hotel to see the Flag Plaza, Old Town Port and Box Park -- with its colorful shipping containers repurposed into shops and restaurants -- was hassle-free. Crimes against tourists are relatively rare, but those who are part of the LGBTQ community will need to exercise discretion, as will unmarried couples: sexual relations outside of marriage is illegal.
Nevertheless, I found myself charmed by Qatar and Doha, and I'd eagerly visit again, thanks to the country's easy entry laws and connectivity on Qatar Airways to various points around the world. As long as you're not trying to get alcohol into the country (it can be consumed by those staying in large, Western-style hotels) and are respectful of dress codes (for women, that means covering head, shoulders and legs fully) when entering important buildings or religious sites, Doha makes for a smooth introduction to the Middle East.
Dubai, on the other hand, is an exercise in extravagance. During our two-day stay in the UAE's largest city, I took an MSC-sponsored shore excursion to the imposing Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 829 metres, or 2,722 square feet. Its entrance is located underneath the sprawling Dubai Mall -- itself the second-largest mall in the world with over 1,200 shops, most of which are firmly in the luxury retail category.
The views from the Burj Khalifa are amazing. The two hours it took in a queue to look down on this city of extravagance from on high decidedly less so. In some ways, it reminds visitors of who's really in charge here -- particularly when folks wearing nothing but Prada and Dolce and Gabbana and Rolexes the size of fists -- are shuttled into a VIP line and up a dedicated elevator while you sweat it out in the subterranean corridors that offer surprisingly shaky air conditioning.
Those travelling to Dubai on ship will likely find more enjoyment venturing outside the city limits: Jeep adventure tours of the desert are available as cruise line shore excursions, though these aren't for the faint of heart as vehicles climb up steep sand dunes and crash down the other side. Camel treks and dinner in the desert, Bedouin-style, can be had and can serve as culturally-rich experiences that are also unique.
For maritime fans, Dubai is also home to Cunard Line's former flagship, Queen Elizabeth 2. The QE2, as it is affectionately known, is now permanently moored as a hotel ship not far from the cruise ship piers. The local Emiratis must consider it uncouth: during my visit, an overnight stay cost barely $150 USD, with full tours running $40.
You'll likely either love Dubai or hate it. I found the constant emphasis on luxury consumerism exhausting in a city where each building is more expensive, more extravagant, and more prestigious than the last.
Either way, there's no denying this glittering city of wealth is an impressive sight to behold.
Abu Dhabi offered more on the cultural front while still managing to appear like a scaled-down Dubai. It's actually situated on an island in the Persian Gulf, detached from the mainland, and serves as the capital of the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. Its cruise terminal is a glittering example of modern architecture, with soaring roofs and walls of glass windows -- not to mention fast and free Wi-Fi.
In Abu Dhabi, I took advantage of MSC's tour of the respondent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, about 30 minutes' drive from the cruise terminal. The largest mosque in the UAE, it took 13 years to construct and can old over 41,000 worshippers at once. Its namesake, the respected Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan -- the man is credited with the creation of the United Arab Emirates -- was even buried in the courtyard after his 2004 death.
MSC does a good job of informing passengers -- mostly women -- of what sort of dress is acceptable within the mosque. Still, all female travellers in our party underwent a thorough inspection of their clothing by Emirati female employees at the entrance to the mosque. And they're strict. A fleck of exposed skin outside the face and hands? Not allowed. The slightest transparency? Not allowed. A wayward bra strap? Forget it.
Three women in our group had to go to a nearby store (the entrance to the mosque is through -- you guessed it -- an underground mall) and purchase more suitable garments to wear over their clothing. Of the three, one was still denied entry, despite being in the approved garb.
Men, on the other hand, just need to wear long pants. That's it. Equality, it isn't.
However, in defense of both cities, I found locals to be friendly and warm. Our guides were very good, though Farouk, our guide in Abu Dhabi shone through his warm storytelling that switched effortlessly between English and German for our mixed-language motorcoach.
Both cities were immaculately clean, and both felt safe from the sort of crimes common against tourists, like pickpocketing. However, the UAE has become increasingly more hostile for LGBTQ travelers than it has in the past, according to a report from Germany's Deutsche Welle. As with most places in the Middle East, safety for one is not always safety for all.
In contrast to the commercial culture of Dubai, Abu Dhabi's older history and smaller scale make it less overwhelming for the first-time visitor to the UAE.
At Sir Bani Yas Island, the definition of "mirage" rang true for me. A swath of sand rising from an azure-blue sea ringed by distant mountains, Sir Bani Yas looks like every bit the oasis in the desert.
It also looks a lot like cruise line's private islands in the Caribbean -- minus the lush vegetation -- and that's by design. This is the private island escape for cruise passengers in the Middle East, and lies about 150 miles west of Abu Dhabi.
Ships used to have to anchor here and tender passengers ashore, but an expensive new dock was built during the Pandemic, making it even easier than ever to reach this island paradise.
On shore, the usual watersports activities are offered, as well as a wildlife tour (the island borders a protected wildlife reserve). Most passengers, though, were content to open a cold beer (alcohol is allowed on the island) and kick back in the warmth of the Arabian sun.
Expect it to be hot, hot, hot! Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water. Unlike the islands in the Caribbean, shade is in short supply here, and getting a bit of refuge from the heat can sometimes mean clustering under the tents and canopies set up for vendors and shore excursion departures.
Those who want to stay connected will love the free -- and strong! -- Wi-Fi, and most passengers will appreciate a day without dress codes, mosques and long tours.
Then, there's Saudi Arabia. Unlike Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia comes with a litany of travel warnings from the likes of the U.S. State Department and the UK Government, which warn of dangers from missile attacks against civilians, terrorist attacks at airports, religious sites and sites popular with Westerners, and more innocuous things like behavioural conduct. You cannot, for example, hold hands in Saudi Arabia, nor can you drink alcohol (or be intoxicated), take photographs without permission, wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts, dance, play music in public, or bring binoculars into the country.
I'm not going to mince words: I didn't know what to do with MSC World Europa's call on Dammam, Saudi Arabia. I don't approve of the country's stance towards women or capital punishment. I have friends who identify as LGBTQ, for whom a trip to this part of the world is wholly out of the question. And I worried any misstep on my part could land me in a Saudi prison.
Complicating matters, the cruise transit e-Visa system developed by the Saudi government just never worked for me, using three separate browsers and two devices. That left me staring down having to pay a princely $128 USD to purchase an entry visa on-the-day.
Getting a visa on arrival turned out to be a process. Saudi authorities decided at the last minute that they would not come onboard MSC World Europa, as they had in the past, so the hundred-or-so folks assembled in the Panorama Lounge at 6:30 in the morning had to proceed ashore to the cruise terminal.
There, a single worker processed the visas on arrival, with each individual one taking about 15 to 20 minutes. The line started getting antsy as time dragged on; I stood there for over an hour and a half waiting for officials to process the six people in front of me, while another hundred or so guests stood behind me. The ship's shore excursion team rushed around trying to pull people out of line and move them to the front while shouting into walkie-talkies to hold the motorcoaches from leaving.
All of this is outside of MSC's control. And it spoke to a larger issue with Saudi Arabia: for a country that seemingly wants tourism, it would go on to make it as difficult as possible throughout the day.
We docked in Dammam, on the Persian Gulf. It's the fifth-largest city in Saudi Arabia, and is the fastest-growing city in the Arab world. The cruise port is located in a massive industrial cargo area, known as the King Abdulaziz Cruise Port, about 35 minutes' drive from most attractions.
We visited the incredible King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, also known as Ithra, which houses a library, culture museum, children's museum, theatres, shops and other attractions within a building that is structurally impressive. Our guides -- all of whom were female at Ithra -- proudly showed off the library with its massive book selection, and the first Children's Museum in the Kingdom. A nearby exhibit on the history of oil in the country was equally fascinating.
Afterwards, we headed to the oceanfront Dammam Heritage Village, which illustrates the different cultures and traditions associated with Saudi Arabia's north, south, east, and western regions. Coupled with a café and restaurant, we were treated to traditional Arabic coffee infused with cardamom and ginger while exploring this unique museum.
But lurking in the background of our tour was the knowledge we were in a very different country. One of our two guides continually photographed passengers, taking videos and stills as we went around the Museum. iPhones would be placed in passengers' faces abruptly, video recording on, asking what we thought about Saudi Arabia. At one point, over deliciously sweet tea as the afternoon drew to a close, we were introduced to an "Influencer" -- a man built like a Freightliner who looked like he was skilled at influencing kneecaps to break -- who proceeded to take more photos of us.
What were these used for? I don't know. Passengers asked and were told it was "for fun" or "just because", but one of our guides told me he also worked for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Passengers kept being pressured, overtly or subtly, to say nice things about Saudi Arabia, particularly when the iPhones were rolling. Remember: criticizing Islam or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are both punishable by law.
The day ended with a farcical journey back to the ship, in which our motorcoach driver repeatedly got lost trying to find the sprawling industrial port -- despite excellent road signage that was even in English. At one point, we began circling a gas station in an industrial zone, rolling over bumpy dirt roads next to abandoned cars and stray dogs until one German guest piped up, on our third lap around, "Are you sure this is the best way?"
The bus then changed course, got lost twice more, and reached the ship some 60 minutes late.
That was my Saudi Arabian experience. When it was good, it was excellent, fascinating, and insightful. I felt hopeful for this country that has, really, just begun dipping its collective toes into the process of courting Western tourists.
But when it was bad, it was awkward, bizarre, and oppressive. I spent eight hours on shore vacillating between wanting to see more and immediately wanting to return to the ship. Even our detour around the gas station felt as if it was designed to kill time for some reason unknown to us.
A cruise makes it easy to visit places like Saudi Arabia, for which travelers may have curiosity but little desire to stay longer.
I'm glad I went to Saudi Arabia; it changed my perceptions of this country tremendously. But as I said to my Cruise Critic colleagues upon my return, "It's different than I thought, but somehow exactly what I expected."
At the end of the day, should you take a cruise to the Middle East? It's a question with no easy answer.
A trip to the Middle East can be rewarding and enjoyable if you go in with your eyes open. Understand the cultural differences and rules and know that they may not agree with Western values. I had to reconcile my distaste for some of the policies of places like Saudi Arabia and realize that I'm not exactly a fan of many policies set forth in the United States, but I still travel there.
At the end of the day, this is a region of the world that is endlessly fascinating. Its history has this unique blend of ancient and modern. Many places, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, were poor villages of little renown until oil was discovered in the 1970's. Now, the exist as major metropolises and local capitals of culture.
The passengers aboard MSC World Europa -- most of which hailed from Europe, Great Britain, with a smattering of Americans and Canadians onboard -- viewed our trip as an exotic cruise into a region of the world that few have been to. And, like most exotic itineraries, it may not be right for everyone -- but for those wanting to discover the Middle East, a cruise is a low-risk, low-impact way to do so.
Updated March 14, 2023