Discount Airlines of the Middle East

As you are probably aware, the discount airline / low cost carrier (LCC) phenomenon is in full bloom around the world. While planning for our trip I became acquainted with some Middle Eastern low cost carriers, and thought that I would do a brief review. Middle Eastern carriers are not only useful for getting around the region cheaply, but for connecting Europe and South Asia, taking advantage of the Middle East’s strategic location. [Important note: LCCs are critically important to the backpacker not only because of their generally low fares, but for their one-way pricing, allowing the budget traveler to retain maximum flexibility as compared to buying discount round trip fares on conventional airlines.]

Air Arabia, based in Sharjah, is probably the most important LCC in the MIddle East. Based in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE, which is located just miles from Dubai, Air Arabia has a terrific network reaching European cities such as Athens and Istanbul all the way to a full complement of South Asian destinations. With cheap fares, a new fleet and a website that is fairly easy to use, as well as the appeal of a Dubai stopover (Dubai isn’t the most interesting place in the world, but is definitely worth a long layover), Air Arabia has proven useful to us several times, including most recently to travel from Bombay to Damascus, with a UAE/Oman detour (see posts of 2008.04.04, 04.05 and 04.06). The seats are comfortable, the food and service not bad and free water provided (unlike certain Southeast Asian LCCs).

The second Middle Eastern LCC we flew on on our trip was Jazeera Airways, based in Kuwait, from Amman to Kuwait City. I wouldn’t put it quite on the same level as Air Arabia, but the fares were quite competitive, and the flight was fine. A third carrier is Bahrain Air, which we did not take. GIven how poor a stopover destination Kuwait City is (Bahrain is moderately interesting), I would probably opt to take Bahrain Air, were I to choose between the two airlines in the future. (See post of 2008.05.07.) Both Bahrain and Kuwait do suffer from visa fees, which adds a bit of additional cost should you choose to stopover in these countries.

In addition to the “typical” LCCs described above, the Middle East of late is suffering from something of a glut of airlines, from which the traveler has everything to benefit. The Bahraini flag carrier Gulf Air, for example, is not a low cost carrier, but offers its terrific network at quite low rates, often competing with LCCs. Gulf Air’s Hong Kong – Bangkok flight was often the cheapest, while we were living in Hong Kong. Gulf Air is also somewhat associated with Oneworld and certain Oneworld airlines, making it the best-allianced Gulf-based carrier. Kuwait Airways (one hears not the greatest airline) offers terrific rates from North America and Europe to South Asia, as does Qatar Airways (which is a good airline). Etihad and Emirates, the two flag carriers of the UAE, are usually not as competitive on price.

Especially because the actual LCCs such as Air Arabia do not usually show up on internet booking sites, it’s important to keep them in mind whenever traveling from Europe to South Asia or around the Middle East. If you try any of these carriers, share your experiences!

The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).


Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

The Gulf

We’ve been to most of the countries in the Gulf region now–Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, although not Qatar and Saudi Arabia–and seen them in relatively quick succession.

Some thoughts:

– Each country has in the second part of the twentieth century experienced an unprecedented windfall in the way of oil revenues and used them to build itself up into a modern (even ultra-modern) nation, from, relatively speaking, the desert backwater that presumably each was fifty years ago. (Oman’s an outlier–a bit more below.)

– To see the Gulf states properly, you need a car. Car rentals can be very affordable, and of course gas is cheap. Traffic around Dubai is some of the worst we’ve experienced. The Gulf states all have modern roads, and are building many more at a rapid pace. They seem to love roundabouts, like some countries in Europe, and hate overpasses. Roundabouts do offer some opportunity for U-turns, but the lack of overpasses means that you’re often stuck going in the wrong direction (especially if you’re a tourist who doesn’t know directions and makes a wrong turn), for what can be a seemingly endless desert block. Build some overpasses!

– The Gulf is more traditional than many other corners of the world. Men almost uniformly wear traditional dress (dishdasha and keffiyeh (or embroidered hat in the case of Oman)) and women are largley dressed in full black robes, and often burqas. Gender distinctions are great. In some countries, such as Oman, it’s actually somewhat uncommon (outside malls) to see women at all–they just don’t participate to a full extent in public life. Even restaurants are segregated–men-only seating and “family” seating for mixed gender groups. In Saudi Arabia, as in Iran, many rules are enshrined in law; I believe that in all the other countries, it is more a matter of custom.

– It’s not quite clear how religious the people in the Gulf are–given the high education levels it would not be surprisingly to find a fairly secular society underneath it all–but the locals are uniformly Muslim on paper. The Gulf is not Syria or Iraq, or even Iran, which have historically seen the movement of many peoples and faiths, with various minority groups as historical remnants. (Oman is a bit of an exception ethnically in that there are black Omanis–see below.)

– The most striking thing about the Gulf is the number of non-Arabs who live and work there (as much as 90% of the population, in Dubai). Of course, these people come from various backgrounds, from wealthy Westerners who are compensated very well for coming to work so far from home, to South Asians who in what must be desperation to find work take jobs that offer often horrible working conditions and do not pay very well to boot (most famously in the construction industry, but elsewhere as well). The phenomenon of millions of people traveling thousands of miles in search of work is one that deserves a separate post, which I hope to put together at a later date.

Perhaps a bit surprising is how the countries differ from one another. The Gulf was ruled by various tribal leaders, most of whom in the twentieth century developed quasi-colonial relationships with the United Kingdom and then formed separate nation-states. The UAE, even today, is a federation of seven sheikdoms. Despite what must have been fairly similar histories (with the exception of Oman), the Gulf states have become somewhat distinct in the recent past. Some country-specific thoughts:

– Most famously, Dubai has become a center of commerce. With relatively limited oil reserves, Dubai has successfully leveraged its commercial history and location to become, truly, the hub city of the Middle East. It is home to the region’s biggest and best airline (Emirates) and the world’s most ambitious building projects (such as the manmade islands of the Palms and the World and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai). I have been told by Arabs that, outside of Lebanon and Egypt, which are the centers of the Arab music and film industries, respectively, Dubai is the center of Arab media and popular culture, as well as technology.

– Bahrain is fairly multicultural. From what we understand, Bahraini law allows overseas workers to gain residence/citizenship more easily than other Gulf countries (in some it is simply not possible no matter how long one stays), and so Bahrain has longer-term non-Arab residents. We saw a Christian church (largely for the Filipino population) in downtown Bahrain, and there are good whole-in-the-wall type Thai restaurants as well. Even the Arab Bahrainis have a slightly more exotic look, perhaps from Bahrain’s long history as a port. Bahrain is known for banking, but is also trying to attract tourists, with free-flowing alcohol and a Formula One racetrack. A bit depressingly, Bahrain seems to be a center of prostitution, with Saudis driving over in new SUVs by the hundreds (Bahrain is an island, but a very long causeway connects it to Saudi Arabia) to drink and fornicate. Central Bahrain is filled with cheapish hotels featuring all kinds of evening entertainment.

– Kuwait, as described in a recent New York Times article, does not seem to be experiencing a great boom in investment as other parts of the Gulf, and parts of its downtown lie in ruins (still from the 1990-91 war??). It is of course just as rich or richer than its neighbors, but for whatever reason its general economy seems to be stagnating. Overseas workers we spoke to in Kuwait said that it is a horrible place to work, one woman saying that risk of sexual harassment/rape was ever present, including from the police. She explained further that her 12 year old son was in the Philippines and unwilling to return to Kuwait saying, “What I am going to do there? It is like a prison”. We also heard that other Gulf Arabs think ill of Kuwait. Although Kuwait started offering tourist visas recently, basic efforts to develop tourism seem lacking–the windows of the landmark Kuwait Towers are dirty, and ruins are visible nearby. One interesting, arguably more positive point: We are told that Kuwaiti society relaxed considerably after the war–one overseas worker mentioned that he thought it would be like Saudi Arabia when he first came, and was pleasantly surprised to find that standards of dress and behavior are surprisingly liberal.

– Oman still feels like a backwater compared to the other countries, although Oman most of all has a history of contact with the rest of the world, including especially in the nineteenth century, when it had a sort of small empire, including the island of Zanzibar. From its African history, Oman has a local black population, who seem to be totally integrated into Omani society. There are relatively fewer overseas workers in Oman, and one sees more locals holding regular jobs. Oman seems to be very well governed by its Sultan, and in our travels we have found Omanis uncommonly warm and gentle, with class and charm at times lacking in some of the other Gulf countries.

Dubai from the Air

On our flight from Sharjah to Damascus, we got a pretty decent view of some of Dubai’s recent architectural feats, including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai. From the air, Dubai really looks like a weird space desert colony from a sci-fi movie or video game.

The Emirati population of Dubai is about 10%, meaning that overseas workers make up the vast majority of the emirate’s population. With all this construction, one can imagine that the 10% will become smaller and smaller in the near future. Exactly what kind of country is this?? [One expat that we met suggested that it wasn’t a “real” one.] I generally think of countries being run to improve the lives of their citizens, but at 90% non-citizen it would seem that the country has to be governed largely to meet the needs of the overseas workers as well (even if they don’t have a say in how things are run). Does the presence of all of these overseas workers really improve the lives of the local Emirati? Do the mega building projects? Also, I do not believe that there is any path to citizenship for overseas workers–so is the intent to have an endless stream of Indian laborers and western expats cycling through? [Perhaps all this is just the envy of a citizen of a country that no longer seems to have such monumental ambition.]

Dubai QuickTrip: Musandam Peninsula

Geographical extremities have always intrigued me, as I believe they do many people. When in Argentina I wanted to travel down to Tierra del Fuego (although I did not make it), I’ve always been curious about the tips of the Florida Keys, Long Island, Cape Cod, Baja California and the Aleutians (zero for five) and earlier on our trip we went to Cape Comorin in India. So when our flight plans gave us an opportunity for a UAE stopover, I knew instantly where I wanted to go–Oman’s Musandam peninsula, which lies on a tip of the Arabian peninsula. [See also my earlier post on “The Other Emirates”–but most of those are on the way from Dubai to Musandam.]

The Musandam peninsula is the portion of the Arabian peninsula that breaks the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea, jutting toward Iran and defining the strategically important Strait of Hormuz through which so much of the world’s oil travels. Part of the Sultanate of Oman (although it is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE, just as Alaska is separated from the bulk of the U.S. by Canada), the Musandam peninsula entices not only through its extremity location but with its wild, mountainous fjords and isolated villages (one, Kumzar, is so remote that it has its own language and is even now reachable only by boat). I was first made curious about the Musandam peninsula when visiting Oman in 2005, but the Musandam peninsula is much more quickly and easily reached from the UAE than from the rest of Oman (although there are some flights from Muscat), and so perfect for a Dubai QuickTrip.

First, we had to sort out which car rental company would let us take cars into Oman (there is no public transportation to the Musandam, and not having your own transport in Oman somewhat defeats the point of traveling there). Each company seems to have a different policy. Some won’t let you take the car into Oman at all, and others let you but only through one border (which takes you into the main part of Oman and not the Musandam). Of the ones that allow travel to Oman, some charge a mandatory insurance fees, others insurance in addition to surcharge on the rental, while a couple local companies didn’t require insurance or suggested that we buy it from a third party (there are offices at the border selling temporary insurance much like Mexico insurance sold at U.S./Mexico borders, and Oman requires that you be covered one way or another). We settled on Dollar, which imposed a relatively small insurance charge of 150 dirhams (a bit over $40) and seemed otherwise reliable. [We actually spent a good part of a frustrating morning trying to rent from a local company in Sharjah, but we couldn’t get the deposit mechanics to work out given our short stay–they didn’t take credit cards–and the thoroughly incompetent local employee acted like he was stoned (“Where the car? Where I put the car?”).]

The three or so hour drive from Dubai through the emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Ras al-Khaimah is, for the large part, fairly uninteresting. The UAE is of course a modern and wealthy country, and each emirate has a fort or two, but the terrain is generally flat and not too beautiful, and marred by relatively unattractive development (the “other” emirates are visibly not as well off as Dubai and Abu Dhabi). The landscape changes almost instantly as you cross the border into Oman after paying a 60 dirham fee to exit the UAE and a 20 dirham fee to enter Oman (a little over $20 total). Driving the relatively new road from the Omani border town of Tibba to Khasab, the road’s end near the tip of the Musandam peninsula, you instantly know and feel that you are in rugged, beautiful and spacious Oman, a land of mountain forts and wadis facing the sea. For most its length the road hugs the base of cliffs, and occasionally rises up and over them, passing through quiet towns and within sight of the occasional fort.

Our previous visit to Oman made us great fans of the country, and the Musandam peninsula does not disappoint. Just as in the rest of Oman, you find a gracious people, warm with hospitality (and the men particularly elegant in their clean white dishdashas and embroidered hats). There is none of the traffic, aggressive driving and sometimes senseless seeming overdevelopment of the UAE, but there is still a feeling of progress, with a focus on social development. You feel that the country spends its relatively limited oil revenues wisely, investing in its citizens and promoting a level of self-sufficiency (although there are still many overseas workers).

But back to the peninsula. Separated from the rest of Oman, the Musandam faces seaward, toward the Strait of Hormuz. Much of the local economy is catered toward trade with Iran, taking the form of small-time Iranian traders taking speedboats 45 kilometers across the Strait, trading Iranian sheep and goats for all manners of goods, from electronics to American cigarettes. [We were told by one local that she’s seen the boats taking exercise machines.] Unfortunately, perhaps because it was Friday, we didn’t get to see much of the trading activity, or the Iranian traders, who according to Lonely Planet are identifiable by their “lusty mustaches,” although we did seem some speedboats rushing north.

The town of Khasab has some sightseeing (typically, the fort is the main attraction), but no trip to the Musandam would be complete without a tour by boat. The well-run Musandam Sea Adventure Company (tel: +968-2673-0424, with an office in the old souk) offers full-day dhow tours for 20 Omani rials per person (about $65). The boats leave around 9:30AM and return around 4:00PM, for a cruise around Khor (or Fjord) Ash Sham, which winds among remote villages where water is delivered by boat and children commute weekly to school. A couple stops are made for swimming and snorkeling (equipment provided, but not too much to see), and a generous lunch served onboard (drinks and water also provided). The weather was gorgeous and the boat ride scenic and very pleasant.

One highlight of the boat ride is dolphins, which we were told are seen almost every day. A few came up to swim along the side of our boat.

Our choice of lodging, the Lake Hotel, was definitely overpriced at 30 Omani rials (around $80) after bargaining. I believe the Khasab Hotel charges slightly higher rates but is likely nicer, or you can stay at the upmarket Golden Tulip on the road into town.

Perhaps not a great destination to travel far, but a wonderful escape for a QuickTrip.