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!

Andalusia / Al-Andalus

In the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, an Arab-style waterwheel, or noria, like those found in Hama, Syria

Washington Irving in his famous Tales of the Alhambra mentions that the Moroccans of his day (the late 1820s) spoke of eventually retaking southern Iberia and restoring Moorish/Arab/Muslim rule to Andalusia. In the current world order such a Moroccan encroachment into Spain and the European Union is not realistic, but the spirit of Moorish Andalusia is very much with us today, not only in terms of the Moorish influence on Spanish culture generally (see post of 2009.02.01), but a definite awareness of the uniqueness of Andalusia as a historical blend of Christian and Muslim. Not only do Arabs and non-Arab Muslims feel a connection to Andalusia that they do not feel to the rest of Christian Spain, but also Spaniards (perhaps through Andalusia) seem to have adopted sympathies to Arabs that are a far cry from their ancestral rulers who led the Inquisition.

Andalusia’s ties to Morocco and the Middle East are often used to orientalizing effect for tourists. In the first image, Moroccan leather goods for sale in Seville. In the second image, advertisements for Arab-themed entertainment in Granada. In their defense, many of these establishments are run by Arab immigrants, not only from Morocco across the Strait but from the Middle East as well.

This hammam has been restored as a ruin/museum, but others have been restored for actual bathing by tourists. We visited one in Granada and were disappointed–a fairly sad facsimile of a hammam if scoring for authenticity (and coed–the sacrilege).

Muslim tourists–even non-Arab ones–are drawn to Andalusia for its Arab Muslim history. In the first picture, British tourists of South Asian Muslim descent at the Medina Azahara outside Cordoba. In the second picture, Malay students at the new Granada Mosque taking a break from sightseeing.

The memory of an Arab Iberia very much lives on in the Arab world.

Moors evicted from Iberia after the Reconquista settled in an entire district of Fez known as the Andalusian quarter (first image). The second image is of the Sahrij Medersa in the Andalusian quarter, perhaps the most beautiful in Morocco.

Al Andalous is the inspiration for this barbershop in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, as well as the brand of underwear being sold in Fez.

Half a world away in Doha, Qatar, this curtains and furniture store commemorates Arab rule over Iberia.

One of the most puzzling little aspects of the global taking of sides in the Middle East conflict is the very common phenomenon of pro-Palestinian Spaniards. Pro-Palestinian graffiti is more visible in Spain than anywhere else I have been, keffiyeh are popular accessories among Spaniards and in parts of Palestine the only other tourists other than us were Spanish. I think the real reason for this is the popularity of leftist politics in Spain (perhaps a backlash against Franco) that tend to favor the underdog cause that is Arab Palestine, but perhaps two more interesting factors are also causes: 1) that modern Spaniards feel guilt for their ancestors’ anti-Arab crimes during and after the Reconquista or 2) that modern Spaniards recognize that, genetically, they are part Berber and Arab, descendants of the Muslim Moors who chose to stay in Iberia and convert, and therefore have sympathies for their Palestinian kinsmen. (I do recognize that these theories are somewhat ridiculous, and would really appreciate if someone could enlighten me on the phenomenon.)

Pro-Palestinian / Anti-Israeli graffiti, in Seville and Granada