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!

Women of Cover

In our travels thus far through the Middle East, we’ve seen a variety of different styles of cover for women, and I thought that it would be interesting to compare them. Please note that this is intended to be something of a fashion post, rather than a post debating the hejab (Islamic dress code) itself. [Note: None of the individuals pictured was a source of any information for this or any post.]

Colored headscarves

Young women in Syria. In Syria, the scarf is very much a fashion accessory in addition to a religious and customary expectation. In the big cities, many women choose to go without.

Ladies’ police uniforms, Bahrain

Television personality, Bahrain

European tourists at a hotel restaurant, Iran (female tourists, like all women in Iran over the age of 8, are required to obey the hejab in public places)

Trendy mother and daughter, Iran

More trendy scarves, Iran

Black headscarves

We never confirmed this, but this style of headscarf must be required in schools and certain jobs, as they are quite common in Iran.

Getting away with showing a lot of hair, Iran

Black robes

A full black robe is fairly common in more traditional parts of the Arab world, including the Gulf.

Kuwait. Kuwaiti women all seem to wear their hair in huge buns.


A bedouin woman, looking quite stylish in Aleppo, Syria

Young ladies in Hyderabad, India, in style

A step further

The chador, the standard Iranian cover for older women

Iranian tourist in chador, Syria. There are many Iranian tourists in Damascus, on pilgrimage to Shiite sites.

The most annoying thing about wearing a chador, I think, must be the fact that it doesn’t have any clasp to stay together, forcing the wearer to constantly hold it in place, either with hands or teeth. This chador has a pattern.

A druze woman, Syria

An exotic tribal look, in Bahrain. We like to call this type of face cover a “beak.”

I’m not sure why, but one of these ladies in Aleppo, Syria has her face totally covered, not too common a look.

Burka store, Hyderabad. Burkas are sometimes seen in India and the Arab world, but not all that common in the countries we have visited (though I recall seeing quite a few in Zanzibar). Burkas are not worn in Iran, other than perhaps by the Arab minority.

A burka-style hood and face cover, in Damascus, Syria. Again, not too common.


As a reminder that head covers and veils are not uniquely Muslim, a (Hindu) Rajasthani woman from India. Of course, Christian women also often wear veils, especially in churches.

The wearing of cover in the Middle East is definitely a pre-Islamic custom. A carving at Palmyra, Syria, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD showing women in veils.

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.