When it comes to Muslim-friendly destinations, there is no area more perfect than the Middle Eastern region, and the growing popularity of travelling to the Middle East makes it much easier for halal travel.
Countries that are ruled by Muslim monarchs translates to abundant Muslim-friendly services like halal food, places to pray, and even segregation in areas like water parks, the metro, and public buses. It means that even though Middle Eastern destinations comprise of a large expat population, they are used to Islamic culture and attire, and religious biases are practically non-existent.
If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday with little stress and more spontaneity, check out these top 6 Middle Eastern countries (in no particular order) that you should visit:
When it comes to where to travel in the Middle East, this is a no-brainer, as far as tourist destinations go, Dubai is on the map. But the UAE has made sure that the rest of the Emirates step up their game, and every place has something to offer. Whether it is living the fast life, big entertainment, touring the best mosques, or discovering Arab culture, UAE has it all.
Abu Dhabi: Ferrari World, Yas Water World
Dubai: Wild Wadi, Ski Dubai, Sky Dive, Parasailing, Desert Safari
Al Ain: Jabal al Hafeet
Hatta: Hatta Kayak
Abu Dhabi: Sheikh Zayed mosque;
Dubai: Burj Khalifa, Burj al Arab, Atlantis, Bastakia in Bur Dubai, Souq;
Sharjah: Blue Souq;
Ras Al Khaimah: Al Jazirat Al Hamra (a spooky abandoned village rumored to be haunted, it is also known as Ghost Town. It dates back to the 14th century and is a must-visit for history buffs and anyone who has wanted to visit the set of a horror movie);
Fujairah: Al Bidyah Mosque (the oldest mosque in the UAE, built-in 1446)
Getting around Dubai with public transport is fairly easy thanks to the Dubai Metro. The cabin after Gold Class is ladies only, as well as the front section on public buses. Similarly, Wild Wadi has ladies' night in the summer, and Jabal al Hafeet has segregated hot spring areas that you can bathe in.
With masjids, every few feet or so, and prayer rooms in the malls, praying while you’re on the move is not an issue. Make the most of the halal food cuisine with every country’s food imaginable. All restaurants are halal certified (only hotel buffets might serve pork), so eating out is a breeze!
UAE is considered to be a pricey destination, and that is true if you want to splurge on the big entertainment venues like theme parks and adventure sports.
You can balance it out, however, by going to the beach, roaming around the souqs, taking a ride in the abra at the Creek which is the cheapest ride you’ll ever get in the country, and taking the time to soak up the culture. You can find more affordable accommodations as compared to the hotels like furnished apartments, and thanks to the Dubai Metro, you are connected to the rest of the city.
We know that Saudi Arabia isn’t really known as a tourist destination – just one for Hajj and Umrah. Some people just go for the pilgrimage, while others take tour packages that show them the sites of Islamic history. Even though that is what Saudi is most famous for, it does have more to offer than just that.
If you are in the vicinity of Makkah and Madinah, then you’re in the vicinity of Islamic historic sites. The battlefields of Badr and Uhud, the first masjid ever built there, Masjid Qiblatayn – the masjid with the two qiblahs, and so much more.
If you are at all interested in Islamic history, it pays to put an image to the names. Durrat Al Arous Island north of Jeddah houses Albatoul Marine which is a fun place for adventure sports. Flyboarding is a bit pricey here, but worth it if you’ve ever wanted to walk – no, fly – on water! Water jets are attached to your boots and up you go!
Without a doubt, the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah are mandatory. Not just because they are spectacular and places of such peace and tranquillity despite the hustle and bustle, but because they are also home to great rewards. Any prayer offered here is multiplied immensely.
Muslims visiting Saudi rarely leave without visiting one of these sites. What most people don’t make it to are the Madain Saleh and sites. Jubbah and Shuwaymus are the areas with rock carvings show that there that is so much more to Saudi Arabian history that is yet to be explored. The carvings are in a different language and depict what life was like in those days, much like hieroglyphics.
Madain Saleh is not just for history buffs. These fascinating structures built so many thousands of years ago still stand today, attesting to an era long gone but not entirely forgotten. The area used to have fresh water that attracted many settlers who then carved out structures. Today, it is completely dry but the buildings still stand.
As with countries in the Middle East, certain attractions can be rather pricey. But when it comes to history, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, and its lifestyle reflects that. Just step into the airport and you are surrounded by brand names and items that seem like they belong in a dream. Despite all this modernity, Qatar still maintains its heritage and is one of the best places to visit.
Banana Island Resort by Anantara is truly a paradise. Even if you’re not staying at the luxury hotel, you can still enjoy the premises. Its tropical flora makes you forget you’re in the Middle East, and you are treated to a range of cuisines. Make the most of the beach and sea, go bowling or take a Segway ride on this almost-private island.
In complete contrast is the Museum of Islamic Arts which houses the largest Islamic art collection in the world. Curated from three different continents, Qatar is proud of this gem not only because of what is within but because the structure itself is magnificent, designed by the architect of the Louvre Pyramid. On its own island with a palm-tree-lined entrance, set amid a vast landscape and an impeccable view across the water, this place is worth the visit.
There are guided tours in English and Arabic every Thursday at 2pm of the permanent collection housed on two floors. Unlike other museums, the Museum of Islamic Arts is organized in such a way that you get a feel of what Islamic art is truly like through the homogeneity of a single print used across various mediums. Visitors are requested to avoid strappy and short clothing and you might be restricted from entering.
While some prefer the air-conditioned climate of malls, others would rather take in the culture while roaming the souqs. Souq Waqif is one such place that you should not miss. Contradicting the high-end fashion and attire visible in the malls, the streets are where you get a taste of what Qatar is really like. Vibrant in its sights, smells, and feels, Souq Waqif has beautiful traditional bukhoor, spices, and embroidered clothing.
It is also a testament to history as it is where Bedouins would come to trade their essentials too. Katara Cultural Village is a beautiful man-made location to soak up more heritage. From the architecture to the Greek-Islamic style amphitheater, people flock there in the evenings when the weather gets cooler to enjoy the outdoors. There are restaurants, mosques, and a beach right with water sports and inflatable play complexes, making it the perfect family spot.
Qatar is known to be a pricey location but the country is also very hospitable. If you want to live in the lap of luxury for a few days, this is the place for you.
Even though Oman is in the Middle East – and generally what comes to mind when one thinks of ‘Middle East’ is ‘desert’, Oman is one of the few countries that actually has a tropical oasis region. Laidback and serene, the country has plenty to offer tourists. Since a slice of Oman juts into the UAE, many residents of UAE take the opportunity on long weekends or holidays to avail the natural sites available. However, if you decide to stay there exclusively, there is so much more that you can do.
As always, souqs are part of the Middle Eastern charm and Muttrah Souq is no exception. Go there to get your fix of gahwah or Arabic coffee, bargain for souvenirs, or simply enjoy the feel of being in an Arab country. The beaches of Musandam are one of the areas where you will find people on day trips as it is separated from Oman by a piece of UAE land. Pristine white sands and clear blue waters make this a hot tourist spot.
Oman believes in conserving its land and natural resources and this is evident at Ras al Jinz, a natural reserve for endangered green turtles, located on the east coast. Visitors can observe them laying their eggs, and even catch them hatching and returning to the sea. Wadi Bani Khalid is one of those areas that are striking and green as it has a spring that keeps running year-round. Add those palm trees to the shades of red that the rocks are made of, and you have a very Instagrammable location. #prettyasapicture #nofilter
Salalah is the vacation spot inside your holiday. Tropical, cool, and like a world of its own, this is a must-visit. If you want your holiday to include a bit of a workout, be sure to head to Jabal al Akhdar. Translating to The Green Mountain, it gets its name from the greenery spattered across it, but it is well known for its hiking trails. Another great spot is Jabal ash-Shams, or Mountain of the Sun, so called as it is believed to be the first point that the sun touches when it rises.
It is the highest peak in the region and has some great views. Majlis al Jinn is for the rock climbers out there as it has the second largest cave chamber in the world. The Bimmah Sinkhole is a natural phenomenon caused by limestone that eroded below the surface leaving a spectacularly blue-green pool for swimming.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque has to be one of the staples on your list of sights to see. This Grand Mosque is one of the chains of Sultan Qaboos mosques built around the world. The high arches, golden domes, engraved walls, and beautiful interiors should not be missed. The Royal Opera House sounds like it belongs in England, but this one is in Oman. Besides the various international performances that the venue is used for, you can tour the location that resembles a palace.
Oman is like one of those shy kids standing in the back; only when you decide to look further do you realize the gems it has to offer.
Kuwait may not be a tourist hotspot, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t waiting to be explored. Like the UAE, Kuwait is known for its modernity and high-rise buildings, but they also keep a strong hold on its roots and culture. Kuwait is one of the smaller Middle Eastern countries, but it is worth the trip.
When traveling around the GCC, what is striking is that, even though they all appear to be the same on the outside, different aspects of heritage and culture stand out when you dig deep.
Housing an Imax cinema, aquarium, dhow harbor, and a discovery palace, The Scientific Centre is the best place to take kids. The floor-to-ceiling shark and ray tanks are incredible to see, and getting your hands dirty in the Discovery Palace allows kids to get lost in the wonder of science.
In addition to viewing the different regions present in the aquarium – the desert, coastal edge, and sea zone – you can also dive with sharks if you have a valid diving license. The age for diving is 14 years and older. If you don’t want to swim with sharks, no problem! Head to Aqua Park, a major water theme park in Kuwait. Whether you are a child or an adult, Aqua Park has something for everyone. Fancy lazing around? Grab a tube and float on the Lazy River. Want an adrenalin shot? Try the Boomerango.
There are cafes and restaurants inside the park which are all halal, but as food can be a bit pricey, take at least a bottle of water with you. Tuesdays are now reserved for ladies’ day, but even if you go with the family, there are separate changing areas for men and women and separate prayer areas. Bikinis are not allowed.
The Mirror House is definitely a must-see as, even though it is an art display, it is more like art in action. You will not be bored. Each room is explained by the Italian-Kuwaiti artist and took around 40 years to complete. Yes, 40 years! It better be good! With visual effect and getting the visitors to interact with the art, this is one thing you have to experience to understand.
Falaika Island is where you can see true history. Take a ferry to the island that is now an open-air museum, depicting the war.
As with all the Gulf countries, the local Grand Mosque is a must-visit. The architecture is unique to the country and its history, and Kuwait’s Grand Mosque is no exception. With the hustle and bustle of the city, head here to admire the structure and bask in the tranquility.
Kuwait Towers are also an iconic part of the city. With a viewing platform and a restaurant, you can grab a bite while you cast your glance of a view over almost the entire country. Tareq Rajab Museum is another standout location to visit. Housing some of the most beautiful pieces in history – think jewels and garments fit for a princess – the collection of Arabic manuscripts is what rocks it to international standards.
Mercifully, while the rest of the museum was being looted by Iraqi soldiers during the war, this area was left untouched thanks to the quick thinking of the local guards.
The Kuwaiti Dinar is one of the strongest currencies in the world, so don’t be fooled by the small numbers.
If you’re looking for a totally laid-back holiday, Bahrain is the place to go. As a small country that mostly keeps to itself, Bahrain isn’t on the map as a tourist destination. There are plenty of low-key things you can keep yourself occupied with though, so if this is you, keep reading.
Camping in the desert might seem like a risky move – “What about the snakes and scorpions?” – but wait till you see the level of camping. With proper toilets, plasma TVs, and food in your tents, just think of it as relocation of your hotel room. Camping is open from October 15th to March 31st. Head to Hawar Island off the coast of Qatar to bask in nature.
It is a protected wildlife reserve that is under Qatar as well, and a beautiful place to get away from desert life. Explore the souqs for your regular souvenirs. Just walking around the souq will expose you to items that you wouldn’t even have thought of getting. The biggest thing that Bahrain is known for is hosting the Grand Prix, so be sure to time your holiday around then and grab some tickets!
You can’t leave Bahrain without taking an authentic souvenir for yourself, and what better way to do that than to go pearl diving? If you’re finding it hard to decide between buying traditional keepsakes and regular ones, you can take your time exploring Al Jasra Handicraft Centre with displays work by local artisans, or going across to the Capital Mall.
Were you expecting to visit a mosque? Don’t miss Al Fateh Grand Mosque! Muslims and non-Muslims alike are allowed to tour the impressive mosque on Open Day. Qal’at al Bahrain is the 16th-century remains of a Bahrain or Portuguese fort that is free to look around.
Going back in time a hundred years is the Arad Fort, a 15th-century fort that initially guarded its own island before being joined to Muharraq Island. It differs from Qal’at al Bahrain by its Islamic architecture, as it was built before the Portuguese invaded Bahrain.
The currency in Bahrain is also pretty strong compared to the other Gulf countries, so the prices can seem a bit steep at times. With the few things there are to do in Bahrain though, we think a few days is enough time to visit.