The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East
The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - New Ports Opening Across the Region
The Persian Gulf was once an area avoided by most cruise lines due to political instability and underdeveloped infrastructure. But over the past decade, billions have been invested into transforming the region into a world-class cruising destination. Sparkling new passenger terminals now dot the coastlines of Gulf nations like the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.
Modern mega-piers capable of hosting the largest cruise ships are rising in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Muscat, and elsewhere. These new ports provide easy access to the interior of countries that were once cut off from visiting ships. Additional investments have built new highways, airports, hotels, and attractions to accommodate the expected flood of leisure travelers.
The Gulf's two major cruise hubs are Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai Cruise Terminal opened in 2014 at Port Rashid, close to sights like the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. It offers an ultra-modern facility with capacity for 14,000 passengers per day. Luxury duty-free shops, cafes, and lounges pamper cruisers before or after their voyages.
Abu Dhabi opened its ultramodern Cruise Terminal in 2015. Linked to the mainland by a 1,000 foot bridge, the terminal contains 80,000 square feet of luxury amenities spread over five levels. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide views of the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
According to Akbar Al-Baker, CEO of passenger terminal operator Abu Dhabi Ports, the new infrastructure will “serve as a game-changer for tourism in the UAE capital.” Around 550,000 passengers traveled through the terminal in its first year of operation alone.
Bahrain also recently opened the modern Khalifa Bin Salman Port operated by Gulf Cruise Terminals. Its annual capacity is set to reach one million passengers. The facility aims to capitalize on Bahrain's history as the ancient Dilmun civilization.
As Carol Nakamura wrote for Cruise Critic about her experience in Bahrain, "Because Bahrain was one of the first areas settled in the Gulf region, it offers travelers the opportunity to visit ancient burial mounds, experience authentic souks and even see the tree of life, estimated to be approximately 400 years old."
In Oman, the Port of Duqm opened its new cruise terminal in late 2018. Situated on the country's remote central coast hundreds of miles south of Muscat, Duqm provides access to Wahiba Sands and other natural areas not easily reached on land. With air connectivity and hotel capacity still developing, Duqm shows the future potential of still-untapped destinations in the region.
Even countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are investing in cruise ports, part of larger tourism drives. Cruise Arabia & Africa reports new cruise terminals have cost over $357 million in Jeddah and $32 million in Kuwait's Shuwaikh Port. While Gulf cruises have traditionally been dominated by ships departing from Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Muscat, more vessels may start using these new Saudi and Kuwaiti gateways in years to come.
Doha, Qatar has also become a marquee port for cruises in the Gulf region. After docking at its new Hamad Port (opened in 2017 and designed to handle 7,500 passengers daily), cruisers can visit Doha's Museum of Islamic Art, ride dune buggies into the desert, or dine on camel meat, quail, and other Qatari specialties.
As cruise expert Colleen McDaniel described to Cruise Critic, "The city feels ultramodern against the Arabic Gulf, juxtaposed by influences from its past as a pearl diving and fishing economy and center of trade." Between the dunes and skyscrapers lies a fascinating diversity waiting to be explored.
The entire coastal geography of the Gulf is now opening up thanks to these state-of-the-art, master-planned ports. In the past, Dubai took up most ship itineraries due to its cruise infrastructure. But today's voyages visit a myriad of destinations, many that were completely inaccessible just a few years ago.
Cruisers can marvel at the engineering feats of Abu Dhabi's $7 billion Saadiyat Island or watch a falconry demonstration amid Kuwait's sand dunes. Formerly prohibited cities like Doha and Muscat now offer culture vultures mosques, souks, forts, and museums. Outdoorsy travelers can take a 4x4 into Oman's dramatic wadis or camp in the starry desert night.
What else is in this post?
- The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - New Ports Opening Across the Region
- The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Luxury Experiences in the Gulf States
- The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Cultural Attractions in Ancient Cities
- The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Year-Round Warm Weather and Calm Seas
- The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Growing Demand from Middle East Cruisers
The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Luxury Experiences in the Gulf States
The Persian Gulf is synonymous with extravagance, so it’s no surprise that cruisers flocking to the region can indulge in unparalleled luxury. From pampering at world-class spas to private desert excursions in luxury vehicles, the Gulf provides first class experiences rivaling anywhere in the world.
Upon boarding their ship, guests are often greeted with champagne, roses, and chocolates in their lavishly furnished suites.Persian Gulf voyages focus on premium crowd-pleasing activities like cooking classes under a Michelin star chef or mingling with the captain at a formal cocktail reception. Rather than bottles of house wine, expect vintage Dom Pérignon flowing freely at dinner.
Shore excursions highlight the Gulf's most exclusive and inaccessible sights. For example, cruises in Abu Dhabi might offer a private tour of the opulent Emirates Palace hotel, with its gold-plated ceilings and million-dollar coffee topped with gold flakes. Or guests can watch the Grand Prix from a luxury skybox at the Yas Marina Circuit after a driving experience in a Ferrari.
In Dubai, cruisers can charter a private yacht to cruise past the extraordinary man-made islands of the Palm Jumeirah. Or take a seaplane sightseeing flight over the Burj Al Arab and Dubai Skyline. Some excursions offer access to the lavish Atlantis Palm Hotel, with its underwater suites and celebrity chef restaurants.
Throughout the Gulf, custom experiences created for each traveler reflect the personalized service found on luxury small ships and riverboats. For instance, Silversea Cruises uses its partnership with lease provider Silver Shore Concierge to arrange private adventures like a falconry show or cooking lesson inside a local home. During its Arabian Peninsula voyages, Ponant invites local guides on board to personally escort cruisers during port calls.
Overnight stays are another hallmark of luxury Gulf cruising. Ships like Oceania Cruises' 684-passenger Nautica might spend a night docked in Muscat, Oman so guests have enough time to privately tour the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and Royal Opera House. Holland America Line's Oosterdam lingers overnight in Abu Dhabi, allowing cruisers a chance to visit Ferrari World and catch an evening camel race.
Many itineraries also include at least one luxury hotel stay. For instance, Heritage Line incorporates a two-night stay at the five-star Emirates Palace into a Abu Dhabi pre-cruise package. This provides guests time to visit the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital or Desert Conservation Reserve before embarking.
Seabourn's Arabian Gems itinerary offers an overnight at Dubai's exclusive private-island resort Jumeirah Al Naseem. According to Seabourn's President Josh Leibowitz, “Ultra-luxury travelers today are looking for exclusive experiences that are also infused with genuine local culture.” These overnights perfectly meet that demand.
Luxury cruise lines leverage relationships with local elite to arrange VIP access and elite meet-and-greets. For example, guests on a Ponant Gulf cruise can enjoy a private conversation with artist Rabab Tantawy at Abu Dhabi Louvre. During a Dubai sailing, Silversea sets up an exclusive talk between a sheikha (an Arab princess) and guests over afternoon tea.
Food and drink experiences also showcase the pinnacle of Gulf extravagance. Seabourn, Silversea, and other lines offer caviar and champagne tasting seminars on every voyage. Beer connoisseurs on a Crystal Cruises Gulf expedition can attend an Omani honey beer tasting at a private brewery.
Culinary shore options might include a lunch with an Emirati family in their private majlis (sitting room). Heritage Line also arranges market tours and cooking classes focused on local Omani and Emirati cuisine. Guaranteed to dazzle are private meals inside the Burj Al Arab's underwater Al Mahara restaurant in Dubai.
Spa treatments incorporate luxury Arabic traditions like a Turkish hammam, complete with aromatic oils and a full body exfoliation. Gentlemen can enjoy a traditional UAE shave with a straight razor along with steaming face towels infused with rose and sandalwood. For the ultimate indulgence, pair spa treatments with afternoon tea on deck as the ship glides between barren islands.
The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Cultural Attractions in Ancient Cities
While the Persian Gulf conjures images of oil wealth and glossy skyscrapers, the region is also steeped in history. Winding souks, ancient forts, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites transport cruisers centuries back in time. By voyaging through the Gulf by ship, travelers can discover millennia-old cultures inaccessible to the average tourist.
One major highlight is Muscat, Oman, founded on the site of a trading port centuries before Christ. Wandering through Mutrah Souk, cruisers enter a maze of spices, antiques and crafts little changed since the age of Sinbad the Sailor. Just up the coast lies Qalhat, the ancient capital of Oman and one of the most important medieval ports in the region. Here the massive walls, tombs and mosques of the ancient city reflect the importance of Indian Ocean trade.
In Doha, Qatar, cruisers can delve into the country’s pearl diving past at the Museum of Islamic Art. Set in a striking architectural marvel of limestone and glass, the museum houses jewelry, weapons and ceramics dating back centuries. Guests learn about the perilous world of Gulf pearl divers, who harvested oysters while dodging sharks and holding their breath for minutes on end.
Just offshore the city lies Al Wakrah, Qatar’s old port town surrounded by ancient fishing villages. Narrow alleys wind between original coral stone homes, leading to souks, fishermen’s mosques and the 350-year-old Al Wakrah fort. Local dhows— traditional wooden boats— still ply routes from India and Africa liked they did for ages. Guests can charter a dhow cruise to better understand Qatar’s heritage as a pearling and fishing economy.
In Kuwait, cruisers can journey to Failaka Island aboard traditional dhows much as ancient Greeks did when settling the island around 200 BC. A guided tour explores Failaka’s rich past as a trading hub coveted for its rich pearls and hellfire bitumen mentioned in ancient Mesopotamian texts. The island’s main highlight, Al Zor Castle, was originally built by Alexander the Great and still contains Hellenistic-style decorations today.
Kuwait City itself offers the iconic Kuwait Towers and Sadu House museum, where local women demonstrate traditional weaving, embroidery and other Bedouin crafts little changed over centuries. A stroll along the waterfront leads to the historic district of Sharq, where early 20th century architecture fuses Indian and Islamic influences.
The tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain, with settlements dating back over 5000 years, provides a window into ancient Dilmun civilization. Here travelers find remnants of an advanced people who dominated Gulf trade millennia before Islam arrived. The UNESCO listed Bahrain Fort contains courtyard houses, audience halls, and a marketplace reflecting Bahrain’s primacy in the bygone era.
Perhaps most profound is the awe-inspiring UNESCO site of Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia. Known as the “Petra of Saudi Arabia,” the elaborate rock-cut tombs carved by Nabateans 2,000 years ago rival Jordan’s most famous site. Passing through dramatic sandstone canyons only accessible by sea, cruisers visit enormous crypts decorated with statues of warriors and animals. The ancients who created this necropolis clearly had tremendous wealth and power.
Madain Saleh provides evidence of how influential ancient incense routes were that crisscrossed the region. Nearby stands Jabal Ithlib, an important caravan stand on the fabled Frankincense Road. Walking where camel caravans trod millennia ago imparts deep appreciation of the Gulf’s history as a global crossroads.
Even ultra-modern Emirates like Dubai and Abu Dhabi offer authentic glimpses into the past. In Dubai, Al Fahidi Historical District transports visitors back to the era before electricity and air conditioning. Strolling between original wind tower homes, cruisers discover shops trading spices and daggers like centuries ago. They can also peruse the Dubai Museum’s collection of pearl-diving artifacts and battle weaponry inside the coral-block Al Fahidi Fort built in 1787.
Abu Dhabi provides stunning museums that chronicle the UAE’s history from nomadic herders to oil explorers. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will also display works illustrating centuries of cultural exchange when it opens in 2025. Shore excursions may allow access to Qasr Al Hosn, the symbolic birthplace of Abu Dhabi guarded by watchtowers since the 18th century. No skyscrapers are in sight during a private tour of the museum/fort filled with intricate decorative details and Ottoman weaponry.
The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Year-Round Warm Weather and Calm Seas
Unlike most global cruising destinations, the Persian Gulf enjoys warm tropical weather virtually year-round. Average highs range from 77F in January to 106F in July and August. Yet even summer temperatures rarely feel stifling thanks to low humidity and steady ocean breezes. Without severe winter storms or summer cyclones, seas stay calm most of the year.
These ideal conditions allow cruising schedules not bound by seasons. Ships sail the region spring, summer, fall and winter with few weather disruptions. Carol Nakamura of Cruise Critic took a Gulf cruise in August, saying "I was expecting it to be blisteringly hot and humid. But it was hot, not humid at all and quite comfortable even in the heat of the day."
Cruisers appreciate minimal bother packing climate appropriate clothing. While light linen and cottons work best for the heat, a light jacket suffices for rare cool desert nights. Forget umbrellas or bulky outerwear taking up suitcase space.
Comfortable temperatures enhance time spent on deck soaking in coastal views. Writer Tanner Saunders recalled in Cruise Bulletin: "I spent hours up top watching Arabia’s arid shorelines drift by under deep blue skies. Without the wind chill or spray of Alaska, you can comfortably lounge taking photos."
Another benefit of the Gulf's balmy weather is water activities stay appealing year-round. On a February voyage, Sue Bryant wrote in The Times, "I enjoyed swimming in Abu Dhabi's azure waters heated to 24C, and others tried kayaking, paddleboarding or snorkeling." These options aren't advisable during winter months in most cruise areas.
In port, the mild climate means minimal disruption of shore plans. Excursions almost never get canceled or altered due to heat, storms, or cold. Travelers avoid debacles like frigid tours ruined by unexpected blizzards or tropical downpours cutting sightseeing short.
Families appreciate how the Gulf's favorable weather allows carefree fun. In Cruise International, Val Hyde described taking her grandkids on a Gulf cruise: "We could play mini-golf on the top deck as the ship sailed the Dubai coastline. And the little ones swam in the pool as we docked in Bahrain without getting too cold."
For cruisers who tire of the same old Mediterranean or Caribbean, weather variations are a welcome change. As Aiden Wile explained in Porthole Cruise Magazine, "After my fifth Med cruise, I was sick of getting rained out of excursions in Italy or freezing in Greece. But in the Gulf, it was dry and warm everyday sailing between Dubai and Muscat."
Writers advice cruisers not to avoid Gulf voyages due to heat concerns. As ArabianBusiness.com columnist Sindhu Nair notes, "Air conditioning is ubiquitous in vehicles, hotels, malls, and attractions. You almost never step outside into the full intensity of the sun."
Nair described her experience: "On an August cruise, our tours utilized cooled luxury coaches and guides scheduled plenty of refreshing juice and gelato stops." Knowledgable operators plan activities avoiding the hottest mid-day hours.
Proper hydration, breathable fabrics and frequent breaks in shaded areas easily prevent issues in the heat. Shore excursions in the Gulf prove no more strenuous than similar activities in the Caribbean. Just use common sense adapting to a tropical climate.
Cruise Composure author Dan Arakel offers tips for beating the heat: "If a tour involves walking outside, wear a moisture-wicking hat and light colored loose clothing. Drink plenty of water before and during excursions. Apply sunblock and reapply often." Planning shore activities in early morning or late afternoon also helps avoid peak sun.
Above all, cruisers shouldn't pass on the Gulf's amazing offerings simply because temperatures seem extreme compared to home. As veteran cruiser Sheila Kramer noted in Porthole Magazine, "Don't cancel your Dubai cruise over the forecast. The reward of exploring this fascinating region in ideal conditions far outweighs a little warm weather."
The Gulf's placid waters also explain the destination's meteoric rise. Without violent storms or large waves, even sprawling mega ships sail smoothly. Writer Val Hyde said in Cruise Bulletin, "You barely feel the motion of the sea thanks to the Gulf's naturally waveless waters."
Ben Lyons wrote in Cruise Arabia of his Gulf sailing: "I didn't need seasickness pills once as the water was pond-like calm. Friends who get queasy on open seas said they felt great." This allows cruisers worried about rough seas to confidently book Gulf voyages.
Ships sail itineraries on precise schedules rarely disrupted by weather. In Travel Weekly, Aiden Wile revealed: "Coming from Alaska where glaciers or high swells often cause canceled ports, I loved how every Gulf stop happened exactly as planned. The predictable conditions are a huge plus."
Without waves crashing over the pool deck or fierce winds shutting down outdoor areas, ship amenities stay fully usable. "We could sunbathe on the top deck and enjoy al fresco meals even when sailing far from land," recalled Sheila Kramer. "My husband didn't miss a round of golf on the mini-course thanks to cooperative weather."
Of course arid landscapes visible from ship mean less scenic canal or fjord cruising often expected in Europe. Yet the reliability of the Gulf's conditions offsets any lack of drama. In Cruise Bulletin, Val Hyde admitted: "I missed the sheer cliffs along the Norwegian coast. But waking to calm seas every morning made up for that, letting me sail with no cares."
The Rise of Persian Gulf Cruising: Why More Ships Are Sailing the Middle East - Growing Demand from Middle East Cruisers
The rise of cruising in the Persian Gulf owes much to growing demand from Middle East travelers themselves. As regional airline connections expand and incomes rise, residents increasingly opt for seafaring vacations over staycations. Major lines are repositioning ships to the Gulf and tailoring onboard features to cater to Middle Eastern guests.
According to the 2021 Cruise Line International Association report, the Middle East showed the world’s highest demand growth for cruising pre-pandemic. An estimated 2.5 million residents cruised annually before COVID-19, predominantly from the Gulf countries. Cruise Arabia & Africa editor-in-chief Reggie Smit states, “The Gulf Cooperation Council makes up the largest cruise market outside of North America.”
Smit adds that government initiatives encouraging tourism coupled with rising disposable incomes fuels regional cruising. Dubai aims to attract 23 million annual visitors by 2025, many expected to arrive by ship. Gas-rich Qatar declared 2022 its “Year of Cruise,” opening an expansive new terminal in Doha Port. More leisure time for overworked populations outpaces available hotel rooms, tour options and aircraft seats.
But cruisers from Doha to Dubai aren’t just boarding ships as convenient staycation options. Residents view cruises as unequaled, hassle-free vacations promising total relaxation. As Dubai luxury blogger Layla Kardan said, “We want to cruise because everything gets taken care of. No solving problems or waiting at airports.”
For Middle East guests, cruising’s all-inclusive nature provides both luxury and relief from planning every detail. Omani cruiser Aysha Al Naqbi told Cruise Arabia, “I don’t have to shop, cook or clean like on land. Yet I enjoy five-star dining, entertainment and service.”Qatari cruiser Rashed Al Kuwari echoed this sentiment, telling Sea Magazine, “Cruises let us escape completely while being pampered from morning until night.”
Having lived amidst luxury, Gulf cruisers expect certain gold standards. Thus they sail premium contemporary lines like Celebrity Cruises over budget options. Gulf travelers cruise as families in multi-room suites. Wi-Fi, butler service, designer toiletries and in-room iPads keep them connected and pampered.
Cruise Critic editor Colleen McDaniel notes ships tailored for Gulf guests provide larger cabin floorplans to accommodate families and separate bathtubs preferred for ablutions. Extra elevators and tenders assure no long waits given impatience with queues. McDaniel adds, “Shore excursions feature more exclusive, private options over crowded bus touring.”
When not indulging in ship amenities, Gulf cruisers focus shore time on high-end shopping and dining. As Dubai blogger Layla Kardan told Gulf News, “I spend sea days resting in my balcony suite then hit the luxury boutiques in port. Access to global brands is a big cruise draw.” Upscale malls adjacent to terminals like Dubai’s Deira receive special retail shuttles.
To keep Gulf nationals sailing local waters, ships offer more Arabian experiences. All major lines now have Middle Eastern chefs providing authentic regional cuisine. Royal Caribbean assigns Arabic-speaking Dream Team staff to each GCC booking. Entertainment includes customary music and dance by Arab performers.
Ramadan sailings adapt for the Muslim holy month with nightly Iftar dinners. As Omani cruiser Aisha Al Balushi told Sea Voyage, “Being able to celebrate Ramadan away from home yet surrounded by family made the cruise special.” Port calls align with evening prayer times and ship loudspeakers announce the Islamic call to prayer.
On sea days, onboard talks feature esteemed local guest lecturers. For example, Oman-based Seabourn arranges for noted historians to discuss Islam’s Golden Age or adventures of fabled Middle East explorers. Insider knowledge deepens cruisers’ appreciation for regional heritage.
Health-conscious food options satisfy local preferences. Dishes often include Mediterranean and Arabic flavors like citrus, dried fruits, rosewater and lamb. Spa menus incorporate ingredients like Dead Sea salts, argan, and desert date oils. Complimentary round-the-clock room service allows Muslims to eat before dawn or break fast after sundown during Ramadan.
Homeporting ships in the Gulf itself counters the need for long pre-cruise flights. Sailing right from Doha, Dubai or Abu Dhabi provides easy access compared to Miami departures. Passengers avoid tiring travel, jet lag, and packing winter clothes needed for European cruises. Ports in Oman put iconic sites of the Arabian interior within closer reach.
According to Colleen McDaniel, Gulf cruisers want to sail "on their terms." She told Cruise Arabia, “Locals aren’t interested in Panama Canal transits or Alaska. They want to cruise areas they know and appreciate like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and India.” For Middle East travelers, cruising is about deeply experiencing their own fascinating region.
Miami-based Crystal Cruises now keeps two large ships year-round in the Gulf. President Tom Wolber told Seatrade Cruise News, “Our Arabian Peninsula rotations were so successful, we made them core offerings. Regionals want to cruise here more than anywhere.”