Dramatic landscapes, untouched natural beauty, a limitless wealth of historical treasures -- the Middle East has enough attractions to make it an irresistible magnet for travellers from all corners of the globe. Sadly, nowadays the words "Middle East" are more likely to conjure up images of conflict. However, this is a region of extraordinary diversity, and many of the area's most outstanding holiday destinations are not only completely unaffected by the problems that are making the news, but are eager and able to provide an incredibly rich experience for visitors.

Living History
What is especially exciting about this region is that history here is actually alive -- it's not just something you read in books, but is found everywhere you look. This is where the human race first built cities, and first learned to write and count, and it is the birthplace of three of the world's greatest religions. History is in the paving of the roads you walk or drive on, and in the stones that make up the great monuments and buildings you see around you.
Cities, Rivers and Deserts
So it's not surprising that the Middle East is home to some of the world's most iconic cities, with names that are resonant with history, even if many of them are now torn apart with conflict -- Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran, Baghdad. These not only rank among the oldest inhabited cities on earth, but it's in their extraordinary architecture, still to be seen among the bazaars and coffee shops, that you can trace the story of what made the region great. And there are remains of many more that are still visible, such as Babylon, Nineveh, Antioch, Ur of the Chaldees, with names full of mystery and romance.
Just as awe-inspiring as the cities, it's the mighty rivers and majestic deserts that really give the Middle East its character. Much of the region's extraordinary story was shaped between two of the mightiest rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, in the area known as Mesopotamia. And then there is the Nile, the most venerated river of all time, on which some of the world's great civilisations have depended for thousands of years.
Calm and Safe
Sadly, many of these extraordinary places are not currently safe to visit, though they should definitely be kept in mind for the future. However, there is one part of the region which is not only completely calm and safe, but which has thriving tourist industries and can offer some amazing holiday experiences, and that is the Gulf States, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman. In fact some of these places are now among the hottest tourist destinations in the Middle East, if not the world.
For most people, when they think of the UAE -- the country at the northernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula -- the places that immediately spring to mind will be Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai, despite being one of the smallest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, is actually the one that attracts the most tourists, and is renowned throughout the world for its soaring skyscrapers, its incredible shopping malls and entertainment centres, and its ultra-sumptuous hotels. The very name of the city has become synonymous with extravagance, glitz and glamour.
On the other hand, Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates, has been more than catching up with Dubai as a holiday destination, and actually has a much wider range of attractions to offer. Although Dubai is considered the place to go if you are looking for world-class shopping and entertainment, the city of Abu Dhabi can rival Dubai on these counts, boasting the world's largest theme park, the world's most luxurious hotel (the Emirates Palace), and the amazing Abu Dhabi Shopping Mall, and in addition can provide many more holiday possibilities. For instance, you can experience a desert safari in the world's biggest desert sea, or enjoy a unique island cruise on a traditional pearl fishing boat.
Holiday Hotspots
What's more, some of the other emirates of the UAE are also positioning themselves as global holiday hotspots. Tiny Ras Al Khaimah, at the very northern tip, has been investing millions in its holiday industry, and offers breathtaking mountain scenery, dotted with prehistoric villages and ancient mosques. Then there is scenic Fujeirah to the east, with one of the planet's most prolific marine environments, where visitors can experience some of the world's richest coral reefs, as well as picturesque fishing villages, backed by towering mountains.
Beautiful Oman
Meanwhile, beautiful Oman, south of the UAE, until recently undiscovered by Western tourists, has been quietly transforming itself into the Middle East's adventure capital, offering dune bashing, fjord cruises and encounters with nomadic peoples. At the same time, its cultural traditions have remained much more unspoilt, making Oman perhaps the best place to experience the true Arabia. One of the unmissable sights is the world's greatest nesting ground for green turtles, at the north-eastern tip.
The Middle East is a region of mystery, evoking images of Arabian Nights and scorching deserts, as well as of tension and conflict. There is probably nowhere on earth where traditional culture and heritage are so perfectly blended with lavish wealth and ultra-modern amenities. Stick to the safe areas, and you can be sure of the warmest and most welcoming hospitality in the world.
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