What to Know, and What to Expect
If you haven’t heard much about motorcycle travel in Dubai and Oman, it’s not for the lack of good riding. As an adventure touring destination, the region is world-class, and Oman’s yet-to-be-exploited tourism industry makes it even better still.
Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, hides a few cultural gems despite its reputation as a socially segregated sanctuary for cashed-up expats and playboy sheiks
Oman, on the other hand, remains a question mark on the map even among many around-the-world adventure riders. As such, Oman is something of a last frontier for motorcycle touring, in part due to misconceptions about the region and its potential for genuinely exciting riding.
Tourism is making in-roads in Oman, with its promise of authentic Bedouin desert camps, camelback safaris and hidden tropical beaches. The peaceful Sultanate has preserved thriving Arabic, Muslim and tribal traditions and boasts a fabulous interior landscape.
The scenery alternates between mesmerising Martian plains, towering desert dunes and mountain ridges punctuated by occasionally snow-dusted peaks (yes it does snow in the Middle East – at around 3,000m above sea level)!
The spectacular Western Hajar Mountains harbour ancient forts and 500 year old mudbrick hamlets. On the coast of Al Batinah, fishing villages sit shoulder-to-shoulder with beach resorts facing a glittering gulf coast.
Far to the north, the Musandam Peninsula is the Sultanate at its most stunning. Here, the Hajar Mountains tumble into the ultramarine waters of the Arabian Gulf in fjord-like coves and valleys, creating sublime natural swimming pools known as wadis – the same name given to the cool turquoise lagoons dotted throughout Oman’s desert canyons,
But what about the riding?
If you picture the Middle East as one giant flat desert/oil field with nothing but sand and straight roads, that image definitely doesn’t describe Oman.
While Dubai serves mostly as a pit stop and thoroughfare for moto-touring, Oman offers two-wheeled thrills of the highest order.
Carved into its mountainous spine are thousands of kilometres of pristine paved roads and rarely-explored side routes that sweep, twist and glide through a country of sun-weathered canyons, precarious passes, towering dunes and jewel-like oases.
Dubai and Oman are among the most traveller-friendly places in the Arab region, but there are a few things first-time visitors should be aware of.
INTRODUCTION TO DUBAI
Probably the most international city in the world (85% of its residents are expatriates), Dubai is ironically, the world’s gateway to the Middle East. If you’re travelling by air to Arabia, your first stop will almost certainly be here, or the capital, Abu Dhabi.
The stereotypical image of Dubai is a billionaire developer’s paradise on steroids. A glittering artificial oasis overlooking a manicured coast complete with man-made islands,
Yet despite its materialistic sheen, Dubai is still part of an ostensibly Islamic country, and the native lifestyle still exists, even if it is hard to see at first glance.
If you find yourself with a couple of spare days in Dubai, forget the flashy offerings of the tourist brochures and seek out some traditional Emirati culture.
Old Dubai is the heart of the city, a maze of narrow alleys lined with coloured mud and coral buildings, miniature mosques, souks,
Its maze of narrow alleyways are lined with coloured clay buildings, miniature mosques, souks, street food sellers and the scent of spices, perfume and incense – a slice of Arabian Nights beneath the shadows of steely skyscrapers.
The cheapest souvenirs in town can be found in Old Dubai’s markets, and unlike in the Marina District malls, you won’t be thrown out for haggling here. It’s also full of halal hangouts and street stalls where you can snack freshly grilled shawarma and shish tawook, mankeesh (herbed flatbread stuffed with cheese) and Arab-style samboosa.
Dubai has a reputation for being excruciatingly expensive. But, forgo five star flash for Old Dubai neighbourhoods like Bur Dubai, Karama, Deira, Satwa and Jumeriah and you’ll find plenty of affordable guesthouses, hostels and business hotels (think $25 to $50USD per night).
Dubai – Things to Know Before you Go
Customs, etiquette and what to wear in Dubai
- Lounging half-naked at your luxury resort, it can be easy to forget that the UAE is a deeply Islamic country, enforcing strict religious rules on its native Muslim populace
However, religious rules are generally relaxed wherever well-heeled expats and pampered tourists tend to gather. Laws regarding dressing conservatively, not dancing to loud music and not being sweary and obnoxious (‘obscene gestures’ including profanity are officially outlawed) don’t generally apply to foreigners in tourist hubs, unless you’re really making a scene.
- While booze is banned for local Muslims, alcohol is readily available almost anywhere that foreigners congregate – cafes, restaurants, shopping malls, and of course, bars and clubs
- As far as dress code goes, foreigner-friendly venues are pretty relaxed when it comes to guests’ attire, although wearing skimpy swimwear beyond the bounds of your hotel pool is a no-no
- Outside the tourist districts and expat colonies, as in most Muslim countries, both men and women should dress modestly. Women’s attire should cover the chest, knees and shoulders. Men can get away with knee-length shorts, but in traditional neighbourhoods, long trousers are preferable
- We’ve all heard about foreigners falling foul of the UAE’s ‘decency laws’, which criminalise all public displays of affection, other than hugging and handholding. Kissing in public is an offence, and it is taken extremely seriously.
- Like much of the Middle East, the UAE and Oman are not LGBT tolerant societies. This sadly deters some travellers. However, you won’t be doing anything in the open to indicate your sexuality in any case
- Tipping is not compulsory but 10 to 15% is the norm for taxi drivers, waiters, bellhops, and tour guides. A 10% service charge is often added to restaurant bills, but don’t treat it as a tip, as there’s no guarantee it’ll be passed on to waitstaff
Climate, when to go and what to wear in Dubai
- It may have grown rich on oil and international investment, but Dubai wouldn’t be where it is today without air conditioning.
During the hottest months between May and September, the average 36°C daytime temperature occasionally soars to over 50°C. Dubai’s roads are made of a melt-resistant mixture especially for this reason!
- Dubai does have distinct seasons, with 25°C average daytime temps in the December to March “winter”. Heading away from coast into the desert, steep temperature drops down to single digits at night are common
- The sun is almost always shining in Dubai! Winter does get short bursts of rain, and the odd thunderstorm to balance out summer’s occasional dust storms
- Dress conservatively without overheating by choosing flowing, breezy shirts and trousers (long skirts or pants for women). The fabric of choice for hot climates, local garments are usually made from cotton or cotton blends. Evenings can be quite cool in winter, so pack a light jacket or two
- Well-ventilated riding gear is a must – leave those leathers at home. Nothing’s worse than being stuck in a traffic jam in 45° heat.
INTRODUCTION TO OMAN
If Dubai is Disneyland in the Desert, Oman is Aladdin’s Arabia come to life.
More than any other oil state in the Arabian Gulf, Oman remains deeply rooted in traditional Arab and Bedouin values.
With hospitality held in the highest regard, the kind, welcoming nature of the Omanis make the country a traveller-friendly place to explore Middle Eastern culture and heritage.
It’s also a brilliant adventure destination. Only 4.8 million people reside in Oman, a country the size of Italy.
While it’s far from UAE levels of wealth, Oman is still a relatively affluent and developed country, with an extensive paved road network and a big, shiny, modern international airport.
Oman has taken a forward-thinking approach to tourism infrastructure, with new high-end hotels, organised attractions and eco-tourism offerings appearing at an ambitious rate.
Once you leave the impressively modernised capital, Muscat (far from the highlight of the country but boasting some exquisite Islamic architecture), immaculate highways stretch for days through the mountains and desert dunes. A dramatic landscape is dotted by tiny villages where the old ways of the Bedouin are still evident, despite the decline of the nomadic lifestyle.
Bordering the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, public perception and consequently, trepidation around travelling the region is really the only reason Oman (a safe, peaceful Sultanate with the most stable political climate in the Middle East) has yet to experience a full-on tourism explosion.
Those that do venture there (and resist generalising an entire region only slightly smaller than the US) rarely return without their hearts touched and their eyes opened.
Oman proves the Middle East doesn’t have to remain a mystery to western travellers – a little preparation is all it takes.
Oman – Things to Know Before you Go
Local culture in Oman
- Locals are generally extremely welcoming of guests, and there’s little crime to worry about. Take the usual safety precautions, and you’ll find Oman pretty much hassle free, although you’re likely to attract some curious stares, smiles and cheerful salaam alaikum when visiting rural villages
- With bountiful seafood, the Arab tradition of grilling meat out in the open, a love of fresh vegetables and a sizable Indian population, authentic Omani food is insanely delicious. In Muscat, follow your nose to the street stalls and halal ‘coffee shops’ where locals snack on shawarma with garlic sauce and mishkak (lamb, chicken or seafood skewered, barbecued and served with flatbread and sauces)
- Omanis are very generous and will occasionally welcome unfamiliar guests with the offer of a meal.
If you’re invited to eat in someone’s home, be prepared to sit on the floor and eat with your hands. As a gesture of appreciation, always eat at least something
Customs, rules and etiquette in Oman
- Oman is one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, with women playing a much more active role in society.
Alcohol is served in venues frequented by foreigners.
While Oman values tolerance and openness, it is still a piously Islamic society, with a legal system based on aspects of Sharia Law. The further you venture from Muscat, the more conservative the local populace is likely to be
- Tourists should respect the Muslim ideal of modesty. Outside resorts and tourist bars, women should wear non-revealing clothing, covering the knees, shoulders and up to the neckline. Men, keep your shirts on! This includes when swimming in public places like wadis
- Being fairly cosmopolitan, in Muscat the dress code for foreigners isn’t super-strict, with the exception of religious buildings. Both sexes should wear full arm and leg coverings. Non-Muslim women aren’t required to wear headscarves, except when entering mosques
- Politeness is highly valued in Omani society. Losing your cool in public isn’t just frowned upon in Oman – it’s actually illegal. As tourists, we expect to feel frustrated from time to time, but angrily raising your voice is enough to get slapped with a formal complaint.
- Tipping is not expected, but is common and appreciated in Muscat and other touristy areas. Around 10% should suffice – a little more is OK for exceptional service
Climate, when to go and what to wear in Oman
- Between pleasantly warm and savagely scorching describes much of Oman’s climate for the entire year, with October to April having slightly cooler, average highs of 35°C. While dry heat defines much of the interior, coastal cities like Muscat are humid too.
Since you’re expected to dress conservatively in Oman, wear loose-fitting clothing like the locals do breathable fabric like cotton.
Riders – invest in gear with good ventilation. You might not look as cool in a textile mesh jacket compared with leather, but you also minimise the sensation of being boiled alive in your own perspiration.
Oman isn’t entirely an arid heatsink. With a maximum elevation of 3,009m, the Hajar Mountains have their own unique climate. Daytime temperatures rarely rise above 20°C, sometimes dropping to zero on frosty nights in January and February.
ADVENTURE MOTORCYCLE TOURING IN DUBAI AND OMAN
On the Road
Traffic and road conditions in Dubai
Getting around Dubai’s city limits is theoretically straightforward, with 8 and 10 lane highways keeping the traffic flowing and multilingual road signs.
On the flipside Dubai’s road users are made up of folks from all over the world, with their own driving habits and interpretations of the rules. Combined with the unusually high percentage of super-powered vehicles on the loose, traffic in Dubai is haphazard at best, and downright hazardous at worst.
To combat this, Dubai has toughened up its policing of the roads, put speed cameras everywhere and aggressively handed out fines. Between the cops and crappy drivers, Dubai is one city where it pays to be extra, extra on your guard.
The confused car drivers thin out once you hit the inter city highways – but keep your eyes peeled for the odd stray camel!
One other thing. It’s hard not to notice the number of Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and the like on Dubai’s city streets. Once free from urban gridlock, the drivers of these machines often unleash their frustration and need for speed with little regard for the many visible cameras – or their fellow road users.
Traffic and road conditions in Oman
Oman’s ultra-modern highway network is incredibly impressive, both scenery-wise and engineering-wise.
The last decade has seen a highway building spree, with some 16,000km of paved road now connecting the cities with small desert and seaside communities.
Outside Muscat, traffic is fairly thin to non-existent. Even around the city, congestion is really only an issue during rush hour.
Local drivers tend to be accelerator happy and carefree of the rules, resulting in a particularly atrocious accident rate. To help curtail this, police have cracked down on enforcing traffic laws. Hefty fines are readily handed out for speeding (as well as being too slow)!
Local divers are often liberal with the 120kmph highway speed limit, despite the presence of cameras, which appear every few kilometres leading into populated areas. You’ll know when you’re approaching a town thanks to road signs in Arabic and English, and the work of road planners excessively fond of speed bumps.
Wandering livestock can make a sudden appearance on both highways and rural roads and are a serious hazard in low light.
If you’re fairly experienced with adventure motorcycling overseas, or you’re a confident rider generally, riding in Oman is relatively cruisy, danger-wise.
But Oman wouldn’t be an amazing adventure touring destination without a few challenges. Head for the extraordinary Western Hajari Mountain region where the landscapes and people get much more rural and the road much rougher.
In more remote areas, roads range from rough pavement and gravel to straight-out dirt. There’s truly exhilarating riding to be had on hair-raisingly narrow mountain tracks, flanked by colossal cliffs and freefall drops, caves canyons and more curves than a curve-connoisseur could care to count.
Motorcycle Touring in the Middle East with MotoDreamer
If you’re ready to satisfy your thirst for an Arabian adventure on two wheels, MotoDreamer’s Best of Dubai and Oman Tour is a mind-blowing on and off-road extravaganza. In true Bedouin tradition, you’ll camp in the desert beneath the stars, and visit some of the most magical sights in the Middle East, including brilliant azure wadis, the Khasab fjords and the World Heritage Sumhuram Archaeological Park.
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)