Many readers have contacted The Independent to express concern about imminent travel to the region. It follows the assassination in Baghdad by the US of the Iranian military leader, Qassem Soleimani. The killing has raised tensions across the Middle East, and Iran has vowed to take revenge. Many travellers may feel apprehensive.
The British and US authorities are advising their citizens in the key tourist destinations of UAE and Oman to be vigilant. But for the travel industry, it appears to be business as usual – with normal policies applying for changes and cancellations.
These are the key questions and answers.
How many British travellers are on holiday in the region?
From Foreign Office figures, combined with flight patterns, I estimate that around 30,000 UK tourists are on holiday in the UAE; a further 3,500 in Oman and 2,500 in Qatar, with smaller numbers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In total, perhaps 40,000 UK holidaymakers are in the countries of the Gulf, along with a few thousand short-term business visitors.
In addition there are many tens of thousands of British citizens living and working in the region. For example, the Foreign Office says more than 100,000 UK expatriates live in the UAE, with a further 20,000 in Qatar.
Many more British travellers change planes at Gulf hubs, particularly Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.
What does the UK government advise after the US attack?
Late on Saturday 4 January, the Foreign Office updated its travel advice to all countries in the region with the same paragraph: “Following the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a US strike in Baghdad on 3 January, British nationals in the region should remain vigilant and keep up to date with the latest developments, including via the media and this travel advice.”
But there are longstanding concerns about terrorism in the UAE. The Foreign Office has been saying for some time that an attack is likely, and warns that possible targets include “oil, transport and aviation interests as well as crowded places, including restaurants, hotels, beaches, shopping centres and mosques.”
At its closest point, Dubai is about 100 miles from Iran’s coast, across the Gulf.
A statement from the American embassy in the UAE says: “US citizens are strongly encouraged to maintain a high level of vigilance and practice good situational awareness.”
For Qatar and Oman, the Foreign Office says: “Terrorist attacks can’t be ruled out. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.”
I have a holiday booked in Dubai. What are my options?
Unless the Foreign Office were to warn against travel to the UAE – a most unlikely event – there will be no legal right for passengers to change their plans without penalty. This applies to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras al Khaimah and elsewhere.
The Package Travel Regulations, which govern holidays from the UK, say that if the travel organiser cannot deliver what was booked because of “unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances” then you are entitled to a full refund. But at present flights to Dubai – and elsewhere in the region – appear to be continuing as planned, and the tourism infrastructure in the UAE is working normally.
I booked a stopover in Abu Dhabi/Doha/Dubai en route to my final destination. I no longer want to stay longer than I have to. Can I switch to an immediate departure?
There is no automatic right to do so, and a large fee might be payable.
A spokesperson for Abu Dhabi-based Etihad said: “Our operations are continuing normally. We continue to monitor developments in the region and as always are in close contact with aviation regulators. No special arrangements in place.”
An Emirates spokesperson said: “Emirates flights are continuing as scheduled and we are monitoring the situation.”
Etihad is the other major UAE airline, and is based in Abu Dhabi. A spokesperson said: "Our operations are continuing normally. We continue to monitor developments in the region and as always are in close contact with aviation regulators. No special arrangements in place."
A Qatar Airways spokesperson said: “As the safety of our passengers and employees is of the highest importance, Qatar Airways continues to closely monitor the situation in Iraq and is currently operating normal scheduled services.”
I am booked on flights that require a change of plane in the Gulf. Can I switch to a direct flight because of the circumstances?
Were your airline to cancel either leg, with no immediate alternative, then you might be rebooked on a direct flight. But there is no automatic right to change.
The flight I have booked to Asia normally flies over this region. Shall I rebook on a different routing?
You could elect not to travel, or choose a routing that avoids the region, for example on Aeroflot via Moscow or Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa. But you would lose all the money for your original flight.
What about cruises?
In August 2019, P&O Cruises cancelled its entire winter 2019-20 Gulf cruise programme because of concerns about potential attacks. At the time some observers said that the fact that P&O is a notionally British company and uses the Union flag prominently could increase the risk of it being targeted.
A spokesperson for P&O Cruises said: “Itineraries are due to resume at the end of 2020 but we will take advice from authorities and if changes are necessary then we will advise guests as soon as possible.”
According to online tracking sites, many cruise ships are in the Gulf, including MSC Bellissimma in Abu Dhabi, Crystal Esprit in Doha and five in Dubai: MSC Lirica, Costa Diadema, Jewel of the Seas (Royal Caribbean), Horizon (Pullmantur) and Mein Schiff 5 (Tui). And the QE2 is permanently moored there, as a floating hotel.
Many other cruise ships are heading for Dubai – cruises between Singapore, India and the UAE are particularly popular. They will involve sailing through the Straight of Hormuz.
At present all travel firms appear to be sticking to their normal cancellation/change policies.
What about overflights of the region?
That is a serious concern for the aviation industry. A huge amount of Europe-Asia traffic is routed via the Gulf, with flight paths typically crossing Iraq and/or Iran. If airlines decide to re-route them, it will lead to longer journeys, missed connections and higher fuel costs. If your flight is affected (for example, you miss a connection), the airline must find a solution for you.
Could the Hajj be affected?
Tens of thousands of British Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 2020. But as it will not take place until late July/early August, it is too early to say if and how travel will be affected at that time.
Would you go to the Gulf right now?
Yes. I rate the risks of travelling to the UAE, or other Gulf countries such as Oman and Bahrain, to be tolerably low. But an attack cannot be ruled out.