When considering a trip to the Middle East, news stories of unrest and general safety risks can provoke a spike in anxiety for potential travellers. What many neglect to remember, however, is that the Middle East isn’t one big country that can be easily stereotyped. It’s a smorgasbord of incredible different cultures, sights, sounds, people and landscapes - as well as fascinating religions. Just because one area is suffering from political or civil problems, it’s no reason for travellers to write off the whole region as a no-go zone. That said, it still pays to be a smart traveller, so figuring out where and where not to visit and getting to grips with the cultures, religions and local customs is strongly advised before you set off. Below, you’ll find five pointers to help ensure a smooth trip.
Stay in the know
By keeping up to date with the latest goings on in a country, you’ll be able to self-regulate your destinations. Regardless of protests still taking place in Egypt, for example, tourists can steer clear of the drama with relative ease. Most protests are preluded by a fair amount of warning, but – as obvious as it may sound - you should always be wary of avoiding large crowds of people. Knowing the lay of the land (literally and figuratively) before arrival can also be a huge aid, so be sure to consult travel agents and government websites for the most recent information regarding which areas pose potential risks.
At home, you’ll be used to wearing whatever you want, whenever you want. But that isn’t the case in many Middle Eastern countries. More conservative religions and their customs dictate a distinctly modest approach to one’s garb. And as a traveller, taking heed and practicing these customs shows you respect the local people and culture. The issue of dress is particularly significant for women, who should endeavour to keep their legs, shoulders, elbows, knees and chest covered at all times. If in doubt, observe what the locals are wearing and follow suit, being careful not to ‘westernise’ items such as hijabs (locals can find this rather offensive). Public displays of affection – kissing, holding hands etc - are also a no no. In 2009, an unmarried British couple was jailed in Dubai for kissing in a restaurant.
Be prepared for a culture shock
Whatever happens, your time in the Middle East is going to be interesting. You’ll see things you’ve never seen (unless this is a return visit, of course) and every waking second will be filled with new experiences. That in mind, there’s the risk of being struck by a degree of culture shock. Whatever happens – whether you’re confronted by a wily street salesman, presented with a plate of food you didn’t expect or have an entire bazaar full of sellers vie (in a language you perhaps don’t understand) for your attention – it’s important to keep calm and remember that it’s all part of the experience. Conversely, and particularly at some of the main sights (Egypt’s pyramids, for example), the opposite may be true. The throngs of western tourists may put a dampener on the mystical, ancient world you were expecting to enter and leave you feeling disappointed. Either way, every experience you have, the good and the bad, will help you better understand a country as it exists today.
Keep an open mind
It’s safe to assume that the lives people lead in most Middle Eastern countries will differ invariably from your own. Of course there will be many similarities, but some traditions, customs and laws may come as a shock – particularly when witnessed first hand. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a woman is not allowed to keep the company of any man who is not her husband or blood relative, and her behaviour is strictly monitored (Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving). These rules are enforced by strict religious police. In any case, sticking closely to the behaviour of the locals will always be to your benefit. These eye-opening insights into different countries are what make travel so enriching.
Whilst keeping in mind all of the above, it’s important to remember to have fun and enjoy your time in whichever country, or countries, you’re visiting. By and large, the Middle East serves up some of the world’s most incredible sights, delicious food and truly unique experiences, and it would be a shame to ruin it all by worrying too much. Be smart, be respectful and adventurous, and you’ll be planning a follow-up trip in no time.