The Middle East is a fascinating region for its culture, food, and even how religion reflects in every aspect of society. Unfortunately, the region has been clouded with a sense of war, instability, and danger that puts off many travelers from visiting.
It is unfair to generalize and say the Middle East is dangerous because generally, it isn’t. Many countries in the region have enjoyed peaceful times for decades, but unfortunately, a tainted image has persisted mostly due to misinformation and lack of knowledge.
Due to this, planning a trip to the region can be frustrating, but in this post I’ll help you navigate the confusion and what you shouldn’t miss when visiting this beautiful part of the world.
1. How stable is the country, politically, at the moment?
Unfortunately, the Middle East has had an unstable and somewhat volatile political relationship not only within itself but also with other western countries, mostly in Europe and North America.
Relationships can go from friendly to accusatory, and vice-versa, in a matter of days, so it’s always good to have a close eye on the local politics of each country you intend to visit, especially if they haven’t had the most stable government in recent years.
Countries like Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and even Iran have been stable and peaceful for years now. Israel and Palestine are somewhat in a grey area, where it’s pretty safe to visit them, but their relationship is tense. On the opposite end, we have Syria, Iraq (not counting Iraqi Kurdistan), and Yemen, which are countries that should be avoided for now.
It is highly recommended having a comprehensive travel insurance policy in case of any last minute cancellations due to political unrest.
2. Do you need a visa? Can you get it on your own?
From experience, I can say people in the Middle East are extremely friendly, and in general, they don't have any animosity against foreigners, including Americans. Having said that, governments do not necessarily represent their people, and some governments make it incredibly hard for foreigners, especially Americans and British, to get a visa.
Americans can get a visa to visit Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it’s quite hard to obtain and you need approval from their government before even applying at an Embassy. On the opposite end, countries like the United Arab Emirates, Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel, Jordan, and a few others allow you to get a visa on arrival or don’t require any visa to visit. Oman and Qatar require you to obtain an e-visa before flying there, but the process is not complicated.
It is important to understand every detail of what’s required to obtain a visa in each country based on your citizenship. For Americans, I recommend checking the travel.state.gov page to know the entry and exit requirements of each country of interest.
3. Crossing borders overland? How’s the political relationship between those two countries
Entering a country overland can be a completely different experience than flying in. Visa requirements might be different as airports might give visas on arrival while land borders might require you to get a visa beforehand from the nearest embassy or consulate. Additionally, how is the political relationship between those two countries? Is the border open for crossing?
If it is, how complicated or time-consuming is the crossing? As an example, the border between Israel and Lebanon has been closed for decades, so if you wish to travel between those two countries, you will need to fly from Israel to a third country, and then on to Lebanon.
Visit forums on Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor and look for threads answering these questions or ask them yourself. You might learn a lot through this search, but keep in mind that relationships can change at any moment.
4. Do you have an Israeli stamp in your passport?
Israel has a gradient of positive and negative relationships with its neighboring countries. Unfortunately, some countries will not allow you to enter their territory if they see an Israeli stamp in your passport. These include Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, among others.
On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt will gladly welcome you with or without the Israeli stamp. Qatar seems to be a hit and miss..
If you wish to visit Israel, ask them to place the immigration stamp on a piece of paper, not in your passport. Alternatively, visit Israel at the end of your trip, though expect a few questions from their immigration officers as to why you visited certain Middle Eastern countries.
5. Is it Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim year, when Muslims practice strict fasting from sunrise to sunset, abstain from pleasures and pray to become closer to God. It is an exciting holiday to experience, but keep in mind that many sights, activities, restaurants, and cafes close down to respect Ramadan.
You can travel in the region during Ramadan, but you might need to search more for certain experiences and eateries as options might be limited from sunrise to sunset. The exact dates of Ramadan vary per year, as it’s based on a lunar calendar, but usually falls between April and May.
6. Are you dressing appropriately?
Each country is different and so are their conservative or liberal views on clothing, religion, society, LGBT issues, women, and so on. Read in the forums how conservative or liberal each country is. Are women required to cover their heads? Will they be allowed in mosques on their own?
My general recommendation is that even in the most liberal Middle Eastern country, take clothing decent enough to be in a religious building, covering at least below your knees (preferably down to your ankles), covering your shoulders and upper arms, and have a scarf available in case you need to cover your hair
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