Middle East Travel: Know Before You Go

what to know when traveling to middle east

The Middle East is a beautiful, complicated land that's home to some of the planet's most hospitable people. It's a cradle of civilisations, with magnificent architecture, wondrous landscapes, delicious food, and eye-opening cultural experiences. However, it's often perceived as a confusing and chaotic place, with stories of political turmoil, religious strife, human rights issues, harsh climates, and sheer cultural differences.

The Middle East is a large region with distinct countries, each with its unique history, culture, and religious practices. It's essential to understand that it's not a monolithic whole. Each country has its own identity, and it's important to research the customs and norms of the specific country you plan to visit. While some things may be similar across the region, there are also significant differences.

When travelling to the Middle East, it's important to be respectful of the local culture and religion. Dress conservatively, covering your arms and legs with lightweight, non-sheer clothing. Avoid public displays of affection, as they may be considered offensive or even illegal in some countries. Be mindful of local laws and customs, especially regarding alcohol consumption and appropriate behaviour in public.

The Middle East offers a range of unique experiences, from exploring ancient ruins and sacred sites to bargaining in souks and markets. It's a region full of contrasts, with bustling modern cities like Dubai and traditional villages like Amadiya. It's a place where you can experience the warmth and hospitality of the locals, enjoy the natural beauty of places like the Dhofar coastline in Oman, and immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of countries like Iran and Lebanon.

While there are areas of conflict and instability in the Middle East, it's important to remember that many parts of the region are perfectly safe to visit. Don't let negative perceptions or news reports deter you from exploring this fascinating part of the world. With the right research, preparation, and respect for local cultures and laws, your journey to the Middle East can be a safe and unforgettable adventure.

Characteristics Values
Territory size Almost as big as Europe
Number of countries 15 (16 if you count Turkey)
Examples Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen
Culture Each country is different, with its own unique history, culture, and language
Safety Generally safe, but some areas are extremely dangerous
Dress Conservative and respectful
Coffee It is considered rude to refuse an offer of coffee
Food No pork or alcohol served in most places due to religious reasons
Haggling Common and expected
Baksheesh Similar to "tips" in English-speaking countries

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Dress conservatively

When travelling to the Middle East, it is important to be respectful of the local culture and customs. Dressing conservatively is one way to show respect and avoid causing offence. Here are some tips for dressing conservatively when travelling to the Middle East:

  • Cover up: In the Middle East, it is generally considered rude to show too much skin. Both men and women should aim to keep their arms and legs covered. Lightweight, loose-fitting clothing is ideal, as it will help you stay cool in the hot climate while still being respectful.
  • Avoid revealing clothing: Shorts, short skirts, sleeveless tops, and crop tops are considered inappropriate in many Middle Eastern countries. It is best to avoid anything that is too tight or revealing.
  • Pack layers: Shawls, cardigans, and scarves can be useful to have on hand to cover up when needed. These items can help you adjust your outfit to be more conservative when visiting religious sites or other places with strict dress codes.
  • Dress modestly when visiting religious sites: When visiting mosques or other religious sites, both men and women should wear loose-fitting clothing that covers the body. Women may also be required to wear a headscarf. It is important to research the dress code for any religious sites you plan to visit before your trip.
  • Be mindful of cultural differences: The Middle East is a diverse region with many different countries and cultures. The dress code can vary depending on the country and the specific location within a country. For example, in some countries, like Jordan, you may feel comfortable wearing shorts and a tank top, while in other countries, like Saudi Arabia, you may need to dress more conservatively. Always research the cultural norms and dress code for your specific destination before your trip.
  • Be respectful: Remember that dressing conservatively is about more than just following a set of rules. It is about showing respect for the local culture and customs. By dressing modestly, you will avoid causing offence and will be more likely to receive a warm welcome from the local people.

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Be aware of local laws

The Middle East is a region with a diverse range of laws that travellers should be aware of before their visit. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

Alcohol and Drug Laws

Alcohol laws vary across the Middle East. In Dubai, for example, you must be at least 21 years old to drink alcohol, and it is illegal to drink or be intoxicated in public, including on the beach. Alcohol can only be consumed in licensed venues such as hotels, resorts, bars, restaurants, and clubs. However, visitors can obtain a temporary liquor license that allows them to purchase alcohol from designated shops. It is important to note that drinking alcohol is forbidden in many countries in the region due to religious reasons.

Drug laws in the Middle East can be strict, and possession of illegal substances can result in severe penalties. For instance, in Dubai, even a residual amount of drugs in the bloodstream can lead to a prison sentence. CBD oil, which is readily available in some Western countries, is illegal in the UAE and can result in criminal charges.

Public Behaviour and Dress Code

Public behaviour and dress code are important considerations when travelling in the Middle East. Losing your temper in public, swearing, and making rude gestures are generally frowned upon and can even lead to legal consequences in some countries. It is important to remain calm and respectful when interacting with others. Additionally, public displays of affection should be avoided or kept to a minimum, as they may be considered offensive or even illegal in certain countries.

When it comes to dress code, it is generally advisable to dress conservatively, especially when visiting religious sites. For women, it is recommended to cover the arms and legs, avoid strappy tops and miniskirts, and opt for modest clothing. Men should also cover their knees and shoulders, with long shorts and t-shirts being acceptable.

Photography Restrictions

Photography restrictions are common in the Middle East, and it is important to be mindful of these rules. Always ask for permission before taking someone's photo, especially in the case of Emirati women. Additionally, avoid taking photos of military installations, government and military buildings, and accidents. Taking photos of accidents, whether on the road or aviation-related, can result in hefty fines and even deportation in countries like the UAE.

Respecting Religion and Local Customs

The Middle East is a predominantly Muslim region, and it is important to respect the local religion and customs. For example, during the holy month of Ramadan, it is considered insensitive to eat and drink in public during daylight hours when Muslims are fasting. Some restaurants may have private dining areas for tourists during this time. Additionally, when visiting religious sites, such as mosques, follow the appropriate etiquette, such as removing your shoes and covering your head.

Other Laws and Customs

  • In some countries, it is illegal to share a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex unless you are married.
  • Same-sex marriages are not recognised in some countries, and sexual relations between partners of the same gender may be illegal.
  • In Jordan, it is considered extremely rude to take a picture of someone, especially Bedouin women, without their consent.
  • In Dubai, it is deemed rude to show the soles of your feet to others, as the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body.
  • In some countries, haggling in markets is not common, and arguing over prices with sellers is not advisable.

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Respect the local religion

Religion is a very important aspect of life in the Middle East, and it is important to be respectful of the local customs and practices. Here are some tips to keep in mind when travelling to the region:

  • Be aware of the dominant religion in the country you are visiting: While Islam is the dominant religion in most Middle Eastern countries, there are also significant Christian and Jewish populations, as well as smaller minority religions. Respect the practices and beliefs of the local population, even if they differ from your own.
  • Dress conservatively: In many Middle Eastern countries, both men and women are expected to dress modestly and cover up. This means avoiding revealing clothing such as shorts, sleeveless tops, and crop tops. It is also considered respectful for women to wear a headscarf in some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • Be mindful of religious practices during Ramadan: If you are travelling during the month of Ramadan, be respectful of the local customs. Avoid eating, drinking, and smoking in public during daylight hours, as this is considered insensitive to those who are fasting. Some restaurants may have private dining areas for tourists during this time.
  • Follow mosque etiquette: If you visit a mosque, be sure to remove your shoes and cover your head before entering. Stay quiet and refrain from taking photos while locals are praying.
  • Be respectful of religious sites: The Middle East is home to many sacred sites for people of all faiths. When visiting these sites, be respectful and follow any specific etiquette or dress codes that may be required.
  • Avoid religious debates: Religion is a sensitive topic in the Middle East, and it is best to avoid engaging in debates or discussions about religion, especially with locals. Respect the beliefs of others, even if they differ from your own.
  • Be aware of religious laws: In some countries, public displays of affection may be frowned upon or even illegal. Alcohol may also be forbidden, so be mindful of your behaviour and consumption in public spaces.
  • Be mindful of religious holidays: Be aware of any religious holidays or events that may occur during your visit, and plan your activities accordingly. Some businesses and attractions may have different opening hours or be closed altogether during these times.
  • Respect religious diversity: The Middle East is home to people of many different faiths, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, Baháʼí, and more. Respect the beliefs and practices of all religious groups, even if they differ from your own.

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Be respectful of important sites

The Middle East is a melting pot of history, culture, and religion. It is the birthplace of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As such, there are numerous important religious sites in the region that are sacred to people of these faiths. When visiting these sites, it is crucial to be respectful and mindful of the religious significance they hold. Here are some tips to ensure you are respectful of these important sites:

  • Dress modestly: When visiting religious sites in the Middle East, it is important to dress modestly and conservatively. Both men and women should avoid wearing revealing or tight-fitting clothing. For women, it is generally recommended to wear long, loose-fitting garments that cover the arms and legs. In some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, women may be required to wear a headscarf as well.
  • Be mindful of your behaviour: Remember that these sites are sacred spaces for many people. Avoid loud talking, laughing, or any behaviour that may be considered disrespectful. Refrain from taking photos or videos without permission, especially during religious ceremonies or prayers.
  • Follow the rules: Different religious sites may have specific rules and guidelines for visitors. For example, you may be required to remove your shoes before entering a mosque or cover your head with a scarf. Adhere to these rules and follow the instructions of any staff or religious officials present.
  • Be considerate of others: Remember that people visit these sites for various reasons, including religious purposes. Respect their space and avoid disrupting their experience. If you are part of a tour group, stay with your group and avoid wandering off on your own.
  • Educate yourself: Before visiting a religious site, take the time to learn about its significance, history, and any specific customs or traditions associated with it. This will help you understand the site's importance and enable you to be more respectful during your visit.
  • Be mindful of your gestures: In the Middle East, certain gestures or actions that may be considered harmless in your culture could be deemed offensive or disrespectful. For example, pointing with your index finger or giving a "thumbs up" is considered rude in some Middle Eastern countries. Familiarize yourself with these gestures and avoid making them during your visit.
  • Be respectful of religious practices: If you are visiting during a religious festival or event, be mindful of the practices and rituals taking place. Avoid interrupting or interfering with these practices unless you are invited to participate. Remember that these practices may be deeply meaningful to those observing them.
  • Ask for permission: If you wish to take photographs or videos of religious sites, always ask for permission first. Some sites may have restrictions on photography, especially inside places of worship. Respect the wishes of those who do not want to be photographed and be mindful of their privacy.

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Learn about each country's unique culture

The Middle East is a diverse region with a unique blend of traditions, foods, religious celebrations, languages, and cultures. It is the birthplace of the world's three largest monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which have greatly influenced the culture of the people living there. The region consists of approximately 20 countries, with many different religions and a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Arab Culture

Arab culture is prevalent in countries from Morocco to Iraq and is known for its rich tapestry of traditions and customs. It encompasses various aspects such as language, literature, gastronomy, art, architecture, music, spirituality, philosophy, and mysticism. Arabic literature, which emerged in the 6th century, has played a significant role in shaping Arab culture, with the Quran having the most lasting influence. Arab music, including classical Arabic, Andalusian, and folk music, is an integral part of the region's culture, often accompanied by dances like the Dabke and Raqs Sharqi (belly dance). Arab dress for men ranges from traditional flowing robes to modern attire, while women's attire varies across countries, with abayas commonly worn in Saudi Arabia. Arab hospitality is renowned, and food plays a crucial role in expressing warmth and generosity. Tea is a significant aspect of social gatherings and is usually served with dates.

Iranian Culture

Iran, also known as Persia, has a rich cultural heritage. Persian or Farsi is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the region. Iranian architecture and craftsmanship are renowned, with intricate designs and colourful patterns evident in their carpets, metalwork, and pottery. Iranian music and dance also have a rich history, with influences from various regions, including Turkey, Afghanistan, and India.

Turkish Culture

Turkey is known for its diverse culture, blending Eastern and Western influences. Turkish, a widely spoken language in the region, belongs to the Turkic language family. Turkish architecture is famous for its historic landmarks, such as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Turkish music and dance are also unique, with influences from neighbouring regions. Turkish cuisine offers a variety of flavours, incorporating elements from Central Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and the Balkans.

Lebanese Culture

Lebanon, officially known as the Lebanese Republic, has a diverse culture shaped by its history and the various civilisations that have ruled the region. Lebanese culture is heavily influenced by Arabic traditions, including language, literature, and music. Lebanese cuisine is known for its delicious mezze (appetisers), grilled meats, and fresh Mediterranean flavours. Lebanon is also known for its vibrant nightlife, particularly in Beirut, with pubs, clubs, and restaurants offering a variety of entertainment options.

Egyptian Culture

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, has a rich cultural heritage shaped by its long history and diverse population. Egyptian Arabic is the most commonly spoken language, and the country has a strong literary tradition. Egyptian music, including classical Arabic and regional styles like el gil, is an essential part of the country's culture. Egyptian cuisine offers a variety of flavours, with dishes like koshari, ful medames, and taameyya. Egypt is also known for its ancient monuments, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

These are just a few examples of the diverse cultures found in the Middle East. Each country in the region has its unique blend of traditions, customs, languages, and arts, shaped by their history, religion, and ethnic makeup.

Frequently asked questions

The Middle East is a large and diverse region, with many different countries, cultures, and languages. It's important to research the customs and norms of the specific country you're visiting, rather than making generalisations about the region as a whole.

It's important to dress conservatively, be aware of local laws and customs, and respect the local religion. Public displays of affection are often frowned upon, and it's considered rude to refuse an offer of coffee. It's also a good idea to get travel insurance that covers the Middle East, in case of any emergencies.

While there are some areas of the Middle East that are unsafe due to conflict, the majority of the region is perfectly safe to visit. It's important to stay informed about the security situation in the countries you plan to visit, and follow any advice or warnings from your government or other official sources.

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