Concern about potential Middle Eastern dangers is one of the topics readers of this blog ask me about the most so, in this guide, you will find everything you need to know about it
Right before I began to write this article, I decided to Google the latest Middle East-related news, and these were the first results that showed up:
- How Europe is getting entangled in the big Middle East conflict
- Saudi Arabia hinders Yemeni agreement
- Israel and UAE historic deal to normalize relations
- UAE and Israel to establish spy base in Yemen
They are all related with the ongoing Middle Eastern issues, to a greater or lesser degree.
That’s what the international media talks about and, unfortunately, pretty much the only information most people from around the globe get access to.
As a result, the Middle East is perceived by many as an unsafe territory, hence an unlikely place to travel to, which is extremely sad and wrong, because this region is large, rich, composed of many different countries which, more often than not, have nothing to do with each other’s issues.
The Middle East is one of the most troubled regions in the world, nobody is denying that, plus there are some areas – just a few, in my opinion – which can be extremely dangerous.
Based on my travel experience in the Middle East, in this post, I wanted to tell you where in the Middle East is safe to travel, which includes a thorough analysis and country breakdown.
You will also be interested in: The most beautiful places to visit in the Middle East
In this Middle East safety guide, you will find:
Is the Middle East safe? 4 reasons to believe it isn’t a dangerous place to travel to
The Middle East is huge
The Middle East is an enormous territory almost as big as Europe and composed of 15 countries, 16 if you count Turkey as well.
These countries are:
Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen
From a cultural point of view, they have little to do with each other. Of course, they share many similarities but comparing, let’s say, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, is like comparing Belarus, Germany and Spain.
Iranians are not Arabs but they are Persians and practice Shia Islam.
The United Arab Emirates is a very rich Arab nation. On the one hand, they practice a very conservative branch of Sunni Islam and, on the other, their laws are very tolerant towards foreigners.
And Lebanon is the most culturally diverse country you can never think of, in which around 40% of the population are Christian, from many different branches and backgrounds.
And then of course you have Israel, Palestine, Yemen and a large etcetera.
Each country is a completely different world, so you can’t put them all in the same bucket.
There are actual borders
The Middle East isn’t like a Schengen zone, in which all Arabs and non-Arabs cross from one to another freely, but they have secured borders, many of which people are not even allowed to cross.
What I want to say is that, if there was a war or any conflict in a specific country, it doesn’t mean that the neighboring countries are unsafe as well.
For example, according to the World Economic Forum, Oman is the 4th safest country in the world. Yet, it shares a border with Yemen that is completely open to both foreigners and locals.
The media tells you only one part of the story
You already know that but, just to remind you that the media only shows you one side of the story which, unfortunately, tends to be the ugliest side.
Just remember that countries are big pieces of territory and, whenever they show you an image of a partially destroyed city like Aleppo, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the cities are unsafe as well.
I mean, did you know that the city of Damascus almost remained untouched in the current Civil War?
What if the only thing you knew about the USA was the 9/11 attacks?
Many Middle Eastern countries are safer than yours
Hopefully, the above reasons were quite obvious to many of you, but I have always had a hard time trying to convince my friends about this one.
For some reason, crime in the Middle East is barely existent.
You may find some little petty crime in a few capitals like Amman (Jordan) and Cairo (Egypt) but that’s because they are the most touristic capitals in the region and, in any case, it’s nothing particularly disturbing.
War and terrorism-wise, some parts of the Middle East are f***ed up, for sure, but outside those few areas, life is definitely safer than in your home country, and the locals have developed such a strong sense of community that it makes traveling super pleasant, as you don’t need to worry about anything.
Which countries in the middle east are safe to visit?
Please note that the following country breakdown is a mere opinion, based on all my years of travel in the Middle East. It may differ from your own and, if it does, I will be happy to answer your concerns in the comments section.
Extremely safe countries in the Middle East to travel to
The safest countries in the Middle East to go right now are the Gulf Monarchies on and around the Arabian Peninsula.
All of them are incredibly rich (except for Saudi Arabia), two of them having the highest GDP per capita in the world.
Oddly enough, the local population in all of them barely reaches 50%, the rest being all immigrants, mostly coming from South Asia (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh), but there is also a large Western expat community.
The Gulf Monarchies are definitely safer than any other Western country.
The smallest of all, Bahrain is a tiny island connected to Saudi Arabia by a bridge and infamous for having the most permissive rules towards alcohol and prostitution, the reason why its many bars tend to be filled with Saudis who come over for the weekend to enjoy some freedom.
In my opinion, there is nothing of interest in Bahrain other than eating out and clubbing but still, if you want to party legally until 6am in the morning, this is one of the safest countries in the Middle East to do so.
I already mentioned it in the previous section that Oman is, according to the WEF, the 4th safest country in the world and in the Global Terrorism Index, compiled by the Institute of Economics and Peace, Oman is ranked as 0, meaning that the impact of terrorism is non-existent (USA is ranked as 5.4).
Moreover, despite the country’s obvious modernization, Oman is the only country that has been able to keep its most traditional essence, making travel here an even better and more authentic experience, in which the local Omanis will continuously bless you with their hospitality.
Furthermore, something worth mentioning about Oman is that, unlike other Arab countries, they have always strived to have good relationships with all Middle Eastern countries, including Israel and Iran, plus they stayed out of the Yemeni conflict.
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Home to one of the most international cities in the world, Dubai, the UAE is an extremely developed country whose impeccable safety is hailed by absolutely each and every expat living there.
Let’s not forget, however, that the UAE is heavily involved in the Yemeni war, helping Saudi Arabia with the airstrikes, but then, your main concern should be ethical, rather than worrying about the country’s safety.
Officially the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world, Qatar is a powerful Arab country whose state model follows the same line as the UAE.
Due to its recent close ties with Iran, however, Qatar is going through a diplomatic crisis with its best friends from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who decided to boycott them indefinitely, but that doesn’t affect the security situation of one of the safest countries in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t come without its own issues. There is no political freedom and their laws are strictly based on Sharia, the Islamic law, whose main criticism in the West is that its rules bring women down to second class citizens.
Unfortunately, because of those facts, foreigners assume Saudi is inhabited by dangerous fanatics who would completely stone a woman to death just because she is a blonde foreigner, and I have actually heard a woman saying that.
After coming back from Saudi Arabia, I was heavily criticized by many readers who were questioning my ethical principles, and there was this specific woman who told me:
I don’t want to travel to Saudi Arabia because I don’t want to be stoned to death.
If you actually believe this, you clearly have no idea about anything. Saudi Arabia is, along with the other Gulf Monarchies, one of the safest countries in the Middle East.
I backpacked and hitchhiked around the country for over 2 weeks and had a real blast, not only because the country is filled with stunning natural sites but also because the people were amazingly kind, hospitable and helpful.
In my opinion, Saudi is the most misunderstood country on Earth, even more than Iran.
I haven’t been to Kuwait, and I don’t have any interest in traveling there any time soon, but this is another business hub, similar to Qatar and the UAE, so the country is absolutely safe.
”Just safe” countries in the Middle East to go
Personally, I consider that some of the following countries are extremely safe to travel to as well, but I am putting them in the ‘’just safe section’’ because, while there isn’t any terrorist thread and stuff like that, they are politically unstable, especially Iran and Lebanon.
Unlike what many people in the West think, especially in the USA, Iran is an extremely safe Middle Eastern country.
On the one hand, violent crime is extremely rare and, on the other, there is no terrorism, especially because Iranians are Shia Muslims, the worst enemy of ISIS and other terrorist organizations alike.
I don’t know a single person who hasn’t had a great time in Iran, not only because the country has an enormous touristic potential but also because, along with the Omanis, Iranians are the most hospitable and kind-hearted people in the region.
However, because of the current protests and all the issues with the USA, who have flooded them with endless, annoying sanctions, traveling here comes with its own particular challenges, logistically speaking.
Lebanon is another often misunderstood country, for the following reasons.
First of all, it is located right at the heart of the turmoil, nestled between Syria and Israel and the truth is that a tiny northwestern region of Lebanon has suffered in the past from a small Syrian war spillover, but you weren’t able to go there anyways, even if you wanted to.
Second of all, people still associate Lebanon with war and yes, a bloody Civil War happened here, but it ended in 1991!
And third, while there have been some critical terrorist attacks, those bombs have always targeted Shia-populated districts – far away from any touristic area – plus there haven’t been more attacks than in other European countries.
Nevertheless, the political situation in Lebanon is today highly unstable and protests are now being spurred by the massive port explosion that worsened the situation even more.
After Egypt, Jordan is the most touristic country in the Middle East, home to mass tourism sites such as Petra, Jerash and the Dead Sea.
A very safe and politically stable country that even managed to escape from the 2011 Arab Spring.
Nevertheless, since this is a very touristic country, some petty crime exists – just regular pickpocketing – plus some women have claimed being verbally harassed by local men.
The situation in Egypt is very complicated and difficult to explain.
On the one hand, this is one of the most touristic countries in the world but, unfortunately, it has recently suffered from terrorism and, unlike in Lebanon, some of those attacks have targeted tourists.
As a result, tourism in Egypt has massively decreased to the extent that there is a tangible crisis, visible when you see a shit load of businesses closed and some internationally famous sites are empty.
Nevertheless, while I do believe that those attacks are a major concern, you need to know that they tend to be one-off events and the likelihood of suffering a car accident is much greater than being caught in a terrorist event.
Still, travel with caution, avoid the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula and Coptic Christian sites.
Israel & Palestine
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is real, but the situation has dramatically improved and today, the West Bank, home to some really important Christian sites and cities, such as Bethlehem, is very safe for travel, so is Israel.
In the last years, all the Palestinian-Israeli issues you have been hearing in the media have mainly happened in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian region which is geographically separated from the West Bank.
The Gaza Strip can be dangerous but you can’t go there as a tourist anyways.
Relatively safe countries in the Middle East to travel to
More than a relatively safe country, Iraq is divided into 2 regions: one which is extremely safe, and one which is not.
The extremely safe region is Iraqi Kurdistan, and the one which isn’t is actual Arab Iraq, Baghdad and stuff.
Iraqi Kurdistan is a completely different world. They aren’t Arabs but Kurds, control their own borders and are pro-American and pro-Israel, which is why they stayed out of the conflict that made Arab Iraq into a failed state.
I have been in Kurdistan twice, hitchhiked all around the country and it’s a real, very safe paradise, one of the safest regions outside of the Gulf Monarchies.
Arab Iraq, nevertheless, is a different story. While it may not be as dangerous as the media portrays, the threat is real but, in any case, you can’t travel there independently, as booking an organized tour is a visa requirement.
Dangerous, or less safe, countries in the Middle East
These two countries are dangerous but I am also calling them less safe countries because either the situation has improved – in Syria – or there are specific regions which managed to stay out of the conflict – in Yemen.
You already know the situation in Syria. There’s been a Civil War since 2011 that caused hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced people, making it one of the most dangerous countries on Earth.
Nevertheless, you also need to know that, today, the war is almost over and there are some Government-controlled areas, especially in the Western part of the country, which are now relatively safe for travel and, when I say relatively I mean that they are currently safe but the situation can change overnight.
I traveled in Syria recently, visiting Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. The security measures were insane, but I didn’t experience any bad situation; on the contrary, all the Syrians I met were great and helpful.
Yemen is unsafe.
It’s an actual war zone where airstrikes are common and there are pro-ISIS people who would not hesitate to kidnap you if that meant making some extra money.
However, there are two regions – the island of Socotra and Hadramaut – that somehow, are staying away from this horrible war and, according to many travelers, they are relatively safe, especially Socotra.
Is the Middle East safe for solo female travelers?
I am completely aware that traveling in the Middle East as a woman is a different experience than as a man but, unfortunately, I can’t really speak for them.
What I would like to highlight, however, is that the different Middle Eastern issues the media talks about have little to do with a woman’s experience, but are more about being traditional, conservative Muslim countries, where the locals don’t know how to behave with Western women, or just women in general.
Because this is such an important topic, I decided to create a solo female travel section where solo women adventurers share their experiences:
- Solo female travel in Lebanon
- Solo female travel in Jordan
- Solo female travel in Iraq
- Solo female travel in Oman
- Solo female travel in Saudi Arabia
- Solo female travel in Iran
If you want to write a guest post for Against the Compass, please send me your pitch ideas at joan(at)againstthecompass.com