Sunday, June 25th, 2017

Solo Female Travel in the Middle East — Is it Safe?

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Is it safe for a woman to travel alone in the Middle East? It’s far safer than the media would have it appear, and with the proper planning and precautions, it can absolutely be safe.

For this piece, I decided to bring in an expert on solo female travel in the Middle East: Sabina Lohr, who has spent years living and traveling around the region on her own.

You’ve traveled extensively in the Middle East. What is it about the Middle East that brings you back again and again?

I love getting to know different cultures and, of the regions I’ve explored, Middle Eastern cultures fascinate me the most. People in the West tend to think of the Middle East as being a single entity, sort of a big blob, but traveling through its various countries extensively and living in three of them for a total of a couple of years has taught me that there are many, many different cultures and people within this region.

Talking to the people of these countries, getting to know their beliefs and becoming familiar with their lives is just thrilling to me. This region is I think the biggest cultural and religious leap away from my home country of America and its multitude of differences from the life and the people I’ve always known is compelling and completely intrigues me.

Where in the Middle East have you traveled?

I started out in Israel in 2008, which is not that many years ago but a lifetime ago in terms of what I’ve experienced and learned since then. I’ve traveled also to Oman twice and Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan once. I really wish I’d visited Syria before the war and hope to go there once it’s ended with a friend of mine who fled.

I also lived in the U.A.E. for three months, Egypt for about seven months and then Israel for about a year.

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The Middle East is a region rife with stereotypes. Which of these stereotypes have you found to be inaccurate?

Most importantly the whole “the Middle East is dangerous” mentality is untrue. I feel safer most of the time in Mid Eastern countries than I do at home. They have problems there, of course, but they’re of such a different variety than in the U.S.

While sometimes in some Middle Eastern countries there is terrorism and war, this region does not suffer at all to the extent that we do from rapes, robberies, gun violence, home invasions and other crimes so common in the U.S. I think when people hear that the Middle East is dangerous they think that war and terrorism is piled on top other crimes like we see at home and that makes the whole region seem just impossibly dangerous. It is not.

Crime in the Middle East as a whole is low; there’s very little chance that you’re going to be a victim of terrorism or that anyone is even going to hurt you. The Mid East is safe. It really is.

How can women protect themselves when traveling in the Middle East?

Using the same common sense as when traveling in other foreign countries works. Don’t be careless, don’t totally trust someone you just met and don’t drink too much (contrary to common belief, alcohol and bars do exist in much of the Middle East). Be aware at all times that you’re in a world very different from your own, inside a culture comprised of people who think and behave very differently than you are used to. Dress modestly and behave respectfully.

I’ve found that in Persian Gulf countries there are rarely women on the streets alone. If you are alone in this region, you will likely be stared at quite a bit. While this might make you uncomfortable, just ignore it, keep moving and don’t worry that anyone will do anything more than stare.

If you go exploring alone anywhere in the Middle East, take a business card from your hotel or, if they don’t have one, get a staff member to write down the hotel’s address in Arabic with you as well as their phone number. If you get lost or end up with a taxi driver who can’t find your hotel, this can help.

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How should female travelers dress in the Middle East? What do you recommend for packing, and do you recommend picking up different items?

Unlike most other countries where you can dress as you wish, you really need to dress more modestly in the Middle East, particularly in the ultra-conservative Persian Gulf. The people of this region don’t show as much skin as we do in the West, and we need to become more modest in dress while we’re in their countries.

Shorts and tank tops are out. Long, loose-fitting skirts are great, along with loose-fitting blouses with sleeves that at least cover your shoulders. Cover your cleavage. You can wear pants and even capris, as I do most often. In Israel you can wear whatever you want, even shorts and tank tops, except for Arab areas and religious Jewish neighborhoods, where you should cover up more.

Since the Middle East is usually very hot, one trick to keep you cool on a blistering day is to wear a sleeveless or short-sleeved shirt with a large scarf or pashmina draped over your shoulders. You’ll be covered up and cool at the same time. Also, importantly, if you’re going to be in this region when the weather is going to be very hot, wear clothes that do not show sweat. This includes blouses, pants and skirts. I learned this the hard way!

Have you found there to be a difference in how to dress and act in more touristy areas (i.e. Petra or spas catering to Western tourists on the Dead Sea) and more traditional areas?

Yes. If you’re going to be visiting the cities of Muscat, Oman, for example, or Manama, Bahrain, you need to be at your most modest, with a long skirt and your arms covered at a minimum past your shoulders. Following this rule in areas that cater to tourists, though, such as Dahab, Egypt; Petra, Jordan; or beach hotels anywhere, you will be unnecessarily overdressed.

In areas that see a lot of tourists you can really relax your dress and even pretty much wear what you do back home. I see women walking around Dahab every day in short shorts and sleeveless tops. This is acceptable to the locals, as they are used to seeing people dressed like this due to the number of tourists there. Even in ultra-conservative Sharjah, U.A.E., there were bikinis and speedos at beach hotels.

If you’re going to stay at a beach hotel or spend time in a town that has as almost as many tourists as it does locals, wear what you wish. Do still bring modest clothing, though, for your ventures into less touristy areas.

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How has the Arab Spring affected the environment for international travelers?

It’s made the region more frightening to people, I think. While the Arab Spring began and ended about three years ago, images of violent protests still dance in many of our minds. Many Middle Eastern countries did not overthrow their governments during this period and even the ones that did are safe to travel to now.

Unfortunately, one country has been wiped off the travel map for the time being. Syria is off-limits to tourists until their Arab Spring, now a war, ends. Egypt has been undergoing a lot of change since they deposed their leader, twice, but it is in the process of recovering and is safe for tourists.

A positive aspect of the Arab Spring on travelers is the decrease in tourists it has brought to countries like Jordan and Egypt, where you can now be at a great advantage in negotiating down prices and enjoy seeing the sights without crowds. One example of the lack of crowds is the pyramids. The first time I visited the pyramids in 2009 before the Revolution, there were several hundred if not thousands of Western tourists walking around. The last time I went to the pyramids in February 2014, I saw a grand total of seven non-Egyptian tourists. Seven.

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Being a female in a conservative region like the Middle East gives you the chance to get to know women intimately in setting where men wouldn’t be welcomed. Have you had any memorable experiences like these?

I’ve from time to time visited Bedouin women and children in their homes and one time discussed the topic of female genital mutilation, which is still practiced in this region. One woman told me that her experience with this was not bad at all, with all that was cut from her not amounting to more than the equivalent of a little bit of sand, she said. It was so fascinating to hear her version, so unlike the accounts of FGM we read about in the news. Maybe she was downplaying what happened to her or maybe it really wasn’t all that bad in her case; I don’t know. It is not a practice I agree with.

I do know, though, that the women of the Middle East do not appreciate the image many of us in the Western world have of them. These are strong and proud women, often educated and holding professional positions, not helpless, passive secondary citizens controlled by their men as many outsiders tend to think of them.

In fact, I’ve learned one way to tick off a Middle Eastern Muslim woman is to suggest that a man is forcing her to cover her head. Maybe in some countries, in some instances women don’t want to wear the hijab, but often they do. Often little girls can’t wait to grow up so they can cover up like the adult women do. Women covering themselves in the Mid East is not a product of male power and domination, rather it is their culture.

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Do you recommend the Middle East for first-time solo female travelers, or do you recommend that they start somewhere easier first?

If you’re looking for lots of beautiful scenery, an amazing educational experience, tons of history and millennia-old archaeological sights, the Middle East is the right place to head. I have to say, though, it’s not the easiest region if you’re a Westerner who’s never traveled before. The cultures are just so very different from ours.

Also, the majority of the Middle East does not have a party environment, which is often something that first-time travelers are seeking. You can certainly travel to the Mid East as your first journey, but understand this is not the Western World. Study up on traveling in this region so you can have a successful and happy trip.

Which countries or regions in the Middle East would you recommend for a first-time traveler to the region or a first-time international traveler?

Definitely Israel and Jordan. They’re largely more progressive than other Middle Eastern countries and, therefore, don’t provide quite as much of a culture shock. The people are welcoming and friendly, modern conveniences abound and getting around by public transport is easy. Both Israel and Jordan offer excellent and safe introductions to the Middle East and will give you a positive first experience.

Which countries or regions in the Middle East would you recommend for more seasoned travelers?

I’d have to say Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, as these countries are extremely conservative in dress, behavior and overall culture, and you really should already have some experience dealing with other cultures before delving into these. Also, there are not a lot of Western tourists in these countries, so you will definitely stand out, which may not be comfortable especially as a woman traveling alone or even with someone else.

The U.A.E. can be done as a first-time traveler, especially if you stay in Dubai, where there are tons of Western expats and tourists, so you won’t feel uncomfortably conspicuous. Egypt is a must-see country but presents different challenges than the rest of the Mid East as it’s less developed and its people more emotional and lively than in neighboring countries, so they can be a little intimidating.

Get a little travel experience under your belt, and you will be able to enjoy Egypt, and all of the Middle East, more than you ever imagined.

Sabina Lohr is an American traveler who’s spent years living in and traveling through the Middle East. Through her experiences and the many friends she’s made, she’s learned invaluable information about the politics and various cultures of the region, which helps her in realizing that it’s not what you read in the news that truly makes the Mid East tick. 

Have you been to the Middle East? How was your experience?

Adventurous Kate contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the ever-increasing costs of keeping this site active. Thanks for reading!

Comments

53 Responses to “Solo Female Travel in the Middle East — Is it Safe?”
  1. Beanie says:

    What a fascinating post. I am ashamed to say that the “big blob” thing applies to me. I didn’t even consider the Middle East when deciding on my 4 month trip! Looking back now I wish I’d looked at ALL my options (I went to South East Asia).

    Thanks Kate for opening my eyes (as always!)

    Beanie

  2. Incredible interview and very informative. I can’t wait to get to the Middle East and it’s nice to get a balanced viewpoint from a solo female traveller who has seen so much of it.

  3. Oh. It’s very helpful. I didn’t know about that. Thank you for your article!

  4. great read. It’s always good to read about other chicks that are in “unsafe” areas by stereotype but actually show the world they are just fine.

  5. Gemma says:

    Is this a recent article? Several of the countries mentioned are now inaccessible.

    I lived and travelled in the Middle East and would love to do more there, just the current situation is making it so much harder. Even in Lebanon things are starting to change which is very very sad. It is my favourite country in the entire region.

    I would recommend hiring a driver guide in a few of these countries, in particular Egypt. It’s an easy and cheap way to travel with none of the male harassment that often comes as standard in such countries.

    • Hi, Gemma —

      The only country mentioned in this interview that shouldn’t be visited at this time is Syria, and Sabina wrote above that Syria is off-limits to tourists at this time due to its civil war.

      All other countries mentioned in this piece are open to tourists. Which countries did you think were off-limits?

    • Anneli says:

      A shame she did not visit Lebanon. One of the most beautiful countries in the Middle East that is unique as it is the only Christian country in the Middle East and where you can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the evening. Love Lebanon!

  6. Really interesting. I always like reading first hand non-sensationalized info about countries.

  7. I wish I had seen this post when I first traveled to Doha for business three years ago. It’s a great primer for first-timers to the region.

    I would also recommend dressing to cover knees and elbows, for practical reasons. The air conditioning can get REALLY COLD in hotels and malls.

    Thanks for this post!

  8. Dana says:

    Awesome article! I got my feet wet as a solo female this past year with Turkey and Morocco- can’t wait to explore more!

    • Stephanie says:

      Hi Dana!

      Can you share more about youe trip in Morocco? Itinerary and transportation (specifically in regards to safety). I read some blogs that made me weary about my original plan to travel alone there. Thank you tons.

  9. Brenden says:

    An absolutely fantastic read. I’ve never traveled to the Middle East yet, but the Western media sensationalism really does get on my nerves.

  10. Ashley says:

    Really enjoyed this post! I returned earlier this year from a 6-month stay in Qatar, which only made me want to spend far more time in the region. Qataris are conservative, but Doha looks like any Western city and is actually pretty laid back (and very family-oriented). Most of my weekends included long leisurely meals and people-watching. I felt safer there than back home in the US…though I did spend more time worrying about what I was wearing (I’d never felt more naked in a short-sleeve shirt before!).

  11. Kayla says:

    I have been and I loved it! I went to Israel, Palestine and Jordan in May and June of this year and I had the best time! I wish I was back there and I have made plans to go back. It is a beautiful part of the world. Thanks for sharing this story, it means a lot to me to know someone else is encouraging people to check out the Middle East and not give into Stereotypes.

  12. Michelle says:

    I just got back from a 2 month exploring trip of Lebanon! Done Egypt, Jordan and live in Dubai ATM.

  13. Steffi says:

    I love this post, it just shows how distorted our western vision on these countries really is. I’m leaving on a 7-month trip in november, starting in SE Asia and ending in Iran and I’m already looking forward to visit this incredibly interesting country. One question though, didn’t you have problems entering certain countries with a Israelian visa in your passport?

    • While I haven’t experienced this first-hand, I know some people who have asked to have their Israeli stamp on a separate piece of paper (not the passport). This will only work if you fly in, though — if you cross overland, your stamp from Egypt/Jordan will have the location on it and it will be obvious you were in Israel.

      • Sabina says:

        I believe the only countries that would potentially have a problem with the Israel passport are Muslim countries, with the exception of Egypt and Jordan. The only Muslim countries I’ve been to with the Israel stamp in my passport are those two countries, and they do not mind. If you have an Israel stamp in your passport and are heading to Iran, definitely get a new passport before you go. You don’t want to end up in jail in Iran. If you do cross overland into or out of Israel via Egypt or Jordan, you can ask at the Israel land border just as you do at the airport for them not to stamp your passport and they probably won’t do it. They’ll give you a tiny paper card instead that you keep with your passport until you leave the country. If you travel to a Muslim country that is not Egypt or Jordan after Israel, be sure to take this paper out of your passport before presenting it to the passport agent.

        • Anneli says:

          Not all nations are considered Muslim nations so best to call them Arab nations. Lebanon for example is not a muslim nation and is not an Arab nation. They are Phoenicians.
          You will not be admitted into Lebanon if any stamp from Israel is on your passport or any paperwork from there. They do ask if you have been so be careful what you answer. You will be turned back and not admitted in. This is a definite for Syria and Lebanon.
          Most I know that would travel to both have two sets of passports or they have asked at the Israeli border not to have their passport stamped as that is also a routine they are familiar with for people wanting to travel the Middle East.

  14. Yes, I’ve been to the Middle East. I’ve been to Egypt three times and to Tunisia, only once. I had a brilliant time in Egypt and ventured out where the locals were even protective. The last time I went to Egypt was when my son was two years old, and without my husband. They all ran around to keep us as comfortable as possible, and recommended the best places to go!

    It does make me sad that tourists don’t go to Egypt any more, but it’s understandable, not necessarily correct, but understandable, why people are scared.

    In Tunisia, I went years ago I’m afraid! We took the train to Tunis and then we rented a car and drove into the Sahara desert. We got lost of course, and then went into the nearest town, and directed into a local hotel where I had to stay hidden ‘cos this was before my husband and I got married!

    I’d love to go to Morocco, Jordon and Israel but Israel is off-limits right now due to the recent school dispute. I am however, going to Qatar this summer which I’m sure will be fascination in itself!

  15. Silvia says:

    I’m so glad you posted this! I backpacked through several countries in the Middle East this year, but Iran was definitely number one for me! I went there for two weeks, and while so many people told me not to go there alone, I could not have had an easier or more enjoyable time. It’s definitely worth the trip!

  16. I’ve travelled around Syria (before the war), Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE and Oman – not once did I feel threatened in any of these places. I think our perception of the region has a lot more to do with media representation than reality!

    Use the same common sense you would use in any other place in the world, dress modestly and don’t get stupidly drunk and you’ll be absolutely fine.

  17. I want to go to the Middle East, especially Israel and Jordan, but my family is not so warm to the idea of me traveling there alone. Thank you for this article! Hopefully it can pacify my parents!

  18. Arti says:

    This is such an enlightening interview from someone who has been in the thick of things. We humans have the ability to harbour misconceptions about certain places just because of things that we read or hear in the media. But the reality is different, these places suddenly seem so beautiful to me now!

  19. Kate says:

    Wow, what a great post, with insightful tips! The middle east has always been on my radar and travel list. My husband fell in the love with the middle east while being deployed of all things, and I have always wanted to go back with him to see the region myself.

    • I love that your husband fell in love with the Middle East while deployed, Kate. I have a friend I met while traveling who was deployed to Afghanistan while in the Australian army and he really loved the country and the culture and wants to return as a traveler someday.

  20. Hi Kate! Wonderful blog, with important tips for woman that are travelling alone in the middle east. I believe these tips also valid travelling in other not western countries. I agree that Jordan and Israel is some of the safer countries to travel to. But also Morocco is safe, and can be recommended. I travelled there alone without any problems.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Cheers,
    Hanne

  21. Jess says:

    Thanks for this article. I’ve recently received recommendations to visit Iran, which although not mentioned in this article it gave me a sense of the culture of the region.

  22. This is an outstanding article that I just shared with a few female traveling friends of mine. We were talking about heading to the Middle East to do some teaching, but keep hearing horror stories about women travelers in that area. I really appreciate the frank information and the positive perspective of Sabina and also Kate for asking the harder questions. Thank you so much for more inspiration to travel to this part of the world!

  23. Elisabeth says:

    Great interview. Since the media has stereotyped these countries as dangerous most of us are afraid of visiting them. Thank you for sharing this personal experience. As travelers we have to respect other cultures in order to be welcome.

  24. Emma says:

    What an interesting article! I have been fascinated by the Middle East for a while now but haven’t been lucky enough to visit yet. It’s really great to hear some positive experiences from a solo female traveller there.

  25. Thank you for sharing this information, Kate. As someone who has not yet but wants to travel this region, I found Sabina’s insights informative and helpful.

  26. Thank you for this post! I have only been to Israel, but the ME is so intriguing, I can’t wait to go back. I feel much better after reading this post. Thanks x 1000000! 🙂
    I feel like I should have known to not “listen” to the thoughts of others and over misconception that’s it’s not safe. There’s nothing like hearing it from someone who was there and says it’s fine!

  27. great write-up! I’ve been wanting to visit Oman for a little while now as well as Petra. Thanks for the info! =)

  28. Lily Lau says:

    Thanks Kate, I always derive so much from your posts… I want to be a courageous solo female like you are, but I’m just beginning into it! No doubt I’ll visit the Middle East as soon as the sad wars come to an end.

  29. Elisha says:

    This is a great post, Kate. I think that many people, especially Americans, automatically write off places that have a lot to offer and can be safe with the proper planning. Glad to see that an expert also agrees. Cheers!

  30. Becci Kyle says:

    I love what Sabhina has written about how she has had the chance to get to know Middle Eastern women in a deeper way. I definitely reckon that being a female traveler is awesome in that respect because men rarely have this opportunity in conservative countries.

  31. Holly says:

    This is a great deal of information for travelers to the Middle East. I love some of these photos, and look forward to doing more traveling myself here. I have traveled to Beruit this past January and really enjoyed it. Was surprised by how Western it was, and how fashionable the women dressed. I am currently living in Saudi Arabia having just arrived less than two weeks ago from the USA. I have so much to learn and see here! Happy travels!

  32. leanne says:

    Very interesting post….worth sharing for all our our nurses heading to work in the middle east

  33. Ant says:

    As a 24 year old american should i consider traveling anywhere in the Middle east?

  34. Roxanne says:

    Hi I will be going to Tunisia in a couple of weeks on a half board holiday with Thomas Cook, I have never gone abroad alone before but I am excited, I was just hoping for some feedback on how much hassle I will get off the locals as I’m not a very confident person with confrontation..
    Many thanks.
    Roxanne.

  35. Daniela says:

    Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Israel is a very safe and friendly place for women, and you can travel freely by yourself anytime.
    although there’s nowhere in the world that’s totally safe, Israel offers women travelers a level of safety and freedom no longer found in many other countries. you’ll see young girls walking in the street and young mothers strolling their babies at midnight without the slightest concern.

    I also wouldn’t recommend venturing alone into the West Bank, because you don’t want to get lost in Palestinian controlled territory. If you’re with an organized group, it’s probably fine, but be alert. When people say they get stoned in the West Bank, they aren’t talking about drugs; they mean rocks.

    • MARIEHA says:

      Hi,
      have any of you ladies had any harassment or any looks/ stares at being alone in these countries? I’m considering entering Lebanon via Cyprus and Greece. I’m slightly apprehensive due to the political instability as well as being a lone female traveller who has never travelled alone in the Middle East.
      Also – what is the level of spoken English like in Lebanon and Jordan? This slightly intimidates me – the prospect of having communication issues as I’m not aware how well the locals speak English there. I do have a very basic knowledge of Arabic but not enough to go by.
      Also re: Iran – if you’re a British national, isn’t it true that you need a government appointed guide to accompany you incase you turn out to be a spy? (that’s what I’ve heard lol)
      look fwd to hearing any advice on this!!

  36. Zaid says:

    you are all welcome to Jordan 🙂

  37. Thanks for sharing great post. you share a meaningful information in these blogs..

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  1. […] Jumat (14/10/2016), Okezone mendapatkan kisah pengalaman seorang traveler wanita yang telah menghabiskan waktu bertahun-tahun untuk traveling, termasuk di Timur Tengah. Adalah Sabina Lohr, wanita Amerika yang kisahnya dicatat dalam wawancara blogger AdventurousKate. […]



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