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This time the post is about a collaboration with a great traveler and person, he is Suhib Furarah. A Brazilian-Libyan guy who has visited many countries in 3 different continents and who has lived in Brazil, United Kingdom and Libya. As soon as I invited him to tell us about his own experience, he agreed immediately (I am very grateful with him). Keep reading the excellent article that he prepared for us.
An up to date guide for first time visitors
Many of us when thinking of the Middle East think of 1001 Nights and Aladdin, belly dancing, oriental music, and magical nights in the desert drinking tea brewed on a camp fire in Bedouin tents with the camels in the background.
We’ve all seen photos of the marvelous pyramids of Giza in Egypt and the coral reefs of the Red sea, the picturesque old souks of Morocco and beautiful mosques of Istanbul, the ancient ruins of Syria and the Petra of Jordan, the skiing resorts on the mountains of Lebanon, the great desert dunes and oases of Libya and Algeria, the blue Mediterranean waters of Tunisia, the luxury of Dubai and much more.
Although all the previously mentioned does exist, even the genie in the bottle if you are Aladdin, is it possible to experience all of it? Travelling to the Middle East has always required, maybe today more than ever, a lot of realistic and practical preparation. You should think:
How affordable and how safe is it to travel to a region that makes the news every day?
How realistic is it for me, a westerner, especially if a woman or solo traveler, to visit a region that most western governments advise their citizens to avoid?
Should I risk my safety and take my chances and just go or should I simply give up for good on visiting this culturally and historically rich part of the world?
Suhib Furarah, a Brazilian-Libyan doctor and language teacher currently residing in Tripoli, Libya can answer these questions and help give us an inside up-close look at the Middle East and point to us some of the cultural differences and everyday norms in that part of the world and what we need to keep in mind when visiting the region.
Suhib has been living in Tripoli, Libya for the past years including the ones since the Arab spring, he has also taught Arabic to foreigners and worked with many expats in Tripoli. He has visited ten other countries (four in the Middle
East) in addition to living three years in Brazil and five years in the UK.
A brief recent history:
Without trying to sound too pessimistic or simply telling you ‘completelyforget about the Middle East, it’s too dangerous’, I feel I should explain why a lot of the negative reputation the Middle East gets is true and well earned. It can get dangerous very quickly and unpredictably for foreigners who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time; If I were asked to describe the whole Middle East in just one word I would choose the word unstable.
However, I still want to give specific and inside information from the perspective of a local who sees these events unfolding right in front of him.
Since late 2010 the whole Middle East has changed completely. While it was initially reported in major western and Arab news networks such as the CNN, BBC, and Aljazeera at the time that these were popular uprisings from the people against the corrupt governments, that this was a new dawn of freedom in the region, the reality is much more complex.
Without getting into too many political details, the unfortunate reality today for tourists, travelers and even foreign workers in the region is that the Arab Spring has resulted in a significant overall decrease in the safety and security of all visitors.
So the question again is ‘can I still visit the Middle East today?’ Well, the answer is: it depends.
It depends basically on: the location, timing, and if you are in the company of a local or an experienced foreign resident/traveler.
In this article I will attempt to outline the most recent political/regional security updates regarding location and timing, and in another article I’ll talk more about general cultural tips, tips for women and solo travelers, dos and don’ts, the pros and cons of arranging beforehand with a local or an expert traveler or long term resident who can speak Arabic and navigate easily in the Middle East.
The advice in the next article will apply to you once you have prepared yourself and have decided that the Middle Eastern country/city you are interested in is safe enough for you to visit.
Location and Timing:
The Middle East is a very large geographical region, it includes all the Arab speaking countries from Mauritania and Morocco on the Atlantic ocean, to Israel on east Mediterranean, to Oman in the south east on the Indian Ocean, to Turkey in the North with its famous city Istanbul lying between two continents: Europe and Asia (I will include Turkey, Iran and Israel in the Middle East here even though they don’t speak Arabic).
You can think of the whole of the Middle East a bit like the whole of Central and South America where knowledge of the Spanish Language and the pre-conquistador history will make travelling throughout the region much easier culturally even in Brazil where Portuguese is spoken.
The same goes for the Middle East, a minimal understanding of the Arabic language and Islamic culture can go a long way in helping you travel the region and meet local people and understand their way of life without finding yourself in awkward situations.
Although the Middle East as a whole is relatively unstable today compared to before the Arab Spring, some areas and countries are bearing much better than others. For example Morocco and Algeria have been minimally affected by the political and economic turmoil of the Arab Spring and remain fairly the same as they were before 2011. The same is true for, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, the Emirates, and Turkey; all these countries didn’t go through revolutions and didn’t have their governments overthrown like Egypt or had any civil wars like Libya, Syria or Iraq.
However, even these safer countries which didn’t go through the Arab Spring are far from stable. The political situation can change dramatically very quickly.
Recent examples include the failed military coup in Istanbul, Turkey in 2016 and 5 other bombings the same year. I was there during one of the bombings which was just 5 kilometres away from my hotel and I was there again when the 2017 New Year’s Eve nightclub attack happened.
Events are evolving rapidly these days in Lebanon with its prime minister resigning, the Qatari conflict with the other Gulf countries which were its allies, the severe economic crisis in Egypt, and many others.
As for the countries which did have revolutions, some are doing better than others. For example Tunisia which is well known for its Ancient Carthage ruins and idyllic beaches was doing relatively better than Libya, Egypt and Syria when it came to security, government and public institutions after the revolution.
However, all this changed when it witnessed two attacks that were directed against tourists. Gunmen attacked and killed a number of tourists in the Bardo museum in 2015 and again three months after in the Sousse beach attacks. I have visited Tunisia twice this year, both times only visiting the capital Tunis and I noticed much fewer western tourists. I was there for a week in May and then for a day in October. I saw a few tourists from Russia, Ukraine and other eastern European countries in addition to some French tourists. The locals tell me this is less than half the number of tourists they usually have the same time of year.
Western governments like the UK and US have explicitly warned their citizens from going to countries like Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq because of the very unpredictable security situation in those countries.
So what do all these unnecessary local political details mean to me, a western tourist?
In short: political instability = less overall safety and security and more risk.
So…what can I do to minimize this risk before I think of visiting a country in the Middle East?
Well, things can go well for months and even years before something bad happens, so as a visitor you need to weigh and list the touristic and economic advantages of visiting a country against the risks to your safety and security. A rough listing guide could look something like this:
1- Countries where visiting should be out of question, simply too dangerous: Somalia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
2- Countries and cities which are high risk with active spots of conflict: most of Libya, the south of Tunisia, some cities and areas on the borders of Egypt, Jordon, Lebanon, and Turkey.
3- Countries with current (maybe temporary) political problems: Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia — If you still really want to visit, postpone your trip until things calm down.
4- Countries which are restricted but might be relatively safe: many countries which are seen negatively in the west such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, may not be dangerous per se (where a tourist might get kidnapped or killed) as other countries, but they might have more restrictions and regulations on what is allowed or expected from foreigners like dress code, ban on alcohol or threat of being thrown in prison for public drunkenness or public affection as holding hands or kissing in public. The head cover for female foreigners is regulated by law in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen (Yemen is currently both dangerous and restricted,
Remember, things change a lot very quickly in the Middle East and when it comes to you and your family or loved ones’ safety and security, it would be wise to follow the latest updates and official travel warnings from the American or British embassies online as the intelligence information these embassies provide is public, accurate and specific about the risks a traveler might face in a given country.
Also travelling to Israel and having Israeli visa stamps on your passport may get you banned from entering most Arab countries (something similar with an Iranian visa trying to enter Israel I think), you might avoid this if you have two passports or leave visiting Israel/Iran last. Therefore, do your research before booking your hotel and buying your ticket and check the latest security briefs from your government before you travel.
Finally, my point in this article isn’t to tell you to stay away from the Middle East, or encourage you to go. My point is simply to make sure you are well informed and well prepared to visit the region in case you do decide to visit. I would not recommend traveling to the Middle East for first time travelers, it is always better to start in safer and more tourist-friendly (even though more expensive) destinantions such as Buenos Aires in South America; Barcelona, Paris or London in Europe; Seoul or Tokyo in Asia and other alpha rated cities with lots of facilities before trying to visit a more challenging and diverse region as the Middle East.
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