Travelling as a Western woman in the Middle East can be a daunting prospect. Terrorism, political instability, and restrictive anti-feminist laws make it seem like the one region tourists and travellers should stay away from. But how much of that is true?
Due to media coverage, there is a somewhat hysterical perception of the Middle East as being a homogenous area where terrorism exists on top of other social issues. While terrorism and war is a genuine concern in some Middle Eastern countries, overall the region is far safer than it is made out to be.
That being said, precautions must still be taken in order to ensure your personal safety. Here are a few suggestions that will help you to get the most from your experience:
When travelling in the Middle East, dressing modestly is encouraged. Instead of shorts and tanks tops, blouses, flowy skirts and trousers are a safer bet- though this is dependent on the region to which you are travelling. Hijab (or as it is more commonly known, a headscarf) is not compulsory to wear if you do not wish to.
If you plan to venture into less touristy locations such as the religious areas of Israel, or the city centre of Oman, it is advisable that you cover your arms (or at least your shoulders), and wear loose fitting bottoms out of respect for the culture.
Outside of these more conservative areas, you are free to dress however you wish. Dubai is one notable area of the UAE which features dress codes that are very similar to what we have in the West- you can wear anything, from bikinis, shorts, and even speedos (though the latter is always a questionable choice, whether in the UK or the UAE). Generally speaking, if your travels take you to an area where the Western-local ratio is higher, the dress code tends to be more relaxed. Areas where this can be seen include the UAE, areas of Israel, Egypt and Jordan, as well as beach resorts. If you have not travelled in the Middle East before, Dubai is a good place to start, as it is filled with expats and tourists all year round, so the culture shock is smaller in comparison to more conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia, and Oman.
Haggling is a big part of Middle Eastern culture. Aside from in shopping centres and established shops (think supermarkets, Western shops, etc.), haggling can be done anywhere. If you play your cards right you can get yourself some great souvenirs for an even better price!
Don’t be afraid to walk away if you think a price is too high. Nine times out of ten the vendor will call you back with a much more reasonable price. Additionally, don’t buy something the first time you see it- especially is you’re in a Souq (marketplace). Most booths tend to sell similar or the same things, so make sure you walk around and see what the prices are like at different stalls. This knowledge will save you a pretty penny, as some vendors grossly overcharge tourists for souvenirs. For example, in Oman, one stall was selling hand-carved figurines for 20 Omani Riyals (approximately £39), while another was selling similar pieces for 10 (£19.50).
Another helpful haggling tip is to make your first offer low – that way when the merchant increases the price, it’s still within your budget.
Sadly, some vendors will try to overcharge you if you are a woman on your own. In these cases, it is important to be firm and assert yourself politely, as it will dissuade the seller from pulling the wool over your eyes and will put you in a stronger negotiating position.
If you’re travelling across the Middle East, you should keep in mind that there is not one standard form of currency; Saudi Arabia has Riyals, Bahrain has Dinars, Jordan has Dinars to name but a few. For more information, here is a useful link.
How to Protect Yourself
The rules for this are very similar to those we employ as women in the West, with a few additions. Contrary to widely held beliefs, bars and alcohol can be found in many places in the Middle East, and if you do choose to go it is advisable that you keep your wits about you and refrain from drinking too much in an unfamiliar environment. A tactic that a friend of mine previously used was to give the bartender the name of the hotel so that he was aware of where to order her a taxi to.
There are also instances in the Persian Gulf as well as in some other regions where you may be stared at if you are alone, which can be unnerving. Though most people don’t do anything except stare in curiosity, or try to catch your eye to sell you something, it is advisable that you keep moving ahead without making eye contact.
It is also important that you stay vigilant in crowded places in order to deter pickpockets. Keeping your phone or money in your bra or simply taking a smaller bag that is easier to keep an eye on can deter thieves.
All in all, if you keep these tips in mind, you can get more out of your time in this richly diverse region. Have faith in yourself and enjoy the cultural melting pot that is the Middle East.