Wanna travel to the Middle East with Against the Compass?
Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan and more. We have group expeditions scheduled every month to the most exciting destinations in the Middle East.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The safest countries in the Middle East to go right now are the Gulf Monarchies in 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 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.
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 close ties with Iran, Qatar went through a diplomatic crisis with its best friends from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who decided to temporarily boycott them, but that never affected the security situation and in any case, that boycott stopped probably due to the beginning of the World Cup in 2022, since everyone in the region wanted to benefit from it.
I personally consider that there isn’t much to do in this tiny country, but it’s one of the safest countries in the Middle East.
Come to Saudi Arabia with Against the Compass
Our next scheduled expedition is on:
Nov 26th to Dec 2nd
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, but this is another business hub, similar to Qatar and the UAE, so the country is absolutely safe.
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 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 and financial 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 were a major concern, the situation has drastically improved, but do avoid the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.
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 that is geographically separated from the West Bank.
The Gaza Strip can be dangerous but you can’t go there as a tourist anyways.
Come to Iraq with Against the Compass
Our next scheduled expedition is on:
Oct 29th to Nov 5th
More than a relatively safe country, Iraq is divided into 2 regions: one which is extremely safe, and one which is OK safe.
The extremely safe region is Iraqi Kurdistan, and the one which is OK 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 to 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 not as bad as you may think.
In fact, after Pope Francis visited it in March 2021, the authorities introduced a visa on arrival, available for up to 35 nationalities.
This can only mean that the security situation in Iraq has drastically improved.
From Mosul to Baghdad and Karbala, I have been traveling independently all over Iraq, and everything is pretty chilled, but do pay some extra attention.
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 that managed to stay out of the conflict – in Yemen.
Come to Syria with Against the Compass
Our next scheduled expedition is on:
June 17th to 24th
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 multiple times, 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.
Come to Yemen with Against the Compass
Our next scheduled expedition is on:
November 23rd to 28th
Most Yemen is unsafe, today suffering from a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, an actual war zone where airstrikes are common, and where the local branch of Al Qaeda used to control a significant part of the country.
The situation, however is improving and today, there are two regions – the island of Socotra and Hadramaut – that somehow, are staying away from this horrible drama.
Furthermore, now that both Iran and Saudi Arabia recovered diplomatic relationships, the situation in Yemen might even improve further.
Yemen travel guide
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:
If you want to write a guest post for Against the Compass, please send me your pitch ideas at joan(at)againstthecompass.com