People often group the Middle East (ME) into one large region, where all the countries follow similar rules and etiquette and are governed by Sharia (Islamic law).
Fact is, countries in the ME differ in cultures, religions, cuisines, way of life and laws. In reality, there is no ME country that practices Sharia in its true form. The countries instill man-made laws, with a bit of Sharia sprinkled here and there (take Saudi Arabia’s previous law that banned women from driving, which has no basis in Sharia, but was implemented anyway). Sharia in the ME is often manipulated to suit government agendas.
How does this affect women traveling to the Middle East?
You may be thinking about traveling to a more liberal ME country like Jordan, Lebanon or the UAE, which boast lifestyles akin to the west. But still—you have questions. What happens when you accidentally get in trouble with law? Do you need to be afraid about harassment from from men? Do you need to wear a hijab (head scarf donned by some Muslim women) and dress conservatively? Do you need a male guardian to travel or visit certain places?
Keep in mind, this is from the perspective of a Muslim woman who was born and raised in Canada. My ethnicity is Indian, so I’m unfamiliar with the Arab culture (although there are some noted similarities). Also, this is my personal take on the two countries based on my own experiences,.
The first time I set foot in the ME was when I was 18 years old, in the UAE. My next ME trip was to Saudi Arabia in 2015, and my recent UAE trip was just this past summer. Saudi Arabia isn’t deemed a tourist destination like the UAE is, however that seems like it will change in the coming years, to potentially rival the glitzy, metropolitan city of Dubai. For now, females can join a tour group to Saudi Arabia.
Below is a comparison between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with commonly asked questions. This is to show how both ME countries, although they’re next to each other, have differing laws and culture and how this can affect female travelers.
Do you need to cover up?
In Saudi Arabia, all women (foreign or local) must wear an abaya, which is a long cloak. Muslim women are required to wear a scarf to cover just the hair (you can show your face), however, in some places, namely the city of Riyadh, non-Muslim women can go without it. You can wear whatever you like at home, in compounds or in all-female settings. At some private beach resorts, you can wear a bikini. However, if you're in public and your clothes aren't up to par with Saudi's modesty standard, behold the mutawa, otherwise known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or in simpler terms, the religious morality police. These are the guys that went crazy, calling out, “Pardah! Pardah! (Veil! Veil!)”, at my mom when they noticed her head scarf sliding back, revealing some front hair.
The UAE’s dress code is relaxed. Much more relaxed. If you visit Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you’ll notice women dressed to the nines, even at places like the mall. I noticed women in crop tops, short shorts and summer dresses freely roaming about. You’re allowed to wear bikinis at the beach. However, it’s a respectful practice to cover up a bit more as the Emiratis would appreciate it.
If you visit the more conservative Emirates, such as Sharjah or Ajman, where a larger Emirati population resides, I recommend wearing clothing that cover at least the shoulders and knees. This type of attire also applies to both women and men during Ramadan.
Do you need a male companion?
In Saudi Arabia, a woman must either A) travel to Saudi Arabia with a male relative or B) have a male relative or sponsor waiting for her at the airport to pick her up, otherwise she will not be allowed to enter the country.
As of now, Saudi Arabia is a very gender segregated country. Restaurants, like McDonalds, often have two lineups, one for males and one for females. When I went to Mecca, the Library of Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) had different days and timings that allowed men and women to enter. As much as I wanted to visit the historic library, I couldn’t catch the right day or time. If I remember correctly, women could enter on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the afternoon Islamic prayer, Asr, and the evening prayer, Mahgrib. Men could enter all other times. Once, I ran upstairs, in the building where the library was located, right when the time for women to enter was ending, but still attempted to enter. The security guard sitting behind a desk banged his hand on the desk and ordered me to stop. Then he oh-so-kindly informed me that I wasn’t allowed in.
In the UAE, feel free to travel to your hearts content without a male. This includes driving anywhere you want or doing any activity. Would I recommend the UAE for solo female travel? Of course. There are plenty of activities to do and see. Bear in mind, Arabs are family-oriented so you’ll find accommodations for children almost everywhere, such as a theme park in every mall. So if you’re a female with kids toting along, you don’t need to worry about finding activities for them to do.
Is it safe for females to drive?
Saudi Arabia recently allowed women to drive so I’ve never driven in Saudi Arabia.
In the UAE, easily drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, or any other neighboring emirate. Be cautious though. Dubai hosts some wild drivers, some who change lanes without checking their blind-spots. To give you the best advice—avoid the passing lane unless you’re planning to go well above the speed limit (which I really don’t recommend) or you’ll be tailgated and honked to oblivion by young Emirati men speeding in their giant SUV’s.
Is it safe?
Ah, the ultimate question.
I felt safer in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, than I ever felt in Canada or anywhere else I’ve traveled. I used to walk alone at nights to explore the beautiful city.
Then I went to the city of Madinah and noticed a change in atmosphere. I was with my family, a group of five. When we’d walk from our hotel to nearby restaurants, drivers would often stop and ask us something. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I assume they were asking if we wanted a ride. Even trucks, which would seat only two people, would stop and ask. I know Arab countries are big on hospitality, but I was slightly creeped out and thought they were planning to kidnap us (lol).
Madinah seemed to be split into two halves. I’ll refer to them as the creepy half and the not creepy half. The not creepy half contained the beautiful Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a cool museum about the 99 names of God, western stores, like H&M and Starbucks and beautiful architecture. I was able to walk here alone at night, with ease. The creepy half, where we usually went to find a restaurant to eat at, had grocery stores, dark alleyways, fruit markets and a plethora of restaurants. Maybe it’s because we always went there at night. Maybe it’s because I only ever saw men walking around there. The way they stared at you. Or maybe it was just the dark alleyways. My sister and I agreed we’d never walk alone here like we used to in Mecca.
I found the UAE to be safe, provided I used discretion and took the precautions I normally would as a woman going anywhere. I stayed in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and never felt my safety compromised. Women walked alone at night and waited at bus stops. I never felt harassed or felt in danger and I used to go out alone some nights to take photos, provided I was in a populated, well-lit area.
What about female travelers getting in trouble with the law?
I won’t dwell deep into this because I haven’t gotten in trouble with the law in either country. The most I went through was a car accident while driving my car rental in the UAE, thus having to interact multiple times with the police. As a non-Arabic speaking female, the police still treated me with respect (except that one time I asked the dispatcher to send an English-speaking cop).
Here are some tips—both countries are very strict in terms of drugs, sexual expression, language and ensuring the locals feel respected and safe. Don’t swear in public, even if it’s in a conversation with your friend. Don’t drink and drive (well you can’t even drink in Saudi). I recommend not to visit if you're pregnant and unmarried, in case you need to visit a doctor. If found out, you can be reported to the authorities and will likely be arrested. Respect the locals. They’re easy to spot because they’re usually in traditional Arab garb. It will always be their word over yours if you get into a conflict with them. These tips apply to both men and women. The last thing you want to do is land in a jail cell in a foreign land. Punishment goes according to nationality, so if you’re not from a commonwealth country, expect harsher punishments. If you do get in trouble, since you weren’t aware of cultural differences and the laws, the punishment you should hope for is just a swift deportation. All this can be avoided if you act a tad more conservatively than what's allowed in western countries.
I want to bring up another point—I'm visibly Muslim because I don the headscarf and dress a bit more conservatively. Do I think, because of this, my experiences may differ from women (Muslim or not) who don’t wear the headscarf? I can’t say for sure, although the UAE and Saudi Arabia emerge from cultures where women dress very conservatively. But it seems things are changing and there are many people, of different religions, in the UAE who don’t put an emphasis on how covered a person is. And they’re the ones you’ll interact with the most.
Traveling to the Middle East as a female is enjoyable, eye-opening and safe, if you practice common sense. There is so much flavourful food to devour, places to see and, of course, the breathtaking desert landscape. This post is meant to give a glimpse into the Arab world, to show that ME countries aren't all the same and why it's erroneous to group the entire ME as so. It's important for female travelers in the Middle East to know the difference. I mean, you wouldn't want to show up in Dubai wearing an abaya if you don't have to (lol).
Have you traveled to the Middle East? Is it on your travel list? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!