crossing5oceans.com | Published December 14th, 2020 | Last Updated December 29th, 2020
The Floral Tiled Entry Floor of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
To answer the question regarding the safety of solo Middle East travel I suppose you need to ask yourself what countries you plan to explore. There certainly are destinations that are less progressive and have more regulations; for the purposes of this post I will only write about the countries I had the opportunity to visit, which were Oman, Qatar, and the UAE.
When telling my family about my plans to travel to the Middle East they had reservations. I'll admit I had reservations also, big ones! I was nervous about the unknown and I was leaving the familiar European cities I had become accustomed to exploring in the previous eight years of travel. Now, I look back on my three weeks in these countries and laugh at myself for being nervous; there wasn't a single moment during my entire stay that I felt threatened or unsafe in my surroundings. Hindsight really is 20/20.
Do you still need to be vigilant? Absolutely! But I would advise the same if you're travelling to Europe or South America or anywhere else on the planet. There are different customs to be aware of and I've listed them here so you can enjoy your own solo travels fret-free to these incredible countries.
Respect the Culture
THE ADAGE OF 'TREAT OTHERS AS YOU'D LIKE TO BE TREATED' APPLIES HERE - You wouldn’t want people visiting your country and being disrespectful of the laws and customs that make up your culture, and the same goes for the Middle East (anywhere really). When visiting Middle Eastern Countries observe the following:
Don't wear booty shorts, low cut tops, skin tight clothing etc. If you do, you're bound to bring unwanted negative attention to yourself.
When entering a mosque or any place of worship, be sure to have a headscarf and keep it on. Some of the mosques have a policy that's stricter than others. For example, in the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi you're required to cover more of your skin than the other mosques and women are given a dress/robe before entering.
Go on a Local Tour
BEING WITH A LOCAL GUIDE IS THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN ABOUT THE REGION, CULTURE & CUSTOMS - Doing this at the beginning of the trip helps open your eyes to the differences in the customs and has the added benefit of making you feel at ease in surroundings that are foreign to you. Remember, people for the most part, are proud of the country they reside in, and their culture. Showing interest in their customs and asking questions is not offensive it’s respectful, as long as those questions are in good taste.
Desert Safari Tour with Platinum Heritage in Dubai
THERE ARE WOMAN - ONLY TAXIS FOR TRANSPORTATION - There are pink taxis popping up in many Middle Eastern countries. These cabs are driven strictly by women and only women or families are allowed to catch a ride in them. The cars will be either entirely pink or they'll have a pink roof. The cabs used for men or cabs in general have a red roof. I rode in the woman-only and the regular taxis and didn't have a preference; I felt safe in both types of transport.
How to order a pink taxi:
In Dubai, the number to call is 04-2080808
In Doha, download the Pink Driver App
In Muscat, pink taxis were supposed to be available as of 2018 but the contact information has yet to be posted.
Pink Taxis Will be Either All Pink or Have Pink Roofs
Taking the Metro
THERE ARE WOMAN - ONLY CARS ON THE METRO. When you arrive at the platform of the stations in Dubai you'll notice areas marked off on the ground that indicate where to stand to enter the train. As you can see in the photo below, there's both English and Arabic writing on the ground that indicates that the cabin is for woman and children only. You'll also notice there are woman and children icons on the area above the entrance doors in the blue strip.
To the left and right of the entry doors, there are small red signs with a caution symbol on them. These signs indicate that a male will be fined AED 100 if they're found in those cabins. If you happen to be travelling with a male ensure everyone is getting into the correct car.
Using the Woman and Children-Only Cabins on the Dubai Metro
DON'T VENTURE OUT ALONE LATE AT NIGHT - If you plan to be out late, why not stay in your hotel bar or restaurant if there is one? Customs in the Middle East indicate that it isn’t appropriate for women to be outside by themselves late at night and doing so is just asking for potential problems. This is probably sound advice anywhere you travel alone.
DON'T TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS OF RESTRICTED BUILDINGS, OR WOMEN - There are buildings that post signs indicating you can't take photos, these are generally government buildings and military installations. Unless you plan on spending a portion of your stay under arrest, I would suggest taking this point seriously.
In addition to this, don't take photos of women or families. Not only is it frowned upon, but it's plain bad etiquette to put your camera in anyone's face anyway. When I was on the street snapping photos it would've been impossible to take pictures without a passerby in the scene so I was careful not to hold the camera up at eye level when anyone was walking directly toward me.
CHECK THE LIST OF ALLOWABLE MEDICATIONS BEFORE TRAVELLING - Before you plan a visit to a Middle Eastern country you need to see what medications are illegal. You may not realize that common over-the-counter and prescription medications available in North America or elsewhere are considered illegal. These substances won't be allowed across the border. If this is a medication that you can't go without, then a trip to the Middle East may not be an option for you. This is something they take very seriously so be forewarned.
DON'T MISS OUT ON THE SOUQS (MARKETS), but have your wits about you; you'll need to have your game face on for this. Being a solo traveller with long blonde hair in the middle of one of these busy markets made me an easy target. I looked like a tourist, plain and simple. I was hounded stall after stall to purchase something, anything really.
I didn't have the same experience from one city to the next. When I entered the souq in Doha, Qatar the men in the shop looked up, said "hi" and went back to what they were doing. In comparison, the souq in Dubai was a gauntlet of kiosks with sellers extremely eager to sell me one of their treasures. I rushed through this souq faster than all others since it was draining to say "no" ad nauseam. The souq in Muscat, Oman fell somewhere between the two.
Also important, remember to ask the price first. Have a general idea of what the items cost before you go and know the conversion to your own dollar. Don't buy if it's over priced, a stall or two down the way will likely have the same item.
Souvenir Shops in the Souq - Muscat, Oman
THERE IS NEXT TO NO CRIME, BUT DON'T TEMPT FATE - There's virtually no theft, assault, violent crime, pickpockets etc. You can leave your car with the window down, and your purse on the seat while going into a store and it'll be there when you come back, both the purse, and the car! While crime is low you still need to have some street smarts and be vigilant. As mentioned above don’t put yourself in a situation where you're on the streets late at night or make yourself a target.
DRIVING SOLO IN THE MIDDLE EAST - I read articles before I left about aggressiveness on the roads especially in Dubai. I’m sure it happens, it happens in any major city. However, I didn’t observe this behaviour in the nine days that I spent in the UAE. After being in Dubai for 3 days I picked up my rental car and drove out to a resort in the middle of the desert which gave me the experience of both city and freeway driving. One of the best things you can do when renting a car in a foreign country is to spend a few days in one of the cities first to get a feel for how the pedestrians interact with cars, and how drivers interact with each other. It also helps if there are any road signs you are unsure of. You may be interested in reading: ARE YOU PREPARED TO DRIVE A CAR IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY?
Driving Past Sand Dunes in the Middle East
My trip to Oman, Qatar and the UAE has become one of the highlights of my ten plus years of solo travel. It was a wonderful cultural experience, a wonderful scenic experience and a wonderful human experience. Don't let fear of the unknown stop you from travelling to destinations such as these; instead be knowledgeable about the countries you're travelling to and enjoy the journey!