10 Things To Know Before You Go: The Middle East
Traveling to the Middle East (e.g.,United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey etc.) can be one of the most enchanting and exotic destinations you will visit if you consider the cultural traditions, customs and laws you may encounter, most of which may be quite different from what you've experienced in your home country. In this article we outline ten things every savvy traveler needs to know before traveling into the region.
1. Visas - Prior to your arrival be sure to research and understand the visa requirements for the country you'll be visiting. This will save you plenty headaches and possibly money. Depending on the origin country of your passport there may be provisions to obtain a visa waiver at customs upon arrival to your destination country. For example, Qatar allows holders of US passports visa-free entry for 30 days. A visa waiver is issued upon arrival at customs. However, your passport must have at least 6 months remaining before expiring.
2. Dress Code and PDA - In predominately Muslim countries Islam emphasizes the concept of decency. As a result, modest or conservative dress, refraining from use of profanity and from public displays of affection are expected while visiting. For instance, in Dubai the dress code is more liberal. Bathing suits are acceptable attire at hotel pools and beaches; above the knee length dresses may not arouse attention but anything shorter may be deemed disrespectful to the culture. Very tight, low cut tops or tops with profane language are considered offensive. For men, bike shorts (unless biking) or other tight or revealing attire (swim trunks at the beach are acceptable) worn in public is offensive. When entering a mosque all men must wear long trousers or other acceptable attire and women must cover their legs, arms and head. It's a great idea to keep a long scarf or other form of cover on hand if needed.
Ahead of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has launched a campaign to educate tourists about acceptable dress code. Leaflets are being distributed at the Doha airport imploring tourists to "please dress modestly in public places" in order to " Help us preserve Qatar’s culture and values." The information further states that "Leggings worn without a tunic cover is unacceptable." Police don't usually search for dress code violators however, they will respond to complaints lodged by those whose sensibilities have been offended. The penalty for violating the dress code may be deportation or imprisonment.
3. Alcohol and Profanity - Alcohol is served in most hotel bars (except Muslim-friendly hotels) and nightclubs public intoxication, drunkenness, loud and profane language are all forbidden. Since a great majority of the population of Middle Eastern countries observes the Islamic faith alcohol may be banned as imbibing is against the Islamic faith. So, performing a quick Google search before you travel to confirm whether the city you're visiting prohibits alcohol altogether will save you disappointment if 'turning up' is in your plans. Some cities like Sharjah, UAE do ban it altogether.
4. Drugs/Medications - In order to quell the crime of drug transportation many countries have implemented policies that allow customs officials to check the validity of prescribed medications of travelers by inspecting a written prescription or note from your doctor. For example, the UAE has strict narcotics laws that have landed many travelers in prison. “Up to three months’ supply of a prescription item can be brought into the country by a visitor and 12 months’ supply by a resident if they can produce a doctor’s letter or a copy of the original prescription. Other medicines that are prohibited include non-registered, banned medicines and herbal medicines. For a detailed list of the narcotics, psychotropic and controlled medicines for the UAE visit www.moh.gov.ae Most visitors will enter a country and never get asked to produce proof of their medication. This is not the time to take chances; err on the side of caution and obtain the documentation prior to your arrival. Don't ruin a hard earned, well deserved vacay by getting locked up abroad!
5. Ramadan Observance - Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, is the holiest month during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset. If you are traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan, it is important to be aware of what to expect during and more importantly, what is expected of you. Generally, live music, singing, dancing, smoking and eating in public is prohibited for Muslims and non-Muslims during Ramadan. Be mindful that offices and schools will close early; restaurants will either be closed during the fasting period or if open, the windows will likely be shaded in observance of the fasting period. For example, in Jordan, restaurants are closed until sunset. Ramadan ends with the observance of Eid al-Fitr, three days of feasting, exchanging gifts and visiting with family and friends. Check the internet before you book to find out when Ramadan begins and ends for the year then plan accordingly.
6. Prayers - Roughly 20% of the population in the region practices the Islamic faith. Adherents to the faith are required to pray 5 times daily. During your travels you will certainly notice the music, and in some cases, signs signaling the 'call to prayer'. Additionally, if your accommodations are in a 'Muslim-friendly' hotel (Remember, no bars in these hotels!) you will notice each room comes equipped with a prayer rug and a 'Qibla' (arrow) on the ceiling to indicate the direction of Mecca towards which Muslims pray.
7. Friday - Unlike in the Christian religious tradition where Sunday is considered the Sabbath, in predominately Muslim countries Friday is considered a holiday ("holy day"). The workweek runs Sunday through Thursday with the weekend beginning Friday through Saturday. In Islam, on Friday, the Jummah prayer is offered. Thus Friday is given the most importance over any other day of the week. Many families get together after Friday prayers to enjoy family time at amusement parks and shopping malls etc. Both Muslims and non-Muslims alike usually partake of a sumptuous Friday brunch as it's big business at local restaurants and hotels in the middle east so map out your brunch strategy early. You're sure to be spoiled for choice as you're sure to find every delectable delicacy; so get to Googling!
8. Social Media - Turkish authorities have blocked access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, citing national security. Wikipedia has been banned for more than a year for refusing to take down posts. In Dubai, for example, a British woman was arrested and convicted of a misdemeanor and fined the equivalent of $824 USD for the offense of calling her ex-husband's new wife a "horse" in a 2-year old Facebook post. So, here are a few details to know about social media laws in the UAE: 1. Don't post people's pictures without their permission; 2. Ranting, sharing 'hate' posts, offending or attacking another person, etc. could land you in serious trouble - 6 months in jail and a fine of over $68,000 USD equivalent. 3. Posting content that is offensive to Islamic morals and values (e.g., nudity, pornography, drunkenness etc.) is a very serious offense and "shall be punished by imprisonment and a fine between $68,000 and $136,000 USD equivalent. Similar social media, cybercrimes and internet use laws are in force in other countries. Research the country you're traveling to so you know what the laws for social media and internet usage are.
9. Pork - The Quran strictly prohibits the consumption of pork. So don't expect any on your travels to this part of the world. When visiting middle eastern countries the closest you can expect to find is likely to be turkey bacon. Hey, it's quite a small sacrifice for having the great fortune of visiting this enchanting part of the globe and appreciating its rich religious traditions and cultural heritage.
10. Public Restrooms - Cleanliness is extremely important in the Islamic faith. Thus, both public and hotel restrooms in addition to having toilet paper, will be equipped with a bidet and/or a hand-held spray hose. These are to be used after relieving yourself in order to affect the most thorough cleansing. I promise you once you use a bidet or a sprayer hose you'll be hitting up Amazon to purchase one for home use. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it!
-Happy, safe (and informed) travels