“Are you crazy?”
“You’re going to the Middle East?”
The questions came pouring in before I left for my solo trip to the Middle East in December 2016.
As I write this, I’m at the airport in Muscat, Oman, on my final leg of an adventure across Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. It was one of the best and most inspiring trips I’ve ever taken.
The people I met and interacted with in each country were unbelievably friendly and accommodating – to the point where I couldn’t believe if this was real life or if I was dreaming.
My reason for writing this post is not only to tell you about my amazing experiences, but also to urge you not to listen to what the media says about the Middle East or judge people by what they are wearing.
In this article, you’ll also get exclusive travel tips and advice that you’ll need to know before booking your flights to the Middle East.
*Note – when I refer to the Middle East in this article, I am specifically talking about the Gulf Countries. See below map*
An Introduction to Arabic Hospitality
Part of me can understand why so many people are intimidated to travel through the Middle East, largely due to all the negative media attention.
A few terrorist attacks happen by Muslims, and people suddenly assume that all 1.6 billion Muslims on our planet are bad people.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I’m a strong believer that every country has good people and bad people, whether it be the USA, Syria, Brazil or Somalia. But as I travel more, I can tell you with certainty that the good people far outweigh the bad in this world. The Middle East is no different.
I’m American and Jewish. I have red hair and white skin. That puts me in opposition both physically and culturally to almost everyone in the Middle East.
Additionally, I had never extensively hung out with Muslim people or knew much about Arabic culture prior to my trip. But over the last 9 days, I’ve spent nearly every second with them, and I have nothing but positive things to share.
When I arrived in my first country (Kuwait), I met up with another travel blogger named Fatima (@hello965) who I’d only been internet friends with. Not only did she give me a grand tour of her country, but she also introduced me to many of her Kuwaiti friends and helped arrange my first ever meet-up in Kuwait City!
If you were in attendance that evening, I want to extend an extra thank you for coming. From the bottom of my heart, it was one of the most touching events of my life and I was inspired by meeting every single one of you.
Once I left Kuwait and traveled onward around the Arabian Gulf, Fatima reached out to her friends in Bahrain and Oman to see if they could show me around. Through those people, I kept meeting more friends of friends of friends, and every person was very kind and hospitable. They picked me up at the airport, took me sight seeing, taught me about their culture, and they wouldn’t let me pay for anything.
The Gulf countries are very safe.
I walked around everywhere by myself at night (even in dark allies) and never once felt harassed or stalked. As long as you use common sense (the same that you would in any city) then you should be perfectly fine and safe.
To be completely honest, I feel more afraid walking around Chicago or Barcelona at night that I did anywhere in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar or Oman.
Many women have reached out to me asking if it’s safe to travel around the Gulf as a female, and my answer is absolutely yes. I met many solo (non-Arabic) female travelers, and they didn’t have any issues from what they told me. The only thing I’d recommend is to cover your shoulders at all times and don’t wear high shorts (out of respect). The safety conditions are the same conditions for both men and women – so please don’t worry at all.
I’ve also been asked numerous times if I felt unsafe traveling around the Middle East as a Jew, and my answer is not once. I even told my new friends and Uber drivers that I was Jewish and they didn’t show any disrespect to myself or to my religion. In fact, the opposite happened. Many of them were interested to hear more about Judaism and what it’s like to go to Israel, since they are prohibited to travel there with their passports.
Once again, our perspectives are drastically changed by what the media portrays, and I am telling you from first-hand experience that it’s false.
While most of the Gulf countries share the same language (Arabic) and oil-enriched economy, they’re each slightly unique in their own ways. For example, you can identify which country a person is from by the way they dress. The men wear different “thwabs” (long robes) depending on their country. Also, each country has their own traditions which can be seen in Mosques or on the dinner table.
Speaking of food, I can’t wait to share with you what I ate!
The food that I ate all around the Gulf was fantastic. Although somewhat a mixture between Persian (Iranian), Mediterranean and Indian cuisines, there are several unique dishes to the Arabic world that will give your taste buds a pleasant surprise!
The most common meats are lamb, chicken, beef, goat and fish (only on the coastal areas). Rice is always served alongside meat. Pork is very uncommon due to Islamic law and considered taboo by religious beliefs.
Dairy products are widely consumed, especially yogurt (called laban), buttermilk and white goat cheese. You will also find an abundance of herbs and spices, most notably sesame, saffron, black pepper, garlic, cinnamon and parsley.
Other common ingredients are eggplant, carrots, zucchini, onions, olives, pita, dates, chickpeas and mint.
All of my meals were local during my 9-day trip, except the two times that I ate at McDonald’s in Kuwait and Oman. (Side Note – I’ve now eaten at McDonald’s in 53 countries!)
My favorite Arabic dishes were the following:
Shuwa (Omani) – goat roasted in a special oven that’s a pit underground. The meat is flavored with a variety of spices, then wrapped in sacks made of dry leaves, which are in turn placed into the oven. It’s amazing.
Machboos (Kuwait) – freshly caught Gulf shrimp on top of rice, and flavored with sauteed onions, turmeric, coriander and dried loomi (a dried black lime). The spices and flavors in this dish are to die for.
Khubz & Hummus (Bahrain) – Khubz is a Persian-influenced flat round bread, made in a clay oven, which dries rapidly and is best consumed while still warm from the oven. Dip it in local hummus with green olives. YUM. I took this shot inside the back room of a restaurant in Bahrain as they were making it fresh.
Balaeet (Qatar) – this dish has contrasting flavors of both salty and sweet and is usually eaten for breakfast. The paste is sweet with a small hint of cardamon, topped with wafer egg pancakes. A bite of sweetness and a crispy salty egg pancake is what makes this dish so unique and delicious.
Karak (Oman) – Inspired by Indian chai, this is a flavored tea made by brewing black tea with milk, spices and herbs. It’s always served boiling hot (even in summer), and is commonly enjoyed throughout the day. I drank at least 2 cups of karak everyday.
Things to Do in the Middle East
Visit Souks – a souk is a traditional marketplace that has everything from hand-made goods to clothing and electronics. Many of the souks also have outdoor cafes, restaurants, street food and shisha bars. I recommend to visit them at night as that’s when most of the activity happens.
Walk through the Downtown Area – each big city in the Gulf has futuristic skyscrapers and an electric skyline that cannot be missed. Just wander around and keep your head looking straight up to the sky! The photo below was in Doha, Qatar.
Go Inside the Mosques – Each country has a “Grand” or “National” Mosque that is well worth a trip inside. These Mosques are built with so much detail and perfection, and inside, you can admire the massive soft rugs that seemingly go on forever. Be aware that they have strict visiting hours (during off-praying time), so always be respectful.
Smoke Shisha at on Outdoor Café – a trip to the Middle East wouldn’t be complete without smoking some shisha (hookah) at an outdoor cafe. My favorite flavors were apple and strawberry.
Budgeting – Flights, Hotels, Transportation, etc.
The Gulf countries aren’t nearly as cheap as Southeast Asia or even South America… It’s actually quite expensive.
The only thing that’s cheap is shopping in the souks (markets), where you can bargain down the price — just like I did here at the Muttrah souk in Muscat, Oman.
I spent an average of $100USD per day (not including flights), which covered all hotels, meals, ubers, sight seeing, etc.
There are a variety of airlines that fly from country to country, and all of them are good. In fact, many of the Middle Eastern airlines are listed as the top in the world (Qatar, Emirates, Etihad). I flew with Kuwait Air, Oman Air, Etihad and Gulf Air and had great experiences all around.
The cost to fly one-way (from country to country) is about $100USD, and I booked flights about 3 weeks in advance. I’m sure you can find cheaper if you book 4-8 weeks out.
For accommodations, I stayed at “budget” hotels, which ranged from $50 – 80USD per night. I made all my reservations on Booking.com. Unfortunately, there aren’t many cheaper options unless you use couchsurfing, which is free.
USE UBER whenever possible and avoid taking taxis as they will rip you off. Uber was very affordable (same prices as in the U.S.), and it’s safer and more reliable than any taxi. As of writing this, Uber is available in Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Tel Aviv and Lebanon.
Of course, you can budget yourself on less than $100USD per day if you use couchsurfing and only eat street food, etc… but I’m way past those days.
Top 5 Highlights of My Trip
1. Sleeping in the Omani desert – I went on an incredible desert tour with a company called One Roof Oman. They picked me up at the airport, and we drove 4 hours overnight into the middle of the Wahiba Desert of Oman. We camped in tents, cooked burgers over a fire, and woke up at 5:30AM to one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen (below).
If you go to Oman, contact them at [email protected] or What’s App (+96899387526) and they will arrange an amazing tour for you!
2. Kuwait City Meet up – I held my first meet up in Kuwait City at a coffee shop and about 30 amazing people showed up. Words can’t describe the feeling I had when I got to meet everyone and share travel stories. One kid, named Mohammed, is only 14 years old but came all by himself on a school night. I connected with him personally, and even had to call his dad to convince him to let his son stay out later and join us for dinner.
3. Playing Golf in Kuwait City – Kuwait is the 15th country I’ve played golf in, and it was one of the most memorable rounds of my life! Huge thanks to my friends at Sahara Golf Club for arranging this round for me. I actually played really well (3 over par), and I got to break in my new Snapchat Spectacles at the same time.
4. Hiking in Wadi Shab, Oman – I had no idea what Wadi Shab was until my good friend Lee Abbamonte told me to check it out. It’s one of the best displays of nature I’ve ever seen — huge canyons, boulders, and steep cliffs engulfed by cold fresh water that you can swim in. I went cliff jumping and climbed waterfalls all day long at Wadi Shab it was fantastic. There are many “wadis” in Oman, but this is definitely the best one to visit. Trust me.
5. Walking around Souk Waqif in Doha, Qatar – Each country has a variety of “souks” or markets to visit, but my favorite was Souk Waqif in Doha. During the day, it’s virtually a ghost town, but at night, the streets come alive and you can spend 6+ hours enjoying the Qatari atmosphere. This is the place to buy all your souvenirs, eat street food or chill at a coffee/shisha bar and people watch.
Final Tips Before Going to the Gulf
- Try visiting from November – March, otherwise you will be miserably hot. December & January is the best time.
- Be respectful of Muslim culture. Don’t visit a mosque during prayer time on Friday or Saturday.
- The workweek in the Middle East starts on Sunday and goes until Thursday evening, which means the weekend nights are on Thursday and Friday night.
- Don’t get mixed up by the exchange rates, specifically in Kuwait and Bahrain, as those are the two strongest currencies in the world. 1 USD = 0.25 Kuwaiti Dinars…. so that 5 Dinar meal you paid for was really $20USD.
- Avoid visiting during Ramadan, as everything will be closed from sunrise to sunset and it’s actually illegal if you are found eating on the streets. The month of Ramadan changes every year (it’s always the 9th month of the Islamic calendar), so make sure to check an Arabic calendar to see when it is.
- Be respectful to everyone, no matter the circumstance. If you give someone a middle finger, then you can be thrown in jail even if there was no witness present.
- Due to cultural and religions beliefs, some women are not allowed to touch men. So as a rule of thumb, never reach your hand out to shake a female’s hand… let her reach out if she’s comfortable in doing so.
- Make sure that you check visa restrictions for entry. For American citizens, you can enter visa free or get a visa-on-arrival in every country I went to.
- Booze is illegal in some countries (Kuwait), and only found in select hotels or restaurants in other countries. What I’m trying to say is — don’t travel to the Middle East to expect a wild nightlife scene (the only exception is Dubai).
- Bring extra U.S. Cash with you as back up money, beacuse you can easily exchange it in every airport. For getting visa on arrivals, you can use a credit card at the immigration desk or U.S. Cash.
When looking back on my trip to the Middle East, I cannot stop smiling and thinking about all the fun times and memories I had. I’ve made dozens of incredible friends and I’m already starting to think of my next trip to Iran and Saudi Arabia. I hope that after reading this post, you will consider taking a trip to the Middle East so you can experience Arabic hospitality for yourself.
Lastly, it would mean the world to me if you could share this post on Facebook to help spread message of peace and love. And don’t hesitate to email me with any questions you have!
Thanks for reading — Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate 🙂