I never thought the experience of travelling in the Arab world as something unique because I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Luckily for me, all those exotic sounding countries were right on my doorstep. It wasn’t until I became a travel blogger that I realised how much beauty and uniqueness every country in the world offers and began to understand why the diverse Arab culture and history captures the imagination and inspires wonder in so many travellers. To help you discover these rich and varied parts of the world, I’ve created this introductory guide so you know where to go, what to do, how to pack and how to master the basics of our beautiful language.
The Arab world is made up of 22 countries and is connected by the religion of Islam (which spread from the west of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century) and the Arabic language. Although most of the region shares the same religion, Arab culture varies from one place to the other. The Arabian Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a large geographical region with a mix of tradition, food and nature. Visiting each part will give you a completely different experience – but there is one thing they have in common: the temperatures are insanely hot in the summer, so I recommend you avoid visiting here during those months. Sadly, some areas are currently not politically stable for travellers to visit, but I am hopeful that in time all the troubled countries will be accessible once more.
- Arabic regions/countries
- Arabic travel phrases
- Modest packing guide
- Dos & don’ts for non-Arab travellers
Esra in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
1. Arabic Regions / Countries
The Arab world is spread over two continents: Asia and Africa. The Arabian regions are usually referred to as the Middle East and North Africa or MENA. You may even have heard this term before, especially on the news and Twitter.
Persian/Arabian Gulf countries
Saudi Arabia is the biggest Gulf country and it shares the Arabian Peninsula with Yemen. It acquired its wealth from the oil and gas industry and is now a vibrant country, full of work opportunities. The most visited part of Saudi is the west of the country, where the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, and they get at least two million visitors a year for the annual Islamic pilgrimage.
Bahrain is a little island in the gulf and is only an hour drive on the causeway from the East of Saudi. It can be seen in one day. It’s known for the pearl industry and the Halwa dessert, which is a gooey sweet dessert usually coloured in red and stuffed with pistachio.
Kuwait has a lovely chilled out vibe with monthly farmer’s market, yoga and beach time. Not to mention all the amazing food choices. Their Royal Prince’s art collection is known as one of the most prestigious in the world of Islamic art.
Qatar has become such an important island in the past 15 years, having been developed extensively. The Museum of Islamic Art is one of the most renowned in the world for its thoughtful design and rich art collection.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the most known countries of the Gulf especially for their main city, Dubai. It’s a fun-packed city but is as pricey as London. UAE’s capital is Abu Dhabi and it houses the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Mosque (commonly known as the White Mosque) and the Louvre with its stunning contemporary architecture.
Oman has the best beaches that I have seen in the Gulf. The locals are very nice and there are so many mountains to hike and valleys with water pools to swim in.
You can join all the Gulf countries in one road trip, making it as short as a week or extending it for three weeks.
Iraq has been in the news for what feels like an eternity. The political situation there is still not stable, but it still welcomes visitors especially for the religious sights in Najaf and Karbala. The capital Baghdad is rich in history and archaeological sites that date back to the 8th century.
Yemen is not part of the Gulf countries, but it shares the Arabian Peninsula with Saudi and unfortunately is currently at war. They have some amazing archaeological cities though!
White Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Lebanon is referred to as the Paris of the Middle East. The capital Beirut is such a hip and artist hub. It was once the main media hub as well but for stability reasons this has now moved to the UAE. The street art, nature and food are fantastic there. I went back in 2010 and it changes every year (not always by their will because it needs to get rebuilt after every political altercation). It’s not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be. The locals are so full of life and the villages around Beirut are beautiful as well and can be great for outdoor activities like skiing and hiking.
Jordan’s two most famous attractions are Petra and the Dead-Sea, and rightly so, but there are other ancient ruins worth visiting too like Jerash Ruins plus some natural reserves that are worthy of visiting. Their dessert Knafee is a MUST when you visit – I am drooling just thinking about it.
Syria used to be beautiful. I visited it when I was a teenager with the family and it is heart-breaking to see all the destruction that it is happening now. I would love to return here when things become stable again.
Palestine is the subject of conversation in most families in the Middle East because of the current political climate. It is really complicated to visit what remains of Palestinian lands like West Bank and Gaza Strip and most visitors must access it from Israel. It was a life changing experience for all my friends when they went to Jerusalem.
Arabian African countries
Egypt is known as “Om Al Duniah”, the mother of the world, because it housed one of the oldest human civilisations. It’s rich in archaeological heritage most notably the iconic pyramids. It is also known as a pioneering country in the performing arts and is always busy, crowded and full of life. Tourism there declined over the past couple of years because of the Arab Spring, but it is coming back steadily.
Sudan is just next-door to Egypt but is sadly not as popular. It also has pyramids, many Ancient ruins and the nicest people.
Morocco is on the list of most Western travellers, especially those in Europe because there are so many cheap direct flights. I love Morocco for the beautiful Islamic geometric tiles in the surviving mosques and palaces in Marrakech and Fez. The salesmen can be off-putting with their pressure, but it is a wonder to visit.
Algeria has some stunning nature from green mountains to beaches. It is a little hard to get the visa to visit, but if you manage to get one, the outdoors will take your breath away.
Tunisia feels like a mix of Morocco and Algeria because it has the Islamic heritage in Carthage and Kairouan and some gorgeous mountain nature. It also served as a filming location for Star Wars.
Libya is still politically unstable, but when the situation gets better it will be amazing to see their Roman ruins, Islamic sights and fascinating desert and mountain sights.
There are four more African countries that are part of Arab League as well: Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania and Somalia.
2. Arabic travel phrases
The Arabic language is a little complicated because the verbs, nouns and adjectives change for individual males and females plus groups of females and groups of males. It’s very specific and has a huge amount of words that can mean several things. The written classical Arabic is the same across the MENA and is referred to as “fusha”. Spoken Arabic is when everything gets a little tricky as each region in the Arab world has their own dialect and accent of saying things. The Saudi accent is extremely different than the Egyptian one for example. People understand each other for the most part aside for some very regionally specific words. It gets even more complicated when you compare spoken Arabic in the Middle East and the one in North Africa. North African Arabic includes Berber and French phrases and I struggled when visiting Morocco to communicate in some places that were mostly Berber speaking. So, I always must adjust my dialect when visiting different places but thankfully most Arabs understand the Egyptian and Syrian accents because they feature prominently on Arab World TV.
Here’s a list of phrases in standard/classical (fusha) Arabic that most Arabs should understand. If it’s hard for you to pronounce these phrases, you can print them out and take them with you and point at them for someone to read it instead. Many people speak very good English though and you will find a few English-speaking people in most place – especially in the Gulf region because all university education is in English.
Key basic phrases
مرحبا – Marhaba
سلام عليكم – Salam Alikom
How are you?
كيف الحال؟ – Kaif Alhal
كيفك؟ – Kaifak
I am good
الحمدالله – Alhamdilah
بخير – Be Khair
تمام – Tamam
وأنت – Wa Anta (towards a male)
وأنتي – Wa Anty (toward a female)
شكراً – Shukran
لو سمحت – Lau Samaht (towards a male)
لو سمحتي – Lau Samahty (towards a female)
مطعم جيد؟ – Matam Jaid
أكل جيد؟ – Akel Jaid?
Where is the bathroom?
أين الحمام؟ – Aina Alhamam?
Where is the hospital?
أين المستشفى؟ – Aina Almustashfa?
Complementary Arabic phrases
له – Mashalla (It can be used when you are admiring something)
جميل – Jamil (beautiful for male)
جميلة – Jamilah (beautiful for female)
This food is delicious
طعام لذيذ – Ta aam Latheeth
أكل لذيذ – Akel Latheeth
To thank someone for cooking a meal for you
سلمت يدك – Salmet Yadek
To thank or show gratitude to someone for helping you
يعطيك الصحة – Ya Atik Al Seha
Esra in Bahrain
3. A Modest packing guide
Being modest as a man and a woman is encouraged throughout the MENA. In some areas it’s a must, especially in the Gulf countries because of the stricter traditions. The rest of the Arab world is a little more accepting, but I would advise all travellers to be modest in what they wear. I know that soaring summer temperatures equals shorts in some countries, but it’s important to remember that other countries have a different approach to dressing in warm weather. For example, men in Arabic countries are not used to seeing women in shorts, so if a woman wears shorts here they will receive A LOT of unwanted attention. This is not to say that you must be wrapped up all the time, but it’s important to be respectful and realise that the standard Western summer holiday outfit of shorts and a t-shirt are not the usual attire for most places in the MENA.
The Gulf region, Bahrain and Dubai in the UAE are the most relaxed places when it comes to modesty and there are many places where you can dress as you like such as resorts, private beaches and other locations. The only country that requires a special dress code is Saudi Arabia, but since they do not allow tourist visas, you won’t need to worry about visiting here unless it’s for business.
To be respectful, I would advise you to wear a t-shirt with a pair of jeans or other types of trousers. Wearing a knee-length skirt or a pair of cropped trousers is okay too. Sadly, the less a woman is covered the more negative attention she will receive, and men should also be aware that shorts above the knees are also not very common.
In the Levant and North Africa, women are more open with their clothing and a lot of local women do not dress in an overly conservative way. It’s hard to give you a clear idea of how everyone dresses as you can get different levels of modesty even in one city.
Be aware that going to a mosque in any country requires very modest clothing and a head covering. Some big touristy mosques like the Shaik Zayed Mosque provide women with an abaya (black long robe) and a hijab (head scarf) to enter. Smaller, local mosques might not offer these though, so if you want to visit them make sure you are wearing a maxi dress with long sleeves and have a shawl or a scarf to cover your hair.
Esra at the White Mosque, Abu Dhabi
4. Dos and Don’ts for non-Arab travellers
Here are some things you shouldn’t miss out on when visiting the MENA:
- Indulge in the Arabian food choices: the Arab world is vast, and each region has their own food specialities that they are known for. In the Gulf region, make sure you try Kabsa, Qimat, Asida, Hareesa. In Egypt, try the Kushari, Om Ali and Foul. In the Levant, eat all their mezzas; they also have great vegetarian and vegan options there. In North Africa, try the Cuscous and Tajeen.
- Get caffeinated: since Arabs don’t have alcohol in their culture, they substituted it with Arabic coffee and tea. Both have slight variations depending on where you go in the Arab world. The Gulf region will give you light Arabic coffee and North Africa will give you their delicious sweet mint teas.
Here are some simple mistakes to avoid when visiting the MENA:
- Don’t hug everyone: in the Arab world, you must be aware of the way you interact with people of the opposite sex. Hugs are usually private and whilst it’s normal to hug anyone who is the same gender as you, it’s not ok for a man and a woman to hug. Also, be mindful about who you extend your hand to as conservative Muslims prefer not to shake hands with the opposite sex.
- Don’t keep your shoes on: if you’re visiting someone’s house, you should usually take your shoes off before you enter – the same as you would in the mosques. It shows respect and cleanliness.
- Don’t express all your political views: Arabs love chatting and arguing about politics, but please be careful not to insult the Royal family or the government of the place you are visiting.
Madeina in Saudi Arabia
Reading all about the Arab world might sound a little overwhelming and you may think it is stressful to go there and get everything right. Just try to be sensible in your dress and behaviour and it will be fine. Remember to enjoy yourself – you’re there on a holiday after all and this will no doubt be a very memorable journey.
You should also read: Why women shouldn’t be worried about solo travel to the Middle East
About the author
Esra Alhamal is a Saudi travel blogger based in London. She shares her travel experiences as an Arab Muslim woman travelling solo or with friends on arabianwanderess.com. She also documents her trips with videos on YouTube youtube.com/arabianwanderess. Esra focuses on Muslim female-friendly destinations worldwide. Her travel interests are architectural heritage and outdoor activities.