TALA LADKI challenges some entrenched stereotypes about this diverse and beautiful part of the world
I'm constantly being asked about my life in the Middle East whenever I meet people who are not from there. Is it really a desert? Can women drive? How do you speak English so well? How close are you to Dubai?
I can’t lie, some of these questions are quite funny, but ultimately, they show how misrepresented – or even worse, underrepresented – the Middle East is in Western media and TV. If mentioned in movies or TV shows, the Middle East is showcased as this one big Arab area where everyone speaks Arabic and lives in subpar conditions. On the news, only the conflicts are reported. Is it even mentioned in history books?
Qatar, for example, has only now become recognized after having hosted the 2022 World Cup. Meanwhile, Dubai has gained recognition for the luxurious lifestyle many celebrities and influencers have boasted about after visiting or moving there. The Netflix reality TV show Dubai Bling, which aired in October 2022 and is expecting a new season this December, exhibits that lifestyle shamelessly. Saudi Arabia is now on the road to recognition after signing deals with several football players and becoming a more integrated country than it previously was.
Myth Number One: It’s a Desert
Let’s get one thing straight. The Middle East is not just one plot of land. It's comprised of several different countries including Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria. There’s a debate to what extent Libya and Sudan are considered Middle Eastern countries, with some references citing them as part of it, and others excluding them.
The majority of these countries, such as parts of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have some of the biggest deserts. Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country without a desert.
Actually, the Middle East has come much further than most people know, with skyscrapers and international food chains and brands taking over most cities. In recent years, lot of concerts, festivals and other events have taken place in these booming Middle Eastern countries.
Just for the record, Dubai is one of seven Emirates in the United Arab Emirates and is not a country of its own. It's the capital of the United Arab Emirates and has the highest concentration of population despite being the second biggest Emirate after Abu Dhabi.
Myth Number Two: Everyone is Muslim
Historically, Christianity was once the dominant religion in the Middle East. Today, 5% of the Middle East is made up of Christians. There’s also a Jewish presence, as well as other religions including Druze, Sikhs, Buddhists, Yazidis and Hindus.
On the other hand, many people in the Middle East do not identify with any religion and have therefore become atheists.
Lebanon, Syria and Palestine are considered among the most religiously diverse countries in the Middle East, with large numbers of Christians, contradicting the impression given that only Muslims live in the Middle East.
While some, more conservative, countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have a lot of foreigners living and working there, these countries still consider themselves to be Muslim countries, and therefore do not celebrate Christmas, for example, and still abide by the Muslim week calendar. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, every city is decorated, and Christmas markets fill the country. This is also the case with Egypt.
On another note, Dubai opened its Ibrahimic house in 2022, featuring a Mosque, a Church and a Synagogue in celebration of the diversity found there.
Myth Number Three: It’s Too Hot
I won’t lie. It's hot in the Gulf countries – Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates – and in Egypt. People in the United Arab Emirates, mainly in Dubai, go to the beach in December. Others seek to leave the country all together for an extended summer break in the hottest months (July – August). But luckily for them, they have AC everywhere.
But that’s not the case for the rest of the countries that enjoy a very cold winter with snow covering the mountain tops. In fact, Lebanon is known to be a ski-destination. Palestine and Jordan are also known to become cold in the winter season with heavy rains and some snow.
So overall, it’s not all that bad.
Myth Number Four: It’s Unsafe
United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar have been ranked among the safest countries in the world.
While the Middle East may be portrayed otherwise, it is generally safe. In some countries, it’s not always recommended to go out alone to avoid theft. In other countries, crime rates fluctuate depending on the political and economic situation of the country. But all in all, the Arab population is known to be very helpful and friendly. Once you’re there, you are bound to receive tips from an obliging local.
In terms of geopolitics, and specifically with what is happening now, it might be more unsafe than before in some areas of some countries, like the borders of Egypt or Jordan or the South of Lebanon, but luckily, life is still happening normally in their capitals.
Myth Number Five: There’s a Language Barrier
Thanks to years of colonialism, there will be no language barriers as most Middle Eastern countries were once colonized by Western countries that have introduced Western educational programs. In the Gulf countries and in Syria, the majority of schools follow the British or American systems. In Lebanon, which was under French mandate for decades, schools either follow the French or American system.
Turkey might be the only exception to the rule, where you’d be required to learn the language to be able to communicate with locals, the majority of whom speak English.
The Middle East has some of the highest ranked universities, including The King Abdulaziz university in Saudi Arabia, The Cairo university in Egypt, and The American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
A lot of people from the Middle East seek education in other Middle Eastern countries for the vast array of programs, all of which are offered in English, with the exclusion of some which may be offered in French or Arabic.
Egypt was once a hot spot for earning a degree in medicine or dentistry. While Turkey is now becoming a more popular place to pursue education.
Myth Number Six: There’s Not Much to Do
Depending on your preferences, there are plenty of activities to choose from in the Middle East. Some of the countries, like Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have a lot of history behind them and therefore offer very nice historical and cultural sightseeing dating back centuries.
If you’re into adventure, the deserts in Dubai and Egypt are great for safaris. The Red Sea in Saudi Arabia and the Mediterranean Sea in Lebanon are also known to be hot spots for divers are surfers alike.
Nightlife, you ask? Just head to Dubai’s bustling city center or one of Beirut’s many well-known pub streets, located in the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon respectively. Meanwhile, countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait offer a different kind of experience, where the focus is more on shopping and a mix of luxury and casual dining.
Gulf countries also offer a lot of leisure activities, like luxury hotels and spas. Turkey is known for its Turkish Hammam while Jordan is known for its mud baths by the Red Sea.
Myth Number Seven: There’s a Dress Code
While that had been the case in Saudi Arabia for a long time, the country has removed the mandatory Abaya dress code for women. The only requirement is to dress modestly, but no Abayas are required anymore, unless entering a holy site. In previous years, Saudi Arabia had a strict code that forced women to wear a black cover-up called Abaya when going out in public. Women were also restricted from driving. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has modified these laws and has also opened its first mixed cinema and has hosted several international artists including Post Malone, Calvin Harris and others. These steps come as part of a series to open up Saudi Arabia as a new hub for entertainment and tourism.
It is advised to also dress moderately in the gulf countries, but it’s not a rule, as these countries are continuously hosting Western employees and tourists. Meanwhile, in the rest of the Middle East, there’s never been any enforced dress code. As a matter of fact, Turkey is known for its good quality and low-cost fashion, while Lebanon is known for the many luxury designers that have dressed celebrities such as Katie Perry and Kendal Jenner among others.
Myth Number Eight: There’s No Place for Women
A lot of the discourse around the Middle East mentions that women have no rights. But that’s not the case. For the countries following Muslim Sharia, like Saudi Arabia, women are granted rights as the Quran has stated. These countries are also becoming more lenient in their laws regarding women, who are seeking education opportunities and receiving well-paid positions.
For countries like Turkey and Lebanon, where they do not follow Muslim rule, laws are set by the state. Employers usually offer equal opportunities. While there are several instances of sexism or misogyny, the Middle East is constantly evolving to become a more inclusive place for women in education and in the workplace.
Myth Number Nine: There’s A Lot of Poverty
There’s some truth to that, but it isn't that simplistic. Recent political and economic crises have meant that some Middle Eastern countries witness more poverty rates than others. Lebanon’s 2019 economic crisis led to more people being plunged into poverty with rising unemployment. Meanwhile, Egypt’s poverty rates have been fluctuating, and in recent years have decreased. But these countries still rely on tourism and other sectors for wealth.
Oman is one example of a country that’s been able to provide good quality education and meet the needs of its citizens. It's become a high-income country with little migration. Other Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are also on the same path, especially due to their access to oil and gas.
While the United Arab Emirates, for example, has become a tourism destination for millions, which has aided in its luxury and considerable wealth. Qatar is not only the wealthiest in the Middle East but makes the list globally with a strong currency and an unemployment rate less than one percent.
Whether you’re looking for a lavish vacation, a beach destination, or a quiet country for relaxation, Middle Eastern countries have something for everyone. Be sure to do your research, plan your budgets and book in advance for a visit you won’t forget.
Written by Tala Ladki