Reviews of Study Abroad Programs in the Middle East

The Middle East should not be overlooked when thinking about where to study. It is a region with thousands of years and numerous civilizations' worth of history, incredible architecture and feats of engineering--both modern and ancient--beautiful literature, poetry, and languages, global economic and political significance, rapidly-developing economies, and so much spirit that you should go even if it doesn't fill any graduation requirements.

But it probably will. Because, really, if you're interested in a new experience, a safe experience, credit towards graduation, foreign language experience, architecture, horse racing, history, culture, music, food--it has something to offer virtually every student.

The Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road in UAE
The Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road in UAE

Don't miss out on it because of news reports. Most programs are still running because most areas are quite safe, even in the wake of the Arab Spring. Find a program or two and then check with the institution for more detailed safety information.

  • Countries: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Comoros, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, (Arab League nations + Israel)
  • Largest Country: Algeria
  • Smallest Country: Bahrain
  • Languages: Arabic, Aramaic, Berber, Coptic, English, Hebrew, Kurdish. Arabic and English are the most widely spoken, followed by French and a smattering of other languages.
  • Size: 5,148,048 sq mi
  • Population: Combined populations of Arab League states + Israel = approximately 400 million people

Overall, the Middle East is an economical place to study (non-traditional locations tend to be), though of course costs of living varies widely by country. As a general rule, the Middle East--like the rest of the world--is more expensive in places that are more developed, so for example, the Gulf countries and Israel are more expensive than Yemen and Egypt. Some things to keep in mind when budgeting:

Public Transportation: How far is the university from your residence and/or the rest of the city? Will you have to depend on public transportation, and how much will that cost you?

Currency: Jordan, for example, is a relatively inexpensive place to live, but the US Dollar is only worth 70% of the Dinar (1JOD=$1.40) and with taxi rides, food, ATM fees and commission fees, etc that difference in exchange rate adds up fast. XE is a good resource for exchange rates.

Activities: The Middle East is a great place to travel, and also a great jumping off point for adventures in Europe and Asia. What activities or international travel will you be doing abroad? What about visas and insurance?How far is the university from your residence and/or the rest of the city? Will you have to depend on public transportation, and how much will that cost you?

Your study abroad office or program provider/host institution should be able to provide more detailed cost estimates for your intended destination. Michigan State University also has some good tips for budgeting, including this worksheet.

Least expensive countries: Yemen and Egypt

Most expensive countries: UAE and Israel

The Middle East can be roughly divided into three major regions: North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Gulf countries. Though cultures of the Middle East can vary drastically country to country, roughly speaking, countries within the same region are similar to each other. Countries around the Mediterranean Sea, for example, manifest a stronger European influence--in food, language, dress and music--while the Gulf countries are more conservative.

With that in mind, consider your destination and its influences. Consider the conservativeness of the area, the official religion of the country, and the other main religions within it. Many Middle Eastern countries are officially Islamic nations with significant populations of other minority (or majority) religions. How will you dress? How should you interact with your opposite-gender peers? In more conservative cultures, it is not acceptable to hold hands in public, women are encouraged to dress modestly though--significantly--not required to veil, and you may find interactions more distant or more formal, depending on location.

Two other major factors to think about are alcohol laws (Gulf nations in particular have strict laws about buying and consuming alcohol) and religious holidays. You will find that the weekends in many Middle Eastern countries are Friday-Saturday, and that religious holidays go by the sighting of the moon. If you go by the calendar dates, then, you may have to adjust your plans.

A great place to start cluing into culture is What's Up With Culture. It is a series of modules designed to help soon-to-study-abroad students learn about and adapt to their host culture. Your study abroad office may include it as part of your pre-departure work and whether it does or not, it is worth checking out. You will learn more about yourself, your presumptions, and worldview, and how to enjoy and understand your host culture more deeply in order to have a richer experience. And, we hope, to avoid embarrassing faux-pas :)

Beautiful cityscapes in the Middle East
Beautiful cityscapes in the Middle East

American University in Cairo (AUB) in Egypt and American University in Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon both have long-standing reputations of academic excellence, and AUC in particular has a robust study abroad program.

American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates is much newer--only 15 years old--but is fully accredited and ranked among the world's top 500 universities. The Gulf countries of Qatar and the UAE have worked in the last two decades to become a hub of higher learning, and boast numerous excellent universities.

In Morocco, Al Akhawayn University is an increasingly popular destination, though it has an established reputation for Arabic instruction. Israel is also home to several excellent institutions of higher learning, chief among them Hebrew University.

The Middle East is large and diverse and fascinating. It is unconventional, it is alive, and--lucky you!--has numerous well-established, accredited, reputable universities to choose from. Don't miss out!

Check out these great scholarships to offset your costs when studying abroad in Middle East next semester.

Contributed by Anna Ray

Anna is a traveler, blogger, writer, former study abroad advisor, and current Arabic student. She blog-advises about traveling/studying/learning Arabic in the Middle East. Check it out here!

Photo Credit: Istanbul, Turkey

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