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Is It Safe to Study Abroad in the Middle East?

studying abroad in the Middle East

"So you're from America," she said curiously. We sat in a back alley cafe in Cairo, sipping tea and smoking shisha after work.

"I'd love to go there," my Egyptian colleague puffed out another fruit-flavored smoke cloud. "But it's too dangerous. People being shot in malls and movie theaters and raped on college campuses. I'd be too scared. I'm sure it's lovely though."

This was not a rare conversation I was having after work with new colleagues from across the Middle East. Even when I traveled to the favelas in Brazil, locals would remark, "New York? Dangerous place! So many guns!"

We cannot say that studying abroad anywhere at anytime in the Middle East is safe; we can only provide some guidelines to help you to study abroad in the region in a safe manner.

Danger, in large part, is a matter of perspective. No place is ever entirely safe, and no place is ever entirely dangerous. One of my close friends from New York used to live in Kabul -- during the war. Another, after backpacking solo across Africa, was only ever mugged in London. Therefore, we cannot say that studying abroad anywhere at anytime in the Middle East is safe; we can only provide some guidelines to help you to study abroad in the region in a safe manner.

Stay Up to Date on Political and Safety Conditions

Study abroad in the Middle East

Before embarking on any travel -- to the Middle East or otherwise -- it's important to consult with two sources: the US State Department and a handful of locals. The US State Department has up-to-date travel warnings and should be consulted to see if any country or region within a country is reasonably considered unstable.

However, if we only consider the US State Department warnings, we probably wouldn't even venture out our front doors.

The next best thing to do is track down one or more sources of local intelligence: a friend presently living in the country, a university professor who has deep knowledge of the region, a friend, classmate, or coworker who is originally from that place with family still living there.

Ask them about daily life and safety in their country. Share with them the US State Department's take on the current situation and see where there is validity and where the government is simply making sure its bases are covered in case of a rare instance of violence or terrorism.

Next, choose your program carefully. It's not so much about one country being "safer" than another, but about going overseas with a reputable institute or provider in the first place.

If a well-regarded university has a partnership with a well-regarded study abroad organization that has many years of experience running their program, then you can rest assured they would not choose a country, or continue to offer a program in a country, that is temporarily unstable or that otherwise puts themselves or their participants at risk. (Editor's Note: Go Overseas has reviews of study abroad programs in the Middle East to help you figure these questions out!)

Have a trusted taxi driver's number in your phone and arrange transport before the night gets too hectic.

Once you're in your study abroad country, it's important to stay abreast of the current political situation since things can change quickly. Sign up for US State Department alerts and register yourself at the local American embassy when you get settled in. If anything happens, you'll be informed -- and in good hands.

Follow These General Safety Tips

1. Women, dress appropriately

It's wise to cover your knees and forearms at all times, no matter which country in the Middle East you are in. You might be able to "get away" with wearing shorts in Cairo, but you will feel ten times more comfortable in appropriate attire (and better avoid sexual harassment while studying abroad.)

2. Take cues from your surroundings

If the bar is only filled with men, then ladies, you might not be welcome. If the streets suddenly become empty on your exploratory stroll, turn around. Ask for directions if you are lost. Pay attention to your surroundings and act accordingly.

3. If you need something when you're out, ask a person of the same gender

This is not entirely logical for someone coming from a Western upbringing, but in most parts of the Middle East, it can be extremely offensive for a man to approach a woman he doesn't know, and a foreign lady approaching a local man is usually seen as improper and promiscuous. So ladies, if you find that you're lost and need directions, look for someone of the same gender to ask for help.

4. Never walk alone at night, obviously

This isn't specific to staying safe while studying abroad in the Middle East -- I wouldn't walk alone at night in some parts of New York -- but it's still relevant. Don't do it, no matter how short the walk may seem. Have a trusted taxi driver's number in your phone and arrange transport before the night gets too hectic.

5. Always carry a charged local cell phone
Safety tips while studying in the Middle East

And make sure you have these three phone numbers on it:

  • The police
  • Your primary contact in the study abroad program
  • Your favorite cab driver who works late

If you're on a pay-as-you go phone plan, also always make sure you have phone credit. Don't be stingy with this one -- I don't care how strict your budget is.

6. Consider carrying a whistle

It's a trick I read about a long time ago, and even works if a stray dog runs up to you or if you get trapped in a bathroom on a train.

7. Never be publicly drunk

Especially in the Middle East, this is a cultural offense in many places and something that could be taken into the hands of conservative locals or even the authorities -- who may have you arrested. Remember, you're not at home anymore. Be respectful.

8. Consider worse-case scenarios and plan for them with trusted guides

I once asked my Egyptian colleagues what I should do if a strange man ever follows me in Cairo -- and it happened -- and they said to scream loudly at him to go away and wave my shoe at him, ready to clobber him if he comes close -- and I did. And it worked.

I would have never thought to take off my flip-flop and cause a scene if I was being followed, but I learned that public humiliation is one of the best ways to tackle an inappropriate Egyptian man.

It's impossible to tell you straight-out "yes, studying abroad in the Middle East is safe," just as surely as I can't tell you that road-tripping across the United States, backpacking through Brazil, or running with the bulls is safe or unsafe.

Not to mention the local women see a fellow lady in potential danger and come running to help. (This also goes back to never being alone -- you want people around who can come to your rescue if need be.)

9. Lastly, make lots of local friends

They are the best source of what to do and where to go -- and what not to do and where not to go. (Every city has its dangerous places and times of day, but if you stay in the main, well-trafficked areas of most any capital city at logical hours, you are more than likely to be just fine.) And how else would you learn about culturally acceptable shoe-waving self-defense tactics?

In the End, Safety Depends on You

It's impossible to tell you straight-out "yes, studying abroad in the Middle East is safe," just as surely as I can't tell you that road-tripping across the United States, backpacking through Brazil, or running with the bulls is safe or unsafe.

Heck, I can't even tell you crossing the street is safe, because it depends on how you go about it. Staying on the curb, looking both ways, and walking in the crosswalk helps ensure you get from point A to point B without harm, and studying abroad -- in the Middle East or anywhere -- is exactly the same way.

If you look at where you're going, select who you're going there with, and follow these basic precautions that involve a good dose of both common sense and tips and tricks learned from the experience of others in the region, then you're on the right track for having a safe and enjoyable study abroad experience wherever your passport takes you.

Browse study abroad programs in the Middle East.

Photo Credits: Madeleine Loney, Jessie Beck, and Dalya Arussy.
Elaina Giolando

A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-somethings. She currently works as an international project manager and has traveled to over 50 countries and 6 continents for both work and play. In her spare time, she focuses on providing her peers inspiration to proactively create rewarding and unconventional lifestyles. You'll find her writing here on Go Overseas and also on Business Insider, Fortune, Fast Company, and Huffington Post.