I'm a petite, fair-haired American woman who's interned in Cairo, worked in Qatar and Oman, backpacked (alone) through Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, and visited the Emirates on several occasions. In total, I've spent around 8 months working or traveling in the region and have never had any problems. I've walked across the Egyptian-Israeli border at four o'clock in the morning, wandered the souks of Qatar at all hours of the day and night, gone dune-bashing in desert Jeeps in the Emirates, hailed cabs off the street in every country, and even been invited for dinner in Cairo's infamous "garbage slum."
To be sure, I also speak a bit of Arabic, dress very appropriately, and don't hesitate to be firm or downright cold with men when I need to be. I know and respect the culture -- and for that, I've been rewarded with heart-warming experiences across the Middle East. For those in the know, it's a region well-regarded for its hospitality, culture, history, food, marketplaces, and the warmth of its people, but unfortunately in some parts of the world, it does not have a reputation that matches the actual experience of a normal and respectful visitor.
If you're thinking about interning in the Middle East, congratulations on already starting off on the right foot by having an open and curious mind about some of the most interesting countries on the planet.
Before You Depart to the Middle East
The Middle East is a vast region just like any other and safety could vary hugely between countries, cities, and even neighborhoods within a certain city. When considering working or interning, you definitely want to be selective about where you go. When I studied in university, many Arabic students would study or intern in Syria, but right now that's unfortunately no longer an option.
In terms of safety, it's best to consult both the US State Department's most up-to-date country information and locals from a country you're interested in visiting. Your university is a good place to ask around to find students, professors, or other contacts who either come from or know someone from the prospective country.
For example, when I received my internship offer to work in Cairo, I checked the US State Department for the latest travel warnings for Egypt and Cairo itself and then spoke with a few friends of friends who were Egyptian. I always take the State Department's listings with a grain of salt because you have to remember they need to mention every "what if" scenario to cover their backs, so their listings for most countries sound pretty alarming. It's important we understand that kidnappings, rapes, and murder happen in every country on the planet. What you should be looking for is information on general political stability, group in-fighting that may affect outsiders, targeted violence against foreigners/Americans, and widespread violent crime. Very few places fit that kind of description.
It's important to speak with locals (if you can) before you go because they can provide a nuanced perspective on what their country or city may look like on the news compared to what it's actually like living there. They can also hook you up with their friends or relatives so when you arrive you have some local contacts. For example, I had a friend living in Lebanon when a number of attacks were going on in Beirut. In his section of the city, people were going out to bars and walking to work and living normal day-to-day life. Just a few miles away, people were staying inside to avoid gunfire or even fleeing that part of the city. Local information was critical to understanding where in Beirut was safe to visit.
Lastly, where you intern in the Middle East should depend on your actual career interests. Tel Aviv is a widely celebrated entrepreneurial hub, so if you're interested in working at a start-up, you should be looking at Israel. If you're interested in diplomacy, Jordan is a great country because of close US-Jordanian ties. If you're studying education, Qatar is the regional hub of international education thanks to the work of the Qatar Foundation. The UAE would be good for tourism, oil, or banking, and Egypt is a large, important country with huge institutions in every sector.
Once You're in the Middle East
It's impossible for anyone to tell you that interning in any country or entire region is safe or unsafe. It largely depends on your personal behavior in that place. Once you've arrived, it's important to follow a few precautions to help promote a safe and enjoyable experience regardless of the country or city you've chosen.
1. Dress Appropriately
I find it funny when almost every American asks me if I had to wear a hijab while I was working in Qatar or Egypt. The answer is no, but I did choose to cover all of my arms and legs every day when I left the house. Different countries have different norms and of course there's a more conservative leaning in almost all rural areas, so it's good to pay attention to where you can get away with a t-shirt and a shorter skirt (maybe Dubai, Beirut upper class neighborhoods and bars) and where you need to cover up (the streets of Cairo, offices in Doha or Muscat). You'll even notice differences within certain countries, like Abu Dhabi being much more conservative than Dubai.
Take your cues from local women and men, and mimic how they dress. At the very least, men should choose pants over shorts; women should keep your chest, shoulders, and knees covered. Of course, some foreigners would argue that you "can" wear a mini skirt in Amman or Abu Dhabi, but it's the difference between legally what you're permitted to do and what is actually culturally acceptable. Dressing appropriately also makes an enormous difference in how comfortable you feel, what type of attention you attract, and how people of both genders perceive you.
2. Speak a Bit of the Language
It's not necessary to speak good Arabic (or Farsi/Hebrew/Turkish/etc) if you're visiting the region, but basic greetings and getting to what I call a "proficient taxi passenger" level of the local language is hugely beneficial. It helps you stay aware of where you're going and what's going on around you, and earns you a good bit of mutual respect from the locals, which also helps keep you safe.
3. Check In With Your Surroundings
More than perhaps anywhere else in the world, there is a sensitivity to gender in the region. If you're a woman and you see a cafe is filled with only male patrons, you may consider moving to somewhere with mixed company. If you're lost and need directions, ask someone of your own gender. Avoid walking alone at night, of course, and always carry a charged mobile device with a local SIM and local contact numbers in case of emergency.
4. Enjoy Alcohol Respectfully
In general, never be intoxicated in public (as in outside a bar or home), which can be deeply offensive or even illegal depending on the country. This is a great region of the world to put down the beer and learn the art of tea and good (sober) conversation with friends. Personally, I became very close friends with my two American flatmates in Cairo simply because, unlike back at college, we spent a lot of time just talking or having shisha or making dinner together. The lack of alcohol in our lives was a great asset to our friendship, not to mention our health!
The Middle East is a Place Unlike Any Other
While your grandparents might frown when you tell them you've secured a summer internship in Beirut or Muscat, you're now informed enough to explain to them -- and anyone else who may have a preconceived notion of what it means to live, study, work, or intern in the Middle East -- that the country you've selected is safe, stable, welcoming, and, above all, fascinating.
Whether you're traveling to Jordan or Japan, Qatar or Croatia, all countries have their risks. Barring an obvious war zone, there is nothing distinctly more dangerous about traveling to the Middle East than anywhere else. It's a place like any other, which as an "outsider" warrants your respect, attention to culture and surroundings, and common sense -- and in turn rewards you with new understanding, friends, and memories. Enjoy your travels in one of the most welcoming regions on the planet!