ISSN 2330-717X

How To Survive In Middle East: Tips For Travelers – OpEd

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Each country has its own cultural sensitivities. International travelers are to be very careful about them. Let’s say, they do not want unauthorized photography in their environment, so you will not take pictures. Let’s say they do not want you to spend more than length of stay they allow in their country, so you will not be late. Let’s say you’re expected to dress conservatively – you will dress accordingly. You will not consume alcoholic beverages, if it is strictly forbidden.

The rules of one country  and its applications may be opposite to the rules of the citizens of another country. Hence it is useless, and meaningless to object to the local rules. If you are in that country, you will do what they say, you will do, and follow their rules.

Imagine the freedom of expression in Germany and France or in United Kingdom in a broad sense, and the tolerance shown for CharlieHebdo cartoons. It is impossible to expect the same in the Middle East countries. In the United States, the police have a wide margin of authority. You have no right to object but obey the rules.

Robert Alan Black, then 70-year-old US architect, who had three masters and a PhD degree, was invited to a Gulf country in October 2014 as a speaker for “Creative Thinkers” Conference, in Abu Dhabi. His expenses for plane, hotel, meals were met, the organizers made a lump sum daily allowance for him as a major keynote speaker.

The next morning after the conference, he goes out of the hotel for site seeing the nearby environment. He was walking outdoors in the early morning hours, in the morning coolness. He wants to see the surrounding area outdoors. He had a simple a digital camera with him to take simple pictures. If you are a tourist in Istanbul, you are free to photograph everywhere. Nobody tells you anything. In Africa, Masai people in Savannah, they ask you to pay if you take their pictures. Similarly you cannot take photos in India without paying money.

Our senior architect walks randomly on the street in the morning. He passes by a few mosques, a big commercial building, a residential area. He takes pictures of some interesting architecture. But that was not normal in Abu Dhabi. You should get official permission if you wish to take pictures of anything outdoors. Everything is unauthorized. A police-military car stops nearby and takes him to the nearest police station to question him. They release him after 3-5 hours of interrogation, with the strict recommendation not to take pictures of any building.

On his way back to his hotel, he sees a warning sign on the road. It says, “It is forbidden to take pictures here”, in many languages. His unstoppable impulse inside activates again, he takes the picture of that road sign. A few minutes later, another military car stops nearby.

This time the situation is serious, despite the fact that there is a duplicate situation. They take our curious architect into prison and forget him there for a while without informing anyone.

After one month, the recently released inmate informs the US consulate in the country, somehow the consulate finds a reputable lawyer with close relations to the jurisdiction, our architect is released and deported immediately.

Upon return home, he speaks to CNN TV about what happened. The foreign mind has never understood local sensitivity. There are many strangers who have interpreted the incident differently from their own point of view. They have also described other things. Most of inmates have not been in the court for one year without court hearing. Most of them are guilty of simple passport period violations. So if you do not take photos without permission, you will not expire your stay.

When I go to Saudi Arabia, I do not take a photo camera. I do not take any foreign magazine or newspaper with me. I just take the company promotion catalogs. I read whatever is available at the local magazine store or bookshop. Foreign magazines, newspapers, are sold all censored in black ink.

When I was working in Pakistan in the 1990s, we were not able to get a permanent or long term residence permit for our employees in the construction site. Once we were so occupied with daily work, our site supervisor had to spend one more week without permission. He was arrested and kept in the prison for one month until we cleared the legal procedures and pay the penalties.

While returning from Azerbaijan, at the Baku airport, I checked my passport. I showed my passport maybe ten times. Lastly, a soldier in a secluded place took my passport, pretending to check it out, he practically scrapped my passport. I returned to Istanbul with a shattered passport. Our passport police was very understanding, “That happens always out of Azerbaijan.” I had to renew my lousy passport immediately spending unnecessary time and money. It has nothing to do with the politics of the country, it was the nasty practice of an individual unresponsive soldier.

When we were in Syria in the 1990s for a tender, a foreigner staying in our hotel in Damascus was jogging early in the morning around the hotel. A military car stopped by, asked for a passport. Do you take your passport while jogging? You should in Syria. You are already running around the hotel. They arrested him and put him in jail for a month until the foreign consulate interfered for his release.

So in any case you must have your passport with you at all times. This is the practice in the Middle East. After the CharlieHebdo incident, primarily Europe and the Middle East, countries put extra measures on visa conditions, put longer visa requirements. You need to apply long before. Donald Trump put visa restrictions to various Muslim counties. Moreover the USA stopped visa for Turkish citizens, although they continued releasing visas for ongoing visa applications. In order to be able to do business in difficult geographies, “we have to pay attention to all local sensitivities”.

But there are times when these sensitivities are not taken into consideration. President George W. Bush’s wife Laura Bush, former Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama’s wife Michelle Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel, these ladies visited Saudi Arabia, with their heads uncovered. The Saudi authorities did not make any objection. Saudis could not do anything as it could jeopardize  diplomacy and cooperation.

This is the practice in the Middle East. You should be careful of local sensitivities and concur at all times if you wish to do business with locals.


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Haluk Direskeneli

Haluk Direskeneli

Haluk Direskeneli, is a graduate of METU Mechanical Engineering department (1973). He worked in public, private enterprises, USA Turkish JV companies (B&W, CSWI, AEP, Entergy), in fabrication, basic and detail design, marketing, sales and project management of thermal power plants. He is currently working as freelance consultant/ energy analyst with thermal power plants basic/ detail design software expertise for private engineering companies, investors, universities and research institutions. He is a member of Chamber of Turkish Mechanical Engineers Energy Working Group.

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