Home to numerous important ancient religious and cultural structures and cities, the region recognized as the Middle East consists of the countries located centered on Western Asia and Egypt. With very corrupt governments in these countries, popular uprisings began to occur throughout the region in 2011 during what is known as the Arab Spring. The resulting uprisings have led to a number of civil wars and violent demonstrations. Civil war in Syria combined with the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has created a situation with a great deal of very dangerous cities in the Middle East. For this list, cities like Raqqa and Mosul that are currently under control of extremist groups were excluded.
10. Mecca, Saudi Arabia
In comparison to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia saw a minimal amount of upheaval and violence following the 2011 Arab Spring protests that engulfed much of the Middle East. However, a number of hot button issues are still on the minds of Saudis and the country has experienced a fair amount of turmoil. Potential travelers to Saudi Arabia should note that the country does not issue travel visas, and visit duration requests can be listed in lunar months rather than the standard Western months.
This can lead to travelers overstaying by several days, which can result in a near $3,000 fine and incarceration. Although the city of Mecca – birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the holiest city in Islam – sees a large number of tourists each year, non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city. Saudi Arabia has also received threats for its support of the U.S. led coalition targeting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. Although the city of Mecca is not an incredibly dangerous place, it is a destination that should be avoided for travelers of non-Muslim faith, and for those unfamiliar with the culture and customs of the region.
9. Peshawar, Pakistan
Serving as the link that connects Pakistan to neighboring Afghanistan, the area is regularly struck by outbreaks of violence. Due to the proximity to Afghanistan, and many of the beliefs held by locals, this region can be very unkind to Westerners. Travel at night in Peshawar can be very dangerous, with reports of criminals blocking roads and robbing or kidnapping motorists, both local and foreign.
While the city itself can be friendly to foreigners, tribal authorities rule the surrounding outskirts and subsequently can be very dangerous for unsuspecting travelers. The diverse collection of ethnic and religious groups in the area occasionally results in large demonstrations that can sometimes turn violent. The ongoing conflict between the Pakistani government and the Taliban in the area also causes violence to flare up. Bombings are not unheard of in this region, and it is strongly recommended that visitors avoid drawing any extra attention when in Peshawar.
8. Kabul, Afghanistan
Although generally considered to be one of the safer places in Afghanistan, Kabul is still under the threat of bombings and kidnappings from extremists. A helpful tip for traveler safety is to stay away from restaurants that are popular amongst expats and wealthy Afghans. These locations along with police or military buildings and embassies are the most common targets for attacks. A change in policy has seen the kidnapping of foreigners in Kabul no longer being reported.
For visitors to Afghanistan staying a longer duration, it is suggested to vary routes and timings on a daily basis as a means of staying vigilant. Because Kabul is the capital and most populous city in the country, the political turmoil within the nation is reflected by the occasional riot or demonstration. Though there are dangers, the Afghani people are traditionally welcoming and kind to guests, and the city is home to a number of five star hotels as well as the bonus of excellent cellular reception that lets American and European phones work on the local network.
7. Sana’a, Yemen
The capital of Yemen – and the largest city in the country – Sana’a is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (a list that also includes Aleppo and Damascus, Syria). Travel to Sana’a is strongly discouraged due to a serious risk of kidnapping as well as civil unrest and general lawlessness in the country. The threat to Westerners posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is very real and should not be taken lightly when traveling to Yemen.
Visitors unfamiliar with the area should find a local guide, and should not be alarmed by the sight of firearms being carried. Many men hold or own a gun for traditional reasons. The Old City of Sana’a is a declared World Heritage Site by the United Nations and has been home to civilization for more than 2,500 years. With tensions seemingly rising in Yemen, the city of Sana’a and its unique cultural sights are at risk as unrest spreads through the nation.
6. Gaza City, Palestine
One of the most densely populated areas in the world, the Gaza Strip and West Bank is a 25-mile strip of land that is home to some 1.8-million people. While the area is no longer under occupation by Israeli forces, it is still under an extremely strict border control. The Israeli military regularly launches raids inside the region to engage militants who conduct attacks against Israel from inside the border.
Those visiting Gaza should stay away from demonstrations, and off the streets at night when most violent clashes occur. Areas near the border are prone to gunfire and airstrikes, while police stations and government buildings are often targets for larger scale Israeli operations. Hamas imposes strict Shariah law in Gaza, so travelers should be familiar with cultural expectations before landing in the city. Because of damage sustained from Israeli airstrikes, the Gaza power station lacks the ability to operate at full capacity, leading to frequent outages. A large number of generators are used in the city, some of which could be poorly maintained causing a potential risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
5. Kashmir, India
The Jammu and Kashmir region is the most northern area occupied by the state of India. Kashmir is often described as the prototypical idea of “heaven on Earth” because of the serene landscape; however, the area is heavily disputed between the governments of India, Pakistan and China. India and Pakistan in particular have gone to war two times as a result of disputes over the borders of Kashmir. As recent as October 2014, troops have engaged in gunfire across the boundary, and the two countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998 before fighting broke out in Kashmir in 1999.
With violent demonstrations and extremist activities in the area, neither foreign governments nor India can guarantee the safety of visitors to the region. Currently Kashmir is experiencing danger from severe flooding on top of the border turmoil. While there are numerous great sights to see in Kashmir, visitors should be sure to stay far away from the Pakistani border where the conflict is at its most intense.
4. Baghdad, Iraq
Since the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, the city has become one of the most dangerous in the world. Following a lull in the violence, large-scale attacks in Baghdad have been on the rise since 2012. Many governments strongly suggest traveler’s stay away from the area because of the extremely volatile situation, where the threat of a terrorist attack or kidnapping is certainly possible.
A common suggestion for staying safe in Baghdad is simply just to not go there. Most visitors to the city hire a security detail for safety, and it should be noted that travel outside of the International Zone is incredibly dangerous. Roadside and car bombings are a daily occurrence in Baghdad. And while the tides seem to be turning against ISIS, the terrorist organization is still in control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, located north of Baghdad and certainly has eyes on the nations capital as it looks to expand its caliphate should it be capable.
3. Karachi, Pakistan
The second-largest city in the world in terms of population within the city limits, Karachi is now home to some 23.5-million people, and a population density of more than 15,500 per mile. Over the past decade, millions of residents of northwestern Pakistan fled fighting and settled in the city, the commercial heart of the country. The 12.3 per 100,000 residents homicide rate (25% higher than the next closest) makes Karachi the most dangerous mega-city in the world.
The former capital of Pakistan has been overrun with political strife, gang violence and a growing threat of militant incursion. Karachi is even known to be home to “target killers”, individuals who are known for assassinating victims on motorbike for a relatively small fee. Gangs run smuggling rackets, rob banks and oversee the administration of ruthless justice. It is not uncommon for heated gunfights to be drawn out over days between multiple gangs, or gangs fighting the police.
2. Damascus, Syria
Starting with peaceful protests in 2011, Damascus and the rest of Syria escalated into a full-blown civil war and has turned the city into an incredibly dangerous place. The city came under heavy attack in 2012, although the Syrian government managed to repel the attacks and maintain control over its capital. Damascus is considered by the U.N. to be a world heritage sight, but because of the civil war and subsequent attacks in the city, ancient ruins have sustained damage from the numerous battles fought through the city.
Those opposed to the Syrian government including ISIS will certainly look to continue attacks in Damascus in hopes of capturing the city from government control to gain a very significant victory. Travel to the area should not be done without an armed companion. Foreigners are under severe threat of attack or kidnapping, potentially from either side of the conflict, and the region should be avoided at all costs.
1. Aleppo, Syria
The largest city in Syria, Aleppo has been, and still is home to some incredibly fierce fighting going on between the Syrian government and opposition forces. Fighting began in Aleppo during February of 2012, and the battle has been the site of atrocities committed by both sides, including barrel bombs allegedly dropped by Syrian military helicopters, and indiscriminate gas cylinder bombings by opposition forces in government held territories.
Although diplomatic measures are trying to be arranged to establish a ceasefire, the Syrian army is pushing forward with a major offensive effort to surround the city. Tragically, Aleppo is also considered to be a world heritage site by the U.N. and much of the ancient city has been irreparably damaged by the heavy bombardments in the area, with no sign of tensions easing any time soon. Travel to Aleppo is nearly impossible, and no visitor should expect even a remotely safe trip to the once great city.