Spotlight: coronavirus in the Middle East

written by Owen Morton

updated 11.05.2020

Understandably, most of us are closely following the effects of coronavirus at home: the daily news keeps our minds directed to what’s happening close to us. But cast your mind back two months, before the coronavirus hit Italy, and you’ll recall that back then, much of the media’s attention was focused on the Middle East – specifically, Iran, which was the first country outside China to suffer a huge number of cases of coronavirus.

The number of cases peaked in late March, but by this time travellers from Iran had already spread the coronavirus to neighbouring countries. Almost all states imposed strict lockdowns, which in some cases – such as the UAE, Jordan and Israel – appear to have had some success in stemming the outbreak. Others have faced widespread non-compliance – in Iraq, demonstrators have adopted the slogan “the government is the virus” and continue to assemble in central squares; while in Lebanon, the government has taken the opportunity presented by lockdown to attempt to disperse protestors against the ongoing economic crisis. This move has resulted in a wave of popular attacks on banks, which in turn has led to violent suppression of the protestors by the army.

Lebanon’s experience is extreme, but the economic effects of the coronavirus are foremost on the minds of many across the region. Restaurants have closed, tourist sites are deserted, and major sporting and cultural events have been postponed or cancelled. The World Expo, originally scheduled to be held in Dubai this autumn, has now been delayed until 2021, and there’s even talk that the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar will be affected.

qatar_museum of islamic art

The Museum of Islamic Art on Google Art and Culture

The good news

All this could leave the keen Middle Eastern traveller feeling rather despondent – but there are already signs of hope. Lockdown regulations are being eased in many countries across the region – public transport has recommenced in Jordan, mosques are beginning to reopen to worshippers in Iran, and malls in the UAE are welcoming shoppers back. It may be a while until tourism gets going again in earnest, but the future is looking promising.


Young Emir Studying on the Louvre's Youtube channel

In the meantime…

We may not be able to visit in person, but there’s nothing stopping us taking virtual tours of some of the Middle East’s top attractions. Museums across the world have developed online access to their exhibitions, and those in the Middle East are no exception. You can take a walk around Qatar’s excellent Museum of Islamic Art through Google’s Arts and Culture virtual tour – look out in particular for the remarkable 12th-century Syrian Gilded Flask – while it’s easy to descend down a rabbit hole on the outstanding audio and video exploration of the fascinating exhibits in Abu Dhabi’s Louvre. It’s even possible to take an audio-guided tour of one of the Middle East’s most iconic sites, Petra, with Google’s Street View.

Elsewhere in the region, the Israeli government – aware that many pilgrims would have wished to visit Jerusalem for the Easter celebration – filmed a YouTube video exploring the holy city’s eerily deserted streets: it’s the only way you’re ever likely to see this iconic destination without tourists. Similar opportunities include an Adobe Flash Player tour of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, while the Lebanon Traveller magazine has compiled a selection of limited but fascinating Google-based digital tours around some of Lebanon’s top tourist sites, though sadly not Baalbek – you’ll have to save that for a visit in person!


Remains of Petra, Jordan © Owen Morton

Last, but not least, you’ll have heard about Rough Guides’ fantastic new Guide to XBOX, which – among other options – will walk you through a virtual visit to Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza as depicted in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Until you can go in person, what better way to explore this iconic site than through a whole new way to travel?

Another excellent way to reproduce the feel of the Middle East at home is to dabble in cooking some of the region’s iconic dishes. When Middle Eastern food is mentioned, mezze springs to mind: a wide assortment of smaller dishes, such as grilled halloumi, baba ganoush (smoky aubergine dip), chicken joojah kebabs … the list is endless. Some are easy to make, while others are more challenging, but all are immensely satisfying. There are plenty of recipes available online: try starting with Olive Magazine’s wide-ranging list, or check out the website of the celebrated British-Iranian chef, Sabrina Ghayour.


Hagia Sophia virtual tour

Return to the region

It may be some time before travellers can return to the Middle East, but there’s a lot to look forward to – and the opportunity may come sooner than we think. With lockdown coming to an end across the region, and flights beginning to resume, it’s not impossible that travel will pick up again later this year.

One particular reason to consider a trip to the region in the near future is the World Expo, which will be held in Dubai from October 2021. This event, billed as the largest ever held in the Arab world, will include displays from 190 different countries, on the themes of opportunity, mobility and sustainability – and also aims to help shape the post-pandemic world. Dubai is aiming high here – the Expo’s organizers claim this will be one of the most important in history. Whether that proves to be the case or not, it’s likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you can’t wait until then, though, there are plenty of other options to tempt you to the vibrant world of the Middle East. Perhaps most excitingly for Egyptologists, Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum – expected to be the largest archaeological museum in the world – is due to open in early 2021 after nearly 20 years of development. Pride of the collection will be the Tutankhamun exhibition, but the museum will also display fascinating artefacts from all walks of ancient Egyptian life.

But the true temptation of a return to this beguiling part of the world is the opportunity to immerse yourself in its culture: the food, the lifestyle, and above all, the people. The Middle East is renowned for its hospitality, and now more than ever, the region will be eager for the return of travellers. Research your future trips with Rough Guides’ books – including guides to Jordan, Oman, Turkey and Egypt – and prepare yourself for a warm welcome.

Top image: Petra, Google Street View screenshot

Owen Morton

written by Owen Morton

updated 11.05.2020

Owen Morton is never happier than when exploring new places, with a particular fondness for wandering the former Soviet world and the Middle East. He is the author of the upcoming Rough Guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has written for Rough Guides' Make the Most of Your Time on Earth compilation, as well as regular contributions to the Rough Guides and Insight Guides blogs. When not exploring the world, he entertains himself by writing a blog about 1980s cartoons. His favourite animal is the wonderfully expressive and permanently furious manul. Follow him on Instagram at @owenmortonmanul.

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