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Saudi - Iranian tensions: Ripple effects for travelers in the region

Tensions continue to escalate in the Middle East following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric.  After demonstrators in Tehran attacked the Saudi Embassy, Riyadh and a number of other Gulf Arab countries including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. These latest events add more complexity to an already complicated region where long time rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

While this new front in the ongoing regional power struggle is largely confined — for now — to diplomatic sparring, there is potential for violence that could impact travelers. Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan all have a history of sectarian violence that could be re-ignited by current events as reflected in updated UK travel guidance to Bahrain.  And, throughout the region, the escalating tension could be exploited by various actors.

Potential risks could develop suddenly including demonstrations, terrorism, and targeted violence such as the January 5th attack on a bus carrying oil company employees in Shi’ite populated eastern Saudi Arabia.  For most, exposure to these risks comes largely from being in the wrong place at the wrong time when sectarian or other violence flares.  However, there is always the potential that regional tension takes on an anti-Western dimension placing global travelers at greater risk.

These types of risks aren’t new to the region, but the current increase in tension is a good time to refresh travel safety and security best practices including:

  • Monitoring events closely regionally and, when in the region, locally to understand flashpoints.
  • Tracking travelers to know whereabouts including hotels, flight itineraries, etc.
  • Ensuring effective means to communicate are in place — roaming mobile phones are essential.
  • Limiting time to the extent possible in high profile locations associated with Western interests or regional governments.
  • Using secure, low profile transportation from a known, trusted source. Exposure to a range of risks occurs with traveling overland — from road traffic accidents to being caught in demonstrations — and professional transportation is a critical mitigation resource.
  • Understanding what to do in an emergency — from a vehicle accident, to terrorist attack, hotel fire and medical emergency. Know organizational procedures and how to access support resources such as medical facilities and assistance companies.

The Middle East will continue to present travelers with a range of challenges for the foreseeable future  — even if the current spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia cools — and reasonable risk mitigation is essential for those headed to the region.  Stay informed, take appropriate measures and travel safe.