19th Sep 2019

EU travel advice gives insight into Arab revolutions

  • Anti-Saleh march in Yemen: 12 EU countries said nationals should not go there, another 10 said any nationals there should get out immediately (Photo: Sallam)

Yemen in considered the most at risk of violent upheaval according to travel advice from EU foreign ministries. Syria is lower down the list, while Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are considered the most safe.

A list of travel advisory warnings from the 27 EU countries as published on Friday (1 April) on a recently-launched European Commission consular website shows a clear ranking of the current levels of volatility in Arab countries.

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Yemen tops the list of unsafe places for EU citizens, coming ahead even of war-torn Libya in second place and is followed by Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Israel.

The rest of the 'ranking' - put together by EUobserver on the basis of advice from different member states - covers places where only some areas are considered at-risk or where general "caution" is advised. The ranking continues with Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Oman and - the most safe - the UAE.

Tens of thousands of people came out on the streets of Yemen on Friday calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. More than 100 people have been killed in recent weeks, with both France and the UK issuing fresh warnings for citizens to "leave immediately" due to "a rapid deterioration in the security situation."

Fresh protests also erupted in Damascus, Deraa, Qamishli and Hassakeh in Syria on Friday, with reports of three people shot dead in Damascus, bringing the recent death toll to over 60.

Analysts believe Yemen is much more likely to see a revolution than Syria, and point out the dangers to Western travelers from al-Qaeda-affiliated groups on top of the political unrest. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is being propped up by Iran and has been assured of non-intervention by the US and France, while European visitors are normally welcomed by local people.

Bahrain, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia come surprisingly high in the league table, given the efficiency with which security forces have kept down dissent or given the absence of any recent unrest in the case of Lebanon.

Daniel Korski, a near East analyst for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said: "There is a large foreign [Saudi and Qatari] force in Bahrain putting down Shia unrest and nobody knows where this is going to go."

On Lebanon, he added: "If Assad is toppled in Syria, it would put [Lebanon-based militants] Hezbollah under extreme pressure. It would increase the risk of a border conflict with Israel. But it's quite safe to go there for now."

An EU official dealing with consular safety matters said on Saudi Arabia: "There is a risk that terrorist attacks could happen at any minute. There is also a risk that if you do something that you consider perfectly normal at home, like taking photographs, you could get into serious trouble with the authorities."

The risk of Syria contagion, as well as recent skirmishes with Hamas in Gaza and a bomb in Jerusalem, see Israel rate high, the experts said. Iran is in a similar position to Saudi Arabia, with a high risk of terrorist attacks and police harassment.

Korski explained that travel warnings "should not be used as a substitute for political analysis" when predicting revolutions, because they relate to a mixed bag of issues, including old conflicts (the Sahel in Morocco, Iraq) or residual anti-Western feeling and lawlessness (Algeria), as well as current affairs.

Returning to Europe on Friday from a trip to eastern Libya and post-revolutionary Egypt, Korski added that travel advice is not always up to date. "I wouldn't go to Libya as a tourist but you would be quite safe away from the conflict zone. I would recommend a holiday in Cairo to anybody just now," he said.

He added that the UK and Denmark, due to heightened sensitivity following the Mohammed cartoons affair, give the best advice on near East travel.

The EU expert noted that EU members who have large expat populations in third countries tend to have the best intelligence but tend to downplay dangers because if they raise the alarm they could spark a mass exodus.

"The intelligence culture in the Union today is such that no country would keep information about a clear and present danger to itself. It would have far-reaching consequences if they did," the contact said.

The source added that there is a class of traveler which flocks to conflict zones rather than fleeing them: "It's like a gold rush. They think that in a risk period they can really do business, that anything is possible because people are desperate for money. Like the Chinese, they go especially in periods where there is instability."

Speaking on the safest country on the list, the UAE, Korski noted: "There's not even a flicker of unrest there. It has the feeling of a post-prandial nap ... But you never know."


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