Discover the 5 most gay-friendly Arab countries 

Through a haze of shisha smoke and somewhat stifling sexual stigma, the Arab world unveils an unexpected realm of possibilities for intrepid gay travellers. If you can forgive the state-approved homophobia and are willing to act with discretion while out and about, the Arab countries can redeem themselves in a thousand and one different ways, from the ancient centre of Petra to the glittering epithets of Bahrain and into the deserts beyond. While by and large closeted kingdoms, the handful of gay clubs in the progressive city of Beirut can allow you to be your true self, while the luxury international hotels across the region can ensure your privacy is respected. Join us as we track the 5 most gay-friendly Arab countries.

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Mosque Okba, Kairouan, Tunisia | Photo: Haythem Gataa

1. Oman

Less foreboding than its name might suggest, Oman is a hidden gem of the Gulf, home to one of the region’s most important ports, within the picturesque city of Muscat. Rich in both cultural customs and oil money, Oman rolls out the finest patterned carpets (including the second-largest rug in the world within Muscat’s Grand Mosque!), leading visitors towards heritage architecture, frankincense marketplaces and traditional towns where humble living coincides with pristine landscapes of mountain, desert and coastline entwined. With so much do see and do, Muscat is best seen by tour bus, allowing you to hop off at countless museums, the Sultan’s Palace and the Mutrah Corniche waterfront, before venturing further afield on day trips to the beaches and turtle-filled lagoons for diving and leisure.

One of the slightly more tolerant countries in the region, Oman is said to have once had its own gay sultan – Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said – although the state press is quick to deny this as a capricious rumour! Nevertheless, the unofficial gossip is that the former sultan leads a lavish gay lifestyle within his palace, divorced from his wife and enjoying the occasional English lover. Much in the way of the Sultan, gay life here is to be led underground, due to the heavy penalties for homosexuality. In reality, the laws are rarely upheld except in high-profile cases, however, and gay Oman remains a perfectly safe place to visit.

Oman | Photo: Katerina Kerdi

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Petra, in particular, is the crowning glory of Jordan, protected within sandstone cliffs and offering an unrivalled collection of monuments, including the defining Siq to the Treasury on an ethereal desert site of red rock and dunes known as Wadi Rum

2. Jordan

A beacon of hope in a region otherwise ensconced in conflict, Jordan is also much renowned as a centre of ancient hospitality, welcoming all sorts throughout history.  Roman legions, Crusaders, Islamic armies and Nabataean merchants have all passed through the land, leaving behind many rich artefacts in their wake. Now you, avid explorer of gay Arab worlds, get to see these antiquities in all their majesty, moving from Roman Amphitheatre to Crusader castle with a sampling of early Christian art along the way. Petra, in particular, is the crowning glory of Jordan, protected within sandstone cliffs and offering an unrivalled collection of monuments, including the defining Siq to the Treasury on an ethereal desert site of red rock and dunes known as Wadi Rum.

While the southeast is firmly Laurence of Arabia meets The Martian territory, journey across the nation to glimpse other points of interest, like the lowest point on earth – the salt sea – as well as various seasonal canyons and oases quenching arid land. Though an influx of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees – as well as increased tourism – means modernity and diversity are thrust upon Jordan’s cities, rural life is still well preserved and traditional styles adhered to (including more conservative ways of thinking). Wherever you go in Jordan however you are in safe hands, as the country is both stable and more liberal in its LGBT laws. Jordan decriminalised homophobia as early as 1951 and while there remains social stigma and ‘public morality’ laws that hinder LGBTQ+ freedoms, gay Jordan gains traction thanks to its underground gay community (most active on Grindr!) and annual events such as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Petra, Jordan | Photo: Filippo Cesarini

Photo: Mirco Violent Blur

3. Bahrain

Home of the Dilmun empire and once the centre of the Gulf pearl trade, Bahrain has quite the iridescent history. Today, the country is both as modern and wealthy as you may have come to expect from the region, running its own Formula 1 Grand Prix alongside a fun arts and culture scene, particularly in Manama where an ex-pat foodie takeover has emerged, bringing evermore diversity of choice to the city’s shores. While the Bahrain National Museum provides an exceptional overview of the island’s unique history, get up close to real-life relics such as the Barbar Temples of millennia past, the honeycomb crypts of Saar, the 8th century Souq al-Khamis mosque and the Portuguese-built Bahrain Fort from the 16th century. Other more up-to-date attractions include Awali’s Oil Museum, pearl diving tours off the coast or, bizarrely, when outside tops 50°C, ice skating disco at Funland.

As far as tolerance goes, Bahrain is also among the more lenient states, allowing visitors to buy alcohol and partake in lively nightlife within cities such as Manama with its bars, nightclubs, and late-night shopping options among cafés, restaurants and alternative male-only ‘coffee shops’. Gay Bahrain legalised homosexuality in 1976 though this means little as an LGBTQ crackdown is still in force targeting those that supposedly violate “public decency”, as in Jordan. Regardless, stay discreet, and Bahrain will be your Oyster.

Bahrain | Photo: Charles Adrien Fournier

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On a small slip of land in Northernmost Africa, lies Tunisia, a nation of stunning landscapes and distinct cultures, neatly contrasted by both Saharan sands and balmy Mediterranean coastline

Photo: Moon

4. Tunisia

On a small slip of land in Northernmost Africa, lies Tunisia, a nation of stunning landscapes and distinct cultures, neatly contrasted by both Saharan sands and balmy Mediterranean coastline. While a beach holiday is certainly in Tunisia’s repertory, there’s much more to be done than lounging about on forested shores eating seafood. Explore the nation’s extreme landscapes, from desert plateaus to offshore archipelagos, stopping at top spots such as Tabarka’s red coral shores, the UNESCO-recognised beaches and valleys of Bizerte and Dougga and the cultural centre of Tunis.

Tunisian society is viewed positively among the Arab gay community for its LGBT progress, as the base for organisations such as ‘Mawjoudin’ which campaigns for LGBTQ minority rights. On paper, Tunisian law still states that homosexuality is illegal, yet with an openly-gay presidential candidate recently running and ongoing activism, it’s looking more and more likely decriminalisation will come. In a strange twist, one gay marriage became legally recognised in Tunisia and though that doesn’t say much for society as a whole, it’s a small win for gay Tunisia.

Tunisia | Photo: Bedis Elacheche

5. Lebanon

Tiny but mighty, the Mediterranean nation of Lebanon is where the Middle East and Europe enter a shared embrace, sharing worldly influences across time and space. A clear winner for its LGBTQ freedoms, Lebanon is also hard to beat for its lively gay scene and diversity of spirit. It’s true that traditions run deep in Lebanon, particularly in regards to family and religion, and passions have been known to overrun, resulting in sectarian violence among Hezbollah soldiers, migrants and Islamic extremists. Avoid these occurrences and Lebanon will shine, thanks to its fantastic beach resorts not far from the capital as well as its mountain vistas, ancient ruins and more, all courteously attended by kindly Lebanese locals.

Though social stigma rings true and the finest array of Arabian gays is likely to be found online (hello Grindr, my old friend) gay Lebanon is perhaps one of the few Arab nations where a tentative gay scene takes shape in real life. As well as hosting the region’s largest gay club, POSH, where gay Arabs and internationals can finally dance together without fear of persecution, gay Beirut also hosts annual queer events such as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and Beirut Pride. If partying in Beirut be discreet at all times and stay aware of your surroundings particularly if outside late at night. For more information on the queer climate in Lebanon, follow the LGBTQ movements of Helem and Meem.

Tyre, Lebanon | Photo: Charbel Aoun

Byblos, Lebanon | Photo: Nate Hovee

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Bahrain | Photo: Charles Adrien Fournier

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