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10 Tips for Shopping in a Souq

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A souq, or outdoor Middle East marketplace, is frequently a labyrinth of crowded, busy and loud streets with masses of aggressive shopkeepers calling out at you to buy their goods. Other times, such as in the Gulf countries, souqs are smaller, quieter and actually even quite orderly.

No matter their size or their character, these Middle East marketplaces are full of energy, culturally revealing and photogenic. They’re also intimidating, with their language barriers and the need to bargain rather than just buying stuff. Spend some time in a souq, and it will help you understand the Middle East a bit better.

I personally find souqs fascinating and fun. I’ve strolled through and shopped in at least a dozen throughout the Middle East while working and traveling the world. From Jerusalem’s chaotic souq near the Temple Mount to Qatar’s quiet Souq Waqif, from the huge crowds at Khan el Khalili souq in Cairo to the few local people who stroll through Al Husn souq in Salalah, Oman, I’ve experienced quite a few Middle East marketplaces.

Based on what I’ve learned, I’ve come up with the following 10 tips to help make your time in any Middle Eastern souq as pleasant and non-stressful as possible.

Rugs and other goods set out on the ground at Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar
Doha, Qatar

1. Don’t flash money around

Keep large bills in a zippered or hidden area of your purse, wallet or backpack and keep only smaller bills closer on hand. If you want to purchase something and the shopkeepers see big bills, they may suddenly raise the price. If you have to reach in to get one of your larger bills, do so very discretely.

Colorful custume jewelry ring in Khan el Khalili souq in Egypt
Cairo, Egypt

2. Leave the map behind

If you ever come across a map of a souq, don’t bother to bring it with you. Souqs have poor signage or no signage at all. They’re also usually winding and chaotic. A map isn’t going to help at all.

Goods for sale filling the Old Market souq in Nazareth, Israel
Nazareth, Israel

3. Take a friend

Two heads think better than one, and a souq is one place you might need two.

Eggplants for sale on a cart in the Middle East marketplace in Jenin, West Bank
Jenin, Palestine

4. Take a break

If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, find your way out of the souq and go back later. You’ll be able to think more clearly and end up feeling less pressured.

Colorful frankincense burners in a Middle East marketplace in Salalah, Oman
Salalah, Oman

5. Dress modestly

In some areas in the Middle East, like Israel, Palestine and Dubai, the locals are accustomed to foreigners. Because of this, seeing uncovered arms and legs doesn’t much faze them. In most parts, though, if you’re not properly covered you will be stared at. These are not necessarily leering stares, but curious stares. Make sure your legs are covered below the knee and your arms below the elbow to avoid harassment and stares.

People on the narrow streets of a souq in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Sharjah, UAE

6. Don’t be shy

Shopkeepers in Middle East marketplaces are largely nice and safe people. They may be aggressive sometimes, but this is just because they need to make a sale. Don’t act timid, though, or someone particularly aggressive may run all over you.

Colorful stone earrings in the Old City souq in Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem, Israel

7. Don’t buy during your first visit

This could be your financial and emotional undoing. Visit a souq well in advance of when you’re going to want to buy so you can get a feel for its people, layout and goods for sale. You can go back later after you’ve gotten used to the probable hassling, with a clearer head and a better idea of how to handle it.

Colorful scarves in the Textile souq, a Middle East marketplace in Dubai
Dubai, UAE

8. Practice

Since you’ve already decided you’re not going to buy on your first visit (haven’t you?) practice your haggling techniques on someone from whom you have no intention of buying. The shopkeepers are likely accustomed to experiencing dozens of failed sales attempts each day. So understand that your haggling won’t be hurting them and will help you get some valuable experience.

Man using a hammer to engrave metal in the Middle East marketplace Souq Al Abiad in Akko, Israel
Akko, Israel

9. Learn a little bit of the local language

Learn how to say things like how much and too much, as well as numbers from one to ten. You may not be able to have a fluent discussion about price in the native language knowing just this terminology. You will, however, be able to communicate better than if you don’t know how to say anything at all. Your little bit of local lingo will go a long way in softening shopkeepers’ financial stances.

Colourful blankets hanging in Khan el Khalili souq in Egypt
Cairo, Egypt

10. Show confidence

Don’t let people see you’re intimidated or confused by the chaos of the souq. Try to appear confident. This will place you in a better bargaining position. It will also help you have a chance at actually enjoying the experience.

Man holding old Palestinian coins in the palm of his hand in the Middle East marketplace in Hebron, Palestine
Hebron, Palestine

Now that you know what to do, you can enjoy shopping in the souqs of the Middle East.


Sabina Lohr is a lifelong freelancer turned entrepreneur who created World of Freelancers to help others discover how to work for themselves online and live the freelance lifestyle. She’s always really enjoyed the freedom that freelancing brings, including several years on and off of working online while traveling and living abroad.

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