Twenty-six days. That's how long the Department of State's current Worldwide Travel Alert in the Middle East and North Africa is projected to last. As of Friday, US embassies in a number of countries (UAE, Jordan, Madagascar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, to name a few) were ordered to close temporarily, prompting fear and uncertainty around travel to these places. As per the State's dispatch: "Current information suggests that al-Qa'ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond."
That unfortunately means that the warning applies to U.S. travelers everywhere. But for those passing through major Middle Eastern and North African hubs like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Doha, Muscat, Manama and Kuwait City, the question hangs in the air: What does it mean – as a U.S. citizen – to travel where a U.S. embassy is closed?
Usually, embassies are a safety net for travelers who find themselves in sticky situations in far-flung places. Lost your passport? Robbed at gunpoint? Got into a car accident? Most of us manage to get through a vacation without encountering any of these scenarios; but if and when we do, embassies are a reassuring presence, capable of validating our very existence in a foreign legal system whose procedures may be tough to navigate.
The Department of State tells us we should all be registering in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program before a big trip overseas. In theory, this allows the government keep track of, and notify its citizens in the event of a foreign crisis. In reality, few travelers take the time to actually enroll.
Right now, 20 embassies have been ordered to remain closed until Saturday August 10 (a full list can be viewed here). According to a Department of State spokesperson, when an embassy closes, three things happen:
1) Regular business hours are suspended
2) A bare minimum of employees remain on duty
3) The embassy ceases all non-emergency services
What this means, thankfully, is the embassy is still able to offer assistance even when it is closed. While visa issues do not qualify as an emergency, lost or stolen passports, as well as major medical or legal situations, do. And though each embassy works differently, in general, if your situation qualifies as an emergency, a closed embassy will still have representatives on hand to answer questions and address concerns by phone.
In the event that an embassy fails to answer the phone, the Department of State's website lists two alternate phone numbers: 888-407-4747 (for US-based calls) and +1-202-501-4444 (overseas calls). Agents answering these calls will also be able to offer some guidance, or at the very least, put you in touch with the necessary local authorities.
However, if a traveler needs to look up basic information, embassy web sites (for example, qatar.usembassy.gov) can be helpful. They publish frequent updates during foreign crises, and offer a helpful search function to find the information you need.
As for travelers with connecting flights in a city whose embassy is closed, keep in mind that most passport- and visa-related issues that can arise at the airport are usually out of an embassy's control. For example, if you arrive in a country without a valid passport or visa, many countries will send you back at your own expense. In these cases, there is very little an embassy can do, whether or not it is fully open.