On Sunday, Dec. 3, we docked in the small city of Muscat, capital of the small country of Oman. We really did not know what to expect of this port … Oman is not exactly a tourism hotspot…but were pleasantly surprised to find it extremely clean and very modern, even in its old city. It claims to be the smallest capital city in the world.
It is also dramatic, as the harbor areas are framed by rugged mountains, not real tall, but picturesque.
We opted to take the ship’s tour, “Magical Muscat” which promised the highlights of the city. This being Friday … their holy day, not a work day…the streets were quiet and there were not many people to be seen, except in the Muttrah Souk, which appears to be popular both with tourists and local women…but more on that later.
Oman is a country of 2.8 million people, roughly 105,000 square miles, and is located at the tip and on the eastern shores of the Arabian Peninsula. By land, it is only a couple of hours from Dubai. The ruler is Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id who has led the country for 40 years. He is an absolute ruler…so absolute he is also the minister of defense, the minister of finance and minister of religion. But his country seems to have benefited from his leadership and on Nov. 18 celebrated both its national day and his 70th birthday. There are many pictures of him hanging from buildings through Muscat.
Unlike Dubai, where 80 percent of the population are foreigners, here 75 percent are Omani and the rest from elsewhere. Omanis enjoy free education, free healthcare, no taxes and cheap gasoline…oil and natural gas being its major exports. The Omani people are rather more traditional in their dress; most men wear long light-colored robes called dishdashah with either turbans or small embroidered caps called kummahs. All Islamic women wear black abayas and cover their heads, although the head scarves are often patterned. (Tourists are asked to dress modestly, covering their legs and arms and women must cover their heads when entering a mosque.)
Our first look at Muscat was driving through the “new city” to the Grand Mosque. Located several miles inland, this mosque is quite magnificent and will accommodate 6,500 men and 700 women inside and up to 20,000 on its grounds. The interiors feature Carrera marble and chandeliers of Swarovski crystal. It was built by the Sultan solely with his funds. (We cannot go inside because it is Friday.)
On the way to the mosque, we see all kinds of lovely new buildings, most painted white. Many are luxury car dealerships but there is a new opera house under construction…the sultan wanting to add some culture of the primary recreational activities of camel- and horse-racing. Lots of money is being invested in infrastructure, with lots of new roads and lovely landscaping (all irrigated with desalinated water.) Notably, there are no skyscrapers….buildings are limited in height in order to keep a traditional look to the city and it is very pleasing. All signage is in Arabic and English.
From here we go back to the wharf and visit the Muttrah Souk. This is a popular shopping spot, a fairly typical Arabian bazaar where bargaining is expected. The main aisles are geared for tourists, selling brass, pashminas, embroidered bags, spices and frankincense (which is produced in Oman). The side aisles are geared for locals, selling groceries, clothing, baby items, sundries, fabrics and more. It is fun to explore and good for picture-taking…however, many shops are burning frankincense and it gives me a headache, which spoils my shopping intentions. We figure that most everything here is made in India or Pakistan anyway, and decide to do our shopping there.
The tour visits a small local museum (we are told that a larger museum is being built) and finishes at a palace in the old city. This palace is used primarily for ceremonial occasions as the sultan lives in a new palace near the airport.
Our visit to Oman is only a few hours, but enjoyable. It is obvious that Oman is trying to develop tourism as a source of future income. There are two major hotels in Muscat, the Shangri-La and Al Buscat Palace. To learn more, visit www.omantourism.gov.om.