Oman, an arid desert kingdom of just over 3 million inhabitants, occupies the quiet, lesser-known corner of the Arab Gulf. Oman is neither fanatically religious like Saudi Arabia nor development-crazed like the United Arab Emirates, instead opting for a steady middle ground meant to balance conservation of the old with adoption of the new. With stunning landscapes and a distinct and well-preserved culture, Oman represents a satisfying and authentic alternative to its more-visited neighbor to the north.
Muscat – the Capital
Muscat, the political, economic, and cultural center of Oman, is a long narrow city of around 800,000 inhabitants that hugs the coastline, hemmed in all sides by craggy hills.
These men are wearing the Omani national uniform, a plain white dishdash and skullcap. This a way for ethnic Omanis to distinguish themselves from the other half of their country’s population, which is compromised of immigrants and migrant workers mostly from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Omanis also prefer to speak their native Arabic whereas English is spoken more broadly across ethnic groups in Oman.
When Qaboos assumed the throne, Oman was an isolated and impoverished backwater with virtually no modern infrastructure or institutions. He immediately set out to change all this, leveraging Oman’s meager oil revenue to construct roads, ports, hospitals, and schools.
Whereas most Gulf monarchs have multiple wives and dozens of children, Sultan Qaboos married only once and never bore children. He divorced shortly thereafter and is widely rumored to be gay.
Both forts were built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century to defend Muscat (then a Portuguese colony) from Ottoman invasion. The forts was captured by Omani forces a century later and then again by the Persians a century after that.
According to legend, Muscat fell to Omani forces thanks to a Hindu merchant who, resentful of a Portuguese commander’s relentless pursuit of his daughter, slowly drained the fort’s ammunitions over the course of a year and then invited Omani forces to attack the undersupplied garrison.
Modernism is frowned upon in Oman, and most public building nod to traditional styles. Skyscrapers are banned, and developers are encouraged to employ local materials, styles, and colors to conserve local architectural identity.
This city gate is actually brand new. It was built to commemorate the old city gate which was torn down to make room for a highway in the 70’s. There’s an interactive history museum inside.
Sohar’s Grand Mosque
I know what you’re thinking, and while, yes, Oman is an Arab Muslim country, you may leave the horror stories and negative stereotypes from elsewhere in the region at the door. Oman is a peaceful and tolerant multicultural society where half the population hails from elsewhere. Women, both local and foreign, enjoy equal rights and may dress as they like. Unmarried opposite-sex visitors may travel together undisturbed. Same-sex couples need not worry so long as they remain discreet. In this respect, Oman is not so different from Dubai.
Also in keeping with its neighbor to the north, Oman is NOT a cheap place to visit. The Omani Riyal is among the strongest currencies in the world (1 Omani Riyal is fixed at 2.6 USD), which, of course, makes budget travel difficult.
Oman doesn’t do backpacker hostels, but you can rent a private room on AirBnb for around $25 per night. Meals generally start at $5 on the cheaper side. You can use buses to move between cities, but public transport within cities is very limited, so if you are not keen on renting a car during your stay, you may need to take a lot of taxis.
Personally, I did not have to deal with all that thanks to Giby. Local tendencies for privacy and gender segregation make couchsurfing with Omani families fairly difficult, but you can expect to receive many offers from foreign expat hosts like Giby. Luckily, Giby had a lot of free time, so I never took a taxi, and I ate at home at least one meal per day.
You can fly into Oman from from South Asia or elsewhere in the the Gulf for less than $90. From elsewhere, it usually makes more sense to fly into Dubai first. From there, you can reach Oman by bus within 2 hours. A lot of visitors from the Emirates even visit Muscat just as a day trip, though I would say Oman merits much more than that.