Christmas in Oman, part I

Almost every one of the eight days we’ve spent in Oman could be an entry unto itself. Unfortunately, since each day has been so full of adventure and activity, there has been little time to blog about our time here. I’ll try to summarise the highlights (which have been almost non-stop) of our Oman holiday.

Days 1-3, Muscat

We arrived here in Muscat, the capital of Oman, on December 23. We were met at the airport by Adel, our host with whom we

Adel and I at a shopping centre in Muscat

connected through CouchSurfing. Adel is Jordanian, and is an archetypically cynical Arab. As we were walking out to the carpark, he said “Welcome to Mumbai.” And indeed, almost everyone else waiting in the arrival hall was Indian. And this trend wasn’t limited to the airport either. Over 60% of the labour force in Muscat is non-Omani. Much like other Gulf states, Oman decided to use its oil and gas revenue to start building things, but didn’t have enough workers, so they imported them. There are also deep historical trade ties between the Persian Gulf and India, such that there was already a significant Indian population in Muscat in the 19th century.

While Muscat has experienced some Dubai-like demographic-changes, there has not been a similar change in the city’s skyline. Muscat doesn’t have any skyscrapers because they’re not allowed; in some parts of the city, buildings can’t be taller than five stories, and in others you need a special permit for

Muscat, as seen from the highway

buildings with 7-9 stories.  Combined with Muscat’s unusual geography — the city is situated on a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea — this has created a city that is very long, but not at all wide. In fact, Muscat stretches over about 50 km.

Strangely, Muscat feels like a bizarre version of American suburbia. The roads have all been built recently, and they are all super highways. It’s impossible to get around the city without a car, and Muscat is filled with hypermarkets and shopping centres full of American brands.

The city is not without charm, however. On our first day there, Adel takes us to several old castles built on the water that harken back to Oman’s days as a master of the seas (Omani sultans built an empire in Africa along the Swahili coast, and developed a trading network from East Africa to the Far East). We walked around the courtyard by Sultan Qaboos’ palace and wandered through Muttrah Souq, a crowded marketplace that is one of the oldest souqs in the Arab world.

Me in the courtyard outside the sultan’s palace

Us in front of the gate in front of the palace

Spices and incense for sale in the souq

Well, that’s what’s for sale

One thing that was most striking to us about Muscat was the juxtaposition of all-new hyper-modern infrastructure and buildings with Omani men and women both in traditional clothing (men in dishdasha, women in abaya).

Day 4: Mosque and then desert

As I said, every day in Muscat involved lots of driving back and forth. Every time we traveled to or from Adel’s house along the main highway in Muscat, we inevitably passed by the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. We had wanted to visit, but the mosque is only open to visitors between 8-11 am during the week, and we had been trying to sleep in a bit during our first few days of vacation. But we were leaving Muscat on the 26th, and we knew that morning might be our last chance to visit.

The mosque is the third largest in the world and, until recently, had the largest hand-woven carpet in the world. Everything about this mosque, from its architecture to its outfitting is indeed grand.

The entrance to the mosque

Faith, following the rules

A 14 metre-tall chandelier inside a 50 metre-high dome

It’s really hard to capture the grandeur of this place

Back outside

After a slightly strange attempt to either educate or proselytize us by a Canadian convert, we set off out into the desert…


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