Where in the world can a friendly traffic cop write you a ticket for driving a dirty car? Only in Muscat, the capital city of Oman in the Middle East. Believe it or not, in Oman, officially called the Sultanate of Oman, it is illegal to drive around the city in a dirty car. The fine is OMR10 – 28.32 CAD (1 Canadian dollar = 0.35 Oman rial or 1 OMR = 2.83175 CAD $). The predominantly Arab country is famous for its law requiring drivers to keep their vehicles clean. Oman is not what we expect of an another Arab country – aside from being clean with no rubbish on the roadside. Although it is still a little-visited country, Oman, rich in natural and cultural heritage, is the best-kept secret gem of the Middle East.
Tucked away on the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Oman, with an area of 212,460 sq. kms. and a population of 4,013,391 (2014 – there are about 46,000 Filipino expatriates), is bordered by the countries of United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen and shares marine border with Iran and Pakistan. Occupying a strategic location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the Sultanate’s landscape of desolate mountains (the rocky Al Hajar), vast swathes of arid deserts and the sea sits it apart from the current turbulence in the neighbouring region.
One of the most peaceful and cleanest countries on earth, Oman has blossomed into a modern state with traditional values along with its stable government and progressive economy dependent on oil and gas resources, agriculture, manufacturing, substantial trade, and the rapidly expanding tourism industry since the reigning unitary Islamic absolute monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, came to power after overthrowing his father in a palace coup in 1970.
Through our knowledgeable travel guide, Abdul, we’re able to capture the best of the sights and sound of the city of Muscat on a warm but pleasant February day. Wearing the traditional long-sleeved ankle-length collarless white gown called “disdasha” and the head gear called “muzzar” (fabric folded into a turban), Abdul is a typical Omani, friendly, always with a smile, and speaks good English. Abdul like any Omani will tell you with pride that the legendary “Sinbad, the Sailor” of the famous Arabian Nights is of Omani origin, supposedly born in Sohar, the ancient capital of Oman. The only thing missing in him is the curved dagger called the “Khangar” (reminiscent of the Batangas, Philippines “balisong”). In Oman, the “khangar” is a distinguishing feature of the mens’ personality and symbol of male elegance traditionally worn at the waist when wearing formal attire.
Must-sees are the thousand forts, towers and castles of Oman. We’re able to see the capital’s most prominent landmarks built in the 16th century AD, the forts of “Al Mirani” and “Al Jalali”, standing sentinels at the entrance of the Muscat Bay used to be defensive bastions and look-out points for potential invading enemies.
The treasures of Omani’s heritage and cultural history can be discovered at the private “Al Zubair” museum – boasting extensive collection of ancient weapons, household equipment and owner’s private collection of costumes and artefacts.
In the heart of the capital stands the stunning “Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque”, the only mosque in the country that is open to non-Muslims. The dome and main minaret along with the 4 flanking minarets and the 35 Swarovski crystal chanderliers are the mosque’s main outstanding features. Of contemporary Islamic architecture the mosque can accommodate a total capacity of 20,000 worshippers at a time. As a visitor you are required to dress appropriately – no shorts or uncovered arms. Women are required to cover their heads and remove their shoes before entering the prayer hall.
Although not allowed inside the Palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, “The Alam” (means “The Flag” in Arabic), with its facade of gold and blue, we walk around to take some photos at the forecourt area. Built in the style of classic Arabic artistry, the palace evidently shows that Oman is the only oil nation so attached to traditional architecture that it forbids the construction of buildings higher than ten stories to ensure that the city’s mountain backdrop is never overshadowed by man-made structure and that all buildings must be painted white or an approved pastel colour.
You must see one of the oldest markets in Oman, “Muttrah Souq” in the port district of Muttrah with its corniche and horse-shoe shaped harbour. The souq with its aromatic smells of frankincense, spices and Arabian perfume is known for its handicrafts like silverware, daggers, traditional cloths, shoes in addition to the famous Omani sweets called “halwa” (popular sweet basically-cooked raw sugar with nuts traditionally served with the Omani coffee called “kahwa”).
Trivia: Oman is home to the world’s only population of non-migratory humpback whales. The country is also famous for frankincense, the aromatic sap of a tree known as “Boswellia Sacra”, a tree thast grows best on the hillsides of Dhofar.