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Oman’s Prosperous Capital Impresses Business and Leisure Travelers

by Sharon King Hoge

Mar 18, 2021

PHOTO: © REJI ITTIACHAN | DREAMSTIME.COM,

March 2021

Situated on the Arabian Peninsula, often amid Middle East chaos and turmoil, Oman manages to maintain a countenance of decorum and civility. Evading military clashes between its neighboring states, it implemented long-range plans for development and emergence. Much of the activity focuses on its capital city, Muscat.

Lying between the El Hajar Mountains and the Arabian Sea, Muscat serves as the seat of the country’s political, administrative and economic systems and home to a third of the country’s 4.5 million residents. With its proximity to the sensitive Strait of Hormuz, Muscat proved a historically important trading port in the Gulf of Oman, attracting foreign tradesmen and settlers who came to trade in fishing and agriculture. Persians, Spaniards and Ottomans were among overseas travelers to ancient Muscat, admired as “very elegant” by a 16th-century Portuguese writer.

Muscat’s sprawling 1,400 square miles divide into three principal urban areas: Muscat proper, the original settlement and now an enclave of restored historic homes and buildings; waterfront Mutrah, the harbor scene of shipping and cruise ship anchorages, upgrading to enhance its appeal to visiting tourists; and the commercial district centered in Ruwi, a cluster of high-rise apartments, office buildings and headquarters of international companies.

Ruled since the 18th century by the Al Said Dynasty, friction with imams of the interior destabilized the sultanate until 1970 when Qaboos bin Said, with assistance from the British, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup. Consolidating and renaming the region the Sultanate of Oman, Sultan Qaboos united tribal territories and launched programs to end the country’s isolation and to use oil revenues for modernization and development. Slavery was abolished, and freedom of religion was allowed.

To promote internal stability and to supplement expats and immigrants, in 1988 the country initiated Omanization. The local population is enlisted and trained to integrate into the workforce, expanding the economy and infrastructure. Companies are rewarded for increasing their quota levels toward the target goal of 72 percent local personnel. Five-year development plans initiated in 1976 resulted in the establishment of the petroleum industry; construction of the new shipping port Mina Qaboos; and new ministries for social services, health, education and the tourist industry. Oman emerged with a higher standard of living than that of neighboring countries.

As it has throughout history, trade dominates the economy, with oil products joining the traditional exports of dates, fish and mother-of-pearl. Muscat is home to multibillion-dollar conglomerate CK Industries; and major trading companies Suhail Bahwan Group and Saud Bahwan Group partnered with dozens of international corporations including Toshiba, Toyota, Hewlett- Packard, Mitsubishi, General Motors and Chrysler. Petroleum Development Oman — a joint operation of the government, Shell, Total and Partex — reported a combined oil, gas and condensate production record for 2018 equal to 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, with a growing expansion into hydrocarbon, renewable energy generation and water management. Established in 1988, the principal stock exchange, the Muscat Securities Market, operates with transparency, disclosure regulations and requirements. Numerous hospitals, clinics, universities and schools thrive in the private sector.

The country applies a multitude of assets to lure investors: the educated and largely bilingual workforce; good health care and schools for families; easy access to global markets through a modern infrastructure network; and a stable, secure and predictable investment climate. Dependent on imported goods, Oman promotes policies that welcome entrepreneurs and small businesses. Grain and vegetable farming, gas stations and haulage, tourism and perfume shops, electronics and home appliances, commodity stores, bars and restaurants list among suggested venture opportunities.

Clearly, the leadership of Sultan Qaboos deserves credit as a key to Oman’s progress. At his death in January 2020, he was the longest-serving monarch in the Arab world. A devotee of opera and classical music, he received his education in India and at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. While as sultan his rule was absolute, he was said to rely more on the business elite than on family members for counsel. Peaceful protests following the Arab Spring raised issues of job opportunities, salary increases, establishment of Islamic banks and expulsion of some government ministers.

Sultan Qaboos was succeeded by his first cousin, Haitham bin Tarik Al Said, who recently named his eldest son, Dhi Yazan, as crown prince, assuring an orderly succession in the future. In the past year Sultan Haitham has undertaken some political reforms, reshuffling cabinet positions, strengthening the powers and responsibilities of the regional governors and turning over some positions Qaboos held, such as foreign minister and finance minister, to others. He is also a proponent of economic diversity. In his first speech to the nation he promised to continue the “renaissance” of the late sultan and maintain the stability and peace his people have enjoyed.

CHECKING IN WITH DEEPAK NAIR
Founder, Editor and CEO, DestinationOman

Tell us a little about yourself and your business.
I am an IT and media entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of my company, Interactive Digital Media Technologies LLC, which I set up in 1999. DestinationOman is the web portal founded by me in 2001 focused on Oman in-bound travel; the annual print edition first came out in 2004. I founded another portal focused on Oman corporate public relations called Oman Vistas in 2006. By default, I am also the editor of DestinationOman and Oman Vistas.

How long have you lived in Muscat? What drew you to Oman initially, and what led you to make your home there?
I arrived here 29 years ago in 1992 from India, and Muscat has been my home since. I had just finished my master’s degree in Communication & Journalism in 1990 and was working as an advertising copywriter in Mumbai for 1.5 years when a friend offered to send me a visit visa to make a trip and explore the opportunities firsthand. So I came just for the lark of it, but I liked the place and stayed on, as I was lucky to find a job, too, in a reputed media company.

How has the country changed over the course of the time you have lived there?
When I arrived here in 1992 the country was modern, and over the years many more developments took place toward modernization. For example, there were no mega shopping malls and hypermarkets then, but now we have huge malls and hypermarkets spread all around Muscat and also across the country in all 11 governorates. Private hospitals were also not heard of in the early 1990s, but now we have so many of them all over the country. We also have excellent infrastructure in the shape of roads and telecommunications.

What changes has Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq introduced over the past year, and how have they and his rule been accepted by the citizens?
His Majesty Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq had vowed to continue with the policies laid out by his predecessor, the late Sultan Qaboos, and that is what is happening. He has continued with his progressive vision, and citizens and residents of this blessed land are equally happy.

What do you think makes Muscat a good place to do business, and what sectors provide compelling opportunities for foreign investors and businesses?
It is not just Muscat, the capital city, but the entire Sultanate of Oman offers ample opportunities for foreign investors. The most important factors being a stable government, a most modern infrastructure, trade free zones and modern banking and financial systems. The Sultanate of Oman also offers excellent lifestyle and recreational facilities for foreigners.

What do you think are the best aspects of Muscat and Oman?
The best thing about Muscat or Oman is the people are kind and friendly; all foreigners and expatriates are treated well here, and every visitor would feel much at home and carry back good impressions. Muscat is a modern city which is blended with the rich culture and traditions of Oman and its beautiful people.

DIVERSIONS

History, beaches and culture provide abundant options for sightseeing and recreation. Visitors can charter boats for fishing and diving. The waterside corniche lined with date palms and monuments connects the historic fish market and Mutrah Souk. One of the oldest traditional markets in Oman, it features handicrafts, jewelry and silverware. Follow the corniche south toward the massive city gates into the ancient center, now a region of restored historic adobe huts and flowery boulevards surrounding the sultan’s palace.

Scattered in both regions, museums focus on culture and folklore. The National Museum of Oman, opened in 2016, features digital immersive experiences and children’s discovery zones among its 14 permanent galleries. Tourist attractions include restored Portuguese forts Al Jalali, Al Mirani and Mutrah. Keep in mind offices close for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m.; stores close from noon to 1 p.m., then remain open until 8 p.m.

At night, the area north of Seeb transforms into a warren of fish restaurants and clubs where shop windows display dazzling, colorful women’s ensembles of harem pants, gauzy veils and jangling coinage. The multidisciplinary Royal Opera House presents an incredible array of programs including ice skating shows, classical ballet and opera, symphonies and timeless Arab songs. Oman’s leading arts and cultural institution, this mammoth gold and marble structure, surrounded by extensive gardens, merits a visit in itself.

LODGING

AL BUSTAN PALACE, A RITZ-CARLTON HOTEL
Said to be one of the world’s finest hotels, this splendid urban resort was a favorite project of the late Sultan Qaboos.
Al Bustan Street, Quron Beach
$$$$$

GRAND MILLENNIUM MUSCAT
Conveniently located in the heart of the city’s business and diplomatic district near the two great malls, this 5-star hotel offers a Zanta spa and meeting rooms with panoramic city views.
Dohat al Adab St. 133, Al Khuwair
$$$

KEMPINSKI HOTEL MUSCAT
Arab and contemporary décor blend in this luxury 5-star beach resort with spa, tennis court and watersports on its three-mile stunning coastline.
335 Street 6, Al Mouj
$$$$

DINING

AL ANGHAM
Situated within the impressive Royal Opera House complex, Al Angham features Omani culture and décor, dishes, motifs and silverware inspired by the Sultanate’s heritage.
463 Al Kharjiyah St., Royal Opera House
$$$$

BAIT AL LUBAN
With views of the old port, the “house of Omani hospitality” serves traditional meals combining flavors from the early trading routes to East Africa and India.
Al Mina Street, Mutrah Corniche
$$$$

KURKUM
Indian cooking — biryani, prawn curry, coconut rice — is the focus at this cozy and casual spot on the Corniche near the souk on Mutrah Harbor.
Way No. 08, Mutrah Corniche
$$$

INFO TO GO
Lying about 20 miles south of the old city on Sultan Qaboos Highway and originally called Seeb, Muscat International Airport is the country’s main airport and the hub for Oman Air and Salam Air. A new passenger terminal with 118 check-in counters and 45 gates opened in 2018, with further expansion planned to number it among the world’s top 20 airports. Public buses stop in front of the airport area; hotel shuttles are preferred. Blue-and-white, metered taxis to the business district cost around $30.

JUST THE FACTS
Time zone: GMT +4
Phone code: Country code: 968
City code: 24
Currency: Omani rial
Key industries: Oil, manufacturing, transportation, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, mining.

COMING AND GOING
U.S. citizens must have a valid passport with six months validity and a visa. No sponsor is required for 10-day, single-stay visas, which can be obtained online. Visas must be used within a month of approval; the fee is $160.

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE
Arabic is official; many residents are familiar with English. Hindi and Urdu are common among the size-able Indian population.

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