It has been four months since I last visited Muscat, and got a once in a lifetime opportunity to stay at the spectacular and ultra-swanky Al-Bustan Ritz Carlton hotel, a very pricey ($500/night) but deserving hotel. But the memories that remain are not of the splendour of the hotel (and the best breakfast imaginable), but all the negativities about our closest Middle Eastern city.
It’s certainly beautiful, in terms of the undulating rows of clean white houses (just like the blue houses in Jaipur), and ultra clean and manicured pavements. The beaches are pristine; you can actually see shoals of fish by the tide. The market souk nearby is interesting and colorful, though stocked by more or less the same thing, i.e., tourist trinkets being sold by Kashmiri immigrants.
Now comes the harsh part: it’s hot in Muscat. Searingly, unbelievably hot. The barren black mountains absorb heat all day, and radiate it back at night, making the city miserable and unbearable. Even when I visited earlier in December, it was cool only as long as we stood in the shade. Once you faced the sun, it felt like you were in Jacobabad in the prime of summer!
Another problem; the city is dry, despite the fact that it rains there almost as much as in Karachi (apparently all the water runs off of the rocky top soil). There are no tall buildings or noteworthy malls (compared to say, Dubai) nor is it a truly cosmopolitan city as the only foreigners you see are Indians, who number in the hundreds and thousands, and mostly dominate the local economy. This is a remnant of olden times when Muscat was a central trading post en route to India.
This cultural mix is also in stark contrast to the cosmopolitan city of Dubai, which seems more like the UN headquarters. At the arrival lounge, most foreigners you see are not there for the usual touristy stuff, but are either migrant workers (in a special queue) or more adventure inclined individuals who come for scuba diving or mountain climbing (and there is a hefty fee for a tourist visa even for Europeans). I will not talk about the relatively more picturesque Salalah, as that is certainly not representative of the usual scenery Oman presents.
Back to Muscat. It’s a hot, dry, boring city made expensive thanks to a currency rate that is intimidating at one Omani riyal (OR) =PKR260. Things look very cheap when you get to buy a phone for OR100, but once you convert it, it’s a rude wakeup call indeed.
The area around Muscat also strongly resembles southern Balochistan (which was part of Oman once); the only difference is that the Baloch here are Omani citizens, and for the most part seem to be more prosperous than their Pakistani counterparts. But the irony is that they are still considered second-tier Omanis, and are mostly confined to jobs like running shops or driving taxis. Speaking of taxis, it seems that the basic code of conduct is very much as it is in Pakistan: the taxis here don’t have meters either!
With no tourist attractions as such, boredom quickly set in. In our case, we were sick of the city in merely two days. There are a couple of forts atop the mountains which are heavily promoted as tourist attractions, but barely deserve to be categorised as such (they look very contemporary and heavily renovated, with little history left in them). Then there is the Sultan’s yacht, which is stunning and is permanently parked at the bay to make people balk at his majesty’s might. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman is deeply revered, and for good reason too. He has almost single-handedly transformed Oman from a rural outpost to a highly educated nation, focused and committed to its people. At one time, the Sultan used to send helicopters out to pick students from villages and drop them to school. It’s marvellous when you think all this was achieved with limited oil wealth.
Oman is indeed a model state; peaceful, prosperous and stable. But with opulence in the Middle East comes the usual arrogance, and the way they look down on their foreign workers (especially Pakistanis) is quite obvious. I read some time ago that the desert shores of Oman abound with bones of Pakistanis who tried to venture to a new frontier and died of thirst and exposure in the vast rocky deserts of the Omani coastline. There were also reports of Omani army using Pakistanis as target practice as a lesson to would-be future migrants. Remember the news clipping in the local newspaper about a Pakistani worker being murdered and buried in Muscat? Only when his hand appeared out of the grave did the police locate him at all!
Accompanied by my mother and aunt, we spent the better part of our vacation in our rooms, since it was too hot and there was nothing more to do than revisiting the local souk, the empty malls or the local McDonalds. I did however manage to go to an Omani restaurant with my friend and had the opportunity to try Omani cuisine — palatable, heavy on the meat and low on spices. Worth a try if you haven’t done so before. We also got to visit the Sultan’s enormous palace, but apparently he doesn’t stay in the city, and prefers Sur as his abode. Most Omanis’ biggest ambition in life is to work for the government: lots of money, negligible work, and just toadying up to the Sultan to guarantee a life of luxury (which for Omanis means driving a Ferrari) There are also some interesting facets to Muscat. For instance, opera is a personal favourite of the Sultan, and he has built a magnificent opera house right in the centre of the city. Every time the Sultan travels on his yacht, he takes the entire orchestra (more than a hundred musicians) with him to serenade him on his trips.
Oman also has one of the highest rates of road accidents in the world; mostly committed by youngsters driving recklessly in their pricey sports cars. Every time we ventured out on the roads, we would see wreckage by the road: a sad statistic for a country to lose their youth who are few enough to begin with considering the overall population is approximately 3m. Will I visit Muscat again? Probably not ... although the pull of a high paying job may just force me to reconsider. That is about the only cogent reason one would want to move to Oman, and of course, the fact that Dubai is close by!