I arrived into Muscat at a ridiculously early time on a Monday morning from my flight in from Bahrain. Thankfully, Muscat airport isn’t too far out of the city centre and so it wasn’t long before I was in my hotel bed – for all of about an hour before a 6am start.
Muscat is the capital city of Oman, a coastal kingdom in the Arab Gulf which has seen massive change since the 1970s. Oman’s ruler is Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who rose to power by ousting his father in a coup, and then set about redistributing the country’s wealth to its citizens. Consequently a lot of the country’s infrastructure is very new, and the Sultan is generally revered by the Omanis for the investments that he has made. This was made very apparent during my visit, as on the Monday evening the Sultan returned to Oman after a 9 month absence in Germany for cancer treatment. There were many street celebrations that evening and the Tuesday was declared a public holiday.
The aim of my trip was to recruit students for the university that I work for, and so the history of education in Oman was of particular interest to me. In 1970, Oman had just three schools and no universities. That’s now changed, with a large number of schools, including a number of international schools that teach the British and American systems or the IB, and several universities. We visited Sultan Qaboos University, which was the first to open in 1986 and is still the only public university in the country. By British standards, it would rank as an upper-medium sized university with just under 18,000 students.
Oman isn’t the only gulf country to see massive development in recent years – the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, amongst others, have changed massively. But what sets Oman apart is that it is trying to retain a link with its heritage through its architecture. There are no high-rise buildings in Muscat, and all new buildings maintain an Arabian influence in their design. Similarly a majority of Omani men choose to wear traditional, rather than western clothing. This included the border staff at the airport who could only really be identified as such by their lanyards. By maintaining its links with tradition, Oman sets itself apart from its other developed neighbours.
Compared to Jordan, telephony isn’t as good. There are just two communications companies, one of which is state owned, although 4G internet access is slowly becoming available in major cities, like Muscat. That being said, Oman was one country where my mobile phone operator, 3, did not have a data roaming agreement, so I had no choice but to use wifi where it was available.
Oman is mostly a desert country. Despite this, Muscat is very green with most major roads lined with trees, lawns and decorative plants – and a lot of irrigation. They were well-tended-to, with plenty of gardeners working on them all through the day.
Muscat airport, as it stands, is quite small, but a completely new terminal is in the final stages of construction, closer to the main runway. Indeed it currently takes ages for planes to taxi between the current terminal and runway, and even then there are no airbridges. It’s home to the national flag carrier, Oman Air, which operates more than half of the flights, including a number of internal flights.
Compared with Jordan and Bahrain, Oman is a much more peaceful country. There were some protests in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, but these were quickly quelled and some positive change has happened since. There is a democratically-elected government, but Oman is an absolute monarchy and so the Sultan can overrule his government. Womens rights are better than in some countries, but women have only been able to vote since 1997. There are a number of allegations about human rights violations.
Arabic is the main language used in Oman but most signage is also in English. Most Omanis that I encountered in Muscat had at least a basic grasp of English, although as I was recruiting students wanting to study in England, and stayed in a Western hotel chain, this is hardly surprising.
As with my visit to Amman, I didn’t get to see a lot of Muscat whilst there – my itinerary was jam-packed. It’s certainly an attractive city, thanks to the commitment to traditional architecture and I’d maybe consider visiting again in future.