The Sultanate of Oman is found on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is a land of extremes, from stunning mountain ranges and lush, rolling hills to hot deserts and salt flats, beautiful beaches and long coastal plains. Wildlife tours and safaris are popular and a growing number of people travel there to take part in various water-sports and other activities such as trekking, caving and climbing. Although its culture is Arab Islamic, Oman is far more relaxed than neighbouring Saudi Arabia and has undergone significant social reforms in the recent past.
The official language of Oman is Arabic. English is widely spoken and is used in business. Asian languages such as Hindi and Urdu are also used.
Currency in Oman is the Omani Rial (RO), which is pegged to the US dollar. At the time of writing (August 2006):1 RO : US$2.60 (fixed)1 RO : UK£1.371 RO : €2.01
There are 1000 baisa to the Rial. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 100, 200, 250 and 500 baisa and 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 rials. Coins are available in 500, 250, 100, 50, 25, 10 and 5 baisa.
There are many ATMs and travellers’ cheques are easily exchanged. Take US travellers’ cheques to keep the charges to a minimum.
Oman’s climate is generally very hot and dry, although there are significant regional variations. Rainfall is fairly light and unpredictable, but sudden and violent storms can occur.
In the coastal regions of the north, summer can be quite humid. Temperatures average the mid-30s Centigrade on the coast of the Gulf of Oman, though the Gharbi, a strong western wind, can elevate temperatures by up to 10˚C. In the arid Interior, 50˚C is common (less in the mountains, where rainfall is also higher). Winter temperatures are typically 15-23˚C.
The south of the country has a monsoon climate. The temperatures are therefore far more stable (30-35˚C all year round) and the land greener and more productive.
Oman’s landscape of mountains, desert and beaches make it an ideal destination for outdoor activities. The long coastline attracts many divers and numerous companies hire out equipment and run different courses and activities. The mountains are ideal for climbers and temperatures are comfortable for walking at the higher altitudes.
For the less adventurous, there are museums, art galleries and shops, where ethnic and international art is available. Camel racing is a popular national pastime, if slightly unusual for the Westerner, though races tend to be badly advertised. There are excellent beaches for relaxing, swimming, sailing, playing games and even camping at some resorts. At Ra’s Al Junayz you will be able to watch Green Back turtles nesting.
The national symbol of Oman is the khanjar, a curved dagger. You will find these for sale in souvenir shops and bazaars (souqs) around the country. Other traditional goods include spices and frankincense, silver jewellery and clothing such as the mansul, an embroidered goat-hair cloak. Bargaining is part of the culture and should always be carried out in good humour. Shopping malls can be found in the larger cities, like Muscat.
Not surprisingly for a Muslim country, there are few bars and clubs to visit in Oman, though some hotels will have them. There are public cinemas. Due to the mixed demographic, theatres show the most recent international films in a number of languages, English included.
Roads in Oman are of high quality and well signed. Drive on the right. Remember to carry your driving licence and other documents with you at all times (an international licence is valid; residents and ex-pats should obtain an Omani licence as soon as possible and may need to take another test before one is issued).
The police must be called if you are involved in even a very minor accident. Bear in mind that drink-driving is treated very harshly.
Crossing the desert can be dangerous and is not to be undertaken lightly. If you break down, you are liable to face serious problems. It is recommended that at least 2 or 3 cars travel in convoy if you want to try this. Carry extra petrol (it could be a long time before you find a petrol station) and lots of water. Apart from this, desert driving can be monotonous and it is easy to fall asleep at the wheel.
Driving in the wadis (riverbed roads) is possible in a regular car, but a 4x4 is better. You may also void your driving insurance by doing this in a hire car. Watch out for heavy rain and flash floods.
Food and Drink
Omani food is traditionally fairly simple, often involving spiced meats (usually chicken and lamb) and rice dishes. The food is not as hot as in other countries. As the country has a long coastline, fish is also frequently eaten, especially shark. The main meal is usually eaten around midday whereas evening meals are lighter.
If you are invited into someone’s home, you will almost certainly be offered kahwa, very strong, thick, black coffee, usually flavoured with cardamom. Dates and other confectionary are often served with this, offsetting the bitterness of the coffee.
Tap water is drinkable, but tends to have a high mineral content; bottled water is readily available instead if this bothers you. Laban, a salted buttermilk drink, is popular, as well as other flavoured yoghurt drinks. Most of Oman’s people avoid alcohol. It is still available at many hotels, though can be quite expensive. Drinking – or being drunk – is forbidden in public.