Oman A Gem on the Persian Gulf

It's not as wealthy and ritzy as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there is less construction, and it's a lot more relaxed, with a beautifully diverse landscape. This is my impression of Oman. Charming, friendly, welcoming.

My husband and I were lucky enough to visit Oman for a few days beginning of November. This happens to be a good time as the temperatures are more moderate than in the summer months.

Already the airport was noteworthy – spacious, clean, modern, better than any airport in the US – and a to-die-for airline lounge that rivals any fancy restaurant.

Old Town Muscat
Muscat, Capital of Oman

Our first morning was dedicated to the captial, the ancient port city of Muscat. Sunrise shooting at the yacht club, followed by the fish market and souq, a traditional arab market.

One of my reasons to come to Oman was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Again, not as famous and flashy as the Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but sensible, well-thought-out architecture, interior and exterior. Non-muslim are allowed to visit the mosque on most mornings, but have to adhere to dress code (modest, loose-fitting clothes, full length pants or skirts, headscarf). Dressing modestly is advised outside of mosques as well, but as a tourist you can get away with short sleeves and women without a headscarf.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Entering the Mosque

Oman is very much a man's world. While Omani women benefit from better social protection than in most other Arab countries (and far better than neighboring Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran), they are far from the rights we demand in the west. We only occasionally saw women outside of their homes and I did not want to risk repercussions for photographing them. You can see a women's rights country comparison here.

Faces of Oman

Oman is a small country (4.6 million people spread out over half the size of Texas), but it was an important empire in the 17th century, spanning down the east coast of Africa and into modern day Pakistan. Strategically located on trade routes to the east, it was a major player in the spice and slave trade. Omanis were famous for their shipbuilding and navigational skills. The town of Sur still today builds fabulous wooden dhows, the traditional sailing vessels. The town of Sohar, an ancient capital of Oman, claims to be the birthplace of mythical Sindbad the Sailor.

Wooden Dhow
The coastal town of Sur

Several old forts, remnants of a glorious past, are interesting to visit. Nizwa fort is one of the oldest and largest and an impressive example of old Omani architecture. Its oldest parts stem from the 9th century. It was designed for long occupations, with several wells, hopital, and prison.

Located 30 miles away is the well known and well preserved Jabreen castle in Bahla. Built around 1670, Jabreen was designed as a learning center for astrology, medicine and islamic law. Lots of interesting details have been preserved, the intricately painted ceilings among them.

Inside Nizwa Fort
Architectural details at Jabreen castle.

Oman has over 1,000 miles of splendid coastline, and tall mountains behind it. The Al Hajar mountain range separates the coastal plateau plain from the high desert plateau to the east and south. Leaving Muscat, we had our first glimpse of mountains and were surprised how tall they were. Dry, with little vegetation, the mountains are interspersed with wadis, deep, water-cut valleys with lush vegetation. These wadis are popular weekend destinations for hiking and swimming.

Nizwa and surrounding oasis with the ruins of Birkat Al Mouz
Wadi Al Arbeieen Reflection

At the heart of this mountain range lies dramatic scenery, including Jebel Shams (Oman’s highest mountain at 3075m) and Jebel Akhdar, Arabic for ‘green mountain’, the latter referring to a region encompassing the Saiq Plateau, whose fertile orchards produce pomegranates, apricots, and other fruit, and the Damask Rose, raw ingredient of the local specialty, rosewater.

Jebel Akhdar

What would be a trip to the Middle East without a desert camp? I wanted to photograph sand dunes and requested an overnight in the desert.

Air pressure in the vehicle tires is lowered for better traction and off we got on a wild ride over the sand dunes. Honestly, there were some scary moments and I was glad when we were dropped at the top of a large sand dune. Then the wind picked up and we found ourselves in the middle of a sandstorm. As you might imagine, photographing in a sandstorm brings a host of challenges.

Lines in the Sand
Bedouin Dreams
A little desert romance.

Our guide arranged a yurt (large circular tent) in a Bedouin camp at Wahiba Sands (also called Sharqiya Sands). It was a cozy accommodation that offered outdoor hot showers under an inky, black sky chock-full of twinkling stars.

Just sit atop a dune and watch the sunrise - it’s spellbinding.

Toward the end of our stay, the country started to prepare for the Sultan's 79th birthday. Sultan Qaboos bin Said was a much revered leader and his image is omnipresent. He had been in power since 1970 (after ousting his father Said bin Taimur) and was basically married to his country. Educated in Britain at Sandhurst, followed by a brief stint in the British Army, he seemed to have run a benevolent dictatorship. His views, together with a healthy flow of oil revenue, helped to dramatically modernize Oman. He abolished slavery, built much needed schools, universities, hotels, hospitals, banks, ports, and airports. Today, Oman is one of the safest countries to live and travel and Sultan Qaboos was the longest serving leader in the Middle East and Arab world.

Sultan Qaboos (image courtesy of FT)

Sadly, Sultan Qaboos passed away January 11, 2020. He is succeeded by his successor of choice, his cousin Haitham bin Tariq and former culture minister.

Wearing National Colors for the Sultan's Birthday

Oman is easy enough to travel on your own, but you learn a lot more with an experienced guide. We were lucky to have found Abdullah Alshuhi, an accomplished photographer himself, well-traveled and well-spoken, who generously took us around and shared his time and insights with us. If you are interested in traveling to Oman, feel free to ask for more details and Abdullah’s contact information. I highly recommend him.

Colorful wares in the souq.
Camel Selfie

Let me end with the traditional greeting of Salaam Aleikum (peace upon you) and a smile from this friendly camel lady.


Text and images images by Hilda Champion