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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Muscat, Oman

Saturday | October 8, 2016

Quote of the Day: “We don’t talk about the personal life of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos” – Our guide, Sunnil.

After seven days at sea, dodging rockets and pirates, and enjoying solitude, we finally arrived in Muscat, Oman late this morning.

I had a lazy morning working on my computer before meeting my guide to head out and explore Muscat.


There is no premium on spelling here.

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Muscat is a relatively significant international city in Oman, boasting a population of 800,000 of Oman’s 4.5 million citizens. As the capital city of the country, it enchants visitors in a way that no other city in the Gulf can even begin to match. The old port area is the site of the Sultan’s main palace and a fascinating place to explore.


Muscat dates back to the first century however it didn’t really see a material amount growth until the 16th century when it became used as a trading port by merchant ships bound for India. The Portuguese conquered Muscat in 1507 and stayed until 1650 when the Omanis reconquered the area.

Our guide was Sunnil and he was excellent.

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(Our driver’s name was Maas.) Sunnil is from India, but he has been guiding in Oman for eight years.

75% of the people in Oman are Omani and 25% are ex-pats. The ex-pats come primarily from India and Pakistan. In Muscat, the ratio is 50-50.

Besides the normal Omanis, the country has Bedouins, people who live in the desert– and Lobli, people who live in the mountains.

70% of the country is flat, 15% coastline, and 15% is mountainous. The entirety of the country of Oman is 309,500 km².

The city is extremely clean, and Sunnil took great pride in that. In 2004, Muscat was voted the second cleanest city in the world, after Singapore. (Take that, Minneapolis!) In fact, it is against the law to drive a dirty car here. A lot of things are against the law here. One may not expose a part of the body such as a knee or ankle or shoulder, and one must never say anything disrespectful of the flag, the national anthem or any of the rulers of the country. Sexual relations outside of marriage are expressly prohibited, irrespective of any relationship one might enjoy with partner in his or her own country. Holding hands or kissing in public are considered offenses against public decency and homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment or deportation.


As we drove, Sunnil pointed out a multitude of ministry buildings.

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I’ve never seen so many ministry buildings in one place my life, and that includes Washington DC. One can only hope that the thousands of people who work for the Omani government do not screw it up as well as our government employees have done in our own country.


All day, the temperature was intense, sometimes reaching over 41°. Sunnil told us that sometimes this summer, temperatures top out over 50°. That is absolutely unimaginable.


Our first stop was the Grand Mosque, designed and built by an Iraqi architect between 1995 and 2001.


It covers over 430,556 ft.² and features a series of ornate, engraved stained-glass triangles within the framework of marble columns and a Swarovski crystal chandelier that dangles 50 feet from the ceiling. It can accomodate 20,000 people at time for worship, and features the second largest carpet in the world, in the men’s section of course. This carpet was made in Iran and weighs 21 tons. It is 4263 m² and contains 1.7 billion handmade knots. Because today is a Saturday, and a day of worship, and because we are not Muslim, we were not permitted inside the mosque.


The largest of the five minarets is over 92 m high.

Sunnil reminded us that all worshiping Muslims must pay a tithe of at least 2.5% of their annual income to the church. I should note at this point that there is no income tax in Oman. Similarly, we were surprised to learn that every Omani citizen is granted land– 600 m² – which he is free to use to build a residence, sell, or combine with relatives.

There are over 14,000 mosques in Oman. One can see them everywhere.

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The country is made up primarily of Ibadi and Sunni, with Shia (mostly from India or Iran) in the minority. All get along well and respect each other, thanks to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.

We had a lengthy conversation about the Sultan. He is 75 years old and was born on November 18, 1940. He attended the Sandhurst Military Academy, before traveling the world to learn about different cultures before he ascended to his sultanship. He became the Sultan of Oman in 1970. At that time, the country had only two schools, two hospitals, and 2 km of blacktop road. Now, the the country is fortunate to have over 1000 schools, one thousand hospitals and 27,000 km of blacktop road.


The Sultan does not make many public appearances, television broadcasts or major speeches. However, for two months each year he travels around the country to listen to people and their complaints or problems. When he does so, he brings his entire cabinet so all the ministers are present to hear, and be able to respond to, comments and questions from the people. During the Sultan’s travels, he lives in tents with his ministers.


We next visited the Muscat Opera House, built in 2011.


It is a stunning, pristine, gleaming white marble building, and Lynn was ready to take in the show. Tonight’s featured performer is the winner of the Palestinian Idol television contest– so we will pass.


It reflects the contemporary Omani architectural style and its richly adorned interiors featured crystal chandeliers, hand carved wooden fixtures and inlaid marble. The guard let us take a peek inside even though the building was closed. It consists of a massive auditorium, a concert hall and luxury restaurants.

The gorgeous marble courtyard was being polished to a shine so high it appears wet.

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We then walked through the mall that adjoins the Opera. There were expensive, high-class stores, such as Lalique and Armani, but we only counted seven people in the entire mall. Oman is no different from the rest of the world, and must be suffering from a quasi-recession. Oman’s principal industries are oil, natural gas, agriculture, and tourism.


We stopped by the Houses of Parliament which were built only five years ago.

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They are protected by a moat – but why?

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Next, we enjoyed a beautiful view over old Muscat.

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There we noticed the volcanic holes in all the mountain, a geologist’s dream.

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A graveyard was in the distance.

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This is the official Palace of the His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, constructed in 1972.

It features a fairytale façade of towering gold and blue pillars wrapped in white iron and edged in green.

Behind the palace, guns protect the harbor from invaders.

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The Sultan maintains seven palaces, three in Muscat and three in Salala.

One can see watchtowers everywhere, dating back to the Portuguese occupancy of the 1600s.

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Flanking either side of the palace are two impressive medieval fortresses, Jalali and Mirani. One is now a prison and the other is home to the Omani defense forces.

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In the middle of the city is a large cradle that is used for burning frankincense– a local product– when visiting dignitaries come to Muscat.

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Also unusual are the large coffee pots that adorn the roads.

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Our next visit was the Blue Mosque, a beautiful structure by any standards.

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The final stop of our whirlwind tour was the Mutrah Souq, the oldest and one of the most fascinating souqs in the Arab Gulf.

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We walked through the long winding corridors and found such items as silver, gold, and leather works, as well as antique shops.


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Some of it was kind of sketchy.

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The ultimate souvenir we decided to buy was raw frankincense, something that is unique to Oman, Yemen, and Somalia – bearing witness to the fact that at least one of Jesus’ three kings came from this region. Sunnil gave us a brief education on frankincense, which is extracted from a tree in resin fashion. At that point, it looks like this.

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Then, it is dried out and the lighter the color, the better the frankincense.

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Henna is also very popular here.

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After we got back to the ship and bid adieu to our friends, we decided to eat on board because it is just too hot to go outside.


Next to our ship is the private yacht of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.

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