Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arab world, favors understated, quiet elegance rather than the glitz, glam and high rises of places like Dubai. It’s the opera house in Oman’s capitol, Muscat, that attracts tourists instead of Michelin restaurants.
It’s the same for the 200-year-old Muttrah souq, or market, which sits opposite towering container ships in Muscat’s port. Fragrant incense and the scent of Arabian perfumes waft through the dark, narrow alleys. Merchants still sell frankincense and myrrh here, along with bright, traditional Omani clothing, silver daggers and other goods.
“Muttrah market was designed based on other Arab markets all around Arabia,” says Murtadha Al Lawati, the director of the Ghalyas Museum of Modern Art, a short walk from the souq. “They call this market [the] shaded market.”
In places like Bahrain and Dubai, the governments have either demolished their souqs or neglected them in favor of modern shopping malls, with stores like the Gap, California Pizza Kitchens and even ski slopes. But in Oman, the government invested in air-conditioning and other improvements for its traditional markets.
“You see, that’s what makes us feel alright — we have balanced it,” says Lawati, who’s sporting Birkenstocks under his dishdasha, the traditional robe-style garment worn by men in the Gulf. “If you walk in Cairo, you will hardly see anyone walking in traditional dress. So there’s no identity.”
It’s a blend pioneered by Oman’s leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. When he came to power in 1970, there was just one road in Oman — and little else. He created a modern infrastructure, but maintained traditional forts, watchtowers and other vestiges of Oman’s history. He still has plans for a large public library, performing arts centers and a national railway.