Editor’s note: outside of Israel, I’ve explored little of the Middle East. I’m so grateful to Sam Spector for filling in some of these gaps for all of you here at The Royal Tour! For more of his adventures, click here to visit his index page.

I have written about the glitz and glam of the Arabian Gulf cities of Doha, Qatar and both Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Those cities are competing with each other over which will be the most modern, have the best skyline, and have the classiest museums as they all strive to be the cities of the future. However, the sleeping beauty of the Gulf is the capital of Oman, the city of Muscat. Unlike the other cities, Muscat has phenomenal natural beauty as it has a backdrop of the Central Hajar Mountains while having the Muscat Harbor, approximately in the place where the Persian Gulf meets the Arabian Sea. There are many roads that wind along the coast or through the rugged terrain of the desert mountains. Being on the water and the Arabian Peninsula, summer is brutally hot and humid, averaging over 100 degrees daily; however, I went to Muscat at the end of November and the weather was perfect in the upper 70s and low 80s. While the other Gulf cities that I mentioned are crowded, sprawling, and try to display themselves as futuristic, Muscat has the opposite feel. While the metro area has 1.7 million people, Old Muscat only has 30,000 people, and the city is largely spread out; due to the mountains, it is only 20% as densely populated as Dubai. Muscat feels both old and new, and the modern part can be attributed to one man, the former sultan, Qaboos bin Said.

Portuguese forts flanking a palace

Sultan Qaboos was the most influential man in creating modern Oman and making it the oil rich country that it is today. In 1970, in a bloodless coup, he overthrew his own father and became the sultan of the nation. He began many reforms to modernize the country and today, when you drive through Oman, you will drive on paved, new highways that are wide and do not have much traffic. The new airport terminal is beautiful, the city’s buildings are new, and there are modern shopping malls to escape the brutal heat. In the Muscat harbor one could see Sultan Qaboos’s superyachts, the flagship being the Al Said, which was the second largest yacht in the world at the time of its creation in 2008 and worth an estimated $600 million. Sultan Qaboos died in January 2020, a month after I visited. It is widely believed that the sultan was gay as he never produced an heir; thus, his successor was his cousin.

Superyachts in the harbor

One of Sultan Qaboos’s main architectural achievements was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque; this Indian sandstone building and gardens are truly magnificent. It is the largest mosque in Oman and can hold 25,000 worshippers. While the white and gold dome’s exterior is beautiful, the elaborate design work on the inside of the dome is a tourist attraction in itself. At the time of the mosque’s construction, it had the world’s largest chandelier, weighing 8.5 tons, and containing 1,122 halogen bulbs and 600,000 Swarovski crystals. The prayer rug was also the biggest in the world, weighing 21 tons, with 1.7 billion individual handtied knots, and taking four years to produce. Since then, both the chandelier and carpet have been surpassed by the ones at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi, thus making them the second largest in the world. Note that for non-Muslims, visiting hours are from 8am to 11am, except Friday, and women must have their heads covered and not have arms, chest, or ankles showing. Arrive early to avoid crowds.

The mosque’s interior with people for scale

The Omani Sultanate owns many palaces, and I actually got to stay in one. The sultanate sold the Al Bustan Palace to Ritz Carlton, and it is considered by many to be the best Ritz Carlton property in the world. The hotel is nestled in a cove with a private beach and surrounded by mountains. The hotel is luxurious and upon walking into the lobby, there was a multistory portrait of the sultan. The lobby is the receiving hall for an actual palace and the smell of incense permeates throughout it. We heard that the sultan still owns one floor of the hotel. I can easily say that it is the nicest hotel that I have ever stayed in and is a worthwhile experience for a night.

The pool area at Al Bustan

As mentioned, Oman is a place that combines old and new. Today, it has benefited from its oil-rich location, and in centuries past, Oman’s sultanate had a vast kingdom that spread all the way to Zanzibar, giving it its Arab influence today. The source of the Omani Kingdom’s wealth was sinister. While many of us are familiar with the West African slave trade that brought African slaves to the Americas, there was a large East African slave trade to areas around the Indian Ocean. The Omani Kingdom (1692-1856) was the center of the slave trade. The Omani Sultanate of that time built the beautiful Al Alam Palace in Muscat 200 years ago, and it was heavily remodeled by Qaboos in 1972. While you can only see the outside of the palace, it is quite impressive, looking as though it came from Aladdin or another cartoon with a blue and gold façade. Flanking the Al Alam Palace on both sides on cliffs above the water are the 16th century ruins of the Portuguese forts Al Jalali and Al Mirani. While you cannot go into the forts, they are beautiful to look at and photograph.

Al Alam Palace

In Old Muscat, a must-do is walking alongside the Corniche, a pedestrian waterside promenade that goes from an old fish market to a park. Across from the Corniche there is the Mutrah Souk, a market and bazaar that can be explored with many shops selling souvenirs and various spices and goods. One of the best parts of the Middle East is definitely the markets and souks, so be sure to spend an afternoon or evening exploring. Along the Corniche are also many great restaurants. Like other Gulf nations, Oman and its capital have many international influences, both from today and from its history as an important trading stop for sea merchants going from India, Pakistan, Persia, the other Arab nations, and East Africa. A full 29% of Oman’s population is foreign-born, giving way to many top notch international restaurants. One that I highly recommend for a romantic and upscale experience is the Indian restaurant, Kurkum, which has won numerous awards.

The souk

If you want to experience the best of the Gulf while avoiding the chaos of the UAE, head to Muscat. It is stunning, romantic, exotic, adventurous, and will be a place that you will fall in love with, and all the more so if you explore the rest of this country, but I will save that for another article. This is the city that Sultan Qaboos brought into the modern age, and one that still holds reminders of his reforms.

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3 thoughts on “Muscat, Oman: The Legacy of Sultan Qaboos

  1. Great post! I’m planning a trip to Oman in December. By any chance did you have a tour guide or did you travel solo based on your own research?

    1. Thank you! I traveled solo based on my own research. The roads are very easy to navigate. For my trip to Wadi Bani Khalid and the dune bashing, I arranged these through the Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp. In my index, I have another article on Oman you should check out!

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