Muscat, Oman Report of what it's like to live there - 02/18/08

Personal Experiences from Muscat, Oman

Muscat, Oman 02/18/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I have also lived in Accra, Ghana; Cairo, Egypt; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Sapporo, Japan.

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2. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

I work for the U.S. Embassy.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

U.S. Government travelers are subject to the Fly America policy and currently travel via Europe (Frankfurt, Zurich, London, Amsterdam), resulting in a one-way flight time between 15 and 18 hours. Most flights stop in the UAE or elsewhere in the Gulf en route. Other travelers can take advantage of Emirates direct flights from Dubai.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Embassy housing is good to excellent - a mixture of townhouses and freestanding villas, most within ten minutes of the Embassy. As of early 2008, a few smaller apartments, mostly for military singles, are being added to the housing pool. Much of the housing is close to the sea. Few houses have large gardens, but most have at least a small outdoor space. All have some eccentricities - odd layouts, small kitchens, the usual overseas housing issues, but also some features (balconies, high ceilings, etc.) that make up for them.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Expensive and getting more so. While one can find anything, inflation and a weak dollar (to which the Omani Rial is pegged) means that a basic weekly shopping for a couple rarely comes in under US$100, especially if you rely on U.S./European brands and imported as opposed to local (not generally as nice-looking and more limited in selection) fruit and veg. Most everything is available - except for alcohol-based staples such as vanilla, wine vinegar, and the like. Alcohol is available to Embassy personnel and to non-Muslim expats whose employers will secure for them the necessary individual liquor license. It is expensive, and selection, especially of wine, can be limited.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Any household supplies that I'm brand-picky about; liquid detergents (almost unattainable and VERY expensive); liquid vanilla for baking; if possible, any unusual alcoholic beverages (basics are available, if pricey, but don't expect to see your favorite odd liqueur).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Full range of standard fast food and cafes (McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Chili's, etc.). Some very good Indian restaurants. Hotels offer Italian, Mexican, and other specialities (including a Trader Vic's!). Increasing options for family/casual eating out including fusion, Italian, and, of course, variations on Lebanese/Arabic food. Few restaurants outside hotels, and those mostly Indian, are licensed to serve alcohol. The best restaurants - for example, at the Chedi and Shangri La Hotels - are as good as any top-end places in the world.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Oman has a good postal system but no home delivery - your employer will, if it's not an embassy, likely have a P.O. box, or you can wait for one to become available if staying for very long (it generally takes one-three months to get a box).

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Housemaids are ubiquitous, always themselves expats, and generally Philippine, Indian, Sri Lankan, or Indonesian. Full-time, live-in will likely cost 150 rials (US$400) or more per month plus accomomodation, moderate visa-sponsorhip fees, and, every two years, a round-trip ticket to the home country. Part-time help is technically not available, as the law states that expats may only work for their visa-sponsor, but even so many maids hire out on an hourly basis (1.5-2 RO, or up to $5).It's important to check references as thoroughly as possible.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit cards are widely used in Muscat, although less so outside the capital. There are ATMs throughout Muscat and at least a few in all the bigger towns and cities; they give a very competitive exchange rate (better than hotels and most forex desks).

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There are dedicated compounds for Christian worship of various denominations (Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical) in both the center of Muscat (in the Ruwi district) and at the end of town near the American school. There is no public organized Jewish worship. There are (increasingly enforced) limitations on private worship in residential compounds, particularly if neighbors complain of noise or parking congestion. There is a Hindu temple, and of course mosques (Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia) are everywhere.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Three daily English papers, all with very similar, officially approved content. Some English weekly and monthly periodicals (going out guide, etc.). Prices are low (US$.50 for a paper), but imported magazines can be very expensive (US$15 for Vanity Fair or Architectural Digest!). There are technically only two local TV channels but everyone has one of several locally available satellite setups, offering a wide range of current and recent U.S./international programming, films, news, etc. Costs are moderate, but set-up can be expensive ($500+) if you have to buy the dish and equipment.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Some Arabic for greetings is much appreciated but English is a nearly universal language in Muscat.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. There are few accommodations for the disabled in public buildings and other facilities. That said, the newest buildings, such as the large City Centre mall, have ramps and travelators that would accommodate wheelchairs.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Right-side, like the U.S.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There are no trains and only, within Muscat, a limited minibus system used mostly by laborers - cheap, but neither comfortable nor efficient. Taxis are available and generally reliable, although it's necessary to haggle for a rate, which will still higher than you might expect (rarely less than US$3-5 for even short trip).

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3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

The most popular brand, by a longshot, is Toyota, and many people like have an SUV/4 wheel both for desert/long-distance driving domestically and for more comfortable trips (4-6 hours) to the UAE.There are strict laws regarding window-tinting, so check before bringing in a vehicle from overseas. Given the Omani love of Jaguar, Benz, Hummer, and other luxury brands, it's easiest not to even try and compete!

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

The single government monopoly provider offers ADSL home Internet for about US$30 a month plus usage charges; speed is variable from adequate to slow. Dial-up access is still available (billed to the phone line), but expensive and VERY slow. Some people are now using a simcard- based DSL system through the provider NAWRAS - it's said to be faster, but still goes through the government backbone. All Internet access is thoroughly filtered, with a concentration on making unavailable obscenity and some political content. Filtering reportedly hits Arabic speakers harder than those looking for English content online.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

You have to have one, and you will use it a lot. There are only two providers and pricing between them is similar. All leading brands are locally available at reasonable prices.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Omantel offers direct dialing at adequate rates; many people rely on phone cards. VOIP is technically illegal and generally blocked by the monopoly government Internet provider.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are several expat veterinarians who can handle most aspects of routine care. Dogs are not generally popular among Omanis and cats are not as often treated as pampered housepets as in the West. Pet supplies can be limited, spottily available, and very expensive.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

For teachers, especially English teachers, yes. Other fields may or may not find something, and may have a wait before they do.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

It's dressier than you might imagine - suit and tie for business, and smart casual in any upscale restaurant. Conservative Western dress everywhere - no shorts off the beach, and at least short sleeves for both men and women. Some expats do dress down but Omanis will likely treat them (and will certainly think of them) accordingly.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Excellent - Muscat has about the cleanest air I've ever encountered.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Surprisingly few. Oman is about as close to crime-free as it's possible to be. Omnipresent, although unobtrusive, national security seemingly keeps the region's troubles at bay.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is available at high-quality private hospitals and clinics. Many specialists are American or European trained. Some expatriates remain in country for childbirth and surgeries although others prefer to return home out of concern regarding follow-up care and the ability to deal with unexpected complications.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Warm, hot, and then unbelievably hot. Summers (June - September) are regularly 110-115 Fahrenheit, and things don't generally cool down at night. November - March is beautiful, with warm fine days and cooler nights. There are generally five to ten days with rain between December and February, and the occasional isolated shower. In 2007 a serious hurricane hit Muscat but most of the damage was superficial and has been repaired.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The American International School in Muscat (TAISM) is reputedly one of the best international schools with good college placements and a lovely campus. There is also the American British Academy (ABA), which has a good local reputation.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large - hundreds of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, and other Asians/South Asians, mostly laborers; several thousand Brits; fewer Americans and various European nationalities.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Within the diplomatic community, social life is less than in some places. Many Omanis do not entertain at home and do not expect to come into yours. But there is a fair cafe life (especially if you smoke shisha, or Arabic water pipe).

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3. Morale among expats:

Good to excellent. The country is peaceful, welcoming, and very beautiful. Things are getting more expensive but are still manageable.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes on all fronts, although it is a very quiet place, so those not able to keep busy on their own occasionally complain of boredom.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

As of 2008, the post is extremely supportive of non-traditional families. One Member-of-Household recently found an Embassy job. There is no local gay community but it's possible to develop an extended circle of expatriate and even Omani friends and acquaintances.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Oman is still in many ways a traditional Arab society and definitely a Muslim one. Women do work, have basic civil rights, and even hold high government posts. Because of the country's ties to East Africa and especially Zanzibar, there is a strong African influence in some ways, but also some color prejudice. Asian expatriates report sometimes being condescended to, as a result of the large number of Indian and Philippine-national laborers and domestics inteh country. There is basic religious freedom but all non-Muslim worship and display is discreet.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Oman is incredibly beautiful, and many expats do lots of hiking, camping, and boating. The climate is fiercely hot for about five months, which keeps many indoors from May-September. There is an increasing variety of shopping options (including, most recently, a Gap, Banana Republic, and Borders Books), and a couple of cinemas that usually have one to three recent U.S. releases (most at least lightly censored).There are several good small museums worth at a stop when you have visitors in town. There are also lots of travel options - to the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf, as well as relativel short hops to India, Egypt, east Africa, etc.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Traditional Oman crafts include some lovely silver and textiles. Other things like pashminas and Kashmiri crafts are imported in bulk.

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9. Can you save money?

If you don't expect to live exactly like you do back home (e.g. by buying local brands and eating out at inexpensive Arabian and Indian restaurants), yes. If you expect to travel in the region, eat (and drink) at hotels, and generally live the fabled glam Gulf lifestyle, likely not.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely! Muscat is a great place to live.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothing (lows in the winter are in the mid-sixties Fahrenheit), love of pork products (available on a limited basis through one international supermarket chain only and VERY expensive), and your impatience (things take time in Oman).

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3. But don't forget your:

Attractive, loose, cotton clothes (much is available, but not necessarily in Western taste - think bright colors and odd combinations); books, music, and DVDs (available, but expensive, and limited by local culture).

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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7. Do you have any other comments?

While Oman is in many ways a progressive place, having made huge strides in the last three decades, it is also surprisingly conservative and traditional. It is definitely an absolute monarchy with only limited space for free expression. Foreigners should never criticize and rarely even comment on domestic events and politics, and should never say anything that might be construed in any way as criticism of or even commentary about the Sultan, the royal family, or leading officials. Sultan Qaboos is widely seen by Omanis as the man single-handedly responsible for bringing Oman into the modern age, his portraits hang everywhere, and if the affection Omanis show him weren't so genuine, it might remind one of an old-fashioned Soviet-style cult of personality.

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