Muscat, Oman Report of what it's like to live there - 01/21/10

Personal Experiences from Muscat, Oman

Muscat, Oman 01/21/10

Background:

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

My third overseas tour with the U.S. Dept of State.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

From the East Coast, about 6 - 7 hours to Europe (London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam), another 6 - 7 hours to Muscat with a stop in a Gulf country.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Lived there from 2006 - 2008

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

Worked with the U.S. Embassy

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

All houses and town houses, in Shatti al-Qurum, Medinat Qaboos, and al-Khuwair. Commutes no more than 10 - 15 minutes, especially since they have re-done the traffic patterns to make them more efficient.

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

Overall, I found it a bit cheaper than in the U.S., but that's because we were willing to buy "local" products (Gulf countries, KSA, India), which are vastly cheaper than U.S. or European imports and usually equally good (many are local knock-offs of U.S. brands).Note:Pork is extremely expensive -- I spent $40 on a tenderloin for four at the only supermarket to carry it. Other than British bacon, which is surprisingly inexpensive, be prepared to go pork-less unless you really want to spend those crazy prices ($75 for a package of six pork chops?!).Alcohol is reasonable if you buy from the Muscat Embassy Association duty-free (the best way to do it).You MUST explore Omani dates; you never knew there were so many different types, and you've never tasted fresh date right off the tree.

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

Nothing, really. You can get just about anything in Muscat. Living really is very easy and convenient. I would say more books, but the CLO library at the embassy is wonderful.

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

McDonald's, Papa John's, Pizza Hut, Chili's all at U.S. prices. But honestly, the best "fast food" is either "Arabic" (i.e., Lebanese) or Indian.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None that I noticed.

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Daily Life:

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

The embassy has both APO and diplomatic pouch.

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

Widely available. We shared one for $100 per month (four hours every Tuesday).

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Most expats use the gym at the Intercontinental Hotel, but it's expensive (about 400 rials per year).Some embassy personnel use the well-stocked but somewhat cramped gym in the basement of the Chancery.

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

No problems using credit cards, though the smaller shops and restaurants won't take them especiall in the souk. We didn't use the ATMs since we had embassy cashier services, but once in a pinch I used my U.S. debit card at a Bank Muscat ATM with no problems but a huge fee.

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

The Catholic church and the Hindu temple are frequent points of reference when giving directions in the Ruwi area. There are other Christian and Hindu places of worship, but I'm not religious so I don't know much about them other than they are available.

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

Several local English newspapers. We couldn't get the local cable service because our TV was NTSC, but we had AFN!

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

None in Muscat. Even if you speak fluent Arabic, Omanis will speak English (very good English) to you. In fact, there were times I wished I spoke Hindi or Malayalam. Outside Muscat, many people speak only Arabic or little English. But you can get by with a tiny bit of Arabic and lots of hand gestures (but don't accidentally flip someone the bird!).

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

There is some attention to handicapped access, e.g., ramps on sidewalks and entrances to buildings, and most shops and malls are built at street level. It should be okay, but I may just not be sufficiently sensitized to the issue.

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Transportation:

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

No local trains. No local buses. Taxis are plentiful, though I never used them. They're safe, though when I was there you still had to haggle over the fare, vs. metered fares.

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2. 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?

Only expats drive SUVs. Omanis drive only the latest model luxury cars. I suggest an SUV, even if it instantly marks you as an expat, because once you leave Muscat, some of the funnest stuff -- hiking, camping -- might require a bit of off-road driving. Parts/service are very expensive, however; I suggest locating your favorite Indian-run garage in Wadi al-Kabir. Using the official dealerships could cost you an arm and a leg, so get an estimate first. Omanis tend not to repair their cars; if they break down, they sell them to Indians or expats and buy new ones.

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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?

We had DSL service for 12 rials a month plus usage. As heavy users, our total bill came out to roughly US$100 per month. It wasn't terribly fast, though, and often "went out," plus the customer service was pretty spotty. Plus, Oman censors Web sites. Put the mouse down and go enjoy the outdoors!

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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?

Everyone but everyone uses the latest model cell phone with all the bells and whistles. Embassy will likely give you a cell, but if you want to save face outside the embassy, you might want to get your own fancier phone with a plan from either Omantel or Nawras.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

I don't think so.

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

Omanis are not pet people, but I heard there are vets and kennels run by expats for expats.

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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?

A few. Check with the CLO upon arrival.

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

Business casual at the embassy, but always with a jacket and tie at the ready. Off-hours, very casual. It's fine for expat men and women to wear shorts and t-shirts, no problem, but men may not wear the ubiquitous Omani dish-dasha, as this is considered disrespectful and condescending.

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Health & Safety:

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

None that I can think of, except watch out for Omanis who will run you off the road and accuse of you of being disrespectful them (giving the bird, mouthing off, etc.) as a means of extorting money out of you.

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

Just take precautions regarding the heat. With a little time and common sense, the intense heat really isn't all that bad; I actually miss it now. Medical care is generally good; the excellent embassy nurse can give you referrals.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Very good, on the whole, no concerns. Because of the heat and dust, on still days there may be a bit of an inversion layer, but nothing too oppressive or intrusive.

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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?

From May to November, temperatures hover around 110 degrees by day. The rest of the year (winter/spring) the weather is blissfully warm and dry. It rains perhaps two days out of the year. I'm told it's a lot like Palm Springs; in fact, if you squint your eyes just so, you'd think you're in southern California.

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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 of Muscat (TAISM) is most popular among embassy families. I don't have kids, but I've heard uniformly rave reviews about the school. The school itself is gorgeous. Some embassy families also use the American-British Academy.

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

I recall that TAISM has some capacity to address special needs, and will often make reasonable accomodations. Best to check with them directly.

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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?

Not sure. Most families with small children had live-in nannies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

I believe the schools -- TAISM, ABA -- have good sports programs for the kids.

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Expat Life:

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

Enormous -- 1/3 of the population -- if you include South Asian guest workers. A fairly large number of British and American expats, mostly working for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), the big state-run oil company, plus other companies supporting the oil industry.

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2. Morale among expats:

Generally very good.

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

When I left, there were increasing options for Western-style night-life, e.g., Dubai-style bars and nice restaurants. Entertaining at home was fun and easy, as was slumming around the Ruwi Business District with its fantastic vegetarian Indian restaurants and kooky Indian grocery stores.

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

Families rave about Muscat for the quiet, safe, convenient lifestyle. Omanis love children, and there are lots of things for kids to do. Many white women do well because Omani men dance attendance on them and Omani women want to befriend them. For everyone else, it's a bit iffier, but you can do well if you're adventurous and make the effort to explore the natural surroundings and interesting culture and history.

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

Surprisingly, not bad. There is no visible gay community, though we heard there is an underground one, including at least one gay bar (a drag bar), but we never tapped into it. Omanis are very live-and-let-live and really don't care much about what others do behind closed doors.

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

If you are East Asian or South Asian, Omanis automatically assume you are a blue-collar guest worker and may badly mistreat or ignore you. Once they figure out that you're someone of consequence (e.g., a diplomat!), the attitude improves considerably, but it can be tiring being treated poorly on a regular basis by people who don't know who you are. As for religious/gender prejudice, I'm sure that as a conservative Islamic society Oman does exhibit some behaviors that we would consider prejudicial towards non-Muslims and women, but nothing like what you hear about surrounding countries.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Travel within Oman outside Muscat, particularly the various wadi, forts, and desert camps. Also the outrageously delicious and inexpensive Indian food.

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

Miles of deserted white sand beaches and blue waters. Hiking in the wadis, which must have been the inspiration for the Biblical Garden of Eden. Dune bashing in the Wahiba Sands. Snorkeling and diving. Hiking around Jebel Akhdar. Exploring Nizwa and the towns and forts of the interior. A trip to relaxed sea-side Sur. Overnight on the turtle beach at Ras al Jinz. There's no dearth of outdoor activity. If you want to experience the much-vaunted Omani hospitality, you must get out of Muscat, where I have met some of the most unabashedly friendly and welcoming people in the world. Also don't miss the Muscat Festival each January/February -- it's the only time you'll see Omanis having fun in public, and it's a wonderful event. Muscat has some great museums, too. Check out the Sultan's Armed Forces museum, Bait al Zubair, Natural History, Oman-French (lovely house), and never pass up a chance to visit a fort.

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

Bedouin jewelry, khanjars (the ubiquitous traditional dagger), carpets, beautiful furniture of exotic (non-endangered) wood, spices, perfumes, frankincense and myrrh. Just imagine "The Arabian Nights."

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Oman is very modern, clean, and convenient, and physically one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Virtually every corner of the country is a coffee-table book photograph.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you match the huge savings on gasoline (about $1.12 per gallon) with shopping "local."Travel in-country is inexpensive, as well.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Hmm. I'm very glad we went, and would eagerly make another visit, but I would not want to do another tour there. I need much more intellectual and cultural stimulation, such as concerts, festivals and celebrations, cultural events, etc. than Oman has to offer. There's not a lot of energy in the air; it can get pretty sleepy.

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

Heavy clothing. Even the depths of winter is like summer in the Northeastern U.S.But bring at least one sweater or sweatshirt, as malls and offices are air-conditioned to near freezing levels and one coat in case you travel to a temperate zone during the winter.

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3. But don't forget your:

Rugged outdoors clothing. Even if you're not an outdoorsman (as I am not), the hiking, camping, beach-going temptations are irresistible. Bring a high-quality digital camera -- like I said, every corner of Oman is an award-winning National Geographic snapshot.

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

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

A little over a year after arrival we had a very bad experience with an Omani national that got way out of hand, one that pretty much poisoned the entire tour. This is why I waited 18 months before writing a Real Post Report, because I wanted to see if I had any good feelings left -- and I do. The scenery is beautiful, the living is easy, the Indian and "Arabic" food is out of this world, the heat isn't as hard to take as you'd think ... just be careful with the people because although they can be delightful, Hell hath no fury like an Omani with a chip on his/her shoulder looking for someone to throw it at. Omanis can be quixotic and temperamental, being incredibly witty and hospitable one moment, and a flaming bundle of grievances and wounded pride the next.

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