Oman: Salalah

Oman is the eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, on the Arabian Sea between the Gulf of Oman (leading into the Persian Gulf) and the Sea of Adan (leading into the Red Sea.) Salalah is on the coast (almost everything is) in the southwestern corner of the country, near the border with Yemen. Oman has some oil and gas, not in the quantities of some of its neighbors, and is hurting at the moment because prices are down. Tourism is important, maybe 20% of the economy. More importantly, it has one of the largest ports in the area, whose success is to a large extent attributed to being duty-free.

Historically, Salalah was on the spice route. It has been a major hub of international trade for 3,000 years. For centuries, the area’s most important product and export was frankincense.

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Salalah Incense Stall in the Souq with bags of Frankincense, $15 to $25 a kilo depending on quality

Frankincense is great stuff. You probably know that you can burn it as incense but you can also dissolve it in water and drink it to cure almost anything from sunburn to impotency. Travelers going through here 2,000 years ago on their way to Bethlehem probably would have picked up a couple kilos as hostess gifts.

It doesn’t seem fair, but most men wore the white flowing robes while the women, of whom there were very few working in the souq (market), wore black burkas. The country is 99% Muslim, but you can’t be an international trading hub without considerable tolerance. While they are very conservative in dress, food, and alcohol prohibitions, they are quite accepting if you don’t push it. And they are very strict about covering shoulders, arms, and knees (including men’s knees) and losing shoes if you are entering a mosque.

According to one guide, who was clearly very proud of his city, the Islamic schedule of prayer times came from Omani camel caravans. Most observe five prayer times a day. The first is just before sunrise, before you wake the camels. The second is the time of the first break to rest the camels; third is at noon when you stop to avoid the worst heat of the day. Fourth is after that break before you start up again and the fifth, just after sunset.

Salalah is an ancient city, highly significant in Islam. It’s candidate for most impressive mosque is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (circa 2009). The central dome encompasses 40,419 square meters and can accommodate 3,000 worshipers. Named after the Sultan.

The city also has a palace, which belonged to the Queen of Sheba. The nearby town of Jabal al Qar is the final resting place of the prophet Job, important in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Nabi Imran is also buried there. If you’ve forgotten him, Nabi Imran is the grandfather of Jesus on his mother’s side. This paragraph is somewhat short on historical documentation but this is what the travel brochures say.

And it’s a short drive to one of the best beaches and some of the most popular resorts on the peninsula. The capital of Oman is Muscat, much further north just across the Gulf of Oman from Iran and Pakistan. The neighbors across the water are much more accessible than the neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula, which are blocked by mountains and hundreds of miles of empty desert. In many ways, the Omanis have more in common with their eastern neighbors.

Muscat has a much different climate than Salalah with temperatures reaching over 50ºC in the summer. Salalah on the Arabian Sea has monsoons in summer, which while fairly continuous aren’t torrential. They turn the mountains green and moderate the temperature, more like 20ºC. This rainy season makes it a major summer holiday destination for much of the peninsula.

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Salalah, Oman Sultan’s Palace Grounds

This includes the Sultan, who has a summer palace there. Palace doesn’t really describe it. They  move the capital to Salalah for three months so the palace includes a lot of government offices. This Sultan has been in charge since 1970, when he took over from his father in a bloodless coup.

Sultan Qaboos has brought Oman into the 20th and 21st Centuries. He has invested oil money in schools and infrastructure. He built the modern port facilities. They are trying to look beyond oil, which is complicated right now by the price of oil. Based on our limited exposure, I would describe the general attitude toward the sultan as beloved.

Our general impression of the city was clean, safe, and reasonably but unlike some of their oil rich neighbors, not ostentatiously prosperous. Salalah was a pleasant surprise but not on our list of places to retire to. A little too much culture shock and the beaches have too much current to be good swimming.

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