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Against the backdrop of a fascinating history spanning more than two millennia, several times having been the center of a formidable empire, and now the capital of a gradually modernizing state, Muscat radiates a relaxed but vibrant mood. Since Oman’s independence and especially since the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, took power in 1970, the country has experienced rapid infrastructural development that has led to the growth of a stable economy and a comparatively harmonious multi-ethnic society.
The young Sultan began by investing strongly in education; Oman calls this process of development its Nahda, the Arabic equivalent of ‘Renaissance’. He also made ‘Omanization’ a priority, the ambition to involve Oman’s indigenous citizens in the economic process, whereas under the Sultan’s father the country had relied mostly on immigrant labor. This process now has borne fruit in all sectors of society, with new ranks of Omani professionals in fields as diverse as doctors, taxi-drivers, engineers, teachers, university professors and customs officials.
While it is only a three to four hour drive by car to Dubai, Muscat in many respects still is a different world. This is also reflected in its much more sedate but also pleasantly secluded cultural life.
Contemporary Art Scene
Muscat hosts one commercial, independent gallery, the Bait Muzna gallery. The Bait Al Zubair is a semi-private museum with a fine exhibition on Omani cultural heritage and a large non-commercial gallery section on modern art. It also hosts a small commercial gallery, the Oud gallery. In addition, the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa hotel has an arts gallery that hosts exhibitions, partly aimed at sales, in cooperation with the Bait Al Zubair. Named after the late operating artistic director of the Bait Al Zubair, Sarah White, the Bait Al Zubair has opened a commercial art gallery named Gallery Sarah.
The Oman Fine Arts Society is a workshop space for local artists, open to foreign artists working in Muscat as well.
An array of interesting museums is dedicated to cultural heritage, like the Museum of Omani Heritage and the Bait Al Baranda. All are worthwhile, though of a more modest and less ambitious size than their current and future equivalents in Doha or Abu Dhabi. However, due to its importance in history, there is no lack of highly interesting items to show in Oman’s heritage museums. The Bait Al Baranda in principle is a heritage museum, but it incidentally hosts a visual art exhibition.
A remarkable result of the Nahda and the ‘Omanization’ in the arts field, is the fact that Oman is the only nation among the Gulf States that has a symphony orchestra, the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Most of its musicians are Omani, trained in a music education program that started three decades ago, thus the result of patience and long-term planning.
In 2011, Muscat opened the Royal Opera House, a building of grand proportions, to host the orchestra and imported theater, dance and opera performances. The Asian immigrant communities have a clear share in the programming too, reflecting the fact that the relationship between the Omani and Asian segments of the population is remarkably harmonious.
Artistic Exchange Opportunities
For residencies, Muscat and Oman are very inspiring locations. The first openings in this field have been made by the Delfina Foundation (see the sidebar), which has recently invited the directors of both the Bait Al Zubair musem/gallery and the Oman Fine Arts Society to collaborate. The fact that life in Muscat itself is relatively relaxed, that the splendid landscapes of Oman lie nearby, and that Dubai is not far away, should make the place even more attractive. For more information it is useful to contact Mrs Sara White of the Bait Al Zubair museum and with Mr Malik Al Hinai of the Bait Al Baranda, who both are very helpful.
There are plans for opening a Dutch academic institute in Muscat. Maybe this is partly a response to Oman’s support of the Sultan of Oman Chair for Islamic studies at the university of Leiden in the Netherlands (currently taken by Prof. Maurits Berger). This initiative follows the closing of the Netherlands Institute for Academic Studies in Damascus and its satellite branches in Beirut and Amman.
The city stretches for miles along the coast of the Gulf of Oman. Low white-washed buildings contrast elegantly with the hues of brownish, pink and blue-black rocks of the Western Al Hajar Mountains, overshadowing parts of the city, while the port-district of Mutrah, with its corniche and harbor, form the north-eastern outskirts of the city. The city is located on some relatively flat plains between steep rocky hills, giving each part of the city its own atmosphere, and some parts a charming intimacy.
Visas cost 6 Omani Rial and are easy to obtain at the airport, for those with the right foreign passport. When coming from Dubai with a UAE visa obtained at Dubai airport (only) or with a Dubai residency, no visa fee is required. There is an easy helpful fixed-price taxi service from the airport to the city. Outside that, getting a non-metered taxi for the right price and finding a driver who is familiar with some of the more distant parts of the city, can be difficult. You are advised to use the Google map directions functions on our maps.
Through booking.com, Agoda and other online services it is fairly easy to get good hotel offers.
Many parts of the city are ideal for a stroll. The older parts around the old port are wonderful, but there are other areas as well, including the seaside near the Opera House with many smaller cafes and restaurants overlooking the sea.
Written by: Neil