Many visitors are drawn to Oman for its pristine landscapes and nature experiences, but Oman is also a modern Gulf country with a vibrant cultural heritage. This heritage is apparent in the many languages spoken in the country, forts and archeological sites along ancient trading routes, and traditional practices such as rosewater distillation.
Today warm and welcoming Omanis still live by its societal values of humility, kindness and hospitality, and will invite visitors to share a meal, or go out of their way to guide a lost traveler.
To make your trip a truly memorable exercise in cultural exchange and mutual respect, here are some things to know before you go to Oman.
Expect to spend time outdoors
The most enjoyable experiences in Oman are outdoors, from gentle walks through palm plantations and watching nesting turtles on the beach to scuba diving in thriving marine reserves.
You are likely to spend a significant amount of time on road trips to get to historic medieval forts, charming fishing towns, picturesque tidal lagoons and freshwater pools hidden away in the valleys.
Wild camping is allowed, and opportunities to do so abound around the country. Pack comfortable clothing suitable for the outdoors, a tent and a sleeping bag.
English is widely spoken in the cities
The official language of Oman is Arabic. English is widely spoken in the cities and to a good extent in areas that have tourism infrastructure, such as the villages of Jebel Akhdar. Other than Arabic, you might hear other languages such as Kumzari, Baluchi, Swahili, and thanks to a large immigrant population, also Hindi, Malayalam and Urdu.
Learn local greetings
Omanis are friendly, hospitable and courteous, and these qualities are likely to permeate every interaction that you’ll have as a visitor. In Oman, conversations, however brief, and whether between strangers or friends, always begin with a proper greeting, usually “as salam alaykum” which translates to “peace be upon you.”
In some parts of the country, you might find yourself the subject of much curiosity, apparent from glances in your direction every few minutes or questions about where you’re from. Don’t be alarmed: Omanis take a genuine interest in visitors and want to make them feel welcome.
As such, it’s nice to greet people appropriately. Some useful phrases to know are “as salam alaykum” and “walaykum as salam” (said in reply to the former), “sabah al khayr” (good morning), “misa al khayr” (good evening) and “shukran” (thank you).
Don’t drink in public or exhibit drunken behavior
Alcohol should only be consumed in licensed restaurants and bars, most of which are in international hotels. It’s illegal to drink in public (outside of such establishments) and someone exhibiting overly drunken behavior or being extremely loud under the influence can result in legal action. Oman has zero tolerance for drug use, and possession of even small amounts can result in imprisonment, fines and deportation.
Be aware of the rules during Ramadan
If you’re visiting Oman during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, remember that non-Muslim tourists are not allowed to eat, drink, smoke, play loud music and dance in public places during the day.
Once the fast is broken after the prayers at sundown and Muslims sit down for iftar (the evening meal), it’s fine to eat outside. During the month of Ramadan, it’s even more important to dress modestly.
When meeting a member of the opposite sex, wait for them to offer their hand
While handshakes among men are common, don’t offer your hand to initiate a handshake when you’re greeting an Omani of the opposite sex. There is no physical contact between members of the opposite sex unless they are related or deeply familiar. To see whether they’re comfortable and want to be greeted that way, wait for them to offer their hand first. Handshakes must always be with the right hand only.
Accept invitations for a richer experience
Omanis are incredibly friendly and welcoming of visitors and it’s not unusual to receive a few invitations during your time in the country. Whether it’s an invitation to someone’s home for a chat over qahwa (Arabic coffee) and dates, a group of friends paying for your meal at a restaurant or a meal brought over by a family camping nearby, accepting these invitations will only make your trip more memorable.
Offering a guest coffee is a sign of bestowing respect upon them, and accepting indicates that you reciprocate. In Oman, coffee is ground with spices like cardamom and cinnamon, and qahwa is brewed with saffron and rosewater and served alongside dates.
Don’t be surprised if your cup of qahwa continues to be refilled each time you return it to your host. If you’ve had enough, tilt your cup gently from side to side before you hand it to them to indicate this. A bowl of water might be placed before you – dip the fingers of your right hand in it to wash them before you pick a date or begin a meal.
The traditional way of eating is with the fingers of the right hand while seated on the floor. As a guest, wait for the host to begin and then follow their example. Don’t attempt to do this with your left hand – in local culture that is your toileting hand.
If you find yourself visiting an Omani home, take your shoes off before you enter. Even the smallest of gifts, such as a box of dates, nuts or sweets from the souq (market) will be highly appreciated.
Ask permission before you photograph people or their homes
Whether you find yourself captivated by the scene of a vendor selling handmade silver jewelry at the Mutrah Souq or a group of Omani men wearing beautiful kumma (traditional patterned or embroidered caps) sipping coffee by the sea or are invited into a traditional village home, resist the urge to point your lens without asking for permission first.
Respect for privacy is held in high regard, and a stranger taking your photo without permission is considered intrusive. A quick, simple greeting in Arabic helps break the ice, and local men will generally oblige.
Refrain from photographing women, especially those wearing an abaya (traditional long black robe), and absolutely do not attempt to do this without first obtaining explicit permission (which is easier if you’re a woman).
Dress modestly, even when swimming
Female visitors do not need to wear a hijab in Oman, but dressing modestly is recommended. While Omanis are too polite to say anything, clothes that don’t appear respectful to the culture will certainly affect the quality of your interactions.
Women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and reaches below the knees (and also covers their arms and ankles when visiting a mosque). Avoid low-cut tops, short skirts, shorts and dresses, and anything that is transparent or clings to your body. Women must wear a headscarf (they can bring their own) while visiting a mosque.
Men should avoid tank tops and instead wear shirts or t-shirts with trousers or shorts that are at least knee-length. While visiting mosques, men must wear full-length jeans or pants.
Outside of swimming pools located in international resorts and hotels in Muscat, swimsuits and bikinis are inappropriate. This is true for natural pools located in the wadis (valleys) that you might come across while hiking in places like Wadi Tiwi and on public beaches around fishing villages.
Even though it is becoming increasingly common to see foreigners in skimpy bathing suits, it’s wise to remember that these places are also frequented by Omanis. You might notice Omani men swimming in t-shirts and shorts – this should give you an idea of how important modesty is in the culture.
While swimming on public beaches visited by Omani families and pools close to villages, women will appear more considerate when they’re wearing a long t-shirt and shorts over their swimsuits.
Don’t underestimate hiking routes
If you’re hiking independently, consider the length and difficulty of the trail to your fitness levels and experience in the mountains. If you’re inexperienced with harsh environments, do not hike alone. Ensure you are carrying at least three liters of water and wear proper hiking shoes and a sun hat.
Trekking guides not only safely guide you around the peaks and valleys, but they can also share information on the geology of an area and the opportunity to interact with communities where English is not widely spoken.
In the peak of summer, the heat can get intense in the Hajar Mountains causing dehydration and fatigue very quickly – this isn’t a good time to go hiking.
Keep an eye on weather warnings
Low-lying valleys, beaches and wadis are prone to flash floods after heavy rainfall. It’s safer to camp on high ground and to check the weather forecast and warnings before you go.
As a result of rising ocean temperatures, tropical cyclones (most originating in the Arabian Sea) are an increasing risk leading to ocean surges, destructive winds, flooding and landfall. Pay close attention to cyclone and storm alerts and check the official website of the Directorate General of Meteorology.
Steer clear of inappropriate topics of conversation
Oman is a monarchy, and Omanis have deep respect not only for their country and culture but also for the leadership of the sultan. Any controversial or politically charged questions or discussions that criticize the government or the sultan are considered inappropriate. Moreover, locals are unlikely to discuss any concerns with an outsider.
Rumor-mongering is punishable by law and can result in both fines and imprisonment. In the same vein, never say anything that disrespects Islam (or any other religion) or attempts to challenge religious beliefs or practices.
Foreigners might be surprised to know that it is also inappropriate for a man to ask an Omani man about the women in his family (even to inquire about his wife or daughters). It’s best to say something along the lines of you’re wishing good health to their family, and leaving it at that.
Don’t swear or make rude gestures
Swearing loudly and making offensive hand gestures are illegal and can result in legal action should the recipient register a complaint.
Don’t photograph government buildings or military checkpoints
In Oman, you’re prohibited from photographing and filming some government buildings, military sites and checkpoints, and military vehicles, nor post photos and videos of these on social media. Doing so can attract fines and even imprisonment. Err on the side of caution if you aren’t sure.
Make note of emergency numbers
In case of emergencies and the need for rescue, evacuation or urgent medical assistance, contact the Royal Oman Police on 9999.
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