Oman offers a wonderful range of traditional Arabian products both natural and manufactured, ranging from inexpensive bags of aromatic frankincense and tubs of bukhoor through to elaborately wrought khanjars and chunky Bedu jewellery.
Where to shop
Many of the items described below can be found in souks all over the country, although for the finest array of Omani goods under one roof nothing beats a visit to the legendary Muttrah Souk in Muscat. The souks at Nizwa and Salalah also offer an excellent selection of merchandise – Nizwa is particularly celebrated for its handicrafts, while Salalah is perhaps the best place in the country to pick up samples of the greatly prized Dhofari frankincense. Prices are rarely fixed, however, and bargaining is very much the order of the day.
For a more contemporary, but in many ways equally rewarding, shopping experience, head to one of the many Lulu Hypermarkets which dot the country (the one between Muttrah and Ruwi in Muscat is convenient, and particularly good). A browse through the aisles here uncovers a fascinating array of local, Arabian and Asian produce, usually at bargain prices – anything from tubs of dates, jars of Yemeni honey, big packets of cut-price spices and great piles of outlandish vegetables through to traditional Indian tiffin-boxes and bars of sandalwood soap.
Oman is famous for all things fragrant – frankincense, bukhoor, myrrh and traditional perfumes – a cheap and portable memory of the sultanate.
Oman’s most celebrated natural product is frankincense, widely available in souks all over the country, although you’ll find the best selection in Muttrah Souk in Muscat and Al Husn Souk in Salalah. Frankincense is sold in various grades, referred to by a confusing variety of names. Cheapest is the rather blackish, low-grade stuff from Somalia. Local Omani frankincense is generally considered superior, though again there are many different qualities on offer, ranging from the generic, yellowish lumps of standard-grade frankincense through to the highly prized “silver” frankincense (also sometimes referred to as hojari, hawjari or hugari). As a general rule of thumb, the larger the chunks of frankincense resin and the clearer and lighter the colour, the better the quality. That from Dhofar is usually reckoned to be the best, although even here aficionados distinguish between different types of frankincense grown in different locations around the region.
Prices range from a rial or two for a bag of Somali frankincense through to 7–10 OR for higher-quality Salalah produce. Various types of frankincense burner (mabkhara) can also be found in shops around the country, ranging from functional little wooden and metal designs costing just a couple of rials through to brightly painted pottery frankincense burners from Salalah. Boxes of the tiny charcoal blocks used to burn the stuff are also widely available.
Bukhoor and myrrh
Almost as ubiquitous as frankincense is bukhoor, a distinctive local aromatic usually sold in cute little golden tins (a modern version of the traditional mukkabbah) or in larger plastic jars – when it’s easily mistaken for tea. Bukhoor is made from perfumed woodchips soaked in oil and blended with various perfumes in a range of styles. Traditional bukhoor will typically contain some combination of musk, frankincense, oud and sandalwood, although other ingredients are also sometimes added, creating a wide range of scents. Like frankincense, bukhoor is burnt using a charcoal burner (and works fine in a frankincense burner), although a tin of the stuff with its lid off will do very well as a kind of traditional Omani air-freshener. Prices range according to the quality of the ingredients used, although 2–3 OR is usual, despite what some optimistic shop owners might tell you.
Myrrh is another popular local aromatic, although less widely available than frankincense and bukhoor. It’s produced by cutting the bark of a myrrh tree, collecting the resultant resinous sap and then burning it. Although Oman produces small quantities of myrrh, the stuff for sale in the country’s souks will most likely have come from Somalia or Yemen. A small tub should cost a couple of rials.
Traditional Arabian perfumes (attar) are another local speciality, although the flowery, oil-based scents are somewhat overpowering compared to more subtle European-style fragrances. Fine Arabian perfumes are usually founded on a base of essential oils derived from oud (aloes, or agarwood) leavened with other local fragrances, often including frankincense. As well as pre-packaged scents, most perfume shops (such as the nationwide Al Haramain chain) can mix up bespoke perfumes from the long lines of glass bottles kept behind the counter. For the ultimate in Omani parfumerie, check out the Amouage factory just outside Seeb.
Oman boasts a wealth of artisanal traditions, ranging from the country’s famed metalworking (seen in elaborately detailed traditional khanjars and Bedu jewellery) through to traditional wooden walking sticks, pottery and clothes.
Perhaps the most appealling local souvenir is the khanjar, the traditional curved dagger which can be found around the Gulf, although those from Oman are often reckoned to be the finest. Modern replica khanjars are widely available, often sold ready-framed in small glass cases from as little as 10–15 OR; some are also given an artifically antique appearance through the use of black silver. These are often of poor quality, however, and don’t begin to compare with the superb antique khanjars you’ll find for sale in Muttrah and Nizwa Souks and a few other places around the country. No two antique khanjars are ever completely alike, and many display wonderfully intricate metalworking on their hilts and scabbards, along with deer-horn hilts (modern khanjars use plastic). Traditional Nizwa khanjars are characterized by their incredibly detailed silverwork, while those from Sur traditionally use gold thread to pick out designs. You’ll also see plenty of antique Yemeni khanjars in Muttrah and Nizwa. These have leather rather than metal scabbards and generally show significantly lower standards of craftsmanship, although they are also very appealling in their own, slightly rustic, way, and significantly cheaper than their Omani equivalents. Prices for a genuine, high-grade Omani khanjar aren’t cheap, and you won’t get much for under 75 OR – it pays to shop around carefully.
Omani pottery, most of it manufactured in the workshops of Bahla, is also widely available, particularly in Nizwa Souk, and includes a range of traditional pots and frankincense burners along with more touristy creations (miniature clay forts and watchtowers, for example).
Gold, silver and jewellery are also well represented. Oman is a particularly good place to pick up examples of distinctive antique Bedu jewellery – chunky necklaces, bracelets and anklets in elaborately worked silver. Traditional necklaces often sport the distinctive Maria Theresa Thaler coins which formerly served as the major currency in the Gulf, as well as cute boxes designed to hold fragments of Qur’anic text, meant to ward off the evil eye. Traditional Gulf-style gold bracelets are another eye-catching purchase – the Gold Souk section of Muttrah Souk is the place to go for these.
The traditional wooden walking stick is another popular souvenir, as are wooden toy rifles. Assorted clothes and textiles can also be found. An embroidered Omani cap makes a particularly cute souvenir, or you could go the whole hog and invest in a turban and dishdasha. Ladies will find a chintzy range of colourfully embroidered dresses, trousers and blouses, including local versions of the classic Indian shalwar kameez. Oman isn’t a carpet-producing centre, although a few shops in Muttrah and Qurum in Muscat offer a decent range of Iranian, Afghan and other rugs and kilims at prices lower than you’d pay in the West. The country’s large subcontinental population means that there’s a good range of Indian handicrafts on offer (particularly in Muttrah), including Rajasthani-style patchwork and tie-dye fabrics and Kashmiri pashminas.
Oman also offers an intriguing range of more perishable but equally memorable souvenirs. These include a packet of dates (those from Bateel – are particularly fine), a tub of halwa or a bottle of rose-water from Jebel Akhdar. The nationwide chain of Lulu Hypermarkets is particularly good for stocking up on cheap local specialities.