Culture and etiquette
Foreigners are generally made to feel very welcome in Oman, although in return you’ll be expected to abide scrupulously by Omani cultural norms. This remains a deeply traditional – and in many ways very conservative – country, and despite its sometimes superficially westernized appearance and growing openness to tourists, old attitudes run extremely deep.
Away from the main tourist centres, foreigners remain a source of considerable interest – often occasioning a certain amount of benign curiosity and clandestine staring. This is almost always friendly, and a smile, wave or (best of all) a cheery salaam aleikum will usually break the ice and lead to a conversation with whatever bits of a shared language you can muster.
Visiting traditional Omani villages, it’s worth remembering that you are entering what is generally considered the private space of the locals who live there. Discretion is the order of the day, and the onus is on you, as the outsider, to behave in a friendly and open manner, and to exercise sensitivity when taking photographs. A few pre-prepared phrases of pidgin Arabic should help smooth the progress of any visit.
Dressing appropriately is perhaps the single most important thing to remember. Women should wear loose clothing, with arms and shoulders covered. Skirts, if worn, should reach at least beneath the knee, although wearing trousers is probably a better option. It’s also useful to carry a shawl to cover your hair in more conservative areas. Dress codes are less crucial for men, although many Omanis will look rather askance at blokes dressed in tight or thigh-length shorts or singlets – below-the-knee shorts are probably OK, although it’s best to err on the side of caution and wear trousers, even if it means foregoing a tan. For both men and women, it helps to dress conservatively, especially in rural areas. Ripped jeans, combat fatigues, dodgy T-shirts with inappropriate slogans or images and elaborate piercings are unlikely to play well in a rural village in deepest Sharqiya. Inside foreign-oriented tourist hotels more Western standards prevail, although it’s still polite not to wander around in a bikini away from the pool or beach.
As throughout Arabia, it pays to keep your cool. Expressions of overt anger and any raising of the voice should be strictly avoided, whatever the situation. It’s also worth knowing that even innocuous hand gestures are punishable under Omani law, if deemed offensive. Exact definitions are somewhat elastic, although it’s a lesson well worth absorbing, particularly if driving, when the urge to flap your hands in exasperation (or give the idiot in the Toyota Landcruiser who has just cut you up at 150km/h the finger) may become overwhelming.
Traditional Arabic greetings serve as an important oil in the machinery of everyday Omani life – the elaborate, almost courtly, formality with which Omanis greet one another in even the most prosaic of circumstances (your driver stopping to ask for directions, for example) offers a fascinating insight into the forms of decorum which still regulate Omani life.
Physical modes of greeting are also important. Close male and female friends and relatives will kiss one another on either cheek, although between male strangers the standard form of physical greeting is a handshake. Members of the opposite sex do not generally touch – do not offer your hand to an Omani of the opposite sex unless they offer you theirs first.
Invitations to visit an Omani home are common – don’t be surprised if your driver asks you back to his house at the end of a tour for coffee and dates. If invited for a formal meal, it’s polite to take some form of small gift, ideally gift-wrapped – chocolates or dates are ideal. Remember to take your shoes off when entering any Omani house. Once inside, it’s considered polite to take whatever form of food or drink is offered, since refusal may be construed as dissatisfaction or disapproval.
Conversations in Oman generally run along well-regulated lines – your country, age, marital status, number of children (if any), religion, profession, reasons for visiting Oman and impressions of the country being the usual topics.
Pride in their country is strong among Omanis, and criticisms of the nation of any type will not be well received (unless, perhaps, you are simply agreeing with an opinion expressed by your host). Negative statements about Islam should be even more strenuously avoided. In addition, if asked your own religion, it’s easiest to profess Christianity, even if in fact you believe in nothing of the sort, given that concepts of atheism, agnosticism and alternative religions are not widely understood. Political discussion – except of the most general and harmless kind – also remains a sensitive subject to be approached with extreme care, while criticisms of Sultan Qaboos are a definite no-go.
Women travelling in Oman should experience few problems, although the sight of unaccompanied Western females, either solo or in pairs, is still something of a novelty in most parts of the country. Hassles are rare (assuming you dress conservatively – particularly crucial if travelling without a male companion), albeit not unknown, particularly in Muscat. On the downside, solo women travellers may feel particularly isolated, given that most Omani men will, out of respect, tend to studiously ignore you, while it’s difficult to make friends with Omani women, at least without local contacts.
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