North of Muscat lies Al Batinah region, which stretches along the coast beyond the capital all the way up to the UAE border. This was once the most vibrant and cosmopolitan region in Oman, thanks to its wealth of natural resources and proximity to the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and, subsequently, Persia, although the gradual emergence of Muscat as the country’s principal city and port led to a steady decline in the Batinah’s economic fortunes, and things are a lot quieter now. Away from the main coastal highway, most of the region is pleasantly comatose, with a sand-fringed coastline, dotted with fishing boats and old forts and backed by endless date plantations.
At the southern end of the region lies the personable town of Seeb, within hailing distance of the capital and international airport, and sleepier Barka, home to a fine fort, the absorbing old Bait Na’aman and occasional bull-butting contests. Both Seeb and Barka make good bases from which to explore the Batinah’s main attraction, the so-called Rustaq Loop, a fine drive between the coast and the foot of the Hajar mountains, taking in the superb forts at Nakhal, Rustaqand Al Hazm, with numerous dramatic wadis shooting off into the hills en route, offering myriad off-road opportunities. Back on the coast, the Sawadi and Daymaniyat islandsoffer some superb diving, although otherwise there’s not much to detain you before you reach Sohar, Oman’s former commercial capital and still the largest town in the north, although there are disappointingly few physical reminders of its long and illustrious history.
Inland from Al Batinah, Al Dhahirah region covers a wide and largely featureless expanse of desert. Few tourists make it here, unless transiting between Oman and Al Ain in the UAE via Al Dhahirah’s main town, Buraimi, home to a pair of fine forts and with a lively mercantile atmosphere. Further down the road lies Ibri, home to yet another fort and the remarkable old mudbrick village of As Suleif, while clusters of Bronze Age tombs lie scattered around the nearby hills at Bat and Al Ayn.
Top image: Nakhal Fort © manesh dominic/Shutterstock
For many visitors, much of the appeal of Oman lies in the striking dissimilarities it presents with the neighbouring UAE, Dubai in particular. However, proof that Oman is not entirely lacking Dubai’s taste for vast new mega-developments and infrastructure projects – and all the attendant financial woe that they can create – is provided by the troubled Blue City project (wwww.almadinaazarqa.com), now officially known as Al Madina A’Zarqa, although still usually referred to by its original name.
Launched in late 2007, Blue City was intended to serve as a major peg in Oman’s ongoing strategy to diversify its oil-based economy, featuring four hotels, two golf courses, 200 villas and 5000 apartments spread along 16km of coastline near Al Sawadi, at a total cost of around US$20 billion. As with many projects in the neighbouring UAE, however, the credit crunch crippled development, and by early 2010 the scheme was close to liquidation, until the Abu Dhabi-backed Essdar Investments stepped in to rescue it. After a year of attempting to revive the project, Essdar gave up and sold it back to the Oman government, who are now left holding the baby.
The future of Blue City remains uncertain, although it seems that the project will still go ahead, in some form at least. Driving along the coast at present there’s not much to see apart from the distant outlines of some half-hearted construction work, although the possibility that a fine stretch of unspoiled Omani coastline will be buried under an expanse of ersatz Arabian villas, chintzy hotels and water-hungry golf courses remains at least distantly on the cards.
Barka is one of the various locations along the Batinah coast where you can catch the traditional Omani sport of bull-butting (which can also be seen in neighbouring Fujairah in the UAE). Unlike Spanish bullfighting, bull-butting is a bloodless contest between animals, rather than bull and matador. The sport is thought to have been introduced by the Portuguese, although its origins probably go back to antiquity, and appears to have roots in both ancient Persia and classical Greece.
Contests are between large Brahma bulls, traditionally fed up on a diet of milk and honey. Animals are matched according to weight and led into the area to do battle, at which point (all being well) they will lock horns – although some bulls just turn around and run away, frantically pursued by their owners. The winning bull is the one which either pushes the other to the ground or forces it to give up its ground. Most fights last less than five minutes, and ropes attached to the bull mean that they can be pulled apart (with difficulty – some of the bulls weigh around a ton) if things start turning ugly.
Meetings are held on Fridays during the winter months from around 4pm, lasting a couple of hours and attracting a good-natured, but exclusively male, audience. Contests alternate on a weekly basis between Sohar, Shinas, Barka and Seeb.
Barka’s bull-butting arena is on the northern edge of town. To reach the arena, turn left at the T-junction in the town centre and follow this road for around 3km; the low-walled enclosure is down the side road signed to the Barka Health Center.
A fifteen-minute drive west of the international airport, the engaging town of SEEB (or As Seeb, as it’s usually signposted, also spelled As Sib, or just plain Sib) sees few tourists, but is well worth a couple of hours of your time or, even better, an overnight stay in order to experience a slice of quintessential contemporary Omani life. Despite now being in danger of being swallowed up by the suburban sprawl of Muscat, Seeb is easily the liveliest and most interesting of all the towns along the coast north of the capital, with a vibrant commercial atmosphere and a colourful main street.
Seeb’s proximity to the airport makes it a convenient first or last stop on a tour of the country, while it’s also a good base from which to tackle the Rustaq Loop.
The recently opened highway between Sohar and Yanqul offers perhaps the easiest way of getting between the coast and the mountains. It’s 110km from Sohar to Yanqul, a drive of around 75 minutes along a fast and scenic highway, with hardly any traffic. The road to Yanqul runs off the Globe roundabout in Sohar (although it’s not signed to Yanqul, only to Wadi Habib). Note that there are no petrol stations between Sohar and Yanqul, while there are also a couple of wadis about 30km out of Sohar which are prone to flooding. The road is fairly tedious for the first 40km or so (excepting a sign to the jovial-sounding village of Beer Jam about 25km out of Sohar) but becomes increasingly dramatic as the mountains approach and the road begins to hairpin upwards, eventually breasting the crest of the ridge slightly over halfway to Yanqul, before descending into the village of Al Waqbah.
YANQUL itself is a remote and rather sleepy little place lying in the shadow of the huge triangular Jebel al Hawra and surrounded by eye-catching mountain formations – slender rock pinnacles, craggy ridgetops, table mountains – which make for enjoyable viewing during the drive from Sohar to Ibri. It’s worth stopping here to have a look at the town’s attractive mudbrick fort, the Bait al Marah (not open to the public), built at the beginning of seventeenth century by the Nabhani dynasty. The old village behind is also interesting, with dozens of crumbling mudbrick houses in an advanced state of decay, plus more modern concrete homes with colourful (though faded) metal doors. Most of the houses are now abandoned, although the falaj still flows in places. To reach the fort, turn right at the T-junction at the beginning of Yanqul (if approaching from Sohar) and turn right along the road to Dank. The fort is about 1km along this road, on the right.