Musandam’s major town, KHASAB sits at the far northern end of the peninsula in a narrow plain squeezed in between the mountains – one of the few sizeable areas of flat coastal real estate in the entire peninsula. It’s a small but lively place, and one which feels a long way from the rest of Oman, the slightly Wild West atmosphere stoked up by hordes of locals charging around in pick-up trucks, bands of Iranian traders loading up goods in the Old Souk and the occasional roar of an Omani airforce jet or the daily flight from Muscat coming in to land.
Khasab is the obvious place to base yourself while exploring the peninsula. The town is also home to virtually all Musandam’s accommodation while its location and the number of tour agents in town makes it a good base for dhow rides out into the khors, diving trips and 4WD excursions into the mountains. Many visitors to Khasab are here on day-trips from Dubai and the people who do stay tend to stick to the Golden Tulip hotel. You’ll see surprisingly few visitors in town after around 4pm in the afternoon – which is perhaps all the more reason to stay the night.
Down near the Old Souk, the town’s pretty stone fort was built by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century as part of their efforts to control passing maritime trade. The fort was originally on the seafront, though the waters have since receded a considerable distance, leaving the structure high and dry.
A couple of large wooden dhows stand outside, while three smaller boats sit in the courtyard within – a battil, mashuwwah and zaruqah. The battil (the one closest to the entrance) is particularly attractive, sporting the pretty cowrie-shell decorations around the prow and rudder which are typical of Musandam. The boat’s bow and stern also display a rare extant example of the traditional “stitched” method of boat building (see Ayjah), with planks literally sewn together using coconut thread. Close by stand modern replicas of a traditional bait al qufl (“house of the lock”) and a barasti (palm thatch) summer house, ingeniously constructed using stone pillars with permeable walls fashioned out of palm branches.
In the centre of the courtyard stands the fort’s most unusual feature: a large and completely detached circular tower, intended to provide an additional refuge in case the outer walls were breached. Entrance is via a ramp on one side and steps on the other, with a hearth built into the exterior wall below. The interior is filled with wide-ranging and informative exhibits covering various aspects of Musandam’s geology, culture and history.
From the entrance, steps lead up to the walls and a walkway on which you can make a circuit of the fort and its various towers – a couple of which still have their mangrove-pole ladders set into the interior walls. The second tower around houses various colourful but rather unedifying displays on traditional Musandam culture featuring colourful rugs, crockery and some droll mannequins. There’s also an interesting re-creation of a traditional apothecary’s shop and a display of fine traditional silver jewellery including enormously chunky elbow rings, necklaces featuring characteristic pouches (“Qur’an boxes”) used to store texts from the holy book (worn as magic charms to ward off evil). A couple of these also incorporate the large silver Maria Theresa Thaler coins which were widely used throughout the Gulf and East Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which were often incorporated into traditional Omani jewellery (and are still widely available in souvenir shops around the country to this day).
The tower diagonally opposite, on the breezy sea-facing side of the fort, houses the Wali’s Wing, with the usual old rugs and coffeepots alongside more unusual wali-related bric-a-brac including antique sewing and writing boxes, expired tins of boot polish and bottles of ink, and an old Philips radio.
Khasab was formerly infamous as the epicentre of the Oman–Iran contraband trade, thanks to its strategic location at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, just 45km from Iran across the Straits of Hormuz – a mere 45 minutes by speedboat. Up until 2001, taxes on US goods in Iran encouraged a flourishing trade in smuggling, with as many as five thousand Iranian boats visiting Khasab daily, arriving laden with boatloads of goats destined for the slaughterhouses of RAK and returning across the Straits of Hormuz weighed down with consignments of tea, electronics and, especially, cigarettes. Locals describe the golden age of smuggling as “Marlboro Time”, and the sight of thousands of Iranian speedboats loading up with piles of duty-free fags was formerly a tourist attraction in its own right. The smuggling trade also provided a major source of income for locals in Khasab, who provided transport and other logistical services – accounting for the extraordinary number of pick-up trucks around town, formerly used to shift vast quantities of contraband tobacco and other goods down to the waiting boats.
Since 2001, successive changes in customs regulations in Iran and the UAE have led to the virtual demise of smuggling in Khasab. Cigarettes are now exported legally from Jebel Ali Free Port in Dubai, while the goats with which the Iranians formerly made themselves welcome are delivered directly to Ras al Khaimah in the UAE. The town still sees a fair number of Iranian traders even so – perhaps two or three hundred boats a day – although they now come to buy up electronics and surplus household appliances for resale in Iran, an entirely legal activity, making them shoppers rather than smugglers. They’re granted a 12-hour pass, although they aren’t allowed further into town than the Old Souk (where you’ll often see them loading up trucks with old washing machines, fridges and suchlike) and must leave by sunset – a rather tame legacy of the town’s former customs-busting bravado.