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An Expat Guide to Living in Muscat, Oman

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Cait Shaw
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On the south eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman shares borders with Yemen to the south west, Saudi Arabia to the west, and the United Arab Emirates to the north west. With a population of just over 4.5M – around 1.5M of whom live in the nation’s capital, Muscat – Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world.   

There are few places left in the world where the natural wonders are still quite as wild as in Oman. From the towering sand dunes of Wahiba and the Empty Quarter, to the jagged peaks of the Hajar Mountains, the swathes of unspoilt white sand beaches all along the coast and the turquoise waters of the fjords of Musandam, there is no shortage of adventure to be had in Oman. 

Whilst not nearly as well known as an expat destination as Dubai just over the border, Muscat offers great lifestyle opportunities for those looking for a more low key expat experience. According to the Expat Insider 2020 report by Inter Nations, Oman is in the top five safest countries in the world for expats – higher than any other Gulf nation – and ranked 24th out of 59 countries overall for expat life. 

Here's what you need to know if you'd like to try living as an expat in Oman.

a female expat living in Oman overlooking Muscat from a rooftop.
I really love my life here in Muscat

Visa Requirements 

Anyone wanting to visit Oman as a tourist can do so easily. Single entry tourist visas can be applied for online and are granted for 10 days, 30 days or 90 days. 

Working visas are a bit more complicated, but thankfully most of the paperwork is done by your Omani employer, rather than the individual! All work visas must be sponsored by an Omani employer, so you must have a specific job offer before you seek to relocate to Oman.

Whilst in Oman, your residence permit and visa will be tied to your job.

Over the last few years, Oman has embarked on a process called Omaninisation – essentially seeking to make more employment opportunities open to Omani citizens and reduce the number of expat workers across the workforce and bring down the high levels of unemployment amongst Omani citizens. There are strict quotas for expats across many sectors, and employers must demonstrate why specific positions cannot be filled by a local Omani.

But despite all of this, there are still plenty of opportunities for skilled workers as many companies and employers are still seeking to bring in external expertise to bolster their workforce. 


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Accommodation in Muscat

The most popular areas for expats to live in Muscat include Al Mouj, Qurum, Dolphin Village and Madinat al Sultan Qaboos. Almost all expats will live in an apartment or a villa style house. Compared to what I was used to in London, living space in Oman is very spacious! 

There are a number of compound-style developments across Muscat, offering different types of accommodation usually with communal swimming pools, social clubs and gyms. Most villas or standalone houses will have their own private garden.

Accommodation is nearly always unfurnished – with Muscat’s residents watching with great anticipation as the country’s first IKEA is currently being built in the middle of the city!

The most important thing to secure when looking for accommodation in Muscat is a good air conditioning system… in the middle of the summer, you will badly need it when temperatures soar to 50°C or 122°F!

One of the biggest shocks for expats moving to Muscat is that accommodation costs are usually paid in a lump sum – either quarterly, six monthly or annually.

It is worth checking with your employer on relocation and accommodation packages as part of your contract negotiations – it is common for employers to provide accommodation. Given the need to register all leases with the municipality and Ministry of Housing, if your accommodation is not included in your employment contract, I recommend using a real estate agent such as Savills Oman. For a small fee they ensure all paperwork is in order. 

a view of Omani architecture against a bright blue sky
You could see this kind of architecture every day living in Muscat


Cost of Living

If you want to live a “western lifestyle” you will find Muscat pretty expensive. However, salaries for skilled expat workers tend to recognise the higher costs of living and are usually far more generous than you would get at home. There is no income tax in Oman - which makes a huge difference to savings! 

It is illegal to drink alcohol or be drunk in public in Oman. However, non-Muslim residents can apply for a license to drink alcohol at home, and tourists are permitted to drink in licensed premises. The few shops selling alcohol to expats are seriously pricey (think £20/$30 for a distinctly average bottle of wine). The legal age for drinking in Oman is 21. 

Supermarkets are good, but the supply chain is a bit hit and miss - sometimes shops have mountains of a particular product, but then none is in stock for months. Always buy more than one of everything, and keep some frozen (my freezer is full of tubs of pesto!). Given almost everything must be imported, fruit and veg can be pricey. 

Pork is forbidden in the Islamic faith, but there are a few shops in Muscat that sell pig products to non-Muslims. However, unless you particularly love Spam (£20/$30 a tin…), choices are very limited and extremely expensive. 

But if you are happy to eat Middle Eastern or Indian subcontinent cuisines, you will find Muscat amazingly affordable to eat out. I am rapidly becoming a total hummus snob and have had some of the best curries of my life here! Check out my foodie’s guide to Muscat if you want to find my favourite places to eat in the city!

Petrol is also the cheapest I have found anywhere in the world – it costs about £30/$42 to fill my huge SUV! Internet and phone bills are comparable to the UK.

 

Getting Around

A car is essential as Muscat is not pedestrian friendly! Whilst a small city car is fine in Muscat, to get out and explore the amazing Omani landscapes you will want a 4X4.

With a regular turnover of expat staff, the second hand market is very strong and if you shop around you are likely to find something in your price range. OLX is the main site for finding cars for sale.

Top tip for car buying – consider how common the car you are looking at is in Oman before settling on a model or make. Given the heat, dust and sea air in Muscat, parts need replacing fairly often and the scarcer they are, the more expensive the job! 

Mwasalat taxis are red and white and are metered – the rate is 1.200 OMR per kilometre (£2.20/$3). A Mwasalat taxi app can be downloaded. Most other taxis – orange and white – are unmetered so agree the rate before getting in. 

a neighborhood in Muscat built on a hill at sunset
You'll want your own car to navigate these neighborhoods


The Local Culture

Living in Muscat is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a new culture. Omanis are open and friendly. Hospitality is king here, and you will be unable to go anywhere without being offered the famous coffee and dates. 

Probably the most frequent question I am asked by friends and family visiting Muscat is what to wear!

As with any Muslim country, you should dress modestly but there is no need for a headscarf, nor to cover up entirely. When out and about clothes should not be too form fitting, low cut or see through, and must cover shoulders and knees. This applies to both men and women. If you are visiting a mosque you need to be fully covered from the wrists to the ankles, and women must cover their hair. 

Omani women wear abayas (long black cloaks) and head scarves. They also have the most fabulous collection of shoes! Men wear a dishdasha (an ankle length white robe, known as a thobe elsewhere in the region).


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Muscat Must Dos

  • Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – if you only do one thing in Muscat, it should be a visit to the mosque! Built in 2001 to mark 30 years of the late Sultan Qaboos’ reign, everything here is superlative. 
  • Muttrah - if you have seen a photo of Muscat, you will almost certainly have seen a photo of Muttrah! Come in the late afternoon to explore the maze of streets around the souq. Muttrah Fort is free to enter, and has fantastic views back down the Corniche. 
  • National Museum – fourteen galleries and over 13,700 sqm. The building itself is beautiful, and the exhibitions provide an insight into Omani culture and history.
  • The beach – Qurum Beach stretches for 2.5 miles (4km) along the centre of the city, whilst further out of town camping at Bandar al Khiran is a must. 

Have a look at my detailed guide to visiting Muscat  - or all of my guides to Oman’s best sights - if you are looking for more inspiration! 

3 SUVs with tents camping in the Omani desert with no one aroundn
Imagine spending your weekend with friends here


Quality of Life 

 

The most fantastic thing about living in Muscat is the amazing lifestyle Oman offers us. 

For half of the year we practically live outside as the weather is reliably perfect! We BBQ most nights and are lucky enough to have a lovely, spacious house with room to have friends and family to stay. In London, although it was a lovely home for several years, we had a small two bed flat with no outside space and could never have afforded to live somewhere like our current house. 

At weekends we might spend the night under the stars in the solitude of the desert, or be clambering over rocks into the stunning natural swimming pools in the wadis, or heading up incredible off-road mountain tracks to find a new hike.

The sheer variety of landscapes in Oman is amazing - mountain, desert, beach, amazing tropical islands and – a favourite for this history buff – centuries old forts to discover. Swimming with whale sharks near the Daymaniyat Islands was a truly one in a lifetime experience that not many places in the world can pretty much guarantee every year! 


The Less Loveable

There is no getting around the fact that the summers in Oman are swelteringly hot and humid! After clothing, this is the most common thing I am asked about! Between May and September, temperatures will be regularly in the mid to high 40s C/100s F, and humidity at a sticky 60+ percent.

Many expats will use the summer months to return to their home countries to visit family, or take a trip down to Salalah where the monsoon season transforms Dhofar into a cool, green oasis. 

Although Oman has a very low crime rate, and as a female expat I feel completely safe out and about alone at night, road accidents are unfortunately very common. Avoid the temptation to join the speed demons and stick to driving extra carefully! 

If buzzing nightlife and a vibrant arts scene are your thing, you might find Muscat a bit sleepy. Whilst there is a strong expat community, life revolves around trips out of town with friends or family life.

Although Dubai is only a five hour drive away, so you can quickly immerse yourself in frantic city life for a weekend getaway if you want a change of scenery. 

a quiet Omani beach at sunset from overhead
The beaches here are far better than I thought they'd be

 

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Oman

  1. There is a winter! Whilst day time temperatures rarely drop below 20°, at night it can get fairly chilly in December/January, even in Muscat. Up in the mountains and in the desert it can drop close to zero. Pack some jumpers! You will also need them in the summer – air conditioning can be arctic!  
  2. But don’t expect to be able to shop for the temperature! During the warm winter days when I want to be outside in a summer dress I find it baffling that the shops are full of European winter wear! As the Omani ladies wear abayas over their clothing, I have at times struggled to find clothes that are suitably modest to wear out and about! 
  3. Dust and sand will get everywhere! And there is simply nothing you can do about it! 
  4. Life has a different rhythm. It took me many, many months to adjust to the weekend being Friday and Saturday in the Middle East, and smaller shops and cafes may shut for the hottest hours in the middle of the day. In the workplace, social hierarchy and customs will often dictate the pace of work. 
  5. Sustainable culture and environmentally friendly products are very limited. Single use plastic is used for almost everything in Oman, and recycling options are very limited in most areas. There are starting to be a few shops offering more sustainable products, but I would strongly recommend bringing reusable shopping bags, straws and other such products with you. 

And there you have it! I hope you enjoy your expat life in Muscat as much as I am.

xx,
Cait

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