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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Oman

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  • Francois Carpentier

    Coming with my family wasn't easy at the beginning, but thanks to the local scouts we received some excellent advice.

Life in Oman

What to Do in Your Spare Time?

There are various cinemas in the bigger cities, particularly Muscat, but most show only selected Hollywood blockbusters and Bollywood hits. Nightlife in Oman is mostly found in the capital, where it includes several hotel bars where non-Muslims are allowed to consume alcohol. For a more authentic experience, head to one of the local cafés for fresh juice or coffee.

Sports fans at least should find something to suit their taste. Football and, to a lesser extent, volleyball are among the Omanis’ favorite leisure activities, both on the sports grounds and among the spectators. Beach life is also becoming more and more popular.

Nature lovers can go diving, dolphin-watching, hiking in a wadi, or off-road driving in the desert. If you’d like to give the latter a try, make sure you have an experienced tour guide with you. Both sand dunes and desert valleys can be more dangerous than they seem at first glance.

While living in Oman, you should take the chance to explore both everyday life and the nation’s heritage. Shopping in Muttrah’s large souq combines the feel of a traditional Arab market with an impression of contemporary life in Oman. If you prefer history and culture, don’t miss out on some impressive forts or Muscat’s Grand Mosque.

If all this isn’t enough for you, then take a rucksack and hop on an intercity bus trip to Nizwa, a historical center of Islamic learning and Omani culture, or all the way down to Salalah, with its East African flair. In case you’d like to escape Oman for a while, the same bus company takes you across the border to Dubai, too.

The Modernized Education System

For foreign residents living in Oman today, it can be hard to imagine how much life has changed since Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970. Following a period of isolation under the previous ruler, it was not only the educational sector that needed a complete overhaul to keep up with the demands of modernization.

In 1970, there were three formal schools in the country, and only about one in five Omani adults could read and write. Nowadays, there are well over 1,000 public schools, and the literacy rate had risen to about 93% in 2015, with the government continuing to invest in education.

Children living in Oman attend a co-educational primary school (i.e. the first cycle) for four years. Nurseries are pretty much limited to Muscat, though, while preschool options are increasingly common and are also encouraged by the government.

After grade four, there are two levels of gender-segregated education, the first from grades five to ten (the second cycle of basic education) and the second for grades 11 and 12 (post-basic education). At Oman’s free state-sponsored schools, the first-level curriculum includes Arabic, Islamic studies, English, math, science, environmental life skills, IT, science, physical education (PE), arts, and music, with a particular focus on the sciences and social studies in post-secondary education. Next to these fields, post-basic education also focuses on such topics as environmental science, computer programming, and graphic design, while encouraging students to practice independent learning.

After graduating from twelfth grade with the thanawiya amma certificate, students living in Oman can pursue a degree at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), the only public university. In addition, there are eight private universities, often affiliated with overseas universities, as well as a variety of both public and private colleges for applied sciences, teacher training, and vocational qualifications.

International Schools: The Safe Option

Expat parents about to live in Oman may have some concerns about schooling. Beyond the culture shock that expat kids often face, the language barrier at Omani public schools can prove extremely difficult for non-native speakers of Arabic. Moreover, some parents may prefer their teenagers to attend a school without gender segregation, or they are worried about the quality of the local education system.

Luckily, there are several private international schools in Oman, especially in Muscat. Most of them are co-educational (i.e. with mixed-gender classes). A few offer support for non-native speakers of English, as well as internationally recognized diplomas such as the International Baccalaureate. Contact them well before you move, as they may have waiting lists, and don’t forget to consider the rather high tuition fees in your budget.

Private international or national schools in Oman include but are not limited to the following:

Healthcare in Oman

When you prepare for life in another country, it’s only natural to be concerned about health risks and medical services abroad. First, you should talk to your family doctor about recommended immunizations for Oman.

Usually, expatriates about to move to Oman receive booster shots for standard vaccinations (measles, mumps, rubella, polio, flu, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus), as well as additional immunizations for meningitis and hepatitis A/B. Rabies vaccinations are recommended if you belong to a high-risk group, for example veterinarians or adventure travelers.

Health Risks and Common Diseases

Fortunately, Oman is not a region at risk for malaria infections, except for the province of Musandam. However, you should still take precautions against insect bites. Sand flies are carriers of other insect-borne diseases, particularly leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection that leads to skin lesions and open sores. In extreme cases, it could even affect your internal organs. Fortunately, this disease is mostly limited to some rural areas and the southern province of Dhofar.

Other illnesses are far more common than leishmaniasis. The seasonal flu affects a big part of Oman’s population, and many expats from colder places may be overwhelmed by the heat and the sun. Afflictions like sunburn, dehydration, or heatstroke can be easily averted. Since 2012, a new, and often severe, respiratory disease, known as MERS-CoV, has been observed in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The risk of infection seems to be rather low, though.

Last but not least, if you require prescription meds, check with the Ministry of Health if you are allowed to import them, and get an official certificate from your doctor. Oman has very strict anti-narcotic laws, which include some medications commonly prescribed in other countries (e.g. anti-depressants or painkillers).

The Public Healthcare System

As part of his modernization policies, Sultan Qaboos and his government introduced a comprehensive healthcare system. Oman has made great progress in providing the populace with access to clean drinking water and sanitation, as well as in lowering the rates of infectious diseases, infant mortality, and maternal mortality.

All Omani citizens have free access to universal healthcare. Much of the staff is foreign-born or has received training abroad, but with more young Omanis completing college, this is beginning to change. In larger cities, especially Muscat, the quality of medical care is high, but you shouldn’t expect the same standards in rural areas.

Private Health Insurance for Expatriates

Unfortunately, foreign residents only benefit from Oman’s public healthcare system in the form of subsidized rather than free care and only if they are working for a state organization. The emergency rooms of all public hospitals admit medical emergencies, regardless of nationality, but that’s about it. Any non-urgent care has to be paid for immediately — often in cash. As such, it’s absolutely essential for expatriates to have a private health insurance plan.

As of January 2018, having health insurance cover is mandatory for expats in the private sector. Medical insurance is frequently offered and paid for by your Omani employer. But some of these employer-sponsored healthcare policies exclude specific private clinics or various medical services, such as mental health issues or dental care. Study your healthcare plan carefully and either renegotiate the conditions or pay for supplementary insurance out of your own pocket.

If you are looking for a doctor in Oman, try asking your embassy if they know a practitioner who speaks your mother tongue. There are various foreign-born doctors working in Oman, as well as Omani doctors who have acquired their medical training abroad. Chances are good that you will at least find someone fluent in English.

Omani Hospitals and Emergency Numbers

Over four-fifths of hospitals are owned and operated by the government. In Muscat, several public clinics also treat foreign-born patients, offering all sorts of medical services and non-urgent care:

As far as private clinics are concerned, Muscat Private Hospital seems to be popular in the expat community. There are also various optical centers and clinics for dental care in the capital, for example the Medident Dental Clinic (which now offers other primary care too).

To call the police, the fire department, or an ambulance after a traffic accident, phone 9999.

In case of any other medical emergency than a road accident, you should call the hospital directly for an ambulance or try to find your own way to the hospital, as ambulance services are limited. You can look up the emergency number of your closest public clinic on the Ministry of Health website.

The emergency numbers for Muscat’s major hospitals are as follows:

  • Khoula Hospital: +968 24 563625
  • Royal Hospital: +968 24 599457 (adults) or +968 24 599361 (children)
  • Al Nahdha Hospital: +968 24 831255
  • Muscat Private Hospital: +968 24 583790 or +968 24 583791

Transportation in Oman

Oman’s International Airports and Their Upgrades

Most expats coming to live in Oman arrive by plane at one of the two significant passenger airports. Both airports are operated by the Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC).

Muscat International Airport is the gateway to Oman for the majority of foreign residents. Its current terminal serves flights from 27 countries, mainly from the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and Europe. In 2016, about 12 million passengers used Oman’s busiest airport. To handle rising passenger numbers, an immense extension of the airport has been built, with test flights in operation since December 2017. Once fully operational, the new Muscat International Airport is prognosed to handle over 20 million passengers annually.

The airport, which is also the hub of the national flag carrier, Oman Air, is located in the district of Seeb. It is connected to the metropolitan area by mini-bus, taxi services to several international hotels, and rental car companies.

The country’s other major airport is based in Salalah, in the southern province of Dhofar. It only serves five airlines — especially Oman Air — and focuses on domestic flights to Muscat, as well as some international connections, predominantly in the Gulf region. However, Salalah is currently being transformed into a bigger international airport to cope with the rising number of passengers and to develop the region into a tourist hotspot.

There’s Only Limited Public Transportation

At the moment, Oman does not have a rail network or, indeed, any major railway line. The best way of traveling between larger cities is taking an intercity bus, operated by the government-owned company Mwasalat. These buses are normally air-conditioned and relatively comfortable, although they aren’t a very fast way to travel. Muscat’s main bus depot is based in Ruwi, with daily connections to places like Sohar, Nizwa, Salalah, or even Dubai.

Local public transportation in the Muscat metropolitan area is continuously being developed to deal with increasing levels of traffic. The seven local bus lines are also operated by Mwasalat, with buses running every 15 to 20 minutes from six in the morning up until midnight on some routes.

You can also use white-and-orange minibuses and baisa taxis. It’s customary to share your ride with other passengers. So if you book an “engaged” (non-shared) taxi, this will be more expensive.

There are no fixed taxi fares in Oman: you negotiate the price at the beginning of the journey. Tourists and newly arrived expats often run the risk of paying an above-average fare since they don’t know the usual rates for a specific journey. Ask other expats or your Omani friends about common taxi fares to avoid paying too much on a regular basis.

Lastly, a note to expat women: taking a bus or taxi on your own shouldn’t be a problem at all. However, women usually sit in the back of a car alone or next to other women on a bus.

Driving in Oman — Up for a Challenge?

Due to the lack of a comprehensive transportation system, many expats and Omanis alike use the car for their daily commute. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a company car and driver, you have to throw yourself into the fray.

Oman has a high rate of traffic accidents — the highest in the Gulf region — so driving as risk-aware as possible and having a good automobile insurance policy are indispensable. As a visitor, you can use a foreign driver’s license or an international driving permit for up to three months to drive legally in Oman. After receiving your residence permit, you will have to get a local license within the next six weeks.

Nationals of “approved states” can convert their valid driving permit into an Omani one without having to sit any tests. Please contact the Royal Oman Police for an up-to-date list of these countries.

To switch your driver’s license, you need to be at least 18 years of age and must have held your current license for over a year. Bring along the following documents to the police:

  • copies of your passport and resident card
  • completed license replacement form (with your sponsor’s stamp and signature)
  • the original license, a copy, and an official translation
  • blood group certificate

Expatriates whose license was not issued in one of the approved countries have to follow a more complicated procedure. They must prove that they are medically fit to drive via an eyesight test and possibly even a health exam. They need to take a driving exam as well. Please get in touch with the Royal Oman Police for further details.

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  • Francois Carpentier

    Coming with my family wasn't easy at the beginning, but thanks to the local scouts we received some excellent advice.

  • Marielle Depois

    I will never forget the great support provided the InterNations Ambassador in Muscat when I came to Oman as an expat woman on my own.

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