Muscat is a rather beautiful port city. White cubic buildings follow the curve of the Arabian Peninsula, sheltered by majestic mountains. The spindly minarets of the Sultan Said bin Taimur Mosque pierce the dusky sky. A serene atmosphere resides, and it seems fitting that Muscat means ‘safe anchorage’.
Living up to its namesake, Oman was recently ranked ninth globally in terms of safety and security by the World Economic Forum. And, in light of the numerous hotel openings and attractions opening up in the sultanate this year, Oman was also named the eighth best country in the world to travel to in 2017 by Lonely Planet – the only Middle Eastern nation to make the list.
So, how does it compare to the Middle Eastern metropolises in its midst? Well, first of all, it has a no skyscraper policy. Those who are turned off by the ‘build it and they will come’ audacity of Dubai, and the slight sterility of Abu Dhabi’s spotless facilities will find Oman to be a more humble, more authentic option for travellers looking to explore the region.
Oman also breaks the mould when it comes to natural beauty. Its wildlife and scene-stealing mountains set it apart from the ‘desert city’ experience offered by its neighbours, and provides plenty of scope for group excursions.
One thing Oman does have in common with other Middle Eastern nations is its need to diversify its oil-dependant economy. This has been a catalyst for its endeavours to become an international conference destination – part of its Vision 2020 plan for its fiscal future.
While the sultanate has some catching up to do with seasoned host cities like Dubai, it also has the opportunity to grab the attention of companies who want to benefit from the flight connectivity, climate and opulent experiences the Middle East is known for, but who perhaps feel like they’ve ‘done’ events in the UAE already.
Enter the newly opened Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC). Encompassed by a nature reserve – which is flanked by yet more dreamy mountain haze – the sultanate’s new trump card seems more like a futuristic city than a meeting venue. A 3,200-seat auditorium is its crowning glory, topped off with an iridescent turquoise roof. Its 14 meeting spaces, set within a microcosm of palm tree-lined pathways, are airy, high-tech and achingly modern. What’s more, the OCEC only a ten-minute drive from Muscat International Airport – convenient for international travellers jetting in from all over the globe.
Speaking of which, Muscat International Airport is set to get a facelift this year. It will gain a new 480,000 sqm terminal, which will open in stages throughout 2017, offering cutting-edge facilities and increasing annual passenger numbers to 48 million.
And, in terms of hotels, 2017 is set to be a busy year for openings in Oman. Marriott International has four properties in the pipeline; a 175-room Aloft, a 350-room Westin, a glitzy 250-room W Hotel, and a 230-room JW Marriott property – the latter will open within the OCEC complex this year. A 300-room Crowne Plaza hotel will also open at the OCEC, while two luxurious Anantara resorts recently launched outside the Omani capital – Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, set in the Jabal Al Akhdar mountain range, and Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, a beach escape situated along the Arabian Gulf. Finally, the hotly anticipated Kempinski Hotel Muscat is being developed as part of The Wave, a sleek mixed-use development along Muscat’s coastline, complete with an 18-hole Greg Norman designed golf course.
As Oman continues to grow, and more international brands move in, if it wants to carve out a niche in the meetings and events industry, it would be wise to protect its natural assets, and use them to attract conferences of a moderate size, and travellers seeking authenticity rather than ostentatiousness.
To stand out from the crowd, and to continue offering something different from its neighbours, it should build carefully, and develop facilities that cater for international visitors seeking a more ‘boutique’ experience, rather than trying to be all things to all people. All being well though, 2017 looks set to be a pivotal year for the sultanate.
OMAN: AN OVERVIEW
- The energy sector accounts for 50% of the sultanate’s GDP and 75% of its export earnings.
- UK companies operating in Oman include Atkins, BP, BAE, Carillion, Interserve, Jacobs, Mott MacDonald, Petrofac, Rolls Royce and Shell.
- Oman ranks 66th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index.
- Foreign companies and entrepreneurs are required to have an Omani parter with at least a 30% share in order to form a Limited Liability company.
- The UK is Oman’s biggest foreign investor.
- Some 44% of Oman’s population are expats. 7,000 of these are Brits.
- The best time to visit Oman is from October to April, when temperature is most pleasant.
- The local currency is the Omani Rial (1=í2.07), and Arabic is the national language.
- 28 global airlines operate 550 flights each week to Muscat International Airport.
- Oman Air offers twice daily flights to Muscat from London, while British Airways serves the Omani capital five times weekly – both of these direct services depart from Heathrow, with a journey time of seven hours and 15 minutes.
- Sail the azure waters along Musandam Peninsula in a show boat.
- Dive with rays and friendly goatfish off the coast of Muscat.
- Trek the craggy Grand Canyon of Jebel Shams.
- Visit the palatial Royal Opera House for a show or a pre-performance workshop. rohmuscat.org
- Discover the magnificent Nizwa Fort, an Omani castle dating back to the ninth century.
- Soak up the bustle (and the smells) of Old Muttrah Fish Market.
- Retreat to the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa for an unforgettable beach break.
- Sip a traditional coffee at Al-Ahli coffee shop in the middle of Mutrah Souq.
- Go on a 4x4 safari of the verdant Eastern Hajar Mountains.
- Spend the night with a Bedouin family and sleep under the stars.
For more ideas, visit omantourism.gov.om
WHERE TO EAT
THE RESTAURANT AT THE CHEDI
Chandeliers dangle above the terrazzo floors of this fine-dining venue, known for its indulgent Friday brunch.
Fresh and grilled seafood dishes served at this outdoor venue and, at night, fire torches and giant candles illuminate the tables upon the sand.
Another popular Friday brunch spot, this all day dining restaurant serves international cuisine piled high on buffet stations, as well as a la carte options, and overlooks the gardens of the hotel.
Sample some traditional Omani cooking at this relaxed, homely cafe with an outdoor terrace, and kick back with a sheesha pipe afterwards.
TOP PLACES FOR A MEETING/EVENT
ANANTARA AL JABAL AL AKHDAR
One of the Middle East’s highest luxury resorts – situated 2000 metres above sea level – this newly opened property is ideal for a company retreat. It has a boardroom for 16 people, event space for 150 guests and jaw-dropping canyon views.
BAIT AL ZUBAIR MUSEUM
Showcasing a private collection of Omani cultural artefacts from centuries past, this white-washed turreted museum can be hired for up to 15 visitors at a time.
AL BUSTAN PALACE
This Ritz Carlton hotel’s 1,200 sqm Majan Ballroom is a traditional, refined venue, while its private beach is one of the longest in Oman. There are 250 plush rooms, five outdoor pools and a recently opened Six Senses spa, split over three levels.
GRAND HYATT MUSCAT
Warm-hued, versatile event spaces at this five-star hotel include smart boardrooms and a carpeted ballroom that can seat 500 for a banquet. Dining options include a tea lounge, a sports bar and a rooftop grill restaurant.
DESERT NIGHTS CAMP
Occupying four hectares of sugar soft sand within the Omani desert, this luxury camp comprises 30 air-conditioned Bedouin-style tents with double beds and en suite bathrooms. Guests can enjoy a feast around campfire after a sunset camel ride.