Boasting a variety of goods unique to Oman, Muscat is a splendid shopping stopover, writes Shoba Narayan.
Oman: shopping fit for Sultans in Muscat and beyond
When friends in India heard that I was going to Muscat, they asked me to bring back gold and silver. “The gold is purer there,” said my mother. “Go to Damas or Joyalukkas.”
But Joyalukkas is an Indian jeweller, I protested.
“Like I said, the gold is purer there,” repeated my mother.
I didn’t go to Damas or Joyalukkas during a recent trip to Muscat. We were a group of foodies who had blown into Muscat to eat and drink with the locals. When our hosts, the businessmen Shawqi Sultan and Saleh Taleb, invited us to their homes for dinner, we made careful note of the saffron that perfumed their rice, the spice rubs that made their steaks so succulent and the preserved lemons that lent a delicious tang to their vegetables. Best of all was the orange-blossom tea that was served after meals. We all wanted the divine-smelling liquid. We grilled our hosts about food, and went to Al Fair supermarket and Lulu’s hypermarket, where all of Muscat seemed to shop.
After a week in town, I came up with a list of the finest things to buy in Muscat.
Once considered more precious than gold and known to sailors all the way to China, frankincense grows in neighbouring Yemen, but the quality is better in Oman. Called “luban” by locals, the frankincense from Dhofar in the south, which was once the centre of the “Frankincense Trail”, is considered of the best quality. Omanis use this sacred aromatic resin that is obtained by slashing the bark of the Boswellia sacra tree three times. The first sap is white and called “safeda”. The third cutting of the same wound produces the best quality frankincense, called “Hojari” or “Al Hojari”. The cliffs of Mughsayl in the Salalah area produce sap that has an orange-and-spice scent, which is prized by connoisseurs. Locals chew luban for good health, steep it in hot water and use it as incense to perfume their homes. Packets of frankincense are widely available. The shops at Muttrah Souq sell frankincense tears for a couple of Omani rials. The perfume stand at malls sell frankincense oil in crystal or glass bottles with jewel-toned covers. The best-quality frankincense, which is transparent and green in colour, can cost hundreds of rials. Brands such as Al Haramain, Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Arabian Oud, which have shops all over the gulf sell high quality frankincense in the form of tears, perfume or essential oils, which can start at 20 rials (Dh191) and go up to several hundred rials. The shops in Muttrah souq in contrast, sell white frankincense in plastic packets for 5 rials (Dh48).
Bukhoor is what is burnt at Omani homes. It is a mixture of scents that is piped into the air conditioning system of the Sultan Qaboos grand mosque giving this place of prayer a lovely implacable scent. Bukhoor is a powdered mixture that is made with wood chips dipped into musk, rose, and other essential oils. To that, Omanis add customised ingredients like frankincense, oud, rose essence, dried flowers, sea shells and spices such as nutmeg and cardamom. All these ingredients are mixed, powdered and sold as bukhoor. Omanis sprinkle bukhoor on burning coals and dry their clothes in the smoke that emanates from it. Visitors are offered bukhoor burners to smell upon arrival as a gesture of hospitality. Prepackaged bukhoor can be had at the souqs for a couple of rials. Customised bukhoor with quality ingredients can cost ten times more.
• Available at Sabco Centre and Muttrah Souq
Sultan Qaboos loves the scents of Oman. His mountaintop retreat is shaped like an incense burner. These objects are available all over Oman, from a couple of rials to hundreds. The Thursday market at Nizwa, an hour outside Muscat, sells ceramic and clay incense burners for about 5 to 10 rials (Dh48 to Dh95). Asma Masoud Al Kharusi, a local designer, sells elegantly carved burners made of tin at her shop, Asmaa Collectionz at the Opera Galleria. The shop is a great place to find gift articles and handicrafts that put a modern spin on traditional Omani crafts. There are lacquered boxes decorated with khanjars (the ornate dagger that is the icon of Oman), glass bottles embellished with pewter, silver napkin rings, gold necklaces and incense burners. From 70 rials (Dh668).
Founded by Sayyida Susan Al Said, a member of the Omani royal family, the Bait Muzna art gallery displays beguiling paintings by contemporary Omani artists. It has two locations: one in a lovely old bungalow in the Old City and another at the Opera Galleria, attached to the Royal Opera House Muscat.
The Opera Galleria is a great place to wander around, particularly in the hot months. It houses Eye Candy, a boutique that stocks international brands such as Jimmy Choo and is patronised by the Omani elite. Ubhar, the city’s top – and very expensive – Omani restaurant stands beside the Fauchon patisserie. There are jewellers, gift shops and perfumeries.
Mrunal Khimji was educated at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She opened Mrunal’s boutique six years ago and sells saris, jalabiyas, fusion wear and western dresses for Omanis and tourists. Mrunal’s boutique and Boutique Muscat both sell clothes and knick-knacks with a touch of Oman. From 20 to 200 rials (Dh191 to Dh1,908) for blouses and saris.
The shops at Nizwa sell quality Omani silverware. There are khanjars, typically square pendants that adorn necklaces, bracelets and long earrings. Omani silver is considered “purer” than its counterparts in other countries. The shops at Jawaharat Al Shatti mall are where the locals go to buy silver. From 100 to 700 rials (Dh954 to Dh6,678) for decent examples.
• Omani Heritage Gallery, Jawaharat Al Shatti mall. www.omaniheritage.com
This white garment worn by men is spare and elegant. Good ones cost about 25 rials (Dh239). An easy way to obtain one is to buy one for 6 rials (Dh57) outside the Grand Mosque. They are on offer for visitors who aren’t dressed correctly. The starched cotton, with a tassel used by Omani men to dip into the perfume stoops that were at the entrance of each home, are lovely to wear.
• Al Ibtihaj National Enterprises, Muttrah Souq
Dry fruits and nuts
Hamed Khamis Al-Farsy Trading is a bustling shop in the middle of Muttrah Souq. It sells a variety of cashew nuts, pine nuts, dates and dry fruits. Part of the charm is sampling the wares that are displayed invitingly in open bins and having them weighed and packed for you. From 5 rials (Dh48) for good quality pine nuts, pistachios and almonds.
• Hamed Khamis Al-Farsy Trading, Muttrah Souq
Mandoos are wedding chests that have been used for centuries in Oman. They are wooden boxes decorated with hammered metal closures. Good ones are available at the Nizwa Souq for about 20 rials (Dh191). Small ones can be found at the other souqs in Muscat like Muttrah and Sabco.
• Ali Baba Gift Town, just outside Muttrah Souq.
You don’t have to buy Amouage perfumes in Muscat. They are available globally. Its CEO, David Crickmore, says that they are an international brand that happens to be headquartered in Oman. The perfumes are designed in the UK, created in the south of France and packaged in Oman. Still, an Amouage factory tour is a nice experience and watching the smiling women behind glass walls stamp and package the perfumes might induce you to part with the US$275 [Dh1,010] needed to buy a 100-millilitre bottle of their latest fragrance, Fate.
Omani men use walking sticks like their hands. They gesture with them and tap them on the ground to make a point. Some of the bamboo sticks are decorated with metal handles; some have concealed swords inside – called “arsaa”. Make sure you don’t buy those, as they will not be allowed through customs. From about 20 rials (Dh191), depending on the delicacy of the handles.
• Alauddin City Handicrafts & Gifts, Muttrah Souq.
Far more delicate than Turkish or any other halwa that is found in the Gulf countries, Omani halwa is light and fragrant, made with molasses, flour, rose water and a hint of cardamom, all of which are stirred for hours to make this sweet. I bought a box for 1 rials in the Nizwa Souq, but it can be found all over the Sultanate.
• Awlaad Naseer, Nizwa Souq. 00968 993 62729
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