Oman is one of the few Arab countries that distinguished itself in its history as a major seafaring nation. Most of Oman lies along the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, and the proud seamen of Oman colonized the coast of East Africa as far Zanzibar and even further south.
Oman has managed to create a relative open society, more open to influences from the outside than other Gulf countries. In 1970 when the current Sultan took over the government in a bloodless coup, Oman was barely out of the Middle Ages. 30 years later, women drive, can be elected -- or appointed -- to the Majlis as-Shura, Omans quasi-parliament, advisors to the Sultan -- and run many successful businesses around the country.
In Oman, high mountain ranges running parallel to the coast effectively cut off the Interior from the rest of the country. The highest peak, Jebel Shams (Sun Mountain), is just over 3,000 meters, and is a favorite destination of locals, expatriates, and tourists alike. Its also a good place to go to escape the stifling heat of the summer.
The official capital of Oman, Muscat is only a small part of a larger grouping of cities and towns strung some 40kms along the coast of the Gulf of Oman, known locally as the "Capital Area" or the "Muscat Municipality." Never much deeper than 3 or 4 km, this string of towns form a “necklace” sandwiched between the sea to the north and a rocky, primeval range of barren mountains to the south. Despite the ceremonial position as capital, the neighboring cities of Muttruh, with its superb corniche encirling a charming bay, and Ruwi, the traditional commercial center of the area, are both much more important.
Strategically located the port of the Arabian peninsula in ancient times, Muscat is the capital of modern Oman. It has a somewhat medieval appearance with two old Portuguese forts, Jelali and Merani. These old structures co-exist with modern, commercial, and residential quarters of the neighboring coastal towns, and lend the city an ambience of its own . The seaside ceremonial palace of H.M.Sultan Qaboos Said which is nestled between steep rocky hills, offers a spectacular sight especially at night.
The Lawatis are a group of generally wealthy merchants who originated in the Kutch area of Gujarat, India. They are Shia Muslim, while the majority of Omanis are Abadhi, a branch separate of Sunni and Shia. They have lived in their own sort of self-imposed ghetto for generations and intend to continue to do so. For a visitor, this exclusivity is somewhat frustrating, for some of the most beautiful houses along the Corniche are owned by Lawatiyahs. The streets behind seem very interesting and inviting, but if you attempt to enter you will soon be turned away.