Sunday, 10 May 2015

Expat life: Being an expat in Oman

I have a few expat life-related posts planned, the next one will be specifically about the cost of living, but for now I thought I would cover some of the most frequently asked questions I get about living in Oman.

I have only lived here for just over one-year and this is my first expat posting, so I am by no means an expert, but hopefully this is helpful to anyone considering a move.

Why did you move to Oman?
I imagine most people are either lured by a money or love, mine was the latter. My husband was tempted by a well-paying job, and I joined him later. I have always liked the idea of living abroad, but I saw myself either in Europe or America, never the Middle East. I actually had no idea where Oman was, or that it existed before my husband moved.

Do you work/how did you get a job?
Yes, and with great difficulty. I was extremely lucky to find my job when I did. Sadly it's all about contacts, the lady who previously had my job had just left and I had a contact from London who lives here and works in the same field so she passed on my CV.  If the newspapers are to be believed it is harder for expat women to get work visas. Once you do get a job I'm not sure how much scope there is for movement if you have plans to move up the career ladder, but this is probably very industry dependent.

How does healthcare work?
I get health insurance/care with my job. I am actually under the Ministry of Health umbrella, which means I am entitled to be treated at the government hospitals. Usually, expats would have private insurance, which is provided by their employer and there are a number of private hospital chains. I believe there is an obligation for all employers to provide health care, which means that if you employ a housekeeper, for example, you need to pay for their health care. As yet, I haven't had to use the healthcare system so I can't comment on the quality.

How did you decide where to live?
There are certain areas that are expat strongholds: The Wave and MQ being the main ones. My husband did the scoping out before I arrived and he picked well. We are both 10-minutes from work, and I like living in a place where I can walk to the shops (this has been one of my main criteria wherever I have lived). What I can tell you though is that rent in these areas tends to be that much more (sometimes double) what you would pay for the same thing in another part of town. Take a look at Muscat Mutterings post for an idea of what 1000OMR/month can get you. The other odd thing is that you pay in all your rent upfront. And yes, that is as painful as it sounds.

What's it like living in Muscat?
This is such a difficult question because the experience of living in a place is not equal for everyone. All I can say is "it's alright". Muscat is a sleepy town, and I do mean that in the nicest way possible. Life is all about relaxing here. Nothing is done in a hurry. If you are the outdoors type, then this is would be your paradise, lots of beaches to camp on, mountains to hike up, and dunes to bash. If you are looking for a city vibe or a shopping haven then Muscat will be a disappointment. There is a perception in the western media that everywhere in the Middle East is unsafe and/or extreme, and Muscat is neither of those. You do need to be culturally sensitive, but I would say that the place is pretty tolerant.

Is it safe?
Yes. Like anywhere you hear the odd horror story, but I don't feel the need to lock my door and I walk around with little thought of having valuables on show (although I probably should). The police have a strong presence here and are respected. That said, I don't like to travel alone at night in my car (because of the way people drive) and, as I mentioned before, because of the discomfort factor there are a lot of places I wouldn't hang out alone.

Is it like Dubai?
No. It couldn't be more different. The landscape, the culture, the buildings, they really are worlds apart.

Is it expensive?
Yes and no. I will discuss this in more detail in a specific cost of living post. Wages are tax-free, but food/eating out is much more expensive than I expected. Fuel is shockingly cheap though.

How do you find living/working in Muscat as a woman?
Again this is one of those different for everyone questions. All women can expect to be stared at a lot, by both Omani and expat men, mostly the former. It makes walking around alone uncomfortable and I don't do things like sit in a coffee shop alone and read like I used to in London. I've been beeped at from cars and had men rolling down the window to make comments, which is something I didn't expect at all. I expect looking Middle Eastern doesn't help me as I even catch local women staring at me, presumably because they are surprised at how I am dressed (covered, but no headscarf or abaya). I have thought about wearing an abaya just because it would make things so much easier than having to think so hard about my clothes attracting attention. We'll see.

In the workplace, I am lucky that I get on with both my female Omani and expat colleagues well and they immediately made me feel welcome. Because I work for a ministry body though, my hours are different to my Omani colleagues, and while it only works out that I work one hour more a day, there is that constant reminder when they leave each day that we aren't the same.

How do Omanis feel about expats?
Omanis are a little aggressive on the roads and don't know how to queue, but they are also very friendly and always try to be helpful. They are peaceful people, and I was told by my Omani colleague that this concept and way of behaving is something that is ingrained in them from an early age. Western expats, who are generally in high positions within a company, can expect to be shown more respect from Omanis whereas expats from the East, generally doing manual/low-skilled jobs don't get that, and generally have a harder time. In my experience, the groups tend to stay divided. I always thought that Omanis just enjoyed spending time with family and didn't have time to mix, although my colleague said that Western expats, in her opinion, tend to be more private.

Will you learn Arabic?
I would like to, but realistically I probably won't. Learning any language is intense and classes require a few hours multiple times a week: I just don't have the energy for that. Business is conducted in English for the most part and I haven't found not speaking Arabic to be a barrier. Hearing my colleagues talk in the office I'm slowly starting to understand more and more.

Are things censored?
Yes, films are cropped and websites are often blocked. Often I don't understand why a page is blocked, I have been stopped from visiting nail art blogs and reading an article about Pharrell and his song Happy, but I have been able to click on articles about sex/nudity (yes, I now intentionally click on articles such as these just to see if they are blocked). I also noticed in one supermarket when buying a pool inflatable that the body of the women on the front was blacked out, leaving just her head, hands, and hair visible.

Is it easy to make friends?
No. Naturally I think it is harder to make friends as you get older, but the pool of potential friends is that much smaller here. There isn't that culture of going out with work colleagues, or if there is I haven't been invited!

How do you cope with the weather?
Not very well actually. You end up living half the year indoors. From about now until October staying outdoors for any length of time will be unbearable and the only thing you can do is move from one air conditioned place to another. I've come to realise that heat is much more limiting than cold.

What is Ramadan like?
Last Ramadan was tough. I was home alone all day and my husband would then come back and sleep before we went off to my in-laws to break fast. The heat, dehydration, and so much family time when people aren't in the best of moods was a challenge. I imagine for non-Muslims it is harder because there is no drinking, eating or chewing allowed in public during daylight hours and because cafes and restaurants are closed the place is even quieter. I will be working this year (reduced hours) so it will be interesting to see if that makes things easier or harder.

Do you have to cover up?
Not exactly, but it's better to. This comes down to attracting attention and generally I do what I can to avoid that. I live in maxi dresses/skirts and long sleeved t-shirts. I have never been one to have a lot of flesh on display, but I did love wearing leggings and skinny jeans, actually any jeans, but I am far too self-conscious to wear anything like that now. Even running the two minute journey to my pilates instructors place in my yoga pants (covered in a long black cardigan) attracts more stares than usual, so I would never feel comfortable walking around the shopping centre like that. There are some places that it is easier to feel a bit more relaxed about the dress code, where I would ditch the long t-shirt under the dress, for example, like hotels. I do want to add that I have seen girls walking around the shopping centre in shorts and vests, and I assume they aren't feeling uncomfortable, so it is a personal thing. The rule in the malls and a good general rule is to keep knees and shoulders covered.

Do you have ups and downs?
All the time. I'm currently on a downer. I think it's normal. I've found it really hard to call Muscat home and I recognised quite quickly that I don't really know how to pull myself out of these down times. In London, I would watch trash TV, or go out, buy a Chai Tea from Starbucks, walk around, even just go to Boots and treat myself to a new lipstick. All those coping strategies are gone and I just need to ride out the feelings. The time difference and lack of easy access to Skype means calling up your best friend for a chat isn't that easy.

What do you miss from home? (Including food!)
I miss my family and friends, high street shopping, watching TV, boots (both kinds), internet shopping, walking, public transport, greenery, M&S Food, Hummingbird Bakery, Bubbleology, Five Guys, Turkish restaurants, proper fish and chips, and that feeling that I would have whenever I walked down a street in central London.

When do you plan on moving back?
This is a difficult question. If I was an impulsive person I would leave on the next flight, but I'm not and I know we should be using this time to save money for when we do go back to the UK. That said, I would be open to going somewhere else, Europe, the US, or maybe even further east. 


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