Sunday, 30 August 2015

Expat life: Money matters when living in Oman

As promised, my latest expat life post will try to break down the cost of living in Oman. According to the 2014 Mercer Cost of Living Survey, Muscat is one of the least expensive destinations in the world; it was ranked 168 out of 211 cities polled. However, the ranking was 179 out of 2014 in 2012, and 184 in 2011, so the cost of living has been increasing.

Most expats are lured by generous packages that offer good salaries, accommodation, maybe even a car and bonuses, flights home, and medical insurance. So these key things seem the most logical thing to start with.

It is also worth me beginning my saying that I am coming from the angle of a qualified, Western expat. There are many low productivity expat jobs – maids, gardeners, builders - typically filled by Asian labourers and their motivations and, ultimately, their lifestyle in Oman is completely different.

The big industries that pull people to Oman are oil and gas and construction. Expats tend to work in senior positions in these fields or in sectors where there are skill shortages, such as in the healthcare and education fields. It is worth noting that there is relative job insecurity at the moment; Omanisation is the key word, and most companies have quotas to meet in terms of hiring locals. As always, I have no intentions to comment on the way things are done here, it is how it is, but it does mean that some are on fixed contracts with no idea towards the end if they will be renewed. I also want to add that for industries like mine that don't seem to be established here the pay is extremely poor. I would expect that, even after tax, in the UK I would be taking home close to double what I make now.

Rent in Oman is paid annually and in advance, rather than monthly. This is a huge lump sum. Unlike London, rent isn't more than half of your monthly salary so while you might find yourself a little pressed when it is rent time, you can feel quite flush for the rest of the year. There is a budget and style range to accommodate all. Costs vary according to size, facilities, and area and places are usually unfurnished. Most people make a pilgrimage to Ikea in Dubai for furniture since what is available here is limited and expensive. You can buy furniture second-hand from expats leaving, and there are Facebook groups for this (here) and another website called DuBizzle.

Utilities, such as water, gas and electricity, aren't included in the rent, but these are subsidised to some extent by the governments, which own the services. Utilities are therefore cheaper than in most European countries. Obviously in the summer you can expect the AC bill/electricity bill to increase significantly.

When it comes to the internet, there are only two companies to choose from: Ooreedo and Omantel. We currently have a cable line with Omantel, which is the only provider in our area. We are lucky that our connection is ok, but in some places it drops out frequently. Different parts of town have different connection speeds and strengths. Our current monthly fee is 35OMR per month, and that is meant to be for the fastest connection. It is worth noting that things like Viber and Skype are blocked, but there are ways to get around this and other services you can use. On my iPad, I used an app called ZenMate to provide a VPN as if I am in the UK so I can watch BBC IPlayer.

For my mobile phone I bought a SIM card that I top up occasionally; I subscribe to a 1GB data package for 5OMR a month and have 2-3OMR on there for calls, which I use very infrequently. I have called the UK on my mobile before (Ooreedo) and I was surprised how little it cost. I spoke for a good half hour with only 2OMR credit, but it's obviously not a habit you would want to take up frequently.

The cost of using a car in Oman is much cheaper than Europe, almost everyone drives. Petrol is very cheap; it is subsidised. At the moment, it is 0.12OMR/litre, (that's about 20p/litre).  Vehicle registration and insurance are based on the car rather than the driver so once the car is insured anyone with a licence can drive it. Insurance for a 4x4 for multiple drivers is around 360OMR a year. A lot of people seem to buy new, on credit, but there are second-hand cars to be had, usually from expats who are moving on. There is also the option to rent a car long-term. I used to rent a small car for 200OMR/month.

Public transport is pretty much non-existent, there are buses, apparently, but I have never seen one and they are usually meant for the lowest paid workers. So unless you are after a raw, local experience, I'm not sure you would ever want to use one. There are also coaches for longer journeys to Sohar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Locally, you can get around by taxi but these don't run on a meter so how much you spend will depend on what you look like and it's a matter of haggling.

Food and drink
The cost of food surprised me the most, although it probably shouldn't have. Since a lot of products are imported, they work out more expensive. Local products are cheap, although the fruit and vegetables aren't that tasty. Lulu is the best value supermarket, and Al Fair/Spinney's is the most expensive -- but has the highest quality -- and Carrefour is mid-range. A weekly shop for two people costs me 30-40OMR, that's buying the typical fruit, veg, meat, water. It can bump up to 50OMR+ if I add in household cleaning things and cosmetics.

As a non-drinker, I can't comment on alcohol so much, but I understand the buying and consuming for home-use is complicated and costly. There are some restaurants with licences, mostly in hotels, and there are bars too.

Eating out can also be costly, especially considering the quality. A three-course meal at an average restaurant costs around 20OMR for two.

I'm also going to slot a little about buying clothes and makeup/skincare here, there isn't a huge choice of brands and what is available is at a premium. M&S I have noticed has old stock, a dress I picked up in the clearance in the UK for £18 was being sold here for 60OMR. For makeup, I've noticed that the amount in pounds is nearly always the same as rials, so that £10 foundation at home now works out at £16. You also don't find the 3 for 2 deals or many gift with purchase offers to soften the blow.

Tourist activities seem to be very overpriced, which is a shame because I would much rather go as part of a group or tour where someone else knows where they are going and what stuff is. For example, a trip to Jebel Akhdar for four people is 150OMR, but it would cost you probably 15OMR to fill your tank and drive yourself.

But, if you like lounging on the beach, it's free! Boat trips such as snorkelling, cruises, and dolphin watching are roughly 15 to 25OMR. The boats are well maintained and the crew knowledgeable, which is always comforting. They will usually provide lunch and drinks too.

Other entertainment is not costly. Cinema tickets are 3OMR and the food is also cheap. I am not sure what the standard is around the world, but in the UK buying a drink and some popcorn was usually more expensive than the tickets and going to the cinema was a treat. They don't do traditional sweet popcorn though, I don't know why.

The Royal Opera House usually has a range of ticket prices for their shows, if you are happy to sit at the top, which actually has great views you can see a show for as little as 5OMR. The most expensive seats are up to around 50OMR.

At home, we have a TV sports subscription, which costs 100OMR for the year.

The cost of gym membership depends on the gym, you can get some for 10-15OMR a month. I have just signed up to the gym at The Wave, The Wellness Centre, and it worked out to 30OMR a month, but I had to pay for a year in advance for that rate.

Most companies offer health insurance to the family as part of the employment package, you just need to look out for the exclusions, dentistry and mental health, for example. Policies won't necessary cover you for the government hospitals either, which I have heard have better standards. Your policy will dictate what you pay for and how much, most recently when I went to see a GP the full cost of that visit was covered, but when I needed a blood test to determine my blood group I had to pay.  Buying drugs from the pharmacy seems to be cheaper than the UK and worryingly there are a lot of drugs you can buy without a prescription.

I don't have children so this isn't something I know much about. Some companies do pay for schooling as part of the employment package, but if they don't then I have heard it is a huge expense. There is no free education for expats in Oman.

Right, I think that's it. If I've missed anything feel free to add information in the comments section. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Out and About: A look at Mutrah Souq

I've written specifically about shopping for silver in the Mutrah souq/souk before, but today I wanted to take an overall look at the market, which I believe is one of the oldest in the country.

The entrance to the souk is clearly marked out once you reach Muttrah. You step through the arched frame and there is that sense of stepping back in time the deeper you walk in. From what I understand though, the souq was updated recently. That aside, the souq has an old charm with its small shops and winding tiny lanes. As you walk through the smell of Bukhoor is everywhere.

You can find anything from scarves to antiques, and even industrial scale cooking pots. Generally types of stores tend to cluster together. The shops straight after the main entrance tend to be the most diverse though, I guess to catch the tourists. The prices for most items are negotiable and haggling is a long standing tradition, although I personally tend to do this for higher priced items, like jewellery.
I have only ever visited in the evenings after the souq reopens for the day at 4.30pm but it is open in the early morning until about midday, and opening hours are extended during Ramadan until midnight.

Tripadvisor lists Murtada A.K. Trading (link) as the top place to see in Muttrah (and by extension in the souq) and number 22 of the "things to do" in Muscat, but I haven't figured out exactly which shop this is -- so if you know please advise, and other recommendations are also welcome!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Life Lately: Home Sweet Home Part II

I'm back! Admittedly, this post is up much later than intended because I was a little grumpy earlier this week: a combination of the holiday blues and the fact that it was still ridiculously hot. This weekend seems to be the sign that winter is coming, and I say, roll on!

I thought I would share some the highlights of my trip, before jumping back into life here in Oman, so here goes.

Bread baking at the E5 Bakehouse
I've mentioned before that I miss real bread, so my dad treated me to a baking course at the E5 Bakehouse. They are purists when it comes to bread, and they keep it all very simple based on the principles that all you need is flour, water, and salt. I currently have my sourdough starter brewing and, if it does what it is supposed to, and I can make my own bread here, who knows, I might start a bakery....or at least share the recipe.

Prudential Ride London
What a fantastic day out this was. The weather was perfect; warm, but with a breeze. The roads in and around the city were closed off for cyclists only to enjoy. I understand it was a complete pain for drivers, but while I have always enjoyed walking around central London (and I have done the night marathon in the past) it was nice to see the place from a different angle and get back on a bike again! The organisation of the event was excellent, plenty of pit stops to rest, grab a drink, or get your bike repaired, as well as entertainment too. I'm hoping I will be back in town again next year to do it again.

Wings and a view
My cousin turned 18 earlier in the year and as part of belated birthday celebrations we took him for his first night out. We started on Brick Lane with Sticky Wings, an unusual choice of restaurant for an area known for curry, but they were amazing. I had the buffalo wings style with a ranch dressing. We then made our way to Madison Roof Garden, which has a fantastic view over the city. Again the weather was just right for spending outside.

Cheap eats
You can probably tell by now, I really liked eating this trip. Another standout meal was at Flat Iron, where you get the most tender steak I have ever had and all for the grand total of £10 (that's about 6OMR). They also had a unique knife to use, a mini cleaver, and I am someone who loves those quirky touches.

The Woman in Black
This play has been on my to-see list for a while, and it was fantastic. I don't want to give away anything about the story, all I knew before seeing it was that it was a ghost story and an old-fashioned one at that. The atmosphere was set in the theatre perfectly, and what was most impressive is that the cast was just two.

As much as I love and miss London, I am looking forward to winter in Oman: getting the BBQ out again, road trips, and just being able to be outside. Let me know what your favourite thing about winter in Oman is.