Touring The Musandam Peninsula: Oman’s Guardian of The Straits of Hormuz
Musandam peninsula, Oman.
By Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
We had toured the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a month and were awed with its hundreds upon hundreds of construction projects mushrooming in every town and city in this fast evolving land. Now, as with my daughter and wife along with a colleague we sipped our coffee in Fatafeet Restaurant, overlooking Dubai Creek, I related to my friend our amazement at the 22nd, not the 21st century, transformation of the UAE, especially in the city of Dubai.
Not disagreeing with our assessment, he remarked, “Since you are now so familiar with the UAE, why not visit Oman? You will be impressed!” He went on, “Just drive to Ras Al Khaimah and cross into that country. All you need are your passports.”
Taking his words to heart, early the next day we set out on our way to Ras Al Khaimah – the UAE state bordering the Musandam Peninsula, separated from the main part of Oman by the UAE’s Emirate of Fujairah. Leaving the hassle and bustle of the Emirates of Dubai then Sharjah behind, we entered the Emirate of Ajman. It took only about 10 minutes to cross this tiny Emirate then we were driving in the Emirate of Umm Al Quwain.
On both sides of the 4-lane highway, new structures seemed to be sprouting everywhere. It was apparent that even in this what is considered to be the poorest Emirate in the UAE, life was galloping into the future. The UAE was truly on the fast track.
After a half hour drive through the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, we came to Tibat, the border crossing between the UAE and Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. Now the red tape and bureaucracy of borders became evident. Even though my colleague had said ‘all that was needed to cross into Oman were our passports’, we had to pay $22.US each for a visa and auto fee, as well as spending half an hour filling out papers.
Soon bureaucracy and papers were forgotten as I navigated the winding but well engineered coastal highway. As we drove along, every few minutes, the bare mountains seemed change colour. On the other side of the road, the clear blue ocean, lapping here and there over small beaches of sand created an emerald-like carpet set at the foot of the Musandam mountains, which in places rise to 2,000 m (6,560 ft).
The Musandam Peninsula, through which we were making our way, consists of low rugged mountains that form the northern-most extremity of the Al Hagar al Garb (Western Hagar) Mountains. The northern-most part of the Sultanate of Oman, it covers approximately 3,000 square km (1,158 sq mi) of land and includes four wilayats (provinces): Khasab, Bakha, Diba Bayaa and Madha.
The landscape of the Peninsula is dramatic. Its majestic mountains hug the coastline with a series of inlets, towering craggy cliffs and spectacular barren-rocky fjords that give Musandam the appellation, ‘Norway of the Middle East’ or ‘Norway of Arabia’. The Peninsula overlooks the 60 km (37 mi) wide Strait of Hormuz, which links the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf) with the Gulf of Oman – a strategically important water channel where 90% of oil from the Gulf region passes on to the rest of the world.
Its population of some 40,000 live in isolated mountain and coastal communities. In the past, most villages could only be reached by boat rather than by road, but today newly built roads connect most of its hamlets and towns. Most of the population make a living by fishing, but pockets of flat fertile valleys support meagre agriculture. However, in the last few years, tourism is becoming an important industry, catering to the growing number of visitors who flock to enjoy Musandam’s natural breathtaking landscape.
Every few miles we drove around inlets on the edge of which small hamlets gave life to the barren landscape. The humble homes of these tiny villages appeared to be neat and clean and not a piece of garbage anywhere in sight. With fishing dhows anchored in the inlets overshadowed by whitewashed structures gleaming in the sunlight, the scene was that of a naturally created postcard.
About 12 km (7.5 mi) from Tibat, we stopped in the village of Bukha, surrounded by mountains that contain many natural caves. It is the capital of the Wilayat of Bukha with some 3,500 inhabitants who make a living by fishing, fish marketing, date and citrus fruit cultivation, and building fishing boats.
Past Bukha, as I manoeuvred our auto on the twisting highway, here and there, small herds of goats gave life to the treeless mountains tumbling down to the sea. “Watch out!” My daughter shouted as I slammed on the brakes, barely missing one of the goats that seemed unconcerned, as it made its way leisurely across the road.
About 50 minutes after crossing the border, the coastal road began to wind upward. “We’re going to fall into the ocean!” My daughter hid her face as I turned a sharp curve high above the Gulf waters below. I looked at her in disbelief I knew that she had a great fear of heights but the road had perfect cement sidings that would keep an auto on the roadway no matter what happened.
A little more than an hour after leaving Tibat, I turned a curve on the road and entered Khasab – the largest town on the Musandam Peninsula. The capital of the Wilayat of Khasab, famous for its steep fjords, bird and marine life, and diving sites, the town of some 18,000 inhabitants is noted for its Portuguese fort. Built at the beginning of the 17th century, it still imbues some of the local architecture with an impression of this era.
The surrounding area is fertile (khasab means ‘fertile’ in Arabic) and many fruit and vegetable crops are grown on the occasional flat ledges of land that have been terraced for small-scale agriculture. Low walls are built round the cultivated areas to trap surface run-off.
We drove around town impressed with its attractive Arab architecture and clean streets edged by majestic structures. After the tiny hamlets we had just passed, Khasab appeared like a huge metropolis, truly earning the name ‘Queen of Musandam’.
After we finished touring the town, made charming by its many newly built stately homes, we rested a while in the Khasab Hotel and reflected on Musandam’s breathtaking mountains, dramatic fjords, year round sunshine and seas teeming with fish. After our short journey, it was easy to see why this part of Oman is fast becoming a diving and a winter holiday destination for international travellers.