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Muscat vs. Dubai, two contrasting Gulf cities

Barry Till of traveltheworldclub.com returns to breakdown two gulf state cities, to examine where Dubai and Oman are similar and where they are completely contrasting.

Written by Barry Till of traveltheworldclub.com

My world travel and blogging on my website, traveltheworldclub.com, has so far extended to 72 countries and over 114 major locations.

Travel within one country is often extensive, visiting multiple sites and travelling in buses and train (I adore trains!) and any other form of transport that comes to hand. Where I can, I travel within regions of the world, i.e. a 7 nation bus/train plane trip to SE Asia, a 5 city train trip through Canada, 4 nation car trip in Europe or a 4 nation visit to the Gulf States.

I’ve seen a lot and the contrasts (and similarities) can be real eye openers.

The Gulf States trip was one of my first multi-nation trips and the contrasts in one aspect became apparent after a week or so. That realisation stayed with me for a while and here I’d like to explore and explain a particular contrast that I found.

There is a group of nations that come under the umbrella heading of the Gulf States – Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE. The Gulf in question being the Persian Gulf.

For ease of discussion, let me advise that Iran isn’t usually included in that grouping despite having a coastline on the Gulf, just as the others have.

I guess the fact that Iran does not regard itself as Arab – don’t ever call an Iranian an Arab, if you do, expect to be corrected by them. – they regard themselves as Persian. I suppose politics and access also puts a dampener on them being included and differentiates them greatly from the others.

Conversely nowadays, Iraq, at present, would have to be left out of the equation I am about to discuss due to the enormous debilitating effects of the recent civil war there.

So, when we talk of the Gulf States several things come to mind to the average guy on the street. Probably the most crudely obvious in basic terms are: Ruling Royal Families, a stricter interpretation of Islamic law and culture, a barren terrain of sand dunes and mountains, the high heat temperatures, oil, gas, wealth and skyscrapers/modern edifices shooting up from an historic past.

This is maybe a type-cast image I am putting forward but hang in there with me, as I want to explore something that maybe is type-cast. No doubt this post may provoke some discussions – I hope it does as differing viewpoints are always a great way to get a opposing angle on a statement.

I have personally found these stereo-types quite interesting …… but there’s one where I want to show a distinct contrast between two places.

Dubai in the UAE, and Muscat in Oman. In theory, they should be similar looking cities.  

In the region, I have been to the capital cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE, Doha in Qatar, Manama in Bahrain and seen the mega-high rise and often garishly futuristic designs of their skyscrapers. If you had plonked me down in the middle of their skyscraper areas, before I had been there, and asked which city I am I would have no idea – they would look similar in general terms.

However, plonk me down in Muscat and I would know I am not in any of these cities. This is the theme of my discussion here and a pointer as to why I loved this city more than any of the others I visited on my 3-week tour around the Gulf.

So where does Muscat’s low-rise, low tourism, under the radar policy comes from.

Well for decades under Sultan Qaboos, Oman gradually developed, using the money gained from its resources of oil, gas and minerals (it can be classed easily as a wealthy Arab country).

Being the virtual ruler of Oman and a central figure in its govt policies the Sultan took a diverging path to the leaders (Emirs, Sheiks, Kings) of the rest of the Gulf States.

He encouraged a low-key tourism that was based on high quality, small resorts, small numbers of visitors, low rise buildings and an avoidance in encouraging the brash and cheap package holidays. Luxury and uniqueness was the goal.

 There are definitely 5-star properties here – in fact some of the best in the world as Mountain spas, and beach resorts. Tourism was developed with nature, environment and exclusivity in mind, not with being the biggest, tallest, most expensive or most glitzy around.

The country was not to be marketed to get as many visitors as possible and adding theme parks, monorail links, over-the-top-shopping malls, skiing centres, aquariums etc etc,

So, lets get back to the comparisons.

Geography

Muscat

The city is hugely spread out as a series of city districts, some would even think they are separate towns. It stretches along a rugged, craggy coastline with long golden beaches on one side and rugged, rocky outcrops on the other – both with a mountain backdrop.

Drive between these districts and you are climbing massive hills and entering into small gorges. Just as you think you are leaving the city as most houses disappear amidst the barrenness, it suddenly turns into another urban landscape, as you round the corner.

 Apartment blocks are built into the steep craggy cliff lines and many deliberately so for the views they will give the residents over the sea or nearby hills. There are many parts of the city where you walk and easily see the mountain foothills and rugged tops clearly a few kilometres away.

It can feel more akin to Switzerland than the Middle East. Go further out of the city into the inland areas and you will be met with brown striated barren mountains and small wadis. Try finding a mountainous panorama overlooking the major cities of any of the others.

I have to say it – this is one of the reasons I love this city. The inclines and declines of the roads, driving past small cliff faces and over a crag to see the blue Gulf suddenly fall away in front of you is captivating. You then follow the curve of the road round another hillock before looking down into a gorge to one side.

Dubai

Its flat, flat, flat …. and then some more. Plenty of sand blowing over the tarmacked roads if you venture way out into the desert hinterland. The city is made for cars, flat land makes driving easy and even between the various plots of building land there is yet more golden coloured sand.

 Probably this is one reason why Dubai has been able to build a Metro (that is still expanding as we speak), There are no physical impediments to such construction except maybe the softer ground (there’s rock beneath all that sand however!).

In areas, the views can be plain, dare I say boring – is that too extreme when the views are not of craggy headlands? It only gets exciting when the latest glass and steel mega-structure comes into view. After seeing the umpteenth gold window building or curiously bendy design construction it gets increasingly challenging to be wowed by the next edifice.

The advantage to all this flatness is that walking, which I adore, is easy enough. However, road-side or highway pavements and road crossings are limited. You drive, not walk, to the Malls and stay within the indoor and outdoor pedestrianised areas. Walking long distances in the heat is not normal and often not practical  

Buildings

Muscat

Now it may, or may not, surprise you to know that Muscat’s tallest building is 16 storeys high …. Yep, you read that correctly, a 16-storey hotel! I live in a small UK city that has housing blocks taller than that! This hotel building was only finished in 2016. Dubai had taller buildings in the 1970s.

This is a deliberate planning policy not an economic construction restriction. There is no wish by the authorities for Muscat to be another Manhattan-by-the-Gulf. The theory is that it would harm the character and charm of the city …… and I have to agree. The city is spread out along the long golden sandy coast and rugged sea outposts. There is no need or probable demand for massively tall buildings.

Whilst apartment blocks do exist, the norm is often for one or two storey community style villages to be built, often along the sea promenade. This gives the areas a spaced out, low-rise feel in what are quality built abodes, Here the uniqueness is based on quietness and space with open air rather than a 30th floor view of the 40-storey building across the road as in Dubai.

When a new building is needed it is considered how it will blend in with the surrounding area.

The Sultan decided to build a new Opera House – he was apparently a devotee of opera and so one was constructed and finished in 2011. Dubai only got theirs in late 2016.

But what a difference there is in the designs. Muscat’s copies traditional Arabic designs, is quite low-rise and placed in a green oasis of plants and flowers with marbled flooring. It does look like a very well maintained and pristine old-style building. Take a look at what Dubai’s is in the Dubai section. Its more akin to a glass-walled velodrome.

Similarly, Sultan Qaboos decided to build a splendid new Mosque to hold 20,000 people (12,00 inside and 8,000 outside). Finished in 2001 and built in a light brown sandstone colour it is a marvel of traditional design, minarets, arches and green gardens and fountains

I have a particularly moving video I took of it with birds first chirping in the peace of the outbuildings and waterways and then the melodic call to prayer sounding over our heads – delightful. Dubai’s main Mosque has a miniscule1,200 capacity in comparison – Muscat beats it here on size for once!

Oman centres its money on culture and lifestyle whereas Dubai favours commerce and investment.

Hotels are usually less than 7 storeys high in Muscat and a drive through the various areas of the city reveals two and three storey dwellings separated by side roads and street parking. The biggest hotels here, the 5 star Al Bustan and The Chedi are both set back from the sea, in private grounds and almost hidden from view. Dubai would put these on a main road for all to see and light them up with neon floodlights!

There is no real centre to Muscat, just centres within the 5 or so main districts of the city. You could call the area where most Govt buildings are a centre but then the beautiful Mosque and malls are in other areas.

Muscat could have combined all its main, important buildings and built them in one area and built upwards as most are new …. but no. It decided to spread them out around the city, thus not producing a traffic flow of commuters to one main area.

Money is here in abundance – all health and education is free, there’s no VAT and it has low taxes, it just doesn’t spend it on mega-structures.

Dubai

Do I even need to explain this aspect? Buildings are big, bold and brash. Town planning is definitely here and there are sectors to the city.

Now with the increase in building (actually producing a surplus of office and living spaces in recent years), the sectors are beginning to blend in. No longer are there the big tracts of land separating them as they are gradually filled in to produce one megapolis. Parts of the city have groupings of buildings so high that on dullish days the sun feels as if it is being blocked out.

The malls here are massive (one of the biggest in the world is here). You will need to spend a week in the mall just to visit each shop for 10 mins!

Buildings representing Big Ben in London, Arc de Triomph in Paris, even the Chrysler Building in New York have been raised here. Curving, stacked buildings abound and the number of edifices with acres of tinted glass is amazing. If you need to see a certain design, no doubt a copy if it will be here in Dubai.

Am I giving you the right impression that this is” skyscraper city”, “mega-city”, “New York by the Gulf” or any other anecdotal name you want to give this city? Hopefully so, because that is the outstanding feature of this city.

Am I impressed by these structures…? You bet and it is probably the one aspect that pips Muscat as more impressive… but then Muscat doesn’t want these buildings, so is not competing.

One name stands out here (actually maybe two, but we will come to that later). Burj al Khalifa. The tallest building in the world. Yep, I’ve been to the top of it and impressive it certainly is. This mega glass and steel spire of a building is a sight to behold.

Cliché it may seem, but you do actually have to lean right back (almost falling over backwards) to see its top if you are too near the building. You have to pre-book a ticket in advance if you want a guarantee of going up in the lift to the top – you certainly must as the view is astounding.

From the top you will get the impression I am trying to give.

The next tallest building in the world, that will over-take the Burj al Khalifa, is presently being built here. The other building, I said could be included in this section as a standout is the Burj al Arab Hotel. Promoted as a 6-star hotel, its windsail design juts into the sea.

Interiors are gloriously multi-coloured, embossed in gold and generally ostentatious. It is exclusive, extremely expensive and from many reports more image than substance… Or am I being overly critical here? Let me know in the comments. However, it has world-wide fame and is successful as being seen as an iconic building and experience in Dubai.

You want an indoor Sealife aquarium? Dubai has one of the biggest – and it’s conveniently situated in a shopping mall.

You want an indoor skiing centre at minus 19 degrees when it’s 105 degrees outside… Dubai has one, and it’s in a shopping mall too – do you get the theme running through here?!

Dubai opened its new Opera House in 2016. Remember the traditional Arabic style of Muscat’s – well Dubai’s is reassuringly ultra-modern in style, it looks like a glass walled velodrome.

Its airport is great and compact and centred fairly close to the city. But guess what – yep, you guessed it. They are building what is said to be the biggest airport in the world when it is eventually finished in a few years’ time.

Dubai does have an adorable Old Town area – Al Fahidi – with a Souk (you get ponced on by overzealous vendors as soon as you walk through the door). Here is the city’s main Mosque. It holds only 1,200 worshippers max, strangely small compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi’s beautiful 40,000 capacity Mosque (reputedly the biggest in the world) and Muscat’s 20,000 capacity.

It is older, but despite being enlarged in 1998 is small in comparison. I have no doubt however that the authorities are planning a huge Mosque somewhere, so they are not outdone by little, unassuming Muscat!    

You want hotels – Dubai has them in abundance – and they don’t shy away from the limelight. The tallest hotel in the world is here, the J W Marriott Marquis and the totally over-the-top huge Atlantis Palm looks out to sea on the Palm man-made island.

I adore architecture and am fascinated by design and performance – certainly Dubai opened my eyes massively on that front. I ranted on to friends about what I saw here in my early travel and blogging days and how astounding everything was.

By the time I had seen Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Osaka in later years Dubai was, however, getting lower down on the list for impressiveness.

Beaches

Muscat

Hit the western sandy beaches and you will find them wide, golden, unspoilt and clean. There are areas where you can even drive your car onto the beach for a group BBQ. Don’t worry, the residents are scrupulous in clearing away their rubbish and leaving it tidy.

Many beaches even have family pavilions and shaded areas just to escape the sun and a nearby purpose-built public BBQ set up. Palm trees sway in the wind and the rocks and pebbles are a feature of some beaches. I even met wild crabs burrowing in the sand, such is the peace and unspoilt nature of some areas.

Few hotels have their own beaches, apart from the 5-star Chedi and Al Bustan hotels. They are pretty much free for everyone. Most beaches have a promenade walk and lined by either small private houses or open land.

I took an amazing walk along the beach for a couple of miles at Qurum Beach, past the Qurum Nature Reserve and up to the small fishing boat inlet station with locals’ boats tethered to the jetty.

Such a peaceful walk, meeting locals doing the same en-route, no high-rise buildings, birds and wildlife around me, ending in a rocky outcrop and river inlet.

Something unique to Muscat are the sea harbours. Set among the rocky coastline, small marinas and harbours have daily boats that take visitors out to the sea for dolphin spotting, whale watching and sundowners.

You get to gaze at the sun setting behind the backdrop of mountains on Muscat’s perimeter. No sundowners in Dubai as the resort faces the wrong way!

Package trips are not the norm for Oman. They exist for high class hotels/spas as a once in a life-time experience but a beach, bar, sun n sea itinerary is not promoted. Flights to Muscat, while not exorbitant are not cheap either, thus deterring the cheap holiday trippers. There are no plans for Budget airlines to fly here anytime soon!  

Dubai

Many beaches here are owned by hotels and those that aren’t are restricted to certain areas. Whilst they are clean, they will get busy, usually with foreign tourists. Massive buildings will line the shoreline and often it is just a short walk from the hotel’s beach front entrance to your sunlounger on the water’s edge.

The beaches are commercial, lined with places to shop, eat and drink (non-alcoholic), usually with wide promenades and even running tracks. It is more akin to Miami than the Middle East. Package tours are becoming king.

Often in Dubai, the hotel’s swimming pool area is promoted over any beach access areas, Pools are large and often family orientated. There are waterparks if your love for water goes even further.

Nowadays, holidays from Europe for flights, a week in the blazing (guaranteed) sun in a fully inclusive 4-star hotel can be had for a little more than the same price as one to Spain – which would you chose? Budget airlines are this year starting operations to Dubai… There is only one way this can all go!

I could go on forever about the contrasts between these two cities and countries but this article would be never-ending! I have covered what I see as the main differences, without going into food, politics, lifestyle etc – that could be another post!

At the end of the day which city do I prefer. Difficult but I do have a preference.

Dubai has the most amazing, futuristic architecture, possibly in the world and I am in awe of it.

However, once seen it is easily forgotten – I need to see more buildings and the new tallest building, to be re-amazed. Maybe another trip in a couple of years will help.

It has entertainment galore, never a dull moment and just riding the Metro, monorail, and walking through the Malls is entertainment enough. Again, I tire easily of them. It is a world-class city. There was nothing bad I found or disappointed me about Dubai… but:

I chose Muscat.

I love the low-rise but well-maintained streets and buildings. I love the rocky abandoned, sparsely occupied beaches. I love the palm tree fringed promenades and the marinas with their sea going dayboats to see nature.

I adored seeing the mountainous backdrop to the city and for once I didn’t mind paying for a (cheap) taxi ride from one end of the city to the other.

The Opera House here amazed me (and I never even got to see a performance inside) and the beautiful new Mosque. built in traditional style in its glorious water-filled gardens was outstanding.

The peace and tranquillity, (yes it has traffic but not like the traffic jams I experienced in Dubai) was always there. I enjoyed the non-hustle and bustle of the city

Passing through craggy outcrops, along winding roads cutting through hillocks and the views of the sea from high up on each turn of the road probably convinced me that Muscat is my kind of a city. 

There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned but did stand out. It may be a personal thing I noticed and I may be wrong… The Omani people were so welcoming.

Don’t get me wrong, the Emirati people were pleasant, never rude or unwelcoming, its just that they were more functional and straightforward. The Omani’s felt more laid-back but still welcoming, treating me more as a friend than as a formal guest. I loved their constant smiling, happy nature and genuine helpfulness. Several events helped me realise this and it certainly made me give the extra points to Muscat in this review!

If you are interested in reading up more on these two cities then I have separate, full review posts on each on my website https://www.traveltheworldclub.com 

Read my separate reviews of these two cities:

Muscat: https://www.traveltheworldclub.com/travel/muscat-oman

Dubai: https://www.traveltheworldclub.com/travel/u-a-e-dubai 

See more from me:

Website: https://www.traveltheworldclub.com  

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ttworldclub

4 replies on “Muscat vs. Dubai, two contrasting Gulf cities”

Really great article, such a lot of useful info and an interesting way of comparing those two places. I was planning to see Dubai sometime but this article has really tempted me to rake in Muscat as well as it sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing

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Thanks for the compliments. The two cities are very different despite being only just over an hour’s flight or 4 hours by car away from each other (with a lot of sand in-between them!). I definitely advise seeing both if you want to see the difference, the experience is lasting.

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So glad you agree. – the peace I encountered was noticeable and the beaches were so much less commercialised, probably more me than the glitzy and brashness of Dubai. Have to say I was impressed with Dubai’s architecture though and its not to be missed – but I’d always slip in a nip across to Muscat !

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