Muttrah Souq sprang into action on Tuesday with the Supreme Committee deciding the previous day that Muscat’s iconic market could be opened for customers after five months of closure.
All business activities at the souq had been brought to a halt on March 18 with the threat of COVID-19. And the capital’s most busy tourist haven had worn a deserted look for over four months since then.
Following the much-awaited announcement, few shops still remained shut on Tuesday. While most of the people who were present there were active cleaning the shops and re-arranging the stocks, passersby looked on expectantly as the desolate sight of the ancient souq would now get vibrant again.
Sanjay, a haberdashery business owner, said, “It’s a mixed feeling. Initially we thought the lockdown may last a week or two. We were happy thinking we got a much-needed break but it got extended well beyond our expectations. Starting at the beginning of the peak season, when we were about to unpack our new stocks, it continued indefinitely, leaving us with no options for survival.”
Resuming business is now a challenge, he said, adding “In our type of business, customers tend to touch and feel the fancy laces. They mix and match the designs. Our biggest challenge is that we cannot sanitise our products; we have a stock of thousands of designs. However, now, we will request our customers not to touch and feel the products.”
Sanjay further said, “Our season starts in March, before Ramadan, and ends after Eid al Adha. It is an annual business cycle. Now for sure, we will be sitting idle without business because we lost out during our prime business period. With old stocks in shop, payments due to suppliers, salaries pending, and the grim prospect of facing our landlords too, we do not know what to expect but are hopeful that things will improve.”
Khalid Salah, Muscat Municipality officer in-charge of Muttrah Souq, said it was essential that the souq was made ready for business. “We have washed and sanitised all the lanes and fumigated the entire area, making the souq ready for operations. We have educated the shop owners about the COVID-19 guidelines, like wearing masks, keeping hands and shops sanitised, and maintaining the number of customers inside the shops. Kids are allowed to visit the souq but are not allowed to enter any shop. One good thing about the souq is that it is well ventilated. But we are taking all necessary measures and will be washing and fumigating the souq every night, after shops close.”
Majdy, a manager at Karadeniz Doner coffee shop at the corniche, said, “There is no point thinking of some relief from landlords about the rent because no landlord is willing to reduce the rent. For coffee shops at the corniche, most of the business is from cruise ships and other tourists visiting Muttrah souq. For sure, the business will take a couple of months to get back to normal but we are ready for any take-away business because dine-in is yet not allowed in restaurants in Muscat.”
Raid al Samsani and his friend were among the few customers who visited the souq. He was seen bargaining the price of a kumma (omani cap) in a shop. He said, “We heard the news of the opening of the souq last night and came along to buy a few items.”
Assad al Wahaibi, another visitor, came with his spouse to buy gold at the souq. He said, “Gold at Muttrah Souq is very good because the price is competitive and some designs are only available here. We waited for five months for the souq to open to make purchases.”
Sam Soliman of Al Naseem United Jewellers said, “We are very happy because we were allowed to open our business after five months. It was very challenging to stay at home for months. Customers need not fear as we are sanitising all our jewellery.”
(Text and photos by Syed Fasiuddin)