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Old Muttrah Souq faces an identity crisis

16 Aug 2023 muttrah souq By HUBERT VAZ

Old Muttrah Souq is fast losing its identity as a traditional Omani Souq as an array of foreign goods have flooded its heritage lanes

Attractive canvas school bags, pretty nylon dresses for girls, colourful sport T-shirts, fabulous plastic toys, electronic devices and play-stations, dress materials, shoes, sunglasses… That’s Old Muttrah Souq for you these days!

Ahem! What about the traditional items? Yes, there are quite a few shops selling these, but what hits you in the face are goods from China, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, sold for a song.

A string of foreign tourists who frequent this popular souq, on lightning visits to the capital, have expressed skepticism about the eroding old world charm of this souq – they point out that it is now filled with stuff you see in supermarkets and shopping arcades elsewhere. Only some shops sell traditional goods – whether handicrafts, traditional jewellery and trinkets, incense, Arabian perfumes – the rest is what you’d not like to see in a traditional souq, they assert.

Originally, a popular hangout to purchase traditional goods as well as to socialise, the Old Muttrah Souq now sees less of its regular patrons who used to frequent it regularly, especially during Ramadan and other festive occasions. Tourist, too, take a quick round within the souq and leave as fast as possible as expatriate vendors hanging out in the lanes hound them with stuff they’d rather not buy.

“We came here to buy local Omani goods – luban, bukhoor, frankincense, and oud, spices, halwa,” said a German tourist in the souq last week. “But, it is sad to see foreign goods everywhere. Why would tourists come here to buy stuff that you get in your own country, and of better quality?”

Another French tourist commented, “It is fake, all the items I have seen here so far are not Omani. We know what a souq is supposed to have…the Moroccan souq sold real and authentic items. Here, all I can see around me are items from China, Bangladesh and Turkey, instead of Oman.”

According to an Omani vendor in the souq, “The business 20 years ago used to be great, but now, not so much.” He said, most tourists come for luban but they also buy the cheap Chinese goods that are sold there. “It hurts to see people now flock towards such products, as we don’t get the sales we used to.”

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Deeper into the heart of the market, another Indian shopkeeper who has been working at the store, owned by an Omani, said that the majority of the items they sell at the shop are Omani but they also sell products from Turkey. He said, most locals buy Turkish items, that’s why they sell them. He, however, asserted, “Tourists are always looking for genuine Omani items, to take them as mementos of their visit to Oman.”

Another shopkeeper from Dhofar said that the traditional souqs in Salalah have a lot more local stuff and the business there is very good compared to Muttrah Souq or Nizwa Souq. He works in a 200 year old shop in Muttrah Souq but admits that business has been on a steady decline for the past two decades.

Another Omani vendor, who sells all sorts of items from Singapore, Italy, India, China, Turkey and Oman, said the shop has been there since around 1983 but currently business is not doing well at all. When asked why he sells foreign goods along with Omani products, he said, “People like buying imported items, so we sell them. It is more profitable to sell these.”

While the souq still sees a flurry of activity during festive seasons as well as on weekends, especially if foreign tourist vessels are docked at Muttrah Port, the fact remains that the souq is fast losing popularity. What is needed is civic intervention to rid the souq of vendors selling foreign goods that take away from its traditional identity, say some residents who have stopped visiting the souq for years because of this reason.

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In demand

Traditional handicrafts/art

Imitation jewellery/pottery

Heritage furniture/table décor

Khanjars, walking sticks

Perfumes, frankincense/oud

Honey/spices/herbs

Omani attire (male/female)

Out of place

Electronic items/devices

Toys and play-stations

Footwear/garments

School bags/stationery

Sportswear/dress materials

Plastic/aluminium utensils

Imported toiletries/detergents

(With inputs from: Yukta Matai)

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