Muscat's historic Muttrah Souq springs back to life after 150-day coronavirus hiatus

Retailers were cautious but pleased to see the crowds returning to the 200-year-old market

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One of Oman's oldest souqs thronged with shoppers on Tuesday after 150 days without trade due to coronavirus restrictions.

Muttrah Souq in Oman's capital Muscat is a major tourist attraction and a key stop for cruise ships travelling the Arabian Gulf, but was forced to close as the country went into lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.

But on Tuesday, the government sanctioned the start of Oman's fifth stage of lockdown, allowing restaurants and coffee shops, among other retail traders, to open up.

Traditional markets saw the most footfall, as shopkeepers reported being overwhelmed with shoppers.

Residents say long lines of cars on the roads leading to the seafront town of Muttrah were battling it out with taxis for parking space.

“I have never seen long queues of cars in Muscat like we see today," Asfiya Kheir, a Pakistani resident of Muttrah, said.

"It started from nine in the morning and they are still there trying to get into the Muttrah souq. It seems everyone wants to be here after many weeks of lockdown."

Muttrah Souq was first built in the 1820s by the reigning Sultan Said bin Sultan. Indian traders were the first retailers in the market. Today, the market is still dominated by Indian shopkeepers, though other nationalities own some businesses, including Omanis.

In the modern-day souq, retailers wore broad smiles as the cash tills kept ringing. Shoppers snapped up bargains from food and ornaments to jewellery.

“Everything is cheap now on the first day, something like half price. It's amazing but we have to push each other out of the way to get in the shops,” Khadija Suleiman, an Omani shopper, said.

Police were on the lookout, residents say, but did not interfere, just happy to see shoppers wearing masks and behaving responsibly.

Retailers estimated at least 5,000 people thronged Muttrah’s seemingly endless and winding narrow streets, popping in and out of shops. But with the numbers came concerns about the further spread of the coronavirus – Oman confirmed 188 cases on Wednesday, bringing its total to 83,606.

“Yes, it's good for the business but we are worried about catching something though everybody is wearing a mask. You never know,” said Khalid Battashi, a dry food retailer.