Oman's souq loses its 'heart and soul'

With the traditional souqs fast disappearing, traders and tour operators say the modernisation drive is taking a heavy toll on the tourism industry.

MUSCAT // The old souqs of Oman's towns and villages have long been the centre of traditional life here, but traders and tour guides say that the decline of the old markets is beginning to affect the country's vital tourism industry. At the souqs that do remain, the intricate fencing made from palm fronds has been replaced by ugly concrete walls, and plastic roofs covering the walkways.

The clatter of a silversmith's hammer, the noise of animals, the high-pitched voice of the auctioneer and the overpowering smells wafting from the spice stalls are but memories of the past. And so is the open-air "majlis" under the shade of date trees, where traders would gather for a coffee break, joined by regular customers. "The heart and soul of the souq is gone," Mahmood al Farsi, 83, a retired silversmith in the Muttrah souq in Muscat, said. "There is hardly anything Omani these days in the souqs, apart from the halwa and the daggers." He said even the Omani shopkeepers have been replaced by merchants from South Asian, and most of the stalls sell imported textiles, clothes and shoes.

Veronica Cummins, 72, a British tourist who first visited Oman in 1973, said the ambience of a typical souq 37 years ago was straight from the Arabian Nights story books. Now, she said, that has disappeared. "Then was a true romance for fans of Aladdin and Ali Baba in the Omani souqs those days. Long, flowing beards of old traders sitting in their shops, ladies in veils selling colourful woven mats, the smell of freshly brewed coffee given away with dates as a compliment to customers attracted visitors. Where has it gone and who to blame? This is what tourists come here for," Ms Cummins said.

Some may consider such romantic nostalgia condescending, but it also fuels a central part of the country's economy - tourism. According to the tourism ministry, Oman has received just more than a million tourists last year, mainly from Switzerland, Germany, Britain and Japan. Tourist guides said that most of the visitors had the souqs as one of their priorities. "About 90 per cent of European tourists insist on going to see a typical Omani souq. They have this picture in their minds of an old village square surrounded by old houses with the souq right in the middle," Suleiman al Harthy, a guide for the Muscat-based Desert Tours, said. "They are disappointed because such places have been replaced by concrete and red roof bricks, with expatriate shopkeepers serving customers."

From the early 1980s, the government started modernising the old souqs rather than renovating them said Malik Saleh, a historian based in Bahla in the Dakhliya region. "I can understand that the old souqs were crumbling but the repairs did not retain the old architectural values. It took away the essence of a town where a souq was the centre of life, driving the local economy," Mr Saleh said. Government officials disagreed with this assessment and said that the rise of the shopping malls took away business from a typical town's souq.

"When old traders retired, their children closed the shops in the souqs and moved them in to the malls. The empty shops had to be replaced by expatriates, and they started selling goods from their own countries," said Rashid Nabhan, retail supervisor of the general trading department in the commerce ministry. Although Omani economists acknowledge that a part of the country's trading heritage is disappearing, they say the decline in old forms of commerce is inevitable as business people needed to keep pace with the development of a modern economy.

"I am not [being] arrogant to say that old people live in the past, [and] I can be forgiven for saying that as villages turn into towns and cities, businesses expand with them. It is a matter of survival, and businesses must adapt to modern ways to stay afloat," Talal al Rashdi, 41, a Muscat-based senior business consultant for Capital Trade Services, said. Perhaps it is no small irony that some of the richest property developers were born in small towns and whose parents were themselves traders in the old souqs. But do they feel guilty to be involved in erasing their own history?

"In a way I do," Mohsin al Ansari, owner of Al-Ansari Property & Construction, said. "The old days of trading kept together the communities to solve each others' problems. But it is the age of competition, and growth is part of business endurance. The shopping malls I help build create employment, which is not the case with the souq."