Oman - Under the Desert Sun in Arabia Felix

A long coastline on the Arabian Sea, open to localized windswell and long-period Indian Ocean groundswell, made Oman a perfect choice for a surfEXPLORE project in Arabia.

In contrast with its neighbors, the Sultanate of Oman is an oasis of peace and political stability.  There is little of the extreme tribalism of Somalia or the murderous religious and tribal differences of nearby Yemen, which have put those two countries in a perpetual state of civil war and made them ungovernable for decades.

Desert days in the Sultanate of Oman

For a generation or more, Oman has pursued infrastructure development, education and suppression of corruption along with a policy of close alignment with the west, first with the United Kingdom and later with the United States, keeping the country moving forward in social progress and economic development.

Driving through the desert with outdoor temperatures exceeding 40 degree Celsius

No one would call Oman a model democracy as the Sultan holds almost all political power in the country; but it has been well-governed, certainly much better than its neighbors and has successfully transitioned from a medieval country at the end of WWII to a modern country only seventy years later.

Muscat is a mix of the ancient and the modern, with jagged mountains behind the city

These facts along with a long coastline on the Arabian Sea, open to localized windswell and long-period Indian Ocean groundswell, made Oman a perfect choice for a surfEXPLORE project in Arabia.
Meeting the group in the ancient capital of Muscat, once a trading center for frankincense, myrrh, salt, coffee and gold, brought to market in trains of camels across the deserts of Arabia, Muscat is now a modern capital city with good transportation and communications infrastructure.

Oman is known as "Arabia Felix" or Happy Arabia, from decades of peace and political stability, unusual for a turbulent region

There are many vestiges of the past in modern Muscat, like the wonderful Muttrah Souk, a modern version of the ancient markets of Arabia. Muttrah Souk is where traditional commodities of the region like frankincense, gold and pearls are still sold in ancient stalls, sometimes by descendants of families who have been in the trade for ten or more generations, along with a vast variety of imported modern consumer goods from air conditioners to rice cookers.

On the ferry crossing from the mainland to Masirah Island

In a similar strategy to the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, Oman has a relatively small citizen population. The country has admitted large numbers of foreign workers to grow the economy, principally from south Asia with there being loads of people from India and Sri Lanka working on labor contracts in Oman.

The restored lighthouse in the dhow-building port city of Sur

Filipinos are also well represented in services as are Thais and Chinese in the construction labor sector. These foreign workers do not have the same rights as Omani citizens; far from it, but the jobs they hold and the money they earn in Oman is much better than what they can find in their home countries.

Masirah Island was a moonscape of sand and rocks, baking under a desert sun. Getting out to check the sand depth on the road, so we don't get stuck in the middle of nowhere.

One group that is noticeably absent are the Palestinans, as Oman prefers to have apolitical guest workers who do their jobs, earn their money and don’t cause problems.
We set out for the Arabian Sea coastline from Muscat on a series of very good and well-engineered roads through the barren desert, an environment so sparse and dry that even the camels struggled to survive. While we are not a big fan of car aircon it was necessary to use it, as outdoor temperatures in the midday sun were well over 40 degree Celsius. It was hot, very hot. Rolling down the window produced a blast of scalding hot air similar to a hair dryer on the max setting.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing off Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea

We were driving to meet the ferry for Masirah Island, a large offshore island in the Arabian Sea that we thought may have a number of good setups for waves. Masirah is positioned on the edge of the continental shelf with deeper bathymetry offshore, so we thought the surf should be more powerful than the waves on the mainland.

Sam Bleakley from the UK, surfing off Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea

We arrived somewhat late for the scheduled departure, but the ferry was still there and we were waved on, so we drove onto the metal vehicle deck and parked. Not too crowded and from the look of the people already on board, it was exclusively locals - no visitors at all, mostly merchants and shopkeepers from Masirah on restocking runs to the mainland. Were there restrictions on visiting Masirah we did not know about?

Zad Layson from Barbados, surfing off Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea

We had not read anything about Masirah being restricted to locals only, but we had read that there was a large air base that takes up most of the northern half of the island, the former RAF Masirah.
Since it had been returned from United Kingdom to Omani control in 1977, the base has been utilized extensively by the Americans, most recently as a CIA ‘Black Ops” station where terrorism suspects were brought for interrogation before being forwarded to detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Masirah Island had blue skies every day, rain is rare in this desert environment

We had no interest in the base nor what may (or may not) be taking place there, so we gave it a wide berth and focused our attention on the southern part of the island via a new and very good road following the coast and encircling the entire southern half of the island.

Zed Layson approaches a dhow shipwreck on Masirah Island

The road was intended to boost tourism to Masirah and made the surf exploration of Masirah possible, as without this new road along the coast, it would have been a long four-wheel drive slog over rocky ground and sand, just to get to the more promising setups we had marked on our charts and satellite images of the island.

There are numerous reef break setups on Masirah, mostly in the southern half of the island, easily accessible via the new road along the coast

Masirah gets plenty of swell from the Arabian Sea and over the next week we surfed some good quality beachbreak and several reef waves on the east side of the island, mostly in the southern end. Aside from a few fishing boats and the odd camel, the area is empty, with nothing but black basalt rocks and sand baking under the desert sun. There were no surfers at all.

Sam Bleakley from the UK, surfing off Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea

After a week of surfing the variety of waves on Masirah Island, we drove onto the ferry to return to the mainland. After making the short crossing, we set a course through the forbidding but spectacular dunes of the Wahiba Sands for a promising area in the north of Oman, the series of right point waves in the vicinity of Al-Ashkara, an ancient port and trading town on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

People and places in Oman, on the Arabian Sea

Emiliano Cataldi, making friends with a camel on Masirah Island. Camels will eat almost anything not metal or plastic and are able to survive in very harsh desert environments.

We quickly found a place to stay and Al-Ashkara proved to be a good choice, as it had several good right point setups. With a long-period groundswell in the forecast from storm activity in the higher latitudes of the Indian Ocean, we would soon find out what these points could do on a good swell.

Surfers walking through the dunes of the Wahiba Sands, a spectacular area on the coastline of Oman.

After the swell event started, we surfed a good right point at sunrise and as we were driving along the coast several kilometers inland, someone noticed a big splash of water in the direction of the ocean.
“Whoa. Dude. What’s that?”

The hollow right-hander off "Whale Rock" we first saw from the road

We quickly found a dirt track that led to the beach where there was a huge rock on the shoreline, which we later learned was named “Whale Rock”, as it roughly resembled the shape of a whale.

One of the better waves in Arabia Felix, the sand point at "Whale Rock"

On the corner, where the current was pushing sand into a long sandbar, was a fast and hollow righthander. The swell would smash into the rock, which was the splash we saw from the road, then break down the sandbar to the beach.

Walking in the dunes of the Wahiba Sands

We wasted no time in getting out to surf it, returning to the spot for several days as it was one of the best waves in the Al-Ashkara area and great to photograph.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing at Whale Rock in the Arabian Sea

One of the interesting things about the Al-Ashkara area is the prolific sea life, including massive whale vertebrae scattered on the beaches from dead whales, huge numbers of fish and plenty of sea turtles. Every morning, there would be fresh turtle tracks on the sand, where female sea turtles had come ashore at night to dig a nest and lay a clutch of eggs.

Surfers at sunset in the Al-Ashkara region of Oman

Sam Bleakley, surfing the fast and hollow right-hander at Whale Rock in the Arabian Sea

Fortunately for the turtles, locals did not show any interest in gathering the eggs or harvesting the turtles for food or for their shells, which probably accounts for the number of turtles still alive and reproducing in this area.

Right point setup in the Al-Ashkara area, there are so many fish in the Arabian Sea they show up in the waves

In other places of course, turtle eggs are considered a delicacy and a powerful aphrodisiac with the adult turtles killed by the millions for meat and shells. Not so in Oman, so if you like turtles and want to see them in person, this is a good place to do that as there are many turtles and few “turtle tourists”, crowds of whom have become a nuisance in over-touristed places like Hawaii and Costa Rica.

Sam Bleakley, surfing a right point setup in the Arabian Sea

Shoreline lagoon in the Al-Ashkara area, where there are turtle tracks every morning in the egg-laying season

After several weeks in the Sultanate, we could see why Oman is a rare success story in a region wracked by conflict and perpetual warfare. It has great infrastructure, is relatively corruption-free and Omani citizens and non-citizen residents enjoy civil liberties not common in the region, thus ensuring a bright future for the visitor industry in Oman.

With many right points in the Al-Ashkara area, with a significant swell you can have your choice of waves

The large number of surf spots and empty waves on Masirah Island and other areas ensure a continuation of its status as a welcoming country for surfers from around the world.

Zed Layson, surfing off Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea

Text © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE
Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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