Yet Muscat Confidential has always received a lot of search hits and emails from people asking about homosexuality in Oman; Gay people thinking about coming here as residents or as tourists, or Omanis searching for gay hook-ups and somehow stumbling across Muscat Confidential.
Unfortunately, I’ve never really been able to answer their questions about what it’s like to be gay or a gay foreigner in Muscat, as I am heterosexual. This is not really an ‘open invitation’ situation in almost any country, and certainly not in Oman. Practicing homosexuality is illegal in Oman, and is against the instructions of pretty much all religions, including Islam. So information about homosexuality in Oman is pretty thin on the ground. I doubt we’ll be seeing any articles in the press about it either!
Making this aspect of human behaviour illegal does not stop people being born with a sexual attraction to the same gender however. And that includes Omanis, and our visitors from overseas.
Muscat Confidential is therefore proud to bring you an exclusive interview with someone who can give us some insights into the gay scene in The Sultanate. You will not be surprised to know that our correspondent chose to remain anonymous. You’ll have to take my word for it that he is a reliable and trustworthy source of information. That he is also extremely articulate, intelligent and refreshingly honest you will be able to discern for yourself.
The interview took place on a good friends’ extremely large yacht, over a glass of perfectly chilled Bollinger served by discrete staff in crisp whites, as the sun was setting over the beautiful islets of Bandar Khairan**.
Photo: Bandar Khiaran, near Muscat Oman, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
As the languid waters of the bay lapped against the side of the boat and Ms Dragon entertained herself with a novel sunbathing by the side of the pool, Undercover Dragon talked to our inside man, who we’ll call “The English Gentleman”.
Here’s what he had to say…
Muscat Confidential: Thank you for taking the time to share with my readers what it’s like to be living a gay lifestyle in The Sultanate of Oman. There's not really a lot of information out there.
The English Gentleman: Thanks for asking me about the experience of being a gay foreigner in Oman. I’m happy to pass on what I know, both for others thinking of living here and for those considering a visit. I should preface what follows by saying I’m talking entirely about men (I’m sure there are Omani lesbians, but I don’t have enough experience to talk with any knowledge), and as someone well past my ‘party years’, with a steady partner. I’ve lived a pretty quiet life here for the past six years.
MC: So – is there an Omani gay community?
TEG: First of all, I think you have to separate men in Oman who actively identify themselves as “gay” and men who are simply having sex with men. The first group is probably pretty small, and what we in the West think of as a “gay community” comes down to some fairly small groups of men, mostly in and around Muscat – more a set of sometimes intersecting sets of friends. To my knowledge, there are no formally organized LGBT groups (although times are changing, and who knows what some enterprising group of students might be up to), and there are no full-time, openly identified gay bars/restaurants/hangouts.
On the other hand, the second group [UD: e.g. men who like to have sex with men but don’t identify as being homosexual] seems to be pretty large, and there does seem to be a certain amount of (unspoken) consent within traditional society about male-male sex. Given the very limited mixing of the sexes, especially for young men, I guess that’s not surprising (teacher friends have told some very interesting stories about things they observe in their students – and this does seem to be one area in which the girls are keeping up). And then, too, there is a really interesting subculture of transvestism and gender-fluidity that doesn’t seem to have been studied too much (Wikipedia has an article on it – Khanith). I’ve been in a couple of traditional local bars at which groups of men in full makeup and partial or even full drag have shown up, and it’s seemed to be something that, at least in that context, is taken pretty matter-of-factly.
In recent years, we’ve met more and more Omanis who do actively identify as gay. Like many in the Arab world, most are very closeted, and many if not most end up married and living, sometimes very happily, what would seem to a Westerner like a double life: wife, kids, and family on one hand, and a social/sexual life with other men on the other. We do have some more “out” Omani friends, including one or two who’ve raised the issue with parents or siblings; they’re from more sophisticated families, and their experiences have been fair to very good.
Some have had experiences, personally and with family and friends, that reminds me of Western friends from very religious/conservative backgrounds. They’re conflicted by what they think their religion tells them and what they feel, and they got real problems about being both gay and religious. Some find their own way and stay quite devout, but many have more or less left religion behind and wish that their culture would open up and acknowledge that there have always been gay people here and let them find a more open place in the society. In a sense, it’s like local attitudes to alcohol – lots and lots of Omanis drink, but it’s still pretty totally taboo.
MC: Where do Gay men meet?
TEG: It’s not an exaggeration to say: everywhere. There might be some better known cruising spots, and as anywhere else in the world, bars are big (try the big hotels), but I’ve heard tales of foreign men meeting Omanis at malls, on the beach, and even in business settings. Omanis, from what friends tell me, often first meet online – the Internet is very, very important in the Arab gay community more widely, and Oman is no exception. I find it interesting that sites that Westerners think of as being entirely for hooking up for anonymous sex, Arabs are using to create online communities, of which sex is just a part along with longer-term friendships and the creation of networks of friends.
MC: Is Oman becoming a gay tourist destination?
TEG:That’s probably overselling it, but my friends and I agree that we seem to be seeing more identifiably gay tourists around. We had dinner at a very fancy hotel restaurant last fall, and it felt like it was us and about ten European gay couples. It makes sense – the country has beautiful beaches, an increasing number of “destination” resorts, and it’s being marketed as a hot new place to visit. Face it – if it’s going to become trendy, it’s the gays who will get here first, so it’s actually a positive sign for local tourism that they’re showing up!
MC: Would you recommend Oman as a place for gay men to come to?
TEG: It really depends what people are looking for. If one want lots of night life and a Mykonos/Fire Island kind of vacation, definitely not.
On the other hand, it’s a great place for people who want to see a traditional Arabic culture in a place with all the mod cons. I will say it’s an incredibly safe destination, on the whole – you’re not likely to run into the kind of predatory gigolos you might find in Morocco, Beirut, or Dubai. Omanis, straight or gay, are great hosts. Probably the best way to settle in, at least in the cooler months, is to find a nice beachside coffee shop, look open to conversation, and see what happens. One cultural stereotype that does kind of play into gay tourists’ favor is that some (many? Most?) Omani men seem to believe that all Western men are gay.
Some of my Omani friends actively look for foreign visitors, either online or at various touristy places, and some of them you’d probably think were gay (fit, Western dress, etc.). At the same time, I’ve had foreign friends visit who were genuinely shocked to be approached, sometimes very directly, by what they saw as very conservative, even slightly intimidating types (right down to the short dishdasha and long beard).
MC: Are there tourists coming here just for sex?
TEG: It does play a role, but I don’t see Oman turning into Thailand West; people come here because of perfect weather and an exotic, traditional, but generally tolerant, culture. That they might meet up with a local man or two is more of an added bonus, if it’s part of the equation at all. Most I’ve met have just been gay versions of the tourists Oman is marketing to: affluent, somewhat older, and cosmopolitan. That said, I’ve met a few, mostly pretty creepy, European guys who are just here to get under the dishdasha. But that happens in a lot of places, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
MC: What about arrests, hassles, or other pitfalls?
TEG: I honestly don’t think it’s something that the police get involved in. You can’t go around too flamboyantly, but that applies just as much to straight people. I had a slightly tipsy out-of-town acquaintance hit on a guy in a bar who turned out to be security, and he was firm but professional (“go home, now,” which was actually good advice). If you’re respectful, not running around in ridiculous clothes, and don’t go around just leaping on local men, you should be fine. Visiting friends have had Omani men visit them in their hotel rooms (something almost impossible in some parts of the region), and nobody I know has been scammed, blackmailed, or otherwise gotten into trouble.
Of course, Oman is still part of the real world, and I wouldn’t advise running off with someone who sent you a nice message on Manhunt or whatever without meeting up in public, making sure someone knows what you’re up to, etc.
MC: And what about living in Oman, long term?
TEG: Gay, straight, or anything else, you need to have a high tolerance for quiet – Muscat is a very nice city, and there are more and more places to eat, better shopping etc., but it’s still pretty provincial. The Symphony plays a few times a season, there might be a good film (censored) once or twice a month, we pop out to the pub occasionally, and that’s about it. We love our live here, but it’s what we’ve made it. Life outside the capital would be far more challenging on all fronts – I’ve known teachers in the interior who go pretty stir-crazy, or who spend most of their free time coming and going from Muscat.
But – and it’s a remarkable thing – I can honestly say I’ve never had a moment’s discomfort or unpleasantness about being gay in Oman. I work with both Omanis and foreigners, and I think most of my Omani colleagues understand our situation. I have one very traditional, conservative co-worker, and she’s very fond of my partner and always asks about him if he doesn’t drop by the office now and then. I don’t know what they say when I’m not around, of course, but I’ve felt less comfortable in a lot of places. You have to be thoughtful, and discreet, but it’s quite possible to live very comfortably here.
MC: What is your circle of friends like? What is your social life like?
TEG: We’re pretty varied – Omani, Western and Arab expats. My partner and I have learned enough Arabic to get by, so we tend to have United Nations sort of parties. One thing I really like about our friends here is how mixed we are – old and young, elite and not, thin, fat, tall, short, you name it. Probably most of the “out” people here are expat, with Westerners living pretty much as they would anywhere, along with expat Arabs from all over the Middle East, but (and I suspect this is as much about their home country culture as anything) with Lebanese predominating. I know comparatively few out Indian men given the size of their expat population, but that might be a class thing or might just be the reluctance of Arabs and Indians to socialise (meaning I’m not meeting them through my local contacts).
Our social life is far more diverse than most settings here, which I think is one of the things that our Omani friends like (they complain that Omanis only meet each other at family gatherings, on Eid visits, etc). Personally, I’ve always been impressed at how welcoming Arab gay men are, how comparatively un-obsessed with youth and beauty the way some Westerners can be. My friends are more likely to praise somebody by saying “he has a white heart” (qalbu ubyud) than “he’s hot.” That said, I have to admit: we have a lot of hot friends.
We have a lot of fun – we have house parties, we go out to coffee shops, and we do a lot of tour-guiding for visiting friends and friends-of-friends.
Once in a while I do miss living someplace like San Francisco, Sydney, or Amsterdam, where we could be wild and crazy and totally out. But then I think about how much I like our flat here, and how beautiful the average winter weekend is, and how little I miss the stress and pressure of big city life, and Oman seems pretty good. When you get too bored, Dubai’s a short drive away, and after a couple of days there I’m usually ready to come home.
MC: Thanks for the interview. I learnt a lot. I think people will be very interested in what you’ve shared. More champagne?
TEG: Jolly good idea!
**Not really, there was no yacht, obviously. I just made that part up. As you know, the Dragon doesn’t do meetings. But it just seemed to happen that way in my head. The interview was conducted by email.
Anyone - straight, gay or bi - having sex is strongly advised to read about protecting yourself and your partner(s) from harm, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. See Wikipedia - Safer Sex.