Muscat: Muttrah Municipality is cracking down on traders doing business inside the 200-year-old Souq by closing down shops and handing out fines, accusing their owners of making the tourist attraction look untidy.
Officials say they are enforcing a law which requires all the shops not to display any items outside. Muttrah Municipality argues that the law is aimed at bringing more order to the city, but some shopkeepers and tourists believe that it needs to be modified.
Times of Oman met with a municipality official, met salespeople, and spoke to tourists to learn about their opinion of the crackdown, even as a representative at the Municipal Council of Muscat Municipality said the law was subject to amendment like any other law.
Salim Al Kindi, the head of the Muttrah Municipality, said that the law, which requires the shops to keep all their stuff inside, is aimed at making the city look more "tidy" and "organised".
The different shapes and types of the items make these areas look "ugly," he said, adding that the number of tourists is increasing and thus efforts have to be stepped up to make the city look more beautiful.
"If you go to the capital areas in other countries, you rarely find such a phenomenon except in specific zones in the markets."
Al Kindi also sadi that there was nothing new in enforcement of this law and it has been stipulated in the Muscat Municipality's local order since a long time ago.
However, recently, shops were seen displaying too many of their wares outside, so the rule is being implemented more strictly, he said.
According to the official, an article in the local order reads that none of the shops which already have permission to do business in shopping markets are permitted under any circumstances to display any of their items outside the shops' limits.
No area or shop in Muscat has been exempted and it is a blanket rule, Al Kindi said.
"By displaying their items outside, they think that they are attracting customers, including tourists. It is some sort of marketing for their items. But they have a signboard which is registered and everything is there. It states what they are selling. So any customer will come to know what the shop is selling (by reading the signboard). He can enter and see (if the shop has) what he wants."
No one would like to see bargaining scenes outside the shops, he noted, adding that the decision has nothing to do with whether the pedestrians' path was being blocked or not.
Commenting on the process to deal with the shops that do not observe the law, the head of the Muttrah Municipality said that initially they would be given notices thrice and the final notice will be in the form of a letter ordering them to shut down the shop.
"We usually give them about three days. So if the shop (owner) does not respond, we go and close it as long as the owner or a salesman is available. At any time, they can close it.
Even when the municipality comes to close the shops, if they say 'Ok, we will take our items inside,' they will stop closing them," Al Kindi said.
He added that those who do not obey the law face a fine of not less than OMR25 and not more than OMR50, adding that they may also be sued.
Al Kindi noted that those who have a complaint and come to the municipality are treated well.
"We listen to them, but they also have to understand the law and should not insist on doing what they want."
He said that any law can be modified and suggestions can be made but the process has to go through higher authorities. "We are an executive department."
Those who think that the law should be revised can submit their request to the Municipal Council, he stated.
Contacted by the Times of Oman, Mahmood bin Abdulqader bin Mir Hadi Al Shahwarzi, a representative of Muttrah at the Municipal Council of Muscat Municipality, said, "The door for dialogue is always open.
"Every new idea and suggestion can be discussed, and everything can be modified. They can come and sit with us and discuss things."
'Beauty of old markets is in displaying the products outside'
Salesmen at shops facing Muttrah Corniche are not happy with the rule and say that the municipality's order has been negatively affecting their business and has taken the "spirit" out of the souq.
Ishtiaq Ahmed says that the number of his customers has decreased. "If you see our sales record for the last month, you will see we are doing nothing. It is as if we do not have a shop here," he says.
"I have been here for the past 14 years. It is the first time we are facing such a problem," adds Ishtiaq, whose shop was closed from 8:00 to 13:00 hours last week because of his failure to abide by the law.
"We are helping to bring foreign currency into the country," he says, arguing that the souq will not look attractive without items displayed outside the shops. "It is not looking nice. Our business is only from December until April end, and such a decision affects our business," he notes.
Ishtiaq also says that the way the authorities close the shops should be revised. "After two notices they closed my shop. It was the second time we paid a fine. Once I paid OMR30 and this time I paid OMR50," he says. "They should tell the worker to call the sponsor before closing it but they do not do that," he notes, adding that the closure of the shop undermines its reputation.
Jalal Tasnimi, who sells carpets, says that the beauty of old markets all over the world is in displaying the products outside.
"Wherever in the world you go, Istanbul, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, or Italy, they put their items outside. I have been here for the past 10 years. Since two or three months ago, we have been told to put our items inside."
The shops are not that large to accommodate all the items, he points out, adding, "We are also not blocking the way of the pedestrians."
According to him, there are more serious problems at the souq which should be addressed, including the drainage system, unhealthy foodstuff being used by some coffee shops, and broken spots in the pavement.
Tazul Islam, another shopkeeper, says that tourists are now less attracted to his shop.
And Aftab Ahmed Khan says that tourists, especially those who come by cruise ships, do not have much time to spend and just do window-shopping.
The shop where Abdul Rashid works was also closed for five hours last week and he paid a fine of OMR50.
"We are not making good deals," he explains.
Tourists advocate middle ground
Most of the tourists interviewed by Times of Oman outside the Muttrah Souq said that they prefer the items to be displayed outside the shops provided that a limit is set.
Madelene from the UK says she does not mind it if they put their stuff outside, provided that they do not block the pathway meant for the people. "It could draw customers in."
Her compatriot, Sarah believes that showcasing items outside the shops makes the souq more "humane".
It puts people off if nothing is outside, she notes. "If it was in a business centre, I would say no, but near the sea, it is fine."
However, Egon from Australia believes that no item should be put outside.
"We want to see the things, but we also want the street."
His wife Ita agrees that most of the pavement will be taken up by the shops if they display their wares outside. "It will not look tidy and beautiful."
Lida Perez from Spain says that most of the materials should be kept inside the store.
"Some shopkeepers put the whole shop out. A few things are okay."
But Ahinoam Perez disagrees with Lida and believes that she can feel the "spirit of the Omani culture" if she sees handicrafts and other antique items outside. "Tourists sometimes do not stop. Once we were driving and a carpet caught our eye, but we could not stop because we did not know whether it was what we wanted or not."
Xesca Sams from Spain also wants to see the wares outside. "It can give you an overview of the shop, and highlights the culture of Oman."