Muttrah Souq to get vital safety upgrades

Muscat: Historic Muttrah Souq will have security guards and a revamped fire safety plan, allowing shopkeepers there to insure their businesses, officials have revealed.

Night security guards and a fire control system will be deployed in the 200-year-old market by early 2017, according to Dr Ibrahim Al Rahbi, Director General of Muscat Municipality at Greater Muttrah.

“We have floated the tender and we are expecting a fire control system to be installed three months from now,” Al Rahbi said.

This is a sigh of relief to some 1,000 shopkeepers who ply their trade inside the traditional marketplace. The Souq is one of the oldest markets in Oman and it attracts thousands of tourists every year. But shop-owners have been stuck in a limbo for years as insurance companies refuse to cover the shops citing lack of safety.

The Times of Oman reported earlier this year that brokers in Oman confirmed that the Souq is a major headache and that insurance companies are reluctant to provide cover. In February, a shop manager in Muttrah Souq lost goods worth OMR200,000 in a fire that engulfed his shop.

He said his firm was denied insurance and that many others like him are totally unprotected. But that is expected to change with plans to allocate security guards at night to watch over the place.

“A team of officials from different departments visited the Souq following the newspaper’s report to solve the problem,” Al Rahbi explained. In addition to safety updates, the municipality pledged to rebuild the rest rooms within the Souq and decorate the entire market in a major makeover.

Al Rahbi also added that a tourist kiosk will be placed near the entrance so visitors can get maps and information about the historic attraction.

“It will be supervised by Muscat Municipality and the Ministry of Tourism and it will be located near the taxi stop overlooking the sea,” Al Rahbi said. Mohammed Ashraf, a shopkeeper in Muttrah Souq for the last 20 years, welcomed the news.

“It’s a good move. Recently, there were many fire accidents in the Souq. The authorities do monthly checking at shops and stores. They instruct us to adopt all kind of safety measures to avoid fire accidents. In addition to that, if they are coming up with a proper and advanced fire safety mechanism, then it is a welcome move,” Ashraf added.

Mohammed Navas, who has run five garment shops in the Souq for the last 20 years, said that night guards are a must.

“We know that many troublemakers are using the Souq premises late in the night. It’s a welcome move to have night guards,” Navas said. “We would like to thank the government in advance for the move to provide night guards in the Souq to protect our businesses,” he added.

In August, a gang robbed 37kgs of gold worth OMR1.4m from a jewellery shop in the Souq.

The investigation, by a squad of detectives within the Royal Oman Police Directorate General of Inquiries and Investigations, involved Interpol to catch suspects attempting to flee by sea and by air. Two of those arrested were taken off an international flight as it was about to leave Muscat International Airport.

Others were caught trying to flee by sea. Officers had to spend more than six weeks tracking movements of vehicles used by the gang and discovered that on the night of the heist they drove a car full of 37kg of gold straight past the Royal Palace.

Muttrah Souq is a prototype of old Eastern markets, characterised by narrow winding alleys roofed with wood.

This Souq goes by another name among the Omanis: the Market of Darkness, due to its myriad of alleys and roads lined by shops that block the sun during the day.