My colleague, Eleanor, is recently back from Oman. Here she shares her impresssions of the country plus some tips to keep you out of trouble while abroad! Best wishes, Mark.
My most recent trip took me to Oman and its coastal capital city, Muscat. Once the three separate towns of Muscat, Muttrah and Ruwi, today’s city is a large but calm metropolis with a staggeringly high expat population: 62% as of March 2014. The influence of this sizeable international community is very clear, with a multitude of global brands available in the shopping malls, an influx of Starbucks and Costa outlets and restaurants serving all manner of cuisine from Indian to Lebanese to American. English is widely spoken and, though it is a Muslim country, pork and alcohol are available for non-Muslims to buy in specialised shops. With a good economy, over 1,700 km of largely protected coastline (fishing is one of Oman’s major economic activities), a hot and sunny climate and one of the world’s lowest population densities (an estimated 13.1 people per km²) providing a general feel of spaciousness, I could see why expat life in Muscat might be so popular.
Sunshine and sea views aside, I found that the welcoming nature of people living there made Oman a very pleasant country to visit – I encountered much friendliness and a warm attitude towards strangers from both Omanis and expats. I was interested to learn just before I went that it is actually illegal to display anger or even irritation in Oman, a law from which no-one is exempt and which may be difficult to adhere to in certain situations (while negotiating the busy roads, I was certainly occasionally tempted to display some frustration!). Anyone may file a complaint about a show of anger and punishments can include imprisonment. Although I can’t be sure to what extent the law is enforced, I didn’t witness any obvious displays of anger during my brief visit and on the whole the atmosphere seemed very relaxed and polite.
Learning about this law made me think about other countries in which unexpected regulations might be vital information for assignees, whether long- or short-term. Although certain cultural differences are often well-publicised, particularly those relating to business or social situations, many countries enforce lesser-known local or national laws which apply to visitors, expats and citizens alike.
Displays of frustration may be against the law in Oman, but the Philippines takes a slightly different approach, making ‘unjust vexation’ of someone a punishable offence. Obviously, both of these crimes are somewhat difficult to quantify; more easily defined and accidentally contravened, however, are laws such as the prohibition of chewing gum on public transport in Singapore, or sitting on public steps or eating near a church in Florence, Italy. Shopping can be a hazardous experience in countries as diverse as Indonesia and France which have seen – or smelled – fit to ban durian fruit and epoisses cheese, respectively, from public transport due to their incredibly strong odours. And if you’re living in an apartment in Switzerland, take care to check your building’s regulations on noise restrictions: anything from mowing the lawn on a Sunday to flushing the toilet after 10pm can be considered an offence.
While I was in Oman I tried to follow local customs and wear clothes that covered my shoulders and legs, although it is a very tolerant country and I saw plenty of people wearing more revealing Western-style clothing. There is no punishment for displaying skin (though it might be frowned upon and isn’t permitted in and around mosques or religious buildings), but in some countries clothing style can be dictated by the law. For example, leaving camouflage clothing at home is a must if going to the Caribbean, as this pattern is reserved exclusively for police and military uniforms and the ‘impersonation’ of one of these officials, intended or not, could result in a hefty fine.
Other countries have import restrictions somewhat outside the norm: no items related to a religion other than Islam are permitted in the Maldives, if you’re going to Nigeria you’ll have to abandon your bottles of mineral water on the plane, and Japan outlaws some basic cold and flu medications commonly available in other countries – something which travellers might consider essential given Japan’s chilly winter temperatures. Customs restrictions don’t stop at imports, however: if you’re making a trip out of Ethiopia, remember to leave your local currency behind as taking more than 200 Birr (around US$10) out of the country is against the law.
I found that driving was the only way to get around Muscat – given the spread-out nature of the city, lack of pavements and strong sun, it’s impossible to walk anywhere. The roads were slightly daunting, however, given the high speed limits and tendency of taxi drivers to have phone calls or text whilst behind the wheel! Although in theory the rules about not using a mobile phone or drink-driving apply in many countries, they often aren’t enforced as strictly as they are in the West – but some other laws might be, making driving another potential legal hazard for an expat. Some less common prohibitions include driving shirtless in Thailand, making rude hand gestures in Croatia, owning a dirty car in Russia and not using the headlights during daylight in Scandinavia, due to shorter sunlit hours. The world’s most infamous road rules are in Saudi Arabia which is the only country to make it illegal for women to drive. And not just drivers but pedestrians can come a-cropper too. In several countries including Germany, the USA, Australia and China, fines are imposable for ‘jay-walking’ (crossing the road at an undesignated point or when the lights are red); in Britain, jay-walking is not illegal but, according to a 19th-century London law, carrying a plank of wood along the street is.
Of course, laws change all the time and the ones I’ve mentioned aren’t the most major of offences – just some of the more unique ones! Moving to a new country involves lots of preparation of which reading up on local laws and customs is just one important part. Cross-cultural training and orientation sessions are designed to deal with this and documents such as ECA’s Country Profiles can provide country-specific overviews that make a good starting point.
I’ll end with one of my favourite laws which is the advisory in Denmark that would have car drivers first check under their vehicle for any sleeping children. Though there doesn’t seem to be a punishment for not checking, it’s a nice piece of common sense and one that I’ll do my best to follow if I ever end up behind the wheel in Copenhagen!
Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.