Unlike some of the more conservative Islamic kingdoms to the north, Oman has a relatively tolerant policy on alcohol. Foreigners can buy alcohol either at hotels and a few licensed bars, or, they can purchase it with a license at specialised alcohol stores. As there is a large university and a major air-base close to Rustaq, there is quite a sizeable expat population. Sadly, for those hardy souls who make their living in the desert sun, there is no bar. So, the only option in getting a drink is to either (a) take a trip to Muscat or Al Sawadi where there are hotels and bars that serve drink, or (b) to drive to the town of Barka about 70km away to buy alcohol and to then have parties back in Rustaq.
The first of these option is by far the more exciting. Unfortunately, it is also much more expensive when taxis, accommodation and the inflated prices at bars and hotels in Muscat are taken into account. Therefore, the second option is a popular fall-back. However, even though Oman is a tremendously relaxed and friendly place, throwing a party can be a little tricky. There are plenty of cultural issues that need to be kept in mind.
First of all, let me clarify the legal situation when it comes to alcohol. It is legal to buy alcohol, it is legal to drink alcohol and it is legal to carry alcohol. However, the situation is not so black and white. Along with legality, there are other factors to consider. Rustaq id a small town where news travels fast and judgements can be made easily. Therefore, the key issue is visibility. It is important to do things in secret to avoid causing offence to the local population. For example, carrying a slab of beer or a few bottles of wine in the back of your car is no problem. Walking down the street with that slab of beer and the situation is immensely different. The same is true of actually drinking alcohol. Were a foreigner to pop the cork of his or her wine on the middle of the street or crack open a can in the local park, there would be plenty of alarm.
Because of the above concerns, having a drink in Rustaq takes on a certain cloak and dagger feel. It is almost like a 1930s speak-easy. Rather than being located behind a large iron door down a dark alley, our speak-easy was actually pretty spectacular. One of the largest apartment blocks in town is populated almost exclusively by teachers. And, as Oman has almost no rain, has a very nice flat roof that doubles as a terrace. So, every week or so, we drag up some chairs and a cooler full of beer and open the speak-easy.
The location is spectacular because the elevated position gives a wonderful panorama of the town. To the north are a series of imposing hills whose dark silhouettes gradually blend into the night-sky and the evening progresses. To the south is the Rustaq Mosque, which is illuminated by giant spotlights, ensuring it dominates the panorama. Beyond the mosque, the desert stretches out into the wild unfettered distance.
The scenery is stunning. However, if I am honest, it is of secondary concern as the beer takes preference. A night at the speak-easy is usually great fun. It seems to have extra spark as there is the sense of doing something vaguely forbidden. The final challenge of any night on the hooch, though, is getting home. As I stated before, it is perfectly legal to drink. Public drunkenness on the other hand, is not taken very well. Therefore, when taking a taxi home, it is imperative to keep a straight face and not attract too much attention.