Borders Oh Man! United Arab Emirates to Oman - And Back: Notes From a Border

February 1, 2018
By Beth Simmons | Borders and Boundaries Project, Perry World House

Only five roads link the UAE with Oman, its neighbor to the south and east, to form official border crossings. If you are an ‘ex pat’ in a private car, that’s even a little deceiving, because there are only two you can actually use. And it’s a little tricky to find that out, because things seems a bit in flux at the two nations’ border crossings. While both states have invested heavily in their capacities to control their borders, the rules for crossing are in transition, and becoming more regulated. Even a call ahead from a travel agent in Abu Dhabi got the wrong information, and we were headed to Hatta (Dubai; the busiest of the UAE-Oman border crossings), where as of January 1, 2018, only locals were allowed to cross. We turned back from the route to Hatta (fortunately, since we would have found it closed to us), and next tried the crossing at Hili/Buraimi, near the city of Al Ain UAE (map here). Nope. “You try Shakla,” we were advised. Our driver for the day turned to the south and then sharply to the east, and in about 20 kms, we were poised to try again, this time at the crossing at Khatm Al-Shikla.

Why the uncertainty and confusion over access to a border crossing? First, the UAE side: as the name says, the Arab Emirates are united, but they also have a great deal of independence to formulate policy. Apparently, Abu Dhabi operates a separate border system from Dubai and the other Emirates. So possibly there is a bit of slippage getting the word out to driving services and travel agents across the Emirates. Technology is also in flux: the two remaining crossings for passenger cars have automated vehicle scanning systems, so there may be reasons to funnel cars through two crossings, even though they are quite close together. Whatever the reason, we, like many others apparently, were (eventually) happy with our (constrained) choice. Google Maps users rate the crossing at Khatm Al-Shikla a glowing 4.5/5 stars.

At the UAE border post, we were stopped in several “layers.” Each of these layers was manned, and seemed to have a slightly different purpose. The first stop seemed to be cursory security. An armed security officer waved us on to the next layer located under the wide covered structure sheltering the immigration kiosks. Here our passports were collected and checked while we waited at the drive-up window. We had to pay a tax of about 30 dollars each to exit UAE – a price I did not pay when departing the airport. Crossing did not take long. The driver did the discussion, and it was not in English. (The driver was Pakistani, and spoke some Arabic and English.) Passports were stamped for exit. Ka-thump! What a reassuring sound. We then drove on to the last layer, where another guard had a look at us and waved us on.

One important fact: photos were not allowed at or near any of the border crossings. Wanting to return to the USA in two days, I was very cautious about taking pictures. Most pictures were taken from the back seat of the (often moving) car.

The infrastructure on the Oman side is under massive development. We met and were waived on by an armed (military?) guard. He did not collect passports, smiled and just said "Welcome to Oman." But to the right, a new infrastructure for border control was nearing completion. This is a massive complex with architecturally thoughtful buildings, permanent awnings for shade, and ample parking and inspection areas. It did not look finished, but looked like it would be soon. 

Why was the Oman entry at the border almost without a stop? Because we were stopped about 25 kms into Oman at a very major facility, where we again met “layered” check-points. At the first check-point, a guard asked for passports, and directed us to exit the car and go into a large domed waiting area to pay the entry tax of 15 Omani Rials, or about $40 per person. This facility was nice inside, something like a welcome center, with fake plants, bathrooms, pamphlets for tourists, a small prayer room, and a place to purchase the mandatory car insurance to drive in Oman, ($16 for three days of coverage). The stop took about 20 minutes. We were unquestioningly granted 30-day tourist visas. Returning to the car, we had one last check point on the way out of the complex, which didn't involve looking at any documents, and drove on through the sparsely settled, dry, rugged region between the Khatm Al-Shikla crossing and the Omani coast. Small fortifications – watch towers from an earlier era – could occasionally be seen from the road.We drove to the coast and had lunch in Sohar (below), then came back and did the entries and exits in reverse. This time no money was involved; both states collect only one-way (upon departure from UAE and upon entry into Oman). We did not have to exit the car at the "border" control (the one internal to Oman) but did upon entry into the UAE. We entered a medium-sized very simple passport check area. There were perhaps 15-20 people, mostly men but a few women. We were the only westerners. I thought it would take a long time to process through, but they waved us forward, stamped our passports for entry, and we were back in the car within 10 minutes.  The agent again granted us 30 day tourist visas, again without any questions about the purpose of our visit. We were stopped again at the outer checkpoint for the final look, and then reentered the UAE. 

This border area between UAE and Oman did not look very commercial. Mostly sedans and small vehicles were in the area. I do not recall seeing anything that looked like a large semi-truck. (We did see commercial traffic at Hili, the original crossing we tried but were denied crossing.) Al Shakla seems to be the crossing for non-local, non-commercial traffic, at least at this point, but that could change with the new structure under construction on the Oman side. Oman border control look like they are gearing up for serious commercial traffic inspections.

It also looks like Oman is preparing to shift its "gray area" between the border and the internal passport check we processed through. They appear to be moving operations from the interior to the actual international border. The gray zone between the border and the internal check point has undergone a good deal of recent development. In particular we saw what looked like shopping areas (retail? wholesale?) with "CHINA" (yes, in English) on the front, but we could not tell for sure whether these were Chinese owned. A new college campus had been built (University of Buhaimi); not too large, very modern and right along the road. None of this "gray area" in Oman looks terribly busy, but it does appear to be changing rapidly.

Both the UAE and the Omani border crossing zones were devoid of nearby commerce. There were no shops, street vendors, or border businesses that I could see on either side. In the vicinity, a chain link border fence about 10 feet high with barbed wire on top edged a neighborhood of small residential structures along the Omani side of that fence. There was not much but a nice big traffic circle with irrigated petunias leading up to the border crossing on the UAE side. “Hello, welcome to the UAE,” they indicated. We have the capacity to scan your car and make the desert bloom.