It was the middle of December, we’d returned from a week’s break in Oman and it was time to reflect a little. Here’s what I wrote for the group which got together at last year’s writing class and which continues us to meet so that we have an excuse, nay an obligation, to keep writing.
It’s good to be away at this time of year because you’re spared some of the worst excesses of the commercial run-up to Xmas in the UK. It’s especially good that this can be in a place like Oman where you can be guaranteed sunshine and temperatures in the upper 20s compared to single digits and below back home.
Oman is in what we now call the Middle East. It’s a long country bordered to a large extent by mountains on the one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. In political terms its neighbours are Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates and it’s different from all of them. It’s enjoyed nearly 50 years of stability since the current Sultan took power and during this time the country has developed an identity which eschews the ostentation of the emirates, is conservative but tolerant of other faiths, and appears to be at ease with itself.
First impressions count of course and as you fly in to a country for the first time it’s the airport and its environs. There’s a new terminal at Muscat International Airport and it’s unsurprisingly spacious and modern. And empty. And as we drive away there’s lots of grass and it’s manicured like the fairways at Augusta.
We’re soon out of the city and it’s good roads with rocky desert on either side. It’s a pattern that’s going to repeat because the government has invested in connecting its communities; but it’s not just roads it’s motorways as well. It’s difficult to imagine where the traffic’s going to come from to fill them but they’re being built nonetheless.
Because it’s largely desert Oman is a bit like a country undressed. You get to see the geology and geomorphology and specifically the bedding plains that are the source of the region’s oil wealth. But there’s been more than just sedimentation. There’s also been the tectonic plate activity that has forced up the mountains so what were flat strata get elevated and twisted and deliver dramatic striped rock formations which are readily visible from the road.
Up in the mountains it’s something else. We spent a night at the View close to the Jamal Shams mountains which reach 3000m. The View does what it says on the can, the view is stunning and there’s an infinity pool which makes you think you’re swimming off the edge of the world.
On the road we see towns and villages and odd developments in the middle of nowhere with what the Americans call strip malls and a handful of houses. It looks like Napoleon’s nation of shopkeepers has moved here because everywhere you see small shops and a pattern repeats itself: a tyre depot, a food store, a barber’s shop, gentlemen’s and ladies’ outfitters and a small restaurant. Of course there’s little evidence of any high street names and each business simply tells you what it does and the name of the person doing it.
We also see multiple and substantial police stations. There seems to be one outside every town. One of our number asks why they are needed when there’s so little crime. Maybe that’s confusing cause and effect. Isn’t it just a case of so little crime because of such a police presence?
We visited the fish and vegetable markets in Muscat and enjoyed a fresh fruit stall outside Salalah and saw an abundance of produce. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a restaurant culture to exploit this. Although we visited many restaurants on the road the offering rarely extended beyond chicken biryani. You don’t got to Oman for the food.
So what do you go for? The tour was named ‘forts and frankincense’ but before we got to them we were introduced to Omani dates. Oman is serious about dates. The date palm is the number one tree and dates are a significant part of the Omani diet. There are multiple varieties and each of these can be flavoured with any one or more of a range of spices. Dates in Oman are not just a matter of a box at Christmas time and their importance goes beyond nutrition. The date is an important part of the Omani coffee ritual. Dates are offered before guests are served with Oman’s unique cardamom flavoured coffee.
There are many forts in Oman and they are an integral part of the country’s tourism offering. They are in really good condition and you might think they’re in too good condition because they’ve been restored to the extent that they must look now like they did when they were first built. That means they tell a story but the purists would argue that they are no longer historical when they’ve been fully restored. In fact there’s the remains of the wealthy port at Sumhuram which were in danger of losing their UNESCO status because of the Omanis’ enthusiasm for renovation.
Finally: what’s the fuss about frankincense? It’s the resin of an old scraggy tree and it’s used in perfumery and aromatherapy. In the souq at Salalah there’s dozens of stores selling ‘incense and perfurmes’ where the monochrome of frankincense is cheered up by the green of henna and the red/brown of myrrh. It was frankincense which underpinned the wealth of Sumhuram.
Oman reminds me of Singapore, especially the one of the 1970s when I first visited. That had a strong ruler, a benevolent dictator in Lee Kuan Yu, who focussed on health and education and drove the country to improve its living standards. Sultan Qabuus is similar and has overseen, in addition to the building of the road network, the development of high standards of hygiene and cleanliness, you feel you can eat off the floor, and the provision of universal education right through to university.
The sultan is in his 80s and has had cancer. He’s ruled the country for almost 50 years. He’s unmarried so has no obvious heir but anyway the norm in Obadi Islam which is prevalent in Oman is for the new sultan to be chosen by communal concensus and consent. It is said that the sultan’s successor is already known and will be revealed within three days of his death. You’ve just got to hope that the transition goes smoothly. There are too many precedents of strong rulers leaving a power vacuum which doesn’t have a happy ending.
But that’s enough geopolitics. The Sultan has fashioned a country which contrasts pleasantly with its neighbours, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It somehow balances the conservatism of Islam with a tolerance that accepts outsiders and allows them bacon with their eggs and a glass of wine. It also balances the rights and needs of the almost 50% of its population who are not defined as Omani but who underpin its economy. And it’s got a climate which makes it a great place to visit during the European winter.