Oman: Bridging the Gulf

My previous experience with Gulf countries had been somewhat negative. While I loved the wealth and modernity offered in Qatar and the UAE, I quickly became disenchanted with their social stratification based mostly on nationality and race, their imported labour kept in slave-like conditions and what I perceived to be a lack of responsibility to anyone or anything outside of their borders. I was expecting Oman to be the same, but after spending time in the poverty and dirt of Ethiopia, I was in need of some first world pampering, no matter the uglier sides that might accompany it, so I booked a flight to nearby Oman.

I was thus quite surprised when my first 2 encounters with Omani citizens, in the visa and immigration booths at the airport at the ridiculous hour of 4:00AM, were so congenial. They were smiling, nice, the immigration officer even joking with me.when I mentioned I was heading to Salalah, in the south to which he said “it will be cold”, but when I pointed out I was from Canada, he retorted “for you it will be warm. Welcome to Oman.”

Muscat:

In Qatar and the UAE, one of the irksome things had been my encounters with locals were limited to government officials and, in Qatar, museum personnel and shopkeepers in the local bazaar. All others were from somewhere else; cab drivers from Pakistan, hotel clerks from India, hotel managers from Eastern Europe, restaurant servers from the Philippines. Not so in Oman. Although my cab driver was from Pakistan, the hotel clerk was Omani, my tour drivers were Omani and my tour guide was Omani. They spoke English and were happy to talk to me about Oman.

And friendly. Deciding to take advantage of the good weather (about 25 degrees each day) and sidewalks (the latter sorely lacking in Ethiopia), my hotel shuttle dropped me at the main beach in Muscat, Qurum Beach, and I walked the 10 kilometres back to the hotel. All along the way, people, mostly men dressed in traditional white flowing robes called dishdasha, nodded or said “hello,” not in an harassing manner, just an amiable “welcome to my country” kind of way. They were all Omani – I learned to recognize them by the shorter tassels on the dishdashas. Emirates tassels are longer; Saudi Arabian dishdashas do not have them. Their use? Dabbed in perfume, after passing something malodorous, the tassel is brought to the nose to neutralize the stench.

Along the walk, I also enjoyed the Muscat architecture. Unlike other Gulf states, Oman has eschewed the skyscraper, preferring buildings reflecting traditional architecture – low rise, domes, white paint – but mud bricks have given way to concrete blocks. Its Royal Opera House is representative of the Omani style of building:

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The Royal Opera House

Muscat, of course, contains mosques, seemingly on every other corner. The largest, the Sultan Qabos Mosque, is open to properly attired visitors (females must cover their hair, knees and wrists) in the morning;

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The Grand Sultan Qabos Mosque

Muttrah souk is a typical middle eastern bazaar containing the usual souvenir offerings: leather works, brass, pottery, spices. Across the road, the fish market sells the daily catch. Above is one of many forts guarding the water. A city tour also took me to a museum and the Sultan’s Palace; again pretty but fairly restrained:

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The Sultan’s Palace

Nizwa and the Desert:

Oman is all about geography. Muscat lies on the Indian Ocean, in the Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf/Gulf of Oman, a marine city enjoying rain, fishing and beaches, but it is flanked by the Hagar mountains, which provide a natural barrier to the Omani desert. It is a true desert but also a “wet desert” with monsoonal rains, plenty of oases and underground water rivers which the Omanis have cleverly exploited with a series of forts for centuries.

Numerous wadis, or desert swimming holes, are reachable from Muscat. Pretty though they looked, as my hotels all had heated swimming pools, I really didn’t see the point. More interesting to me were all the date tree groves sprouting everywhere. Our guide explained the importance of the trees: the tall date trees provide shade, both to people and to the lower banana and mango trees which, in turn, shelter wheat and barley crops. Dates have long provided Omanis with a sweetener, but was also a formidable weapon in times of war, when the date paste was boiled and dumped on attackers, immediately burning them.

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Date groves with 2 forts visible

Nizwa, the ancient capital in the desert, is today a modern city with a souk offering the usual goods and an ancient fort we didn’t visit on our day trip:

 

We did, however, visit and the Jabreen Castle, a few kilometers away. Built by the local Sultan made rich through trade, especially frankincense, in 1650, it was more a palace than a defensive structure. Today, it remains a beautiful example of 15th century Omani architecture:

Salalah:

After a few days of sightseeing, I felt in need of some rest and relaxation, so I boarded a flight for the resort town of Salalah. The town was lovely, not that I saw much of it beyond the airport and the resort. Aside from the stunning beach, its main attraction is its closeness to The Empty Quarter, a vast, desolate desert infamous for swallowing up ill-prepared travellers. These days, 4-wheel drive vehicles offer exciting forays across the sand dunes culminating in sundowners and beautiful sunsets. However, the cost starts at about US$500 for a day tour, I’m not into crazy rides on sand and I had seen great views of the Empty Quarter on the flight in, so I passed.

Oman was tipped to be one of the best places to see the final solar eclipse of the decade and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I mistakenly thought it was happening at 7:00 PM, which I thought odd since sunset was usually about 6:00PM. When I finally realized it was happening at 7:00AM, it was over and I had missed it.

Thus I spent most of my time in Salalah enjoying my resort’s lazy river, floating about in a giant tube reading and listening to podcasts.

Final thoughts:

Oman has all the wealth and modern amenities of its neighbors, but is more egalitarian and less dependent on foreign labour. Its buildings were a delight, blending desert architecture with Mediterranean whitewash and not a glass tower in sight. It has a long history, including ruling Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzinia for a while, and lots of forts from a variety of centuries. But mostly its people were kind and approachable, a welcome change from the other Gulf states I have visited.

Next: Tunisia