Agoracom Blog

Oman Is Like a Flawless Topaz Hidden Under the Gaudy Jewel Box of the Emirates

Posted by AGORACOM-JC at 12:02 PM on Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

The thinking person’s Dubai

Wadi Bani Khalid, 203 km from Muscat. Photo: 123Rf

Clad in the blazing oranges and yellows and turquoises of the desert, Bedouin women are shouting numbers at little boys leading camels around an enclosure. Grey-bearded men in long white robes and turbans are circling around the narrow streets of the small, dusty town, where camels are hitched to posts like horses in a cowboy movie. The women are wearing hawk-faced black masks over their faces—whitened, to protect them from the sun, and made vivid with eyeliner and mascara—so they might be countesses just emerging from a Venetian costume ball. This Thursday-morning camel auction has been taking place in the Omani town of Sinaw for centuries, but only recently can newly bought humped creatures be seen in the backs of Toyota pick-up trucks, being driven away together with watermelons, sacks of dates and clumps of grass.

Three hours later, I am being driven across great dunes of sand, stretching out as far as I can see in every direction. My guide Hilal zigzags across the emptiness till, gears grinding over whorled hilltops of sand, we see a small cluster of domed white tents far below. Pulling up at the Desert Nights Camp in Wahiba Sands, we’re met with glasses of chilled mango juice. Then I’m led across to my tent, the silence stretching all around. I find myself in a three-room suite with a mini-bar, air-conditioning and a highly welcome rainforest shower.

Unlike Arab Emirates

I suppose I’d been visiting Oman long enough not to be shocked by the rare mix of exoticism and extravagant comfort; for years now, the sultanate tucked between Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, has been at once remote and luxurious, full of adventure and strikingly safe. For many, it’s the thinking person’s Dubai—low-key and elegant, where its neighbour looks like the bastard child of Beverly Hills and Las Vegas. If you want malls, go to the city of Lamborghinis in the sand; if you want walls—a reserved, mysterious and protected place that invites you into centuries of sophistication—head to Oman. With a population a fifth of Mumbai’s scattered across a country larger than Britain, it’s like the flawless topaz hidden under the gaudy jewel box of the emirates.

As soon as Sultan Qaboos bin Said, now 70, came to power in 1970, he decided to proceed with the care and caution demonstrated even today by local drivers on their largely empty roads. Learning from the mistakes of other oil-rich states and determined not to lose the old and the distinct, even as he brought much-needed modernity to his land, he slowly fashioned a tasteful, bespoke, understated version of Arabia that did not aim to erase tradition so much as to heighten and clarify it with the help of the new.

As late as the 1960s, there were exactly three schools, two hospitals and nine kilometres of sealed roads in all of Oman; the sultan of the time, the current ruler’s father, had retreated to his palace in the southern city of Salalah, banned sunglasses and radios, and even locked the doors of Old Muscat at night in an effort to preserve his nation. Now, Muscat has opened up—and all its buildings are white, or painted pastel colours, constructed in traditional style and less than nine storeys high. The result is a city that looks like a bone-white vision of a fairy-tale Arabia, even as it now has an opera house, a new airport under construction and fresh hotels coming up.

“Ladies here in Oman work—and drive,” Hilal told me as we passed the palaces of Old Muscat. “Not like Saudi Arabia.” Sultan Qaboos realised that oil would be gone soon, so he encouraged his people to engage with the modern world, and fashion lives that would not run out when the oil did. “Here in Oman, the taxi drivers are Omani,” Hilal continued, with unfeigned pride. “The construction workers are Omani. Seventy-five percent of the population is Omani. Only we have tailors, foreigners. Laundry. Hairdressing…” The contrast with the other emirates did not need to be spelled out.

I’d visited Oman before and savoured the misty, even mystical monsoon season, the khareef, in the south, which turns the Dhofar region into a cool, green sanctuary for Arabs from across the peninsula. Less than three hours by daily flight from Mumbai, with beaches more unspoiled than Thailand’s, forts as glamorous as Rajasthan’s, and deserts and mountains as spectacular as anything you’d see in Australia or the American West, Oman struck me as a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Now, returning 10 years on, I thought I’d spend a week travelling around the north to see what kind of pleasures might await a visitor today. The rare place of deep foreignness, where no shopkeeper hassles you and taxi drivers patiently count out their notes in your palm to make sure they’re not short-changing you, Oman continues somehow to open its doors to everyone without ever quite losing its soul. The only challenge is to see it before the rest of the world gets in on the secret.

A Shangri-La in the sands

Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa

Al-Waha hotel at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa.

I based myself on this trip at the Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, tucked behind dramatic limestone cliffs and around a private beach a few miles outside of Muscat. Taking over a largely forgotten bay at Bandar Jissah, the Shangri-La came up with the idea of opening three separate properties, linked at the core: al-Waha, aimed at families (complete with its own souq, amphitheatre and archaeological site); al-Husn, a sumptuous ‘six-star’, adults-only castle; and, in the middle, the more businesslike al-Bandar. All three have 17 restaurants scattered across them. But those staying in al-Husn, as I did, can enjoy a stately afternoon tea in a palatial courtyard while families with kids can romp around a river and an Omani Heritage Village not far away.

Within 10 hours of arriving in the country, I was out on the water, watching schools of dolphins flourishing through the air, five of them knifing through the waves like synchronised swimmers and 30 in all, on every side of our little vessel, cresting over the blue-green bay. Oman has long been home to some of the world’s most accomplished sailors; Sindbad was said to have come from here, and between the 18th and 19th centuries, its navies had brought parts of Pakistan, Zanzibar and Kenya under Omani control. As a sweet-smiling teenager from Oman’s shipbuilding capital of Sur piloted us through the water, the stony, sand-coloured landscape of the interior was broken up by green waters and headlands, red and golden in the sun.

The old town of Muscat, 15 minutes away by car, is most notable for its calm: if you walk through the small souq in the Muttrah area, you will hear none of the clamour of Istanbul or Old Delhi. And when you are finished at the Bait Al Zubair museum, you can look at the nearby sultans’ palaces and government offices—as stately and pristine as when they were built. One of the grand pleasures of Muscat is walking along the corniche in the dusk—spotlit castles above you and hilltop restaurants such as the Mumtaz Mahal waiting to impress.

Driving through

Grand Mosque, Oman.

The Grand Mosque. Photo: 123Rf
The next morning, Hilal and I drove a little out of town to visit the Grand Mosque, completed in 2001, and one of the largest Muslim houses of prayer in the world. A group of pilgrims from Thailand had arrived just as we did, and we walked together in silence under eight-tonne chandeliers from Austria, over the 21-tonne carpet handwoven by 600 women in Isfahan, between its Indian sandstone walls and Carrara marble surfaces and the great ceilings made of Burma teak. It seemed at once lavish and deeply quiet, up-to-the-minute and full of practised devotion: Oman, you could say, in miniature.

Then, very quickly, we were off, into the depths of the country. We were bouncing for 90 minutes up a scrabbly, sandy path through the high mountains. On one side was a sheer drop, of a thousand feet or more; all around the Al Hajar range was a landscape of black mountains and buttes worthy of Arizona. At the end of the road loomed the country’s highest peak, the 9,000ft Jabal Shams, and Wadi Ghul, a stunning array of 3,000ft vertical cliffs and depths that Omanis call their Grand Canyon. I checked into a little stone house at the British-run Jebel Shams Resort and heard nothing but silence for the next many hours. That sense of quiet is one of the singular blessings of Oman still, and even as the Arab world was experiencing convulsions this spring, Oman was barely disturbed.

Set, like most of Oman’s 500 forts, above an oasis, the Jabrin Castle, a 17th-century centre of learning, is a complex of courtyards, hidden rooms, twisting staircases, a constantly evolving study in light and shade. In one corner was a breeze-softened library—in another, the castle’s jails and holes, through which hot date oil might be poured upon invaders. Jabrin was a reminder of Oman’s exquisite beauty and fierce sense of protectiveness, as it, at once, cultivates its inner treasures and remains on guard against invasion. I listened to the excited cries of a group of schoolgirls—all dressed in black abayas and white head-scarves—and watched a girl in an emerald gown tending to the date palms through the palace windows.

An hour or so later, we were in Nizwa Fort, home to a celebrated cattle auction every Friday morning (cows are brought 965km from Salalah in the south and sold for US$500 or Rs32,000s apiece). Not very far away was the Wadi Bani Khalid, where locals delightedly picnicked under pavilions and frolicked in deep green water pools. Whether passing the stunning new palaces that are schools and hospitals set up in remote areas or overtaking blue water trucks ferrying to villagers still living in spiky mountains, we saw how Oman seems to be concerned still with sustaining its own life and not turning itself into something else—a modern Macau.

The climax of my tour came as Hilal and I drove six hours north of Muscat, passing through the United Arab Emirates en route and then—in the middle of a lunar landscape, all grey limestone valleys and emptiness—saw a small, almost invisible brown sign by the side of the road. We passed through a security post and then took a 5km, 15-minute drive along a narrow, unpaved path, up and over a mountain. At the top, suddenly, we saw a blue-green bay below with a traditional village on one side, and on the other, a set of structures that honoured the village’s architecture in a more lavish form.

When we arrived at the gorgeous Six Senses Zighy Bay resort, I was shown to my private villa, which (like all the 79 others here) came with its own plunge pool, own traditional Omani summer hut, its own outdoor and indoor showers, its own bathtub (this, in a country where water is famously scarce and in a resort where a swimming pool and a mile-long stretch of empty beach were less than a minute’s walk away). The Six Senses even has its own time-zone—one hour ahead of Oman time—so that you can watch the sun rise and set at an hour convenient for your sleeping.

The next day, a villager called Humeid took me out on the water to explore the secret bays and coves all around and then led me on a drive through the mega-stalagmites that are like mountains here, teaching me to read the landscape. (“This was a wild fox-trap,” he pointed out to a scatter of stones. “That was where black Omani honey was made,” he motioned.) We looked out on a vast landscape of rocks. “How many villages are here?” he asked. I could see none. “Seven,” he said and pointed out one stone house camouflaged on a cliff and another designed to fade into the background.

We drove up to a lonely hut on top of a peak and went in for some coffee and halwa with an old man who lived alone here. “He never married?” I asked. “No,” said Humeid. “He likes just to live with his goats. With the silence. Watching the mountains, thinking about God.” The man, toothless, smiled at me and begged me to eat more. Alone, at the top of the mountain, surveying a huge landscape of emptiness and silence, I had arrived at Oman’s Oman, the still point at the centre of one of the most untouched and stirring places I have seen.


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