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The Sultanate of Oman:
I am a cynic at times. Having spent much of my teenage school holidays travelling to visit my parents in Libya and Saudi Arabia I was determined not to be beguiled by the advertising slogan ‘Beauty has an address – Oman’.
So, why visit Oman? Well, of course I was curious and wanted to see how it compared with the Arab states I’d visited. Flying with Oman Air our journey was comfortable, the food good and there was even wifi and a usb charging point on the flight. Suprisingly for me we were offered wine with the meal too. The airport is modern and although there’s an entry visa process it took less than ten minutes to clear security. Once outside the airport the heat seemed overwhelming. It was of course partly down to the humidity – Muscat, the capital of Oman is on the coast. The car park was clean and so were the cars – it’s an offence to drive a dirty car in Oman and the streets are cleaned twice daily. And, everyone seemed to smile. Something quite different to my experience as a teenager in Saudi and Libya, when my perception was that local men either averted their eyes or leered.
First impressions are important and mine were good. I felt at ease and comfortable in the hotel, the impressive Hyatt Grand in the diplomatic area of Muscat and no less so when we went to find the hop-on hop-off bus (yes, an open topped double decker London bus). The tour around Muscat though really was only a teaser and we were all left wanting to spend more time exploring.
The Mutrah Souk, just of Shati Al-Qurm beach seemed relatively small to me after the souks in Riyadh and Tripoli. But perhaps that’s just memory playing tricks with my head. And, although there was a little lobbying from the shopkeepers, by and large we could explore freely. I managed to haggle, rather weakly, to get a pair of light cotton trousers for around £5 – something to ensure I had enough lightweight clothing for the rest of the trip.
The two key sites of the next morning are worth writing about in more detail and will form a separate post . The Royal Opera House was build by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said in 2011. A building with as much drama as the international Opera performances which take place there, the construction pays tribute to a heritage of Arabic architecture while using fine materials from around the world. Walls and floors are lined with Carrerra Marble while the lighting comes from Vienna. It took five years to build from 2007.
And, the Grand Mosque is an extensive and stunning tribute to Islam with five minarets representing the five pillars of the Islam faith and with prayer rooms for both men and women the Mosque is capable of accommodating a total of 20,000 worshipers (6,500 in the main prayer room). Once again this relatively recent building was only completed in 2001 and yet it is one with a timeless quality.
Unlike many capitals, the modern architecture in Muscat has for the most part been designed to fuse seamlessly with the old. From the 16th Century until the late 20th Century Old Muscat was a walled city with gates locked at sunset. Parts of the walls and moat together with four of the gates have been restored and you can stroll around the old city at leisure.
Yet there are areas where contemporary developments are taking place; We took a trip to ‘The Wave’ on the outskirts of Muscat, an ITC where foreign investors can own freehold property guaranteeing residency. And we learnt a little more about Sail Oman, an initiative supported by the Sultan to help reinstate the maritime eminence of Oman and its counterpart Sea Oman. Taking a trip on a Catamaran out into the Sea of Oman to watch the sunset is a great way to get a feel for the country. Catching barracuda and feasting on the freshest fish possible a money can’t buy experience. Our skipper told us happily that he catches anything from one to a dozen fish daily. When we asked what he did with all the fish he told us;
I look for the children playing by the harbour and find one of them who might be a little lonely. Then I ask him or her ‘who is the Sultan of Oman’. When the answer comes back ‘Sultan Quboos Bin Said’ I say ‘Congratulations, that’s the right answer – and your prize is this fish.
A great endorsement for what appears to be universal love and respect for the Sultan.
Later excursions to Nizwa reinforced that impression. The Sultan travels extensively throughout Oman, camping where necessary with a full entourage of guards and drivers. In the Souk proud sellers displayed pictures of themselves with the smiling leader. It was a suprising place where spices and fresh fruit and vegetables sat alongside shops full of weapons, both ancient and (relatively) modern.
It was in Nizwa that we had a chance to visit one of Oman’s principle heritage attractions. This country is scattered with defensive forts and the 17th Century fort here, built on top of a 9th Century castle has been carefully restored so that visitors can explore how the city was protected. The history of Oman goes back 5,000 years, with four existing Unesco heritage sites including the Fajal irrigations system and the Frankincense route and a further eight currently on the ‘Tentative list’. This is a country that is proud of its past where there is a strong commitment to preserving and making accessible the past.
Our all too brief stay just provided an insight into the diversity of this country. It’s just a little larger than the UK, but with a population of around four million people, including almost two million foreigners, there’s plenty of open space. In the South of the country coconuts and bananas grow in a tropical climate, whilst in the mountains to the North it can get cold enough to snow every few years. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to explore more of this stunning and welcoming country, it’s an Arab state where I really did feel welcome.
- Oman Air has daily non-stop flights to Muscat Oman from London.
- Rooms at the Five Star Ritz Carlton Al Bustan Palace start from around 155 rials a day rising to 350 rials, while the two bedroom presidential suites start at around 550 rials per day
- Rooms at the Five Star Grand Hyatt are around 155 rials per day, with suites from 250 rials
- Further information about investing in Oman is available from the Oman Ministry of Tourism
- Old Muscat Tourism provide drivers and guide services throughout Oman