Tourism is a recent phenomenon in Oman. In fact, most of what one sees has been built less than thirty-eight years ago. In 1970, the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his insular father, Sultan Said in a bloodless coup, and opened the country to the world.
He deployed the oil money intelligently and thoughtfully, transforming the nation from an unknown entity with only six kilometres of roads, no schools or hospitals to speak of, to one of the richest nations in the world. Omani Arabs show none of the nouveau-riche traits of their neighbours. They are not self-important or arrogant. They are, instead, proud of their traditions and the intense beauty of their land. Realising that oil reserves are dwindling, they’ve diversified into industry and tourism. Mohammed al Shukairi, our guide, in his late fifties, feels fortunate to have witnessed his nation’s transformation. “If someone who died before 1970 were to come to life, he wouldn’t believe that this is Oman.”
Spotlessly clean, tastefully constructed and unfamiliar with crime, the cities of Oman, particularly Muscat are the paradigm of urban living. Sultan Qaboos is so against visual pollution, that even the air-conditioner vents in homes are covered in filigreed wooden covers. Replicas of pyramids, tallest towers, ski-slopes and resorts are not for Omanis. They’ve kept to vernacular Omani architectural styles and their elegant white building, detailed with arches and filigree-work, offset by the rugged mountains and turquoise waters are a heart-warming sight.
In Muscat, the Shangri-La resort at Barr-al-Jissah, beguiled us with its picturesque setting in a cove, protected by mountains of rubble that turn to gold ingots with the setting sun. We explored the three hotels and settled into Al Husn (The Castle). It had everything a sybarite would want — private beaches, swimming pools and a lazy river. A host of restaurants served world class cuisine as well as local favourites — balaleet (vermicelli with egg, onion and cinnamon) kusba (Omani biryani), kahwa (coffee) and halwa.
It is possible to drive through Oman’s vast wilderness over two weeks and come across a different landscape each day. The Musandam Peninsula in the northern tip of Araby’s boot is known for its stunning fjords and lagoons. Further south stretch the Wahiba Sands interspersed with wadis, oasis, small towns and Bedouin markets. The southernmost part of Oman is the monsoon-washed, lush area around the town of Salalah, famed for its ancient frankincense trees.