Monday, November 22, 2010

Exotic Oman Opens Its Doors

Long isolated, the Sultanate has begun to welcome foreign tourists to its inviting beaches and historic forts

THINK of the Persian Gulf and what do you see? Gulf war soldiers, burning oil, bearded fanatics, polluted seas and flat, bleak desert. What does not come to mind is vacation.

Think of Oman, and even the most seasoned traveler might have difficulty conjuring up any image at all. But the strategically placed Sultanate of Oman is not only one of the most beautiful countries in all the Middle East, it is also a glorious place to vacation, well worth the eight-hour flight from London or what would be a 14-hour trip from New York, were there a nonstop flight from the United States to Muscat, the capital, which there is not -- at least not yet.

At the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Oman also looks out on the Arabian Sea.

With more than 1,000 miles of pristine coastline, Oman, about the size of Kansas and shaped like California, offers visitors wide-ranging terrain and experiences -- from striking desertscapes where camels and jeeps race along silky sand dunes, to tropical seaside resorts with palm trees and world-class fishing and diving. There are country markets where farmers, silversmiths and craftsmen haggle over varieties of incense and intricately worked silver daggers and jewelry, yet in Muscat visitors can attend theater or concerts of the Omani Philharmonic.

Just inland lies Oman's backbone, the great Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountains, whose sharp peaks of green-tinted rock soar to 10,000 feet and offer climbing, hiking, and camping alongside that rarest of sights in this part of the world, freshwater streams and dramatic waterfalls.

Oman has always been different from other countries in the Arabian peninsula and most of the Middle East. Long isolated by choice from the rest of the region -- indeed, from most of the world -- Oman has only recently opened up to tourists, and given the relatively high prices of its hotels, the Omanis seem intent on developing tourism that caters mainly to wealthier visitors.

If Oman could be described as "unknown" as late as 1966 by Wendell Phillips, the American archeologist and oil consultant, the fault is largely its own. For many years, Oman neither sought nor welcomed strangers.

Most of the foreigners who came intermittently brought little but conquest, occupation and despair to Omanis, starting with the Persians, whose King Cyrus the Great conquered Oman in 536 B.C.

Subsequent invaders came from what is now Iraq. Then came the Mongols, and then the Persians again.

In the early 16th century the Portuguese invaded, bombarding and destroying Omani cities, as did the Turks a generation later. But around 1650 independent rule was re-established and has been more or less maintained since then. As a result, Oman can claim to be among the oldest independent sovereign Arab states in existence today.

Since the Omanis themselves were great travelers, traders and empire builders, ruling large parts of East Africa and even Zanzibar, their culture was soon marked by cultural and culinary influences unknown in most parts of Arabia. While Oman may be linked by land to the Arabian peninsula, it looks out to the east. So happily for Omani food and art, the influence of India and even China remains strong. And because it was always a trading society, Oman has almost always been rich, long before oil, which Oman began producing in 1967, late by Gulf standards, and which now provides the country with half its income. Four thousand years ago, its wealth was based on dates, copper and frankincense, the fragrant gift of kings that is still burned in homes and offices and exported at exorbitant prices. Later Oman prospered because of its trade in slaves, gold and spices.

For almost 30 years, Oman's oil has enabled its ruler, Sultan Qabus bin Said, 55, to develop and educate the country and provide its people with an average per capita income of around $9,000 a year. (The population of around 2.5 million includes about 750,000 expatriate workers.) But unlike some other oil-rich countries, Oman has enjoyed orderly development. As a result, its culture and identity are largely intact. Compromise between modernization and tradition is the rule: so there is a McDonald's, but no golden arches.

Men still wear a light-colored dishdasha, a flowing, ankle-length robe, and the distinctive ammama, a brightly colored cashmere turban, or an embroidered skull cap called a kumma. Official occasions in Muscat require men to wear the Omani equivalent of black tie -- an exquisitely crafted ceremonial dagger, the khanjar. (In the countryside, daggers are routine and not ceremonial.) Rural women in markets still cover their bodies in black silk robes and their faces with dyed, eagle-like masks. But younger women in the capital opt for simpler silk headscarves. Omani women of all classes and regions still paint their hands for weddings and other celebrations in fanciful filigrees made with henna, a natural dye.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, where women cannot work with men or drive and there are no elections, Oman now has several women in the partially elected Consultative Council, and Sultan Qabus is committed to implementing by the year 2000 the Basic Law he announced in November 1996. What is in effect an Islam-based constitution contains a bill of rights guaranteeing a measure of press freedom as well as tolerance and equality of both sexes under law. There is no religious police. Alcohol is not banned.

What cannot be legislated, but what the visitor instantly feels, is the warmth of Omanis. On entering Nizwa, a former capital two hours inland from Muscat, one passes not a grandiose statue of the leader, but a roundabout decorated with a giant Arabic coffee urn, surrounded by silver-lined cups, a symbol of Oman's legendary hospitality. Another traffic circle, a reflection of the Sultan's British education, has at its center a huge stack of books, homage to the country's emphasis on learning.

Muscat, a city of over 500,000 encircled by mountains overlooking the sea, is breathtakingly situated. Old and new blend, and no skyscrapers mar the view of its quaint harbor or the mountains. The modern roads, landscaped with native plants, are spotless. And Muscat's mayor has commissioned artists to decorate the rocks scattered throughout the city like stone thunderbolts with colorful artificial waterfalls, colorful mosaics and fiberglass renditions of animals, among them the Arabian tahr, a mountain goat related to the ibex. Once nearly extinct, the tahr has doubled in number to an estimated 2,000 since a hunting ban was enacted in 1976.

One luminescent day last winter, the best time to visit Oman, my husband, Jason Epstein, and I met several friends for a week in Oman, which allowed us to see only a small portion of the country. Staying with a friend in Muscat, we toured the capital, then mountain villages, the silky dunes of the Wahiba Sands in central Oman and the balmy southern city of Salalah, reminiscent of Mexico's coast before mass tourism and also the site of deserted ruins and ancient cave paintings. Finally, we went camping on a beach where rare turtles lay their eggs.

During our trip, we were invited to a private lunch in the Jabal Akhdar, the mountain range split by a spectacular canyon -- an excursion not to be missed on any visit to Oman. We were served traditional Omani specialties that can also be found in the country's handful of excellent restaurants.

The meal began with a dish of braised goat that had been wrapped in a dry marinade of local spices, buried for several days, and cooked on a large preheated stone. Then came the best curried chicken either of us had ever had, accompanied by Persian rice, a variety of garlic-touched fresh vegetables, and for dessert, ice cream in date syrup, a local specialty that puts chocolate to shame. The sumptuous meal ended with fresh mint tea and Arabic coffee, accented with cardamom -- the first of many excellent meals in this exquisitely civilized country.

After lunch, we toured the rugged mountain villages in a rented four-wheel drive vehicle -- recommended for Oman's rough terrain and readily available in the capital and most main towns. To encourage Omanis to remain in their villages and not migrate to Muscat, the sultan has not only brought roads, power, water, health clinics and schools to the most remote mountain enclaves, but he is also building low-income housing in traditional Omani style, renovating Oman's 400-year-old forts to encourage tourism, and providing loans and grants to help Omanis continue farming, making local handicrafts and enjoying their traditional way of life.

When Sultan Qabus took power, the country had only six miles of paved roads, a handful of schools and two hospitals. Today, Qabus rules a unified country with 22,800 miles of uncrowded paved or gravel roads that make driving a pleasure, modern telecommunications, and a safe country with almost no crime and good health care.

Oman was discreetly opened to tourism only three years ago. The "non-objection certificates" once sparingly approved by contract British officers who held senior posts in Oman's military and civil service as late as 1990 are no longer required. Omani and foreign travel agencies and even hotels can help arrange tourist visas.

With time limited and our group's tastes diverse, our itinerary required compromise. A seasoned traveler in the Middle East with a fear of heights, I did not relish either a balloon trip over the desert, a popular outing, or yet another camel ride. So when our small band drove out to the golden Wahiba Sands to ride jeeps, horses and camels, I sat happily in a Bedouin camp tent, munching dates and reading one of Phillips's splendid books, "Oman, a History."

My husband, on the other hand, is no trekker. So he passed up hiking in the mountains or in one of the country's 83 nature reserves, whose flora and fauna are protected by law. But we both loved our visit to Fort Jabrin, one of the many 17th-century fortresses, with commanding views of the desert and surrounding mountains. We were delighted with the town of Sur, where the dhows that have sailed the Gulf since antiquity are still built.

The country's lively interior souks, or markets, were another favorite. At the Friday market in Sinaw, we bought tribal rugs and cashmere turbans; our guide, Said Al-Harthy, who works as a public affairs assistant in the American Embassy in Muscat as well as running a tour company, taught us how to tie the turbans around our heads. I added several pieces of antique Bedouin jewelry to my collection, along with a beautifully worked silver belt buckle, and a colorful Omani dress, traditionally worn over embroidered harem pants. A friend bought several varieties of frankincense and bargained hard for an ammunition belt, with live bullets. Haggling, which is half the fun, insured that prices were reasonable.

THOSE who love the sea as I do should visit Salalah, the capital of Dhofar in the south, 90 minutes by air from Muscat. During our two-day visit to the region, which has its own culture, language and traditions, we stayed at the Holiday Inn, a simple, rustic hotel on a palm-lined beach. Salalah's splendid beaches, which offer snorkeling and diving, are particularly inviting during the months of November through March.

One afternoon, we toured the ruins of Samharam, an ancient town on the sea, and had a picnic under drawings made by the inhabitants of nearby caves nearly a thousand years ago.

The highlight of our visit, however, was a trip to the turtle nesting beaches of Ras al-Hadd. For millenia, green sea turtles have come ashore after dark on these beaches to dig deep holes in the sand and lay their eggs. While we could have driven 45 minutes to spend the night at a hotel, Said had made arrangements for us to camp, and we pitched tents on a neighboring sandy site. There we roasted lamb and listened to Omani songs on a cassette player until almost midnight. Then we quietly made our way to the beach where one giant turtle after another inched her way out of the water. We watched as the turtles dug their holes, and sometimes abandoned a half-dug hole only to dig another a few yards away. The mother turtles sighed and groaned as they began laying their eggs, one by one. The 50 or so tourists who had gathered to witness this astonishing event are forbidden to use flashlights or flashbulbs as the turtles climb ashore, but once the egg-laying began, the turtles seemed oblivious to their silent audience.

About 45 minutes later, the weary turtles, with great difficulty, heaved themselves out of the deep trenches they had dug, covered the holes with sand, and inched their way back into the sea. Exhausted, we returned to our tents for a few hours of sleep under a sequined sky. But just before dawn, Said woke us to watch the second act of this drama: the birth of baby turtles whose eggs had been laid around 50 days before.

We saw only a few of the hatchlings dig their way out of the sand that morning, but even that was thrilling.

While Omani guards were supposed to prevent tourists from interfering with the turtles's first steps towards the sea -- they must make their own way against all predators to adjust the internal navigational systems that will enable them to find the same beach again for the next 70 or 80 years -- the Government guardians were not vigilant that morning. A German tourist, tired of watching a tiny turtle try to dig its way out of its deep sand cradle, picked the little fellow up and placed him at the water's edge. Many of us were appalled, but the woman got the photo she had come for.

I left the country, laden with gifts from Omani friends -- pottery incense burners, tiny sacks of frankincense and Amouage, one of several musky perfumes made here and among the world's most expensive scents. A few weeks after my return, I sat next to a woman wearing it, and complimented her. The rest of the dinner was spent reminiscing about our respective trips and exchanging advice on what we agreed would be return visits to a place that is one of the world's vacation secrets.

Miller, Judith. 2010. "Exotic Oman Opens Its Doors". Posted: February 8, 1998. Available online:

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