Oman gets rain about once a year and so it happened that on the day I first visited the Gulf country for the first time cross-winds and rain tossed the Oman Air 737. Residents seem to have the same reaction to rain as Montanans when it snows. They freak.
For good reason. Oman is not prepared for rain; the road have no drains so when it rains it floods. I read in the Oman Tribune (or one of the homogenous state-owned newspaper) the day before a flash flood swept away two teenagers walking on a canyon. You hear similar stories in the US desert southwest.
Muscat‘s Seeb International airport is small, clean and mercifully uncrowded. I bought ten day visa in in 15 minutes for about $20.
I’d heard that Omanis speak Swahili but assumed it was restricted to small villages on the coast. When I told the police at immigration that I lived in Kenya, I asked, ‘Mna jua KiSwahili?’. ‘Ndyo,’, they said and we laughed in shock. After all, these were Arabs, not Africans. I doubt they expected a European to speak Swahili. The young taxi driver who met me at the airport said his parents – in their 60s – almost always spoke it at home. Swahili partly Arabic and Bantu (tribes from sub-Saharan Africa).
Women wear black buibuis. The usual attire of Omani men – a kanzu (long white robe) and kofia (hat) – is exactly what you see in Lamu. For the thoroughly modern touch men add a pair of expensive shades making them look like they just closed an oil deal.
Not surprising when Oman centuries ago established a presence along the East African coast. Oman Arabs colonized East Africa long before the Europeans did. The sultan of Oman relocated the country’s capital to Zanzibar, once the center for the slave trade.
Some Omanis vacation every year in Zanzibar.
The sea front buildings of old Muscat share the same architectural features as in Zanzibar – ornately carved wooden balconies. (Like nothing you find anywhere in the world though vaguely resembles balconies of old townhouses in New Orleans).
But the similarities between East Africa and Oman stop there.
Whereas Kenya is easily romanticised, I found Oman spectacularly un-photogenic.
I stayed in a hotel “downtown” – there really is no downtown – meaning near the beach and embassies.
The lobby is vast with marble floors and tables filled either with sheikhs and doughy American and European businessmen talking about security, banking and oil supply services. Though I haven’t seen westerners mingling with Arabs.
I may as well have been in a hotel off the intestate in Nevada.
Not a piece of garbage in sight. No twists and turns and not much mystery or magic. For this reason I found Muscat and even old Muscat resembling a theme suburb or a soulless (very red) country club in Arizona. Massive and austere government buildings emphasise the fortress the ancient fortresses in the distance. Marble sidewalks and Parisian streetlights seem desperate to convey the image of order, prosperity and perfection.
I didn’t realise that according to the Freedom Institute of three categories (free, relatively free, not free) Oman is considered ‘not free’.
On the plane I sat next to a journalist from India, who worked for the Oman Times. She sang praises of the country’s down-to-earth ethos. Unlike Dubai with its glass and steel high rises, Oman, she said, was spiritual and down to earth. She clammed up though when I asked what it was like writing features for a state-owned magazine.
All buildings – affluent and non-affluent alike – are white or sand-colored. Government and embassies all have emerald green lawns. Building codes ban structures any higher than eight stories.
I sense this is not to preserve heritage as much as it is to hide the less fortunate.
On inspection the houses of everyday citizens are run down and typically third world. There’s no poverty per se but those less fortunate don’t stick out as they do, say, in Kenya.
The Ministry of Finance and Palace of the Sultan are sprawling and imposing structures. Not an AK, armed security or soul in sight.
On the way from Muscat to old Muscat companies like Dutch Shell Oil (owns 34% of the country’s oil), Nissan and Toyota have massive compounds.
The seafront residences remind of those I have seen in Thailand; run down and unoccupied. Ghostly.
Somehow the Sultanate of Oman reminds me of Thailand’s royalty; the land of a thousand smiles – and two thousand knives in your back.
All that said, the locals are kind, polite, informative and above all honest. So far. I am told the government takes good care of its people. The nation has no foreign debt. Most hotel and banking staff is Omani.
More than anything, it seems that a deeply reverent spirituality saves them.
For all its annoyances, I’ll take Kenya any day. More beauty, soul – and some wildlife.
Sultan of Oman looks like someone I know…..
(This blog is a work in progress – I will edit accordingly. Thank you.)