Tag Archives: Oman

The Sea in Salalah

OMANعمامه ‏

 A Dubai-based pilot and friend suggested I visit Salalah, a port town on the southern tip of Oman. He told me to visit from June to September or in January, when the monsoon rains paint the sun-baked desert a brilliant green. 

Not many people have heard of Oman. It rarely makes the news, yet it is one of the seven oil-rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf that include Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

“What’s the story with Oman?,” I asked a Yemeni friend.

“There is no story,” he said.

I could see why; Salalah is just 20km from the border of war-shattered Yemen. It remains an oasis of serenity despite its being surrounded by some of the most dangerous, politically violent and oppressive countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 

Sugar white, powder-soft beaches and dramatic cliffs trim the country. When I visited, the rains had turned the rocky landscape lush green. 

Oman is the southernmost of the states, where the Arabian Gulf meets the Indian Ocean. The country is huge, roughly twice the size of Colorado with a population of only 3 million. (200,0000 in Salalah). The highways are perfectly groomed with few automobiles.

Almost everything about Oman seems perfect and orderly; the air is clean, markets are fragrant with frankincense and old. The sandy beaches are cool, not too white, not too black. The sand is the perfect a grain. The weather is neither cold nor hot. The waves don’t crash violently but gently spill. Except for two big chain hotels there’s hardly a soul on the beach. 

I hired a driver guide to take me to wadi in the mountains. On route he turned on the radio. A stern voice recited the Quran followed by a few minutes of bagpipes. The national anthem, the Omani driver explained. I asked him what kind of music he usually listened to. “I hate music.”

The journalist in me is slightly suspicious of countries you never hear about in the news. They seem almost too good to be true. 
No politicians and security forces appear to be threatening journalists. Yet Oman rates of 125 out of 180 in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

 Shame the Sultan of Oman plans to demolish most of the old seafront on the corniche to make way for five star chain hotels.

A new airport is under construction.

Oman has made international news as of late; a week before his last day in office, President Obama sent 10 Guantanamo prisoners to “resettle” in Oman. I doubt the new detainees will be served tea everyday. 
At the end of the day, I prefer Kenya with its lively press corps. For all its faults Kenya has soul. Oman is bliss. 


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Oman – the Stepford Life

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Frank Incense at the souk.

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).

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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.

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Racial profiling – where are all the Arab mannequins?

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Near  the  Sultan’s Palace.

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.

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Shell Oil.
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Palace of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, built in 70s.

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.)

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The Sultan of Oman in his youth. Would it be insulting to ask if he’s the original Sultan of swing
Rain clouds over ruined buildings near the wadi.
Rain clouds over ruined buildings near the wadi.
Nizwa.
Nizwa.

Beach after the rains Muscat .wtmk jpg

Wadi at Ain A'Thawwarah near Nahal.
Wadi at Ain A’Thawwarah near Nahal.
Gentlemen taxi drivers.
Gentlemen taxi drivers.