Setting off in December for Muscat, the capital of in Oman, it wasn’t too hard to leave ice station England behind for a little while. We jetted off, taking our little Christmas Tree from the Heathrow Travel Lodge restaurant table with us on our Arabian adventure. Oman is one of the places I’d always wanted to visit, primarily because of its exotic sounding name (along with Zanzibar, Casablanca and Madagascar) I knew very little about this middle eastern country. My eyes were about to be opened very wide indeed. One of our first stops was the market – I do love to hunt about a local market. At first glance the tourist souk seemed a bit of a copy cat affair, a man made structure and full of things from India and Iran and China rather than Oman itself.
It seemed to cater only for the mature cruise ship market who spill out on their afternoon stops to buy a few souvenirs and do a quick Big Bus tour before piling back for the captain’s cocktail party. Disappointing. Next we tried hard to track down ‘Old’ Muscat but it turned out to be not very old at all, in fact it was more ‘nearly new’ Muscat, as much of what was old Muscat was destroyed in a cyclone in 2007 and the Sultan’s Palace and the Museums looked pretty spanking new to me. Oman is famous for its Frankincense and there are large piles of it to be had in the souk, quite appropriate so close to Christmas, and there was plenty of gold and myrrh to be had as well if you fancied completing the biblical trio. Frankincense is a bit of an acquired taste (or smell) I think. Fine if you’ve fond memories of your catholic mass or have a very smelly bin to cover up the smell of for instance, but otherwise it’s a heavy rather nose- wrestling experience when burned.
Not a cream tea in sight
The Sultan’s picture is everywhere. He is much loved and has been on the throne for forty years. It is largely down to this man that the fortunes of Oman have improved so much over this time. The country is stable and peaceful. The population is now well educated and there has been a concerted infrastructure building programme which has resulted in a network of excellent new roads which cut through the mountains and the desert with impressive efficiency. And a nice new airport.
The Sultan wants development for Oman but not at any cost. His Excellency does not want to go the way of Dubai with its shopping Malls, glitzy hotels, and highest building in the world malarkey. ‘Dubai is built on money laundering’ one taxi driver informed me ‘they had to sell half of it to Abu Dhabi to get out of debt.’ Everyone is extremely friendly and almost everyone speaks English which is very useful indeed when ones Arabic is confined to two words ‘Shockran’ – thank you, and ‘Inshallah’ – God Willing. Although that is not bad for starters. Oman’s story as an increasingly popular tourist destination is just beginning but this is a country on a mission to attract foreign visitors and currency and I just have the feeling they are going to succeed.