I’m sitting in Costa Coffee, the sky is blue and from my seat I have a ringside view of a beautiful, long stretch of sandy beach. No, I’m not on a day out in Weston-Super-Mare with a pair of rose tinted specs, but in Muscat, the capital of beautiful Oman. But sitting in Costa enjoying free wi-fi and listening to Shaggy, while expats come in for their morning latte, reminds me of home.
To get to Oman you fly over Iraq, 100 or so miles across the water is Iran and in the neighbouring two countries (Yemen and Saudi Arabia) there’s a border war going on. But Oman couldn’t be more peaceful – it actually feels a lot safer than many English cities in the evening (I have lived in Hull don’t forget!). The people are also really friendly and you don’t get the feeling that they are out to rip off tourists.
It, is of course, the discovery of oil that has totally transformed this country. In the 1970s life expectancy was around 47, there were just three schools and one hospital (with 26 beds). Now there are literally thousands of schools and healthcare is on par with (if not better than) the West. Things have moved on so much that life expectancy now stands at over 70.
Unlike some of the other countries in the Gulf region, traditions are still important. Locals still by their food in souks or markets. They await with excitement as the fish arrives in the mornings. Men wear long white tunics and decorated flat caps. And there is a big emphasis to preserve the country’s heritage; huge amounts are being spent repairing Portugese forts from the 1500s for example.
But you still can’t miss the shopping malls on the main road in from the airport. The illuminated signs from international names like Next, KFC, Pizza Express and Starbucks stand out. Then of course there all the international hotels, like the Intercontinental and Holiday Inn, which are popular with expats and visitors alike because they are the only places to get a beer.
Don’t get me wrong, Oman is not some overdeveloped construction site (there’s a maximum eight storey rule in place), it’s far classier than that and tourism is in its infancy.
I’m going to finish my latte and enjoy a walk down the empty sandy beach. It won’t be long until the hoards find out you can get a decent latte in the sun.