The Omanis welcome overseas tourists with open arms. They are a very accommodating people and nothing seems like too much hassle. Taxis, for example, arrive on time and drivers don’t try to rip visitors off. In the souks stallholders launch in to sales pitches, but you don’t feel the pressure to by that you get in more touristy Middle Eastern countries (in Egypt they literally chase you down the street!).
Yet despite this welcome, tradition is important for the Omanis. Oman is a Muslim country and, although moderate in outlook, visitors are expected to keep covered up, unless on the beach. Guidebooks advise that men should wear trousers when in public; in shopping malls, for example, and souks. Sitting in Costa coffee, I’m not sure if I’m offending by wearing shorts? – in my defence, I can see the sea!
Staying with the theme of traditions, everyone speaks highly of the king in Oman – His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The front page of today’s Times of Oman (the English language newspaper) has three stories about the king on the front page; he’s received a cable of thanks from Saudi Arabia for the condolences to the victims of the country’s heavy rains, a delegation came to visit from Egypt, finally there’s a piece on His Majesty’s shooting teams.
While the above three examples would probably be considered non-stories (and certainly not for the front page) in England, I sense a genuine love for the king. That his portrait hangs in shops and on gantries on main roads means nothing, of course, as so many countries around the world force their citizens to do this (the people of North Korea know nothing else, for example). It is rather, the private conversations amongst Omanis and expats that carry weight. And many outsiders certainly speak highly of him.
But when you consider the progress achieved since the 1970s (described in an earlier posting), there is every reason to celebrate the achievements of the king. While poverty does of course exist, many Omanis have benefited significantly from the sultanates rag to riches journey.
There are too many examples around the world of oil rich countries that faced violent struggles over the control of lucrative natural resources. Many living in the Niger Delta no little else but war. Perhaps the reason for peace in Oman is because the king has chosen to spend oil revenues on projects that benefit the Omani people.
In Muscat, I went to see the splendid Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world. Opened in 2001, no expense has been spared in creating a vast complex that caters for 20,000 worshippers. The main hall has a grand chandelier that weighs eight tonnes and a one-piece carpet from Iran, it has 38 colours, weighs 21 tonnes and was made by 600 women weavers over four years. Like other buildings in Oman, the complex is thoroughly modern, but is distinctly Arab in character.
Driving around Oman is also a comfortable experience as the majority of roads look as is they have probably only just be completed. The truth is that they probably have.
But alongside the new roads, the old dirt tracks remain. That’s Oman for you – tradition with a modern twist.