Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).
– visited December 2015 –
The sun is close to the horizon as the plane descends on Muscat. It is clearly visible how barren hills intersect Oman’s capital city into various areas. Unfortunately, no bus connects the airport to the city centre but some of the people I ask offer to take me to a place with public transport. They turn out to be doctors from Syria who fled the conflict in their country to work in Oman. They are full of praise for Germany and grateful that we accepted so many Syrian refugees. They offer to give me the taxi fare to Mutrah, the district of Muscat where my hotel is, but I refuse. It is not that I do not have the money, I just don’t want to spend it on a taxi ride, as long as I can get to where I want to by other means. The minibus ride is funny as everybody is interested in the strange fellow, who has turned up. I try to remember all my Arabic words that I learned a long, long time ago. I can still say in fairly decent standard Arabic that I do not speak Arabic but nothing else. They like it that I try.
The driver takes me further than the bus would usually go and brings me right to the door of my hotel. He refuses my payment, “welcome to Oman” he says instead. Somehow this will set the tone for my short trip. Oman has some oil but nothing compared to the oil riches of other Gulf countries. That has led to a much more balanced economy than some of the neighbours have. And too much fewer workers from South Asia, the bus driver, for example, is an Omani as this profession is not open for migrant workers.
The Omani Sultanate was a powerful Empire in the 17th century, vying for influence in the Persian Gulf with the Portuguese and British Empires. At its peak in the 19th century, Omani influence or control extended across the Strait of Hormuz to modern-day Iran and Pakistan, and as far south as Zanzibar. A close and at the beginning mutual beneficial relationship between Oman and the British Empire began in the late 18th century but as Omani power waned in the late 19th century, Oman became a de-facto colony. In the 20th century Oman split into a coastal area ruled from Muscat and the Imamate of Oman ruling much of the interior. With British help Sultan Said bin Taimur waged war to forcibly reunite the nation. Sultan Said was a very backward ruler who led the country on a path of isolationism and underdevelopment. Almost all technological development had simply been outlawed, Oman had only three schools, a literacy rate of 5%, and only 10 kilometres of paved roads. He was deposed in a bloodless coup by his son in 1970. The new Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, embarked on a remarkable policy of modernization and ended Oman’s isolation. In Middle Eastern Politics, Sultan Qaboos has often followed sensible policies and stayed the middle ground. He became kind of my lodestar, whenever I had no idea about a recent development, I would stand where Sultan Qaboos was, because that usually turned out to be an okay place to be. It is just that the Sultan is now 75 years old and there is no clear successor. Maybe Sultan Qaboos should go one last big step and introduce democracy? Would be a great idea, I think.
Mutrah has the Souq (market), the fish market, mosques and Mutrah Fort. Ghalya’s Museum of Modern Art is part museum and part a gallery. A watchtower, with a cannon still from Portuguese times, looks out over the harbour.
A walk over the hills brings me to Old Muscat. The forts of Al-Mirani and Al-Jalali, both originally Portuguese creations, guard the original historic city of Muscat from the sea. Al Alam Palace, commonly known as the Sultan’s Palace, is a modest affair and has an interesting gold and blue facade. It is used for ceremonial purposes and is not where the Sultan actually lives. The brand-new National Museum is not-yet open to the public.
Bahla Fort – Nizwa
Oman is not a cheap place to travel. The cheapest hotel rooms go for about 50€, which is much more than I usually pay. Additionally, the real beauty of Oman lies in its mountainous interior. Barren mountains are rising up to 3,009 metres on Jebel Shams (Sun Mountain) and in the deep valleys fertile oases are hiding. Jebel Akhdar, the Green mountain, is famous for its labyrinth of wadis and terraced orchards, where pomegranates, apricots and roses grow in abundance due to its mild Mediterranean climate. These mountains are difficult to get to without your own wheels. As a one-day tour would set me back something around 200$, I settle for something more modest.
One of the few daily buses brings me to Bahla at the foot of the Jebel Akhdar highlands. I explore the UNESCO inscribed Bahla Fort which once controlled the valuable trade in frankincense. The complex is massive but contains little information. By shared taxi, I move on to Nizwa with its Souq and fort.