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2006-02-21 Oman

In these days of heightened security, it seems incongruous that the chosen emblem for the national airline of Oman is a khanjar  a dagger  painted on every Omani airplane.

 

The Bureau de Change staff at Dublin airport had no listing for the Sultanate of Oman, even asking me where it was. I knew it was a Gulf state, on the east of the Arabian peninsula, on the Tropic of Cancer, that the capital was Muscat. After that, this was truly to be a voyage of discovery. The comfortable Gulfair flight offered a wide selection of in-flight entertainment. I was happier to read, while keeping an eye on the map, at one point passing about seven miles above such familiar names as Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

 

We were staying in the luxurious newly-opened Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa  a complex of 3 hotels, with 3 private beaches and 19 restaurants and bars, all managed by a Wexford-man called Desmond Hatton! The 6-star plus was due to open in a few weeks, so we had to make do with the 5-star plus. As we waited for our room-keys in the Alhambra-esque foyer, the first thing we noticed was the friendliness of the Omani people. The Omanis are self-confident, welcoming, hospitable and rightly proud of their beautiful country. This is a nation of around 3½ million people (half a million non-nationals). Like Ireland, a million live in the capital.

On our first morning, after tucking in to the Full Oman (spiced fruit and khubze Omani bread), we were taken on a boat-trip (a rib - like a large rubber lifeboat). As we rode the waves of the Arabian Sea, at around 50 knots per hour, we began to fully appreciate this uniquely sculpted, sedimentary, serrated sandstone/limestone coastline. Arid, crumbling mountains, and jagged peaks of biblical proportions rise from warm blue seas. Countless wadis (dry river-beds) wend their way to the ocean. We drifted as near as possible to the Sultans whitewashed palace. Since 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said has done well for the Omani people and her economy, and remains extremely popular. Ten kilometres of tarred road in 1970 has stretched to 6000 km in 2005. Forty-five new hospitals have sprung up, electricity has reached the remotest areas, there is excellent education for boys and girls up to third level, and an impressive army.

We swam and snorkled in a secluded lagoon. Above us, fortresses constructed while Oman was under Portugese rule, resembled giant sand-castles precariously perched on rock-faces. A lovingly carved Arabian wooden dhow, anchored in the lagoon, completed the picture. At water level, spectacular overhanging ledges, resulting from constant erosion, hid millions of limpet-like shells, clinging tightly, in the early stage of fossilisation. Flying fish shimmied across the still waters behind us.

Later, as we drove to Muscat, a lack of greenery appeared alien to the Irish eye. Omani cattle feed on imported grass, and dates. We partook in some retail therapy at the narrow-laned Markaz Al Bahja - Muscats main souq (market).

As with all markets, it is worth looking around fully before committing to any purchases, not just settling for the first one. Haggling is, sadly, necessary. Silver, gold, gems, carpets and pashminas are the most commonly bought commodities. The worlds worst haggler parted with his few Omani riyals and arrived back at the hotel with three pashminas and two cushion covers.

On the negative side, foreign wrokers (in particular Indians) are expolited and underpaid (but hey, maybe that is a case of the pot and kettle?). Fairly equal schooling and career opportunities for male and female seem to set Oman aside from some of its more strict Arab neighbours, but despite the fact that most Omani women are unveiled, there is still a little distance to go on that particular front.

I saw so little of this historic and captivating land. I still have to travel to its many fortified towns, in particular the World Heritage site at Bahla Fort, to fly across the endless miles of uninhabited deserts and mountains, to witness a camel race, to visit a Bedouin encampment, to savour the interesting Omani cuisine (a sort of Arabian-Indian fusion), to discover isolated oases and remote wadis, and to sniff the drops of resin beneath the silvery bark of the Frankincense tree, in this land of guaranteed sunshine.