Oman is a small, conservative, Islamic, oil-rich country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, ruled by Sultan Qaboos. I have always thought of it as the gentle backwater of the Peninsula, but as I recently saw, it is working hard to balance tradition and inevitable change.
Arriving at the international airport after endless waiting for a visa, it was a relief to walk into the cool December night air of Muscat. Much was familiar from my first visit thirty years ago: palm trees, hustle and bustle, honking taxis, good-natured yelling, and Omanis in traditional clothing. The drive to the hotel, however, passed through streets and by buildings that were not even in existence 30 years ago. I was reassured to see the walled city with the gate that closed at dusk, but our hotel, The Golden Tulip, was my first glimpse of sea changes in the country.
In the lobby of the hotel, in the middle of the sleek leather furniture, stood a Christmas tree, fully decorated and surrounded by presents. A mix of Christmas music was playing with Jungle Bells interspersed with We Three Kings, Frosty the Snowman and Silent Night. On Christmas Eve Santa sat next to the tree, handing out candy canes to bewildered guests, and on Christmas morning, the wait staff all wore Santa hats and wished everyone a Merry Christmas.
It wasn’t until we visited the souk (bazaar) that I felt I was back in the Middle East I remembered. Still a jumble of narrow passages, fragrant spice shops, alleyways brimming with gold shops (gold and carpets are viewed as portable wealth in the Middle East), fabrics from India, frankincense on sale with household wares which were themselves mixed in with the inevitable tourist shops selling Pashminas and trinkets, the souk retains its centrality in the life of Muscat. Located by the beautiful natural harbor, the souk is still the trading center for the much of the town’s commerce. The harbor affords access to worlds beyond, and bobbing alongside a large modern cruise ship sat a beautiful dhow, carved from wood and ready to sail its traditional trade routes into the Gulf of Oman and beyond.
Behind the scenes, Oman is predicted to run out of oil in 20 years and is making serious efforts to conserve energy as well as find alternative sources. The Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) center educates visitors about the natural resources of Oman, as well as encouraging environmental responsibility. The Oil and Gas Exhibition Center, Planetarium and EcOman are all very well thought through and instructive.
The Oil and Gas Center, the Royal Opera House, the souk, five lane highways, dhows, fast food, international hotels, and traditional dress, are all part of modern Oman. So many buildings are new, yet they restrict their height—unlike Dubai, the next stop on our journey.