May 5, 7: Oman. We make two stops in this small monarchy, located at the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, overlooking the strait of Hormuz, great spot for watching the world’s oil tankers float by.
First stop is Muscat, then Salalah two days later. Both locations feature low-rise white stucco buildings scattered across the desert in a low density pattern. If you love sand, you’ll love Oman.
Buildings are not allowed to exceed 12 stories, and in fact I don’t see any that exceed 7. If we were to visit Salalah during their monsoon season in summer, we would see one of the few places on the Arabian peninsula that enjoys any meaningful amount of rain. The region is temporarily transformed into an almost tropical landscape. But for our visit, it appears arid as you would expect of a desert.
The sites in this country are not particularly memorable. We visit the Grand Mosque of Muscat, though are not allowed inside. We visit a small museum and a souk (marketplace) in each city. Some of the stores are run by men and some by women. We visit a wide sandy beach with a clean, calm surf. It’s empty, no signs of life other than a few camels. We learn that swimming and beach-going is not part of the culture. We see the outside of the Sultan’s palace – a grand building that he uses just for entertaining VIP guests. None of the places we visit, nor the neighborhoods we drive through are crowded. Not a lot of people out and about. Perhaps because of the heat – at least 100F.
The country is roughly the size of Kansas and has a population of around 2.6 million. A fourth of those living here are foreigners, mostly workers from India and Pakistan. The official language is Arabic, though English is now taught in school and widely spoken, at least in the city. Most of what we learn is from our tour guides. Here’s the executive summary:
The story of modern Oman begins in 1970, when Qaboos bin Said deposed his father, the previous Sultan Said bin Taimur. Under Taimur prior to 1970, Oman was an insular, repressed nation. There were two schools with a total of 400 students (all boys) for the entire country. A rebellion began in Dhofar in 1962, and by 1970 the new Sultan took over. He immediately began implementing all sorts of programs to modernize his country in anticipation of its oil reserves eventually being depleted.
He began with education, and today there are 1,200 public schools, several universities and a number of private schools. Girls now can attend school and on average get better grades than the boys. Education and health care are free for all citizens. While the political system is a true monarchy, the Sultan has introduced a small degree of democracy by establishing an advisory council made up of 84 elected members. All citizens over 21 years of age or older can vote. Two of the council members are women.
Almost all of Oman’s wealth comes from its oil reserves – over 5 billion barrels. They pump around 900,000 barrels per day, so unless significant new reserves are discovered, they will run out of oil in 20 years. This eventuality is the motivation behind the Sultan’s efforts to educate, build infrastructure, and thereby diversify his economy.
Driving on the roads outside of Salalah we see lots of camels. Some are on the road itself and drivers must swerve to avoid hitting them. Until modernization, camels were the primary means of transportation, as well as a source of food. Today they are becoming a nuisance and threatening deforestation of the only green area of the country, so the government has been buying camels and shipping them to other countries. If a driver hits a camel during daylight hours, it’s the driver’s fault. At night, it’s the camel’s fault, so the camel owner is liable for damages.
With so little rain in most of the country, water is more expensive than oil. Still, there are nice lawns and landscaped public places, all irrigated with reclaimed sewage water. They know not to waste precious potable water.
Almost all of the citizens are Muslim and there are many small neighborhood mosques. Marriages are mostly arranged and it is typical for families to have 6 or 7 children. Almost all of the women wear abayas, and none are without a headscarf. A man may have four wives, but in practice this is rare due to the cost, since each wife must have her own house. The Sultan himself has no children, which will be a concern for the country when the time comes to choose a successor.
Internationally, Oman has received awards and praise from various organizations on issues ranging from peace to cleanliness. It is in fact a very clean place – we don’t see any trash. They have good relations with countries ranging from Iran to the U.S. They were the first Arab nation to invite the prime minister of Israel to visit back in the 1990’s.
Though oil is their primary business, they do have some agriculture and mining as well as fishing. We learn of some unintended consequences: since the recent increased activity by Somali pirates, Japanese and Korean fishing boats have stopped fishing in this part of the Arabian sea. That has in turn improved the catch for Omani fishermen. Another twist for Oman is their unexpected rise in tourism. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, many Saudi tourists traveled to Europe and North America. After the attacks, for obvious reasons they stopped doing this. Instead many of them now vacation in Salalah during the monsoon season, just to experience the greenery and rain that is so rare on the Arabian peninsula.
From the perspective of a westerner with western sensibilities, the Sultan of Oman seems to be doing the right thing in moving his country forward.
Grand Mosque, Muscat
Our tour guide in Muscat
One of Sultan’s palaces
A small mosque
A security checkpoint in the middle of nowhere
Camels roam freely in some areas
Notice the tag line (Holidays, Tours & Mice)