Venise Alstergren writes: Clutching a copy of the latest Lonely Planet: Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula and a clapped out bag, I wondered if the text I’d underlined could possibly be correct. The writer had raved about Oman’s khors-rocky inlets and its pristine beaches, about its windswept deserts and the stark and treeless mountains.
Almost anything was better than the blasting heat of Dubai and the month long trial of Ramadan. Therefore it was with little sense of loss that I hopped into the proffered lift by a 4WD owner and headed for Khasab on the Musandam Peninsula on the Strait of Hormuz in Oman.
The Omani love their leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the way he has brought a country which during the rule of his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, saw the country slide into economic subsistence, all around misery, illiteracy and high child mortality; turning it into a modern, highly educated, conservation, arts, opera — an opera house is currently being built — and sports-minded population where women are equal to men and where both sexes have free education up to tertiary level.
In the palace coup of 1970-aided by the British; (who else?) Qaboos bin Said overthrew a reclusive father and set out to remake a nation. Modern infrastructure and education were but two of reforms made seeing the emergence of a prosperous country in which all the Omani have pride. Holy mackerel, they don’t even have a litter problem!
The Sultan has never married and will leave no heirs. The people see inherited excellence as being superior to a politically elected mandate, thus causing angst among people who worry about the future. To exacerbate the problem there is an Omani law, which stipulates that the succession MUST be decided within three days of the death of the current ruler.
There is an annual caravan cum ‘meet the people’ progression where petitioners get to field their wishes directly to the Sultan (The Omani belong to the Ibadhi sect of Sunnism, which favours communal consensus). In a sparsely populated country and with multiple nephews and cousins vying for the throne, it could be difficult to act within three days. Qaboos bin Said is now seventy and last year he had a health scare. Not for nothing do the people worry.
The landmass of Oman is 309,500 sq km and has a population of 3.42 million compared to neighbouring Yemen with 550,000 sq km and a population of 23 million. It is a Sultanate whose leader leaves his yacht — not much smaller than Blenheim Palace — parked/moored near his own palace. It has the clichéd crystalline, transparent, turquoise waters where dolphins butt through the waves trying to keep up with your Dhow. Diving and snorkelling are major sports, and in some of the khors it is possible to see remote fishing villages whose children are picked up by government speedboats-free of charge to get them to school and back. Huge water tankers cart in potable water-also free of charge, and big Arab Dhows ply the seas.
In the north, are gaunt mountains and arid plains. In the south and in the Empty Quarter — made famous by the English explorer, photographer and professional sufferer Wilfred Thesiger — are deserts home to the once-nomadic Bedouin tribes’ people, their goats and camels. Also they are host to a variety of sensitively positioned eco-tourist parks, which come in a range of different price levels. In the cities and larger towns there are art galleries and museums. Buildings and houses must conform to various shades of beige or white. And tucked away in discreet, tree-shaded street-corners it is possible to find coffee bars with a distinct look of Provence about them. There are Souks whose multiple shops sell everything from cheap plastic knick-knacks to really cool antiques and only some of the requisite tourist tripe.
Out in the desert roam camels whose owners limit the size of their herds by fitting a birth-control bag arrangement over the undercarriage of the males. Or so I had heard. This was an assumption I had the brains to Google. Only to find that thus far the sole system of camel birth-control had been to put a stone in the uterus of the female camel. To which other writers have said: did you ever try to place a stone in the uterus of a female camel? Therefore I have to end this article by asking if anyone out there knows why male camels are fitted with this chastity-belt arrangement?
I digress. My advice to intending travellers would be to go to Oman ASAP in case the person nominated by Qaboos bin Said to inherit the Sultanate turns out to be a stinker. Even better, try to get yourself an invitation to the home of one of the locals; if nothing else you’ll see how an extended family works.