The first conversation I have as I arrive in Muscat is an argument. Because Omanis pride themselves on being courteous and unfailingly polite, it is a gentle argument, as arguments go. No voices are raised. No fingers are pointed. No imprecations are uttered. But it is an argument nonetheless.

“First time in Oman?” Khaled, my taxi driver asks, as he drives me to the Shangri-la.

“No, I’ve been twice before.”

“Third time? So you like Oman then?

“Very much. It’s a very beautiful country.”

Khaled swells with pride.

“Beautiful, yes. Very beautiful but it’s also very different,” he says, warming to his subject. “We have an ancient culture here you know. Not like the Bedouin next door.”

He jerks his head vaguely in the direction of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

“Yes,” I reply, thinking that the fact that my taxi driver is a local and not some bonded labourer from Pakistan or the Philippines already set Oman apart from the rest of the Gulf.

“The Romans called this part of the Peninsula Arabia Felix and traders came here to buy frankincense and you had some kind of link with the Queen of Sheba, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” he smiles. “Did you know that Oman used to own parts of the UAE and Pakistan and also Zanzibar? My family were Zanzibaris until 40 years ago. I was born there.”

“Really? What brought you back?”

“The Sultan. He asked all the Omanis outside the country to come back when he became ruler. I was just a teenager then and everything here was so different. I didn’t even speak Arabic. We still speak Swahili at home.”

We drive on in silence for a while. I’d read about the colonies abroad. There used to be Omanis living as far away as Mumbai and Dar es-Salaam at one time, traders who relied on seasonal winds to sweep them around the Indian Ocean and to bring them home again. Some spent so much of their lives outside their country that they had two or more families, one in each port they visited. Though Khaled spoke fluent Arabic, I’d read that there were still Omanis of African or Baluchi descent who did not and who still lived much the way they or their forbearers had done back home.

The road snaked like an old switchback roller coaster through the crumpled coastal mountain range that rises immediately behind Muscat. Apparently designed by Dali and colour-coded by Armani, the razor-sharp range occasionally runs down to the beach, dividing the city into pockets. Before this impeccably maintained road was built, it could take the better part of a day to get from one pocket of Muscat to the other.

Tonight, the mountains are clearly visible, the full moon illuminating the landscape as efficiently as a Klieg light. Despite the glare, I could see that the sky was full of stars. I’ve been up since dawn and between the darkness outside and the whisper of the tyres on the road, my eyelids begin to droop. I’m almost asleep when Khaled speaks again. 

“You know, Sindibad was an Omani too.”

Half awake and not really thinking, I answer less tactfully than I ought.

“Sinbad? You mean the sailor? The one from the Thousand and One Nights?”

I laugh.

Khaled’s shoulders tighten.

“Yes sir, that’s him but in Arabic we call him Sindibad, not Sinbad.” He pauses slightly. “He comes from Sohar, just up the coast from Muscat.”

“Funny, because I’ve read the Thousand and One Nights and it says clearly that he’s from Basra,”

Normally, I wouldn’t argue about something like this, especially not with someone I don’t know, who is doing me a service and is really only trying to be nice but suddenly, diplomacy is out the window.

“The last time I looked, Basra was in Iraq, not Oman.”

A sudden silence descends. Khaled shifts a little uncomfortably in his seat, debating whether or not to reply.

“No sir, I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Sindibad was born in Sohar. Ask any Omani. Maybe he went to Basra afterwards. Besides, he used to be the mascot of Oman Air. Why would they use him if he was an Iraqi?”

It’s my moment to bow out gracefully, to profess my ignorance but stupidly, I’m determined to have the last word.

“Well, I don’t know about that but in the book it says that Sinbad came from Basra. Iraq. Besides, he’s only a character in a story, it’s not like he was a real person.”

The silence returns. This time it is deafening.

Delusions of Sinbad aside, Khaled was right about one thing, Oman is different. As I sit the following morning by the limpid waters of the Arabian Gulf flagellating myself for my bad manners, I realise I missed a prime opportunity to talk to Khaled about his life growing up here, about the changes he has seen since he arrived.

For in the last 30-odd years, Oman has changed beyond recognition. Sea-faring traders for millennia, the Omanis might have been the Phoenicians of the Arabian Gulf and once have had a trading empire that spanned continents, but by the early 1970’s, Muscat was a cultural and economic backwater at the edge of the world.

While the rest of the Gulf, in the middle of its first oil-boom, was busy building freeways, buying fast cars and making overnight fortunes, Oman still didn’t have electricity or running water. In Beirut, then the Middle East’s hostess with the mostest, dawn was announced by the sound of a thousand red-eyed revelers sliding gratefully between their sheets, in Muscat it was still marked by cockcrow and the sound of the city’s gate being unlocked by the night watchmen.

Despite oil revenues of its own, Oman languished somewhere in the 13th Century in terms of development, thanks entirely to its ruler, Sultan Said bin Taimur. A hermit king who rarely emerged from his palace in later years and vehemently opposed to any attempt to drag his country into the modern world, Sultan Said was the last gasp of a once-powerful fundamentalist movement that had dominated Oman for centuries.

The majority of Omanis are Ibadis, an early and rather puritanical sub-sect of Islam regarded as heretical by most other Muslims, at least at the time. Fleeing persecution, the Ibadis found refuge in the mountains of Oman, where in time, they divided into two competing schools of thought; one strictly by the book and the other more open to innovation. Travellers familiar with the world, most Omanis had long-since opted for openness. Their Sultan, however, saw things differently.

On July 23rd 1970, the 20th Century arrived. In a bloodless coup discretely supported by the British government, Sultan Said was deposed by his only son, Qaboos. Sent into exile in London, he spent his last years holed up in a suite at the Dorchester Hotel.

Sultan Qaboos immediately set about modernizing Oman, which in 1970 boasted 10km of surfaced roads, three primary schools, no secondary education and only one missionary-run hospital. He ended the tribal disputes that had wracked the country for decades, freed the slaves and concubines his father had kept, allowed music and television into the country - Omanis went straight from no TV to colour TV – set up banks, encouraged the exiles to return and sent the first generation of students abroad to learn the skills needed to build a modern state. Thirty years later, the Sultan’s reforms have been so successful that even Omanis born before 1970 find it hard to remember the way things were.

Still, the first time I visited Muscat eight years ago, it was full of sleepy charm. There were few cafes and restaurants and outside of the hotels, no real nightlife to speak of. A big night out meant a trip to the mall, a stroll in one of the city’s many parks or dinner at home with friends. For faster times, Omanis frequently drove three hours to Dubai and though they appeared happy that hedonism was within easy reach, it also seemed that they liked the fact that they had to drive somewhere else for the experience.

Those days, the best place to stay was the al-Bustan, a fabulously retro nugget of 70’s Orientalism that was the last word in luxury. With its own private beach, lush gardens and luxurious interiors – not to mention a frankincense-scented lobby nine stories tall – the Bustan was a truly regal experience.

In recent years, the promise of mountain treks, desert journeys, vast stretches of virgin beach and some of the world’s least visited dive sites has turned Oman into a popular destination on the high-end (eco)tourism circuit. Eager to attract more visitors (the airport is about to be upgraded and Oman Air given a multi-billion dollar facelift) at least of the Platinum Card-carrying kind, visitors to Muscat today are spoilt for choice.

Of course, there are the Radissons, the Mariotts and the Intercontinentals, but the main draws are the hipper-than-thou Chedi, boutique residence of choice for catwalk models, media moguls and design-conscious travellers and the Shangri-la Barr al-Jissa, a sprawling ‘Arabian’ complex comprised of three separate hotels – family, business and super-luxury – nestled like the Bustan, on its own private beach.

In terms of location, the Shangri-La is hard to beat. Its beaches are pristine, the water limpid and the diving and dolphin-watching tours it runs out of its in-house dive centre make it a favourite with the activity-oriented visitor. The three hotels are far enough apart to allow a stay at each to feel like a self-contained experience and the Hosn, the super-luxury wing, comes with all the amenities your average royal would expect.

The Chedi is an entirely different experience. More intimate, more international and much more sophisticated. Though less well located than the Shangri-La, its shortcomings are more than made up for by its ambiance, décor and facilities, including a luxurious spa and some of the finest dining in the country.

Boutique hotels, airport expansions, a slew of brand new glass towers and two ambitious new Dubai-style development projects north of Muscat. That night, as I walk along the sea-front in Muttrah with Ahmad al-Mukhaini, a historian and one of Oman’s most outspoken civil society activists, I ask him whether Muscat is on the verge of changing beyond all recognition.

“Changing? Yes we are changing. The whole world is changing,” he says, “but you know here, we are used to thinking in terms of centuries, not decades, so any changes will happen slowly.”

He smiles.

“Well, at least more slowly than they are happening in Dubai.”

Ahmad has invited me to Muttrah to show me a string of recently restored merchant’s houses, part of Muscat’s new drive to preserve its past. Much has already been lost. The expansion of the Sultan’s palace in the 1970’s cleared large parts of the walled city and other buildings were simply allowed to crumble but thanks to the efforts of Ahmad, and activists like him, the city’s remaining heritage buildings are being returned to their former glory. The Portuguese-built forts – parts of Oman were briefly occupied in the 16th and 17th centuries – are being renovated and the handful of remaining 19th century merchant’s houses, which with their wrought iron balconies and shaded courtyards are part New Orleans colonial and part traditional Arab house, are also being preserved.

A font of local knowledge, Ahmad hasn’t just brought me out to show me old buildings and as we walk along the sea front, he tells me about of one of the Sultan’s less talked-about innovations.

“You see the turban I’m wearing?” he pats the snazzily-wrapped pashmina scarf that rests delicately on his head. “It’s traditional Omani but it was really popularised by Sultan Qaboos. Before him, only a few people used to wear it.”

Short and fatherly, Sultan Qaboos enjoys a genuine, heartfelt popularity other royals would envy. Consequently, he does not need to indulge in the cult of leadership practised so heavily elsewhere in the region; the Sultan’s picture appears in government offices and on the country’s currency but rarely anywhere else. 

Although Oman has a Consultative Council and in 1996 was given the Basic Law, a constitutional document that guarantees personal and public freedoms, the Sultan’s rule is absolute. As with any decent monarchy, whatever the Sultan wants, the Sultan gets.

Hardly revolutionary, but Omanis say the Sultan’s will and the peoples’ generally coincide. Once a year, usually in the winter, he embarks on a two month tour to meet his subjects, camping in the desert and holding court around the country. Much more than some House of Windsor waveathon, the tour allows every Omani an opportunity to speak to their Sultan, regardless of age or gender. In practice, it’s a little less spontaneous but apart from the frustration some of the younger generation feel towards the glacial pace at which the country changes – unlike in Dubai, where the city alters before your eyes, any innovation introduced these days in Oman is always carefully considered and planned beforehand - few appear to have any complaints.

In fact, the only cloud that seems to hang over the Sultan is the question of who will inherit his throne. Unmarried, and at 60 not showing any signs of changing that status, the Sultan is without an heir. Rumours abound, particularly in the wider Arab press. With his liberal social attitudes, the unprecedented personal freedoms enjoyed by his subjects, including full legal equality for women under the law, and of course, his devotion to the Arts, music and the pleasures of an immaculately tied turban – well, you do the math.

So is he or isn’t he? Most Omanis couldn’t care less and are genuinely surprised anyone else would find the subject interesting enough to discuss. Partly, the lack of gossiping is respect, partly it is a reflection of the puritan tendencies of Ibadism, idle chatter is, after all, the Devil’s work, but mostly it’s an indication that in some ways, Omani society is modern in the best sense of that word.

“The Arabs like to decorate their heads,” Ahmad adds, as we duck into the pulsating night-time streets of the souq. “Their caps are their crowns.”

I’m not sure about ‘the Arabs’, but the Omanis certainly do. Not for them the simple white prayer cap topped with the chequered keffiyah worn elsewhere in the region. Apart from the turban, which is really only worn on formal occasions, most Omani men wear a lavishly embroidered cap called a kumah. A little like a pillbox hat, only softer, the kumah originated in East Africa and like most of the spices used in Omani food, was introduced by the Zanzibaris.

“It’s a form of communication, the way the kumah are worn,’ Ahmad continues, twirling the two arsaa, traditional walking sticks, he has just bought for his sons. “Whether it is pinched into a point at the front or worn round, the angle it is placed on the head, even the colour of the stitching, it all means something.”

He goes on to explain that like the hibiscus Hawaiian women once wore behind their ear, the way a kumah is worn also indicates marital status. The rakish angle adopted by many young men is a jaunty way to indicate that they are single and looking for a wife.

I ask Ahmad if he did the same when he was younger.

He laughs.

“Me? Never. My family was very traditional. My marriage was arranged by my parents while I was still quite young. Besides, I’ve always preferred the turban, myself”

For the capital of a desert country, Muscat itself is astonishingly green. Roads are lined with bougainvillaea hedges, grassy verges and trees, all kept leafy on desalinated water but once outside city limits, the land instantly reverts to desert.

Then it’s all dust and heat, with clumps of thorn-trees, spectacularly architectural Acacias and the occasional wandering camel or crumbling watchtower for colour. These many not be the romantic sandscapes of The English Patient  - for that, head inland to the Empty Quarter, where dunes hundreds of metres tall ripple away as far as the eye can see – but it is desert nonetheless.

Greater Muscat is testimony to what an abundance of space and money can achieve when coupled with a tortuous topography. Stretching for over 30 kilometres along the coast, it is a string of seaside hubs nestled around bijou bays, hilltop colonies and a new business district, each connected to the other by strip-mall development along the expressways that snake through the mountains. Like Los Angeles, Muscat is built for the car.

Architecturally, it is a pleasant if uninspiring mix of very similar-looking villas, some so vast they fall into the category of My Own Private Oasis. Most are white, many have mirrored windows, all are multicultural concoctions that are a pinch of Paris, a spoonful of Saudi and more than a touch theatrical and are generous with pseudo-military touches like towers and crenellated battlements. Omanis, like the English, clearly believe their home is their castle but then in the not-so-distant past, when tribes would raid each other’s villages, defensive features made sense.

The only raiders around today are likely to be corporate but some Muscatis are loath to give up their walls. In recent years, upwardly mobile areas have witnessed a phenomenal increase in gated communities, a reflection less of the need for security than the rather un-Ibadi desire for one’s own personal fiefdom, the chance to play Sultan every day.

Strip-malls, mass-produced houses, gated communities. If Muscat is beginning to sound about as aesthetically appealing as the Valley, fear not for the city’s setting is its salvation. The dramatic backdrop of razor-sharp ridges and crumpled bed sheet mountain ranges dotted with watchtowers and small forts, visible from every point in the city, rescues Muscat from the soulless sterility that characterises the Gulf’s other instant cities.

That and the fact that the whole city appears to be perfumed.

For centuries, Oman, or more strictly speaking, South Arabia was one of the wealthiest regions on Earth. A roaring trade in frankincense, the odor of choice in temples and homes from Luxor to Londinium ensured that Arabia Felix was civilized long before the rest of the peninsula.

The camel trains that plied the Incense Route to the Mediterranean are long gone but a frankincense haze still lingers, scenting everything from taxis and restaurants, to shops and private homes. Even the tassel that dangles from the neckline of the flowing robes worn by Omani men is dipped in frankincense oil, permitting the wearer to walk around in his own exquisitely perfumed world.

After a few days in this heady, sensual and (I suspect) mildly narcotic cloud of frankincense, you come to appreciate the Ancient World’s lust for Oman’s white gold. It takes the edges off all but the most difficult days, encourages a state of perpetual daydream and sets a smile in the heart, if not on the lips.

Yes, I reflect, as I survey the Beautiful People lounging around the chic black tiled pool at the Chedi, maybe Khaled was right after all. Sindibad did come from Oman. I guess in her haste, Sheherezade must have gotten that one wrong.

Originally Published in DestinAsian

Photo © Arabian Business