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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Living (Almost) Like Bedouins

Sameer Reddy
Apr 21, 2008

Oman's Bedouin have always eschewed the coast in favor of the arid desert. Here, pitched in what is the largest expanse of sand on earth, Abdullah Al Harthy's desert camp could be a scene from "The Arabian Nights." The tent walls, made of goatskin and cloth woven from camel hair, are ancient solutions to the blistering heat. Indeed, nothing appears to have changed since the third century B.C., when the country produced frankincense and served as an important stop on the trade route from ancient Mesopotamia to the Indian Subcontinent. That is, until visitors pull up in a Mercedes SUV and step into the cool blast of an air-conditioned tent. This is not, in fact, an ancient Bedouin settlement but one of Oman's most popular tourist ventures.

Despite a few modern conveniences, the setup couldn't be further from the glitz and superconsumerism found in Dubai, just over an hour's flight north. But that is clearly the point. The oil-rich sultanate has set out to rival its neighbor by offering almost the exact opposite sort of attractions. Where the United Arab Emirates has slick skyscrapers and über-modern malls, in Oman's capital, Muscat, and its port town Matrah, the whitewashed houses and labyrinthine souks—a distinct hybrid of European and Islamic architecture—speak of the country's previous occupation by both the Portuguese and the Persians.

The two forts of Al Mirani and Al Jalali—among the few high-rise fixtures on the landscape—face out toward the Indian Ocean as testament to an Omani empire that once stretched as far as East Africa and parts of modern-day Pakistan. Unlike other Gulf cities that sprang out of the desert since the discovery of oil, Oman's allure lies primarily in its ancient, checkered history. It is quickly becoming the antidote to anodyne cities like Abu Dhabi. "Oman is the exception in the Gulf," says Ali Chambers, a British filmmaker who lives in nearby Qatar and flies over to Muscat for a regular dose of authentic Arab culture. "I love the five-star glamour of Doha, but no matter how much money they have they'll never have history."
While frankincense was once its mainstay, it's now oil that dominates Oman's economy. And although Oman's reserves pale in comparison to the vast fields owned by its smaller Gulf neighbors, oil still represents more than half its GDP. "We know that one day our oil will run out," says Salim Al Mamary, Oman's director general of tourism. "We know we have to diversify, grow and modernize. But our aim is to preserve the authentic, historic character of our country. Our watchwords are controlled, reserved and cautious."

Conservatism is something Oman knows plenty about. For most of the 20th century the country was essentially a time vault. Years of isolationism imposed by the then sultan, Said bin Taimur, left little in the way of infrastructure. Just a few kilometers of paved roads crisscrossed the country's vast tracts of desert. Due to his staunchly anti-Western stance, even sunglasses were banned—so it's no surprise that tourists stayed away. When Taimur's son, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, deposed his father from power in 1970, he began plowing the country's petrodollars back into tourism. The British-educated autocrat has kept a tight rein on development ever since, imposing height restrictions on buildings to keep a consistent Omani style and taking a personal interest in planning applications. Outside the capital, the old Oman is even more apparent; small hilltop desert towns still use medieval irrigation systems. And the seaside town of Sur remains a labyrinth of streets and grand merchant houses with carved doors and arabesque windows.

Oman's stint in the Dark Ages has also worked in favor of the natural environment. While the feudal rule of Sultan Taimur created economic limbo, it also left the country's landscape largely untouched. Today there are a slew of ecotourism ventures springing up. Responsibletravel.com takes groups of intrepid tourists and scientists from the royal Omani court in search of the elusive Arabian leopard, a creature that is all but extinct in other parts of the peninsula. Its expedition tours the remote desert mountains of the Dhofar region, setting camera traps and looking for tracks, scratch marks and other pieces of evidence of leopard presence.

Oman's Bedouin have always eschewed the coast in favor of the arid desert. Here, pitched in what is the largest expanse of sand on earth, Abdullah Al Harthy's desert camp could be a scene from "The Arabian Nights." The tent walls, made of goatskin and cloth woven from camel hair, are ancient solutions to the blistering heat. Indeed, nothing appears to have changed since the third century B.C., when the country produced frankincense and served as an important stop on the trade route from ancient Mesopotamia to the Indian Subcontinent. That is, until visitors pull up in a Mercedes SUV and step into the cool blast of an air-conditioned tent. This is not, in fact, an ancient Bedouin settlement but one of Oman's most popular tourist ventures.

Despite a few modern conveniences, the setup couldn't be further from the glitz and superconsumerism found in Dubai, just over an hour's flight north. But that is clearly the point. The oil-rich sultanate has set out to rival its neighbor by offering almost the exact opposite sort of attractions. Where the United Arab Emirates has slick skyscrapers and über-modern malls, in Oman's capital, Muscat, and its port town Matrah, the whitewashed houses and labyrinthine souks—a distinct hybrid of European and Islamic architecture—speak of the country's previous occupation by both the Portuguese and the Persians.

The two forts of Al Mirani and Al Jalali—among the few high-rise fixtures on the landscape—face out toward the Indian Ocean as testament to an Omani empire that once stretched as far as East Africa and parts of modern-day Pakistan. Unlike other Gulf cities that sprang out of the desert since the discovery of oil, Oman's allure lies primarily in its ancient, checkered history. It is quickly becoming the antidote to anodyne cities like Abu Dhabi. "Oman is the exception in the Gulf," says Ali Chambers, a British filmmaker who lives in nearby Qatar and flies over to Muscat for a regular dose of authentic Arab culture. "I love the five-star glamour of Doha, but no matter how much money they have they'll never have history."
While frankincense was once its mainstay, it's now oil that dominates Oman's economy. And although Oman's reserves pale in comparison to the vast fields owned by its smaller Gulf neighbors, oil still represents more than half its GDP. "We know that one day our oil will run out," says Salim Al Mamary, Oman's director general of tourism. "We know we have to diversify, grow and modernize. But our aim is to preserve the authentic, historic character of our country. Our watchwords are controlled, reserved and cautious."

Conservatism is something Oman knows plenty about. For most of the 20th century the country was essentially a time vault. Years of isolationism imposed by the then sultan, Said bin Taimur, left little in the way of infrastructure. Just a few kilometers of paved roads crisscrossed the country's vast tracts of desert. Due to his staunchly anti-Western stance, even sunglasses were banned—so it's no surprise that tourists stayed away. When Taimur's son, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, deposed his father from power in 1970, he began plowing the country's petrodollars back into tourism. The British-educated autocrat has kept a tight rein on development ever since, imposing height restrictions on buildings to keep a consistent Omani style and taking a personal interest in planning applications. Outside the capital, the old Oman is even more apparent; small hilltop desert towns still use medieval irrigation systems. And the seaside town of Sur remains a labyrinth of streets and grand merchant houses with carved doors and arabesque windows.

Oman's stint in the Dark Ages has also worked in favor of the natural environment. While the feudal rule of Sultan Taimur created economic limbo, it also left the country's landscape largely untouched. Today there are a slew of ecotourism ventures springing up. Responsibletravel.com takes groups of intrepid tourists and scientists from the royal Omani court in search of the elusive Arabian leopard, a creature that is all but extinct in other parts of the peninsula. Its expedition tours the remote desert mountains of the Dhofar region, setting camera traps and looking for tracks, scratch marks and other pieces of evidence of leopard presence.

Purists worry that Oman will eventually fall under the influence of its neighbors. "I wouldn't be so naive as to say that Oman is going to stay this way," says Marchant. "So go while you can." With the sultan's drive to diversify the tourist trade gaining speed, more than a few mega-real-estate ventures are challenging his vision of a truly authentic Oman. Traditionalists may balk at the modern developments. But out in the desert, where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius, Oman's compromise between ancient customs and 21st-century comfort seems only to enhance an adventure into the real Arabia. Or at least what remains of it.