Oman was catapulted into the 20th century less than 40 years ago. The result is gentle social progress and a landscape of rare unsullied beauty
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The Independent Culture
Muscat, the capital, has to be the cleanest city on earth and looks like a garden suburb. Its snow-white buildings are grandly spacious, long and deep rather than high. They are irregularly separated by billiard- table lawns. None are alike in design but they are harmonious together. Miles of smooth roadway link these buildings, with not so much as a toffee paper or a cigarette butt defiling their gutters. A litter-free city, in fact a litter-free country, is not only an aesthetic treat but good public health. Quietness is another boon. And flowers are everywhere: narrow beds of pink, red and purple petunias divide the main dual carriageway; hibiscus, bougainvillaea, oleander abound. The decorated domes and towers of the many mosques supply colour. The sun blazes faithfully, the winter temperature hovering around 75F. The only snag is a chilly wind that churns the sea, making it too cold and rough for use.

Muscat meanders for 45km along the lovely coast of the Arabian Sea. Strange and beautiful jagged-stone mountains rim the city. Apart from respectfully preserved relics, Muscat and everything man-made in Oman is new. This long-isolated, retarded country catapulted into the 20th century in 1970, when the old Sultan was quietly deposed and took up exile in the Dor-chester Hotel in London.

Everyone in Oman knows this story. The Sultan thought the 14th century was about the right time-zone for his people, allowing only three boys' schools. However, he sent his only son and heir, Qaboos, to public school in England. After graduating from Sandhurst, Qaboos completed his European education with the British Army in Germany. On his return to Oman, his father kept him under house arrest for six years, believing him a dangerous western influence. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said became the absolute ruler of Oman when he was 30 and has done a miraculous job of transforming it into a modern functional state, starting from scratch. Roads, electricity, telephones, television, cars, public transport, breeze block instead of mud brick are all novelties. Oman has remained stable during these revolutionary changes because the Sultan has not disturbed the rooted social customs of his people, though they are beginning to be gently eroded by time and the education of females. However, girls are still segregated from males at the age of 10. Marriages are arranged, the mothers of bride and groom being the principal brokers, and grooms pay "bride money". Anyone in western clothes is a foreigner. Omani men wear the long Arab robe, the dishdash, and embroidered caps or small turbans. Omani women cover their hair with scarves and wear the black tent, the abaya, rather like a dust coat over colourful high-necked, long-sleeved, long-skirted dresses.

Oman's oil wealth is finite and measly compared to that of its neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran, but the Sultan has spent the money well. Unlike most rulers, he is universally popular. He has benefited all his people and they know it. At the top, the rich make no arrogant display of their privilege, not even with flashy cars. At the bottom, there are no bitter unemployed, no beggars, no homeless or hungry people.

"Do you have censorship here?" I asked a reporter from the Independent Times of Oman. This anglophile country supports two English-language newspapers, one produced by the Ministry of Information.

"Not as such," he replies. "Of course, we have self-censorship."

"That means you can't criticise the Sultan," I comment.

"Why should we?" he said, amazed. "We love him. And nobody would believe us anyway."

It is a nine-hour slog from London to Muscat, though not for me in the pampered, first-class luxury of Gulf Air. The unlikely keynote of my month in Oman was seamless comfort. I am far from accustomed to this on my travels. Muscat has few hotels for tourists, and few tourists. The four hotels I know of come complete with outdoor swimming pools. The sumptuous 250-room Al Bustan Palace Hotel is Oman's dream offering to tourists. There are fewer hotels elsewhere in the country, but you cannot go wrong on accommodation.

"Where do they get all the marble?" I asked an Omani, having by then walked on acres of gleaming white flooring.

"We have two or three marble mountains," he explained.

Happily, tourists may bring in duty-free booze and can buy drink in the better restaurants and hotel bars. The Al Bustan surely has a disco - it has everything else - and perhaps two other hotels provide them for expats and tourists. Muscat pretty well closes down before midnight. No tourist visas were granted until 1990. Oman is too expensive and too demanding for mass tourism.

Foreigners must accept Omani standards of dress. In public, long trousers or skirts and well-covered tops for women, shirts and long trousers for men.

The Sultan's finest reforms are in free education and health care. Schools teach the same curriculum to boys and girls, though separately. There are technical colleges and a splendid university, for 5,500 students, half of whom are girls. Education is not compulsory for that would attack the role of the father as the prime power in the home. Most of the pre-Qaboos illiterate population has come round to the concept of education, especially for girls. Health care was immediately successful. A great and humane Royal teaching hospital in Muscat is the centrepiece, but hospitals and health centres have been built throughout the country. Since 1970, life expectancy has risen from 47 to 68 years.

Huge families are traditional and fathers seem as fond of children as their mothers. Average family size in Oman is 7.4; in Britain, 1.85. There is plenty of room for them but not plenty of water. Younger, educated couples practise something the Omanis call "birth spacing". It is one erosion of custom.

Oman is about the same size as Italy, with a population of one and a half million Omanis and half a million foreigners. (The population of Rome is about 3 million.) You can imagine the thrilling sense of space. Most of the land is plains of fine gravel and sand broken by winter-dry wadies, small bushes and short thorn trees. You might drive for hours and see only goats or, in the south, wandering camels and a Bedouin camp. The extraordinary mountains crisscross the country. They rise straight from the plain, their stone faces differently carved by wind and rain, their colours varying from deep red to pale grey. Most of the people live along the 1,700km coastline, but much of this is empty beaches and secret coves.

You need a local guide to see Omani life beyond the known tourist sights, such as the old walled city of Muscat, now engulfed in the new city, the silver- smith souk or the stunning 1,200- year-old palace fort at Nizwa in the mountains behind Muscat. Chris Beale, the male half of a tour company, took me along to the Wahibah Sands, a true desert about the size of north Yorkshire and a geological mystery in the centre of the coastal plain three hours south of Muscat. He needed to visit a Bedouin, Said Sultan, whom he employs as a desert guide. Said Sultan lives on top of a high sand dune in a right mess of pup tents made from bamboo. He is 35 years old, has 10 camels, 10 children, a child-size wife, a sun-blackened old mother and a battered pick-up truck. He is a joyously happy and charming man. Bedouins seem to be the poorest people in the country, as well as the merriest, but they are not really poor. Their working camels are worth about pounds 3,000 each; camel capital increases by breeding. The same economics apply to their goats.

Around Nizwa, old villages are lived in alongside the new. Al Hambra, in a small valley, has mud-plastered houses four storeys high, with small arched doors and unevenly placed windows. The largest, at the crossing of two narrow dirt lanes, had lost its mud cover to showed its 400-year- old construction: flat stones laid upon each other, held in place by large pebbles. Every house sprouted television antennae and one air-conditioning box. The large stone house was probably overcrowded since the owner had two wives and 20 children. Big tin canisters stood in the lanes, communal dustbins. A scruffy pick-up truck passed, its rear heaped with rubbish. A gleaming four-door sedan followed, driven by a woman and packed with children. The village palm garden lay green and cool behind the high houses. These are low, bushy date palms and, within the wall that encloses them, each villager owns his personal trees.

My favourite journey was with Raya Riyami, a small, soft-spoken woman who may be unique among Omanis. By her own choice, she went to England to school when she was 13, trained and worked there as a physiotherapist, and returned to Oman aged 28. Perhaps this long absence explains her independence of mind and action and her European humour. Though she dresses like a proper Omani woman, is a good Muslim and accepts the social customs of her people, she is at ease with men as with women. The Sultan asked the Omani diaspora to come home and help build a new country. The Omani intelligentsia had fled the old Sultan's stupidity for education abroad. Raya taught in remote village schools, then formed the Women's Association, groups of women offering voluntary service in the community. Now she has become a one-woman tour company and is the ideal guide.

We watched speed trials for racing camels on a sand track in the middle of nowhere. The jockeys are six-year-old boys in metallic-coloured hard hats and home-made costumes, who are lifted and tied onto kneeling camels. I have never seen horses run as fast as those camels. The Bedouin who own them transported them here in new Nissan and Toyota pick-ups. The camels kneel in the back of these little trucks with their sad, disdainful faces lifted over the rear gate. A good racing camel is worth upwards of pounds 100,000. Racing here is a weekly entertainment for the men of the area. Betting on camel and horse races is allowed by the Koran, the only permitted gambling.

We were invited through the gate in the wall of the local sheik's house because of Raya, and shattered Omani tradition by sitting and eating in the men's room while the sheik and his three sons sat across the room eating with their backs to us.

We were given delectable dates, tiny cups of coffee and Omani pastries. The floor of the room was covered in carpets, its walls lined with pillows in white satin, embroidered pillowslips. The communal room for the men of the family and their visitors is essential in the Omani house since men and women do not sit, eat or talk together. As we were leaving, the sheik's wife, a buxom happy-faced woman in her forties, came into the clean cemented courtyard to kiss Raya and shake hands with me before disappearing back into her house.

We made short work of the animal auction at the Sinaw market - Raya even more distressed than I by the noise of men commenting and bidding for goats and calves. Omanis are normally unexcitable and low-spoken. Here, many men added swank to their dishdashes by wearing leather belts with silver scabbards and silver-handled daggers.

"Raya," I said, "are the men really touching noses?"

They were, instead of the usual greeting kisses on both cheeks

On a narrow dirt lane, we entered another walled house, this one small, unpainted and mean, belonging to a Bedouin family. Here, we went to the bare women's room as Raya wanted to help them sell their weaving: dismal tan and brown prayer mats and shopping bags. An old woman wearing the hideous beaked Bedouin face mask and all-enshrouding black tried to do business with Raya while the youngest, a girl of about 17, wild with excitement over visitors, took off all her black camouflage to reveal a raving beauty who might have been Italian or Spanish. Her skin was exquisite. She had large, long-lashed dark eyes, wavy dark brown hair to her shoulders, a wide, full, lipsticked mouth and a lovely slim body in a long crimson silk dress. An older girl, probably her sister-in-law and already a mother, sat quietly smiling on the floor, the beauty of her features blurring in fat. She held her left hand stretched out to dry the henna decorations she had just painted on it. Afterwards, Raya said that if we had both been strangers the girls would have stood like mute statues.

At the outdoor women's market in Sinaw, some sat cross-legged behind their wares - mostly gaudy dress cloth - while others squatted before them bargaining and buying. Whenever Omani women are alone together, they chat and laugh exuberantly, enjoying each other's company. These country women should look care-worn from work and repeated childbearing. They do not. They look sturdy, healthy and notably cheerful. City women have larger opportunities. They work, if they choose, in banks, hospitals, schools, offices, government ministries, wherever their skills permit. If rich enough, they drive their own cars, even going out with other women at night. They are quieter in manner but, like the country women, clearly take pleasure in being together. They never seem hurried or harassed. Whatever unhappiness or discord exists in the strict privacy of their walled houses, no outsider would know. The public aspect of women in Oman is contentment.

Driving through the mountains, Raya at the wheel of a Range Rover, I said: "There are no cops in this country."

"Of course there are," replied Raya. "We passed two patrol cars back there on the highway."

"What were they doing?"

"Checking for speeders."

But I saw no uniforms anywhere until cops were pointed out to me at Salalah airport. They wore khaki shirts and trousers and black berets. I had not noticed them before, and though the Omani army exists and is trained by British officers, I still don't know what soldiers look like.

Salalah, the second city, on the coast at the southern limit of Oman, is charmless. The building boom has resulted in a tatty sprawl. The scenery from the mountains to the sea is especially beautiful, but I took against Salalah on be-half of its women. They look like black mummies, shrouded from head to toe. I spoke to one of these invisible women in a bank. By her voice and hands I could tell that she was young. She showed me how the thick black face mask, with a slit for the eyes, ties on over an enveloping thick black headscarf that covers the shoulders and the breasts. The abaya is tightly closed and long to the wrists and to the ground. On top of all this, a black georgette veil covers the face mask to hide the eyes.

"I do not want any man to see my wife's face," said my local guide, Rajil, a well-intentioned fool. "And she do not."

The invisible girl spoke perfect English. She had studied at the laboratory school in Muscat and now worked at the new Salalah school. "Between teacher and student," she said. A lab technician. At work, she wore a white headscarf and a white lab coat and mixed with male teachers and students. Before she left the school, she reverted without question or anger to the idiot traditional camouflage.

Salalah had only two attractions, the frankincense souk and the gold souk. In the frankincense souk, coal-black women - the descendants of Zanzibari slaves, since Zanzibar once belonged to Oman - sat in their stalls, dressed in brilliant loose robes and headscarves, with a gold ring through their noses. A jolly fat black woman said she liked working in the souk, seeing all the people and chatting with customers about her incense and perfumed body oils. Her husband is a fisherman. She has six children. One son plays in the Omani national military band, one is a soldier, two are policemen, one daughter is married, the other at school. An upwardly mobile family. I asked for advice on body oils from another customer, a stylish young Muscat visitor, immediately recognisable because of her exposed face and carelessly-worn abaya. "I don't know," she said, "I buy mine at the Body Shop in Muscat."

The gold souk is a long street, lined on both sides by toy-sized jewellery shops, each with its own goldsmith. I saw a magnificent gold necklace, large carved gold medallions held together by four gold chains, and asked the price - pounds 1,590, cheap at the price. I said it was a pity that the woman who bought it would have to hide it; I meant under the awful black shroud. The Indian shopkeeper misunderstood me and said, "Oh no, no. No teef in Oman."

"There's no crime in Oman," said a civil servant, seriously.

"Omani women are not raped," Raya told me later.

I could just about believe Raya but not believe in a crime-free nation, so I asked for and did not receive statistics on prison population. I imagine you could ask for any statistics and not receive them from the vast bureaucracy that administers the government. Of course there has to be crime, but it must be so rare and non-lethal that nobody feels it. Personal safety is taken for granted. How about drugs? A non-topic. Nobody seems to have thought of this problem. "What happens to adulterers?" I asked an Omani man who laughed and said, "They don't chop off your head." The powerful bureaucracy must offer many chances for corruption, nepotism, abuses of power or disastrous negligence. Political crime, terrorism, sinister acts by secret police are beyond Omani imagination. Whatever the hidden sins of Oman, they cannot be widespread and troublesome enough to alarm the people or weaken their confidence in the Sultan.

I cannot truly understand how or why Omani women are satisfied with their lives, but they certainly seem to be. Omani men have every reason to be pleased with their status. Working hours are moderate; none of them can be stres-sed by overwork, including farmers tending palm gardens and fishermen now equipped with fine new outboard motors. Omanis do not pay income tax. Outside their homes, which are their kingdoms, Omani men idle their leisure time however they can afford in what amounts to a large, open men's club. Their minds could do with broadening. Their educated daughters, whom they cherish, will attend to that in due course. "We are really a classless society," said an Omani, who would at once be considered upper-class in Britain. I thought this nonsense, but watching how Omanis treat each other I decided that in a peculiar way it is true. There is a curious inner democracy among Omanis so that no man need feel himself belittled by having less money than another.

The foreigners, the expat residents, are a different story. They have no tenure, must regularly renew their visas and are liable to instant deportation for offences against the law or customs of the country. They have no property rights: they cannot own land, buildings, businesses. Complicated arrangements with Omanis settle this problem. They are not entitled to free education or healthcare, but the well-off use private schools and private doctors and hospitals anyway. The poor pay, or their employers pay, a modest fee for both services. The upper-crust Caucasian expats, as they name themselves, lead pleasurable western-style lives, aided by the privilege of buying liquor at a warehouse allotted to them. The bulk of foreigners is the Asian manual labour force that constructed, and goes on constructing, modern Oman. They are paid a third of Omani wages and save to send money home, the purpose of immigrant labour everywhere. Their lives are obviously the hardest in Oman but at least they will never be insulted, molested or attacked on racial or religious grounds. They are as safe as anyone else and apparently glad to be here. Between these extremes there are various grades of wealth, occupation and nationality and all are free to lead their own kind of lives. Islam in Oman is calm and tolerant. Omanis are naturally pleasant people who value their own privacy and respect that of others.

The ancient Sultanate of Oman turns out to be a beautiful, peaceful, Muslim, Arab welfare state with a trusted ruler and a sufficient feel- good factor for all its inhabitants. If that isn't a complete surprise, what is? !