Sweet dates in a desert city

Chris Caldicott finds age-old hospitality in the souks of modern Oman
From the air, I had seen Oman many times: rugged mountains, miles of seductive coast, white towns linked by long, black roads across an infinity of sand, under an infinity of sky. I had even been down there, but only to change planes and spend weary hours in the transit lounge. Despite all the glossy chrome of the futuristic airport, the people drifting in and out were dressed in the traditional regalia of the Arabian desert and suggested a far more exotic and timeless land. I wanted to know what it was really like.

Set at the mouth of the Gulf, between Arabia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent, Oman has for centuries been a trading nation. Early Arab conquests in the first wave of Islamic expansionism created both markets and protection, and Omani traders and shipbuilders made fortunes.

By the 16th century this wealth had attracted the attention of resurgent European powers. In 1507 the Portuguese captured Oman and began a century- and-a-half of cruel occupation.

By the end of the 17th century, while the Portuguese, Dutch and British expanded their empires elsewhere and fought each other, Oman's power and wealth recovered. In the early 1800s its own empire incorporated the Somali coast of Africa, Zanzibar and parts of Persia and Baluchistan. Dhows full of slaves, spices and frankincense generated great riches, until 1856 when jealous rivalry between the Sultan's two sons split the sultanate. One son took all the African possessions, the other stayed with Arabia. Then slavery was abolished. This brought a weakened Oman into direct confrontation with the British Navy, the inheritor of Portuguese sea power. Fuelled by a combination of moral righteousness, economic calculation and naval technology, Britannia ruled the waves. Oman went into decline.

Under a lineage of conservative and autocratic sultans, Oman, reduced to fishing and date cultivation, dwindled into obscurity until the middle of this century. Then oil was discovered and the country began the business of reunification.

Keen to secure access to the emerging oil fields, the British aided Sultan Said bin Taimar in subjugating the subversive Imam of Nizwa and his rebellious hill tribes. It was the fierce conservatism of this imam that made it too dangerous for Wilfred Thesiger to enter the area during his explorations of the Omani deserts. Despite rapidly expanding oil revenues, Said bin Taimar showed little enthusiasm for modernising Oman's semi-feudal society. In a bloodless palace coup in 1970 his more worldly son Qaboos was manipulated into power. Today he is the absolute ruler of a centrally controlled and clearly defined sultanate, although rebellion in the remote southern district of Dhofar was not finally crushed until the Eighties.

Despite such recent turmoil, within minutes of leaving the airport at Seeb, you feel Oman to be a very friendly and safe country. If there is a price to be paid for this security, then it is perhaps the obsessive personality cult of the ruler. Qaboos's image is everywhere, and the media report loyally and incessantly on his sayings and doings. But the distribution of wealth has been equitable (dissidents may claim shades of another strongman, Lenin), and health care, education, housing and communications are highly developed and freely available.

When we arrived, the intrigue of the Arabian desert still seemed frustratingly far away. An FM rock station accompanied the Jeep ride into the capital; with the sea on one side and emerging skyscrapers on the other, it felt like California.

Yet not everything old has been destroyed in the rush to modernity, even in the city. The palaces of old Muscat, the elegant old merchants' houses around the dhow harbour, and the souk at Mutrah, are all well preserved. The souk is genuinely exotic and full of exciting wares. However, it's all strangely clean and respectable, in fact all of urban Oman is. There is a law against driving a dirty car into the city. There are no bars, men cannot comfortably wear shorts, and women have to be very comprehensively dressed indeed.

The police are zealous but always polite; while out driving in the desert one night I was stopped by a patrol car with flashing lights and siren and requested to go back and pick up a cigarette butt someone had thrown out of the car window.

Yet romantic Arabia did not take long to find. We walked straight into it in the fishing villages along the Gulf of Oman between Muscat and Sur.

Sur itself still has traditional dhow building yards in its harbour. At a deserted beach near Tiwi there was an opportunity to enjoy some winter sunshine and swim in the clear sea among vibrant parrot fish, miniature sharks and giant rays.

As we turned inland, the sense of Arabia intensified. We crossed the dramatic and almost deserted Eastern Hajar mountains and arrived at the spectacular Wahibah Sands. This great sand sea is made up of immense, linear dunes that stretch to the horizon and provide a comfortable bed under the most dazzling of night skies. The towns to the west in and around the Jebel Akhdar are dominated by 17th-century forts.

The Jebel mountains alternate between lush valleys of date palms and gardens around oasis springs, and fiercely rugged, arid hillsides dotted with villages. All of it is strikingly beautiful. The once uncontrollable tribesmen are now polite and hospitable to foreigners, often inviting visitors to their homes to drink coffee and eat dates. Most of the men are well armed and wear faded, patterned gowns, a sartorial world away from the neat, urban version, the dishdash. The women appear in full purdah.

Despite the overwhelmingly dry mountains, it can rain very hard and suddenly. Flash floods, like the one we were caught in, can come out of nowhere. It came like a thunderbolt from a blue sky, inundating the road in seconds, erupting through the car floor, flooding the engine. The taxi was stranded, and, as long as the water didn't rise enough to sweep us away, all we could do was wait to be rescued. I couldn't have been shipwrecked with a nicer bunch of people. There was a turbaned Punjabi, a Christian from Kerala, two Baluchistanis, and an Egyptian driver. We spent two good-humoured, soggy and rather anxious hours unable to see anything except water where the fields of rocks had been. Our driver gallantly set off to find help, and returned with some rifle-sporting locals in a Japanese tractor. Inevitably the adventure ended with dates and coffee.

It is more than 600 miles from Muscat to the southern capital of Salalah. The road begins as an impressive multi-lane freeway speeding past the Jebel mountains, then a strip of bitumen stretches over the Empty Quarter. The monotony of the road is broken by futuristic oases of restaurants with air-conditioned marble interiors. Then you reach Dhofar - and another world.

Dhofar is the only part of the whole Arabian peninsula exposed to the Arabian Sea monsoon. The consequent subtropical fertility creates a sudden contrast to the Empty Quarter: rolling hills of green pasture feed imported Friesian cows.

Frankincense trees are dotted around the valleys, their spiky ugliness in contrast to the exotic aroma of their gum, which provided so much wealth to Dhofar in centuries past. The resin is still on sale in the souk of Salalah.

Some crumbling old merchants' houses remain but most of the city is thoroughly modern - money has been poured into the region to ensure the inhabitants don't forget they are very much part of a united Oman governed from Muscat.

Beyond the city are miles and miles of undeveloped coastline, clean ocean and deserted beaches. Inland are ancient villages of rambling houses with carved wooden windows, surreal mosques, and an equally strange landscape made of limestone escarpments peppered with giant sink holes and caves, some of which are home to rather wild-looking Dhofari tribesmen. There is a feeling, here, of being in one of the outermost places on earth, certainly a long way from the transit lounge at Seeb Airport.