Suddenly, without warning, our trusty white Mitsubishi Pajero was careering off the paved road, in the middle of sand-coloured Omani emptiness, and jolting, bumping, swerving towards the country’s desolate mountains. As Hilal, my guide and driver, pointed out thousand-foot drops beside us, he accelerated the four-wheel-drive SUV up steep, narrow tracks, stones slipping under our wheels.
We rounded a turn, and I saw great crags and slate-coloured mountains across a landscape as barren and haunting as any in the American west. Road signs pointed across the abyss to five or six towns I could no longer imagine, and goats occasionally bleated in the silence. Every now and then we came to an oasis – ancient mud-brick towers scattered across a sudden stretch of green – and then we were in the middle of nowhere again, climbing towards a breathtaking new expanse of receding peaks.
It’s not often in the modern world that you can chance upon scenes as unvisited, almost Biblical, as these. I’d found an equivalent only in Yemen and Ethiopia, both desperately poor and occasionally turbulent countries. But Oman is a rare country that is at once safe and very much itself, exotic and almost embarrassingly user-friendly. I’d first stumbled upon it after a harrowing trip across the mountains of Yemen, five weeks before 9/11. While fleeing a land of tribal kidnapping and boys with machine-guns, I came upon the pristine quiet of an ornate Arabic hotel on a beach, and thought I’d arrived in paradise. Muscat, Oman’s capital, provided as picturesque and pristine a vision of fairy-tale white castles as any romantic could hope for.
It was not defaced by shopping malls or high-rise buildings so was low-key, modest and sleekly traditional. The little souk, next to a pretty harbour, was full of women in black abayas and men in immaculate white dishdashas, whose very tassels are smothered in incense every morning (“Omanis are the most fragrant people in the world,” an Australian resident assured me).
Around the city, moreover, are the 9,000-ft Jabal Akhdar mountains I was visiting with Hilal, 1,300 miles of stunning coastline (with green turtles to be seen at Ras al-Jinz, near Sur, and playful dolphins 15 minutes outside Muscat), and not a single car to be spied across miles of clean modern highway.
One morning I found myself watching Bedouin women in black masks above their orange or turquoise dresses as they led goats across a crowded parking lot while greybeards in white turbans limped past.
“See, they’re shopping,” said Hilal, as we passed a pick-up loaded with vegetables, 70lb sacks of dates and a just-purchased goat.
Pulling out of town, we drew up at a petrol station (complete with mosque) in the bone-white emptiness. “E-rial card accepted here,” read the sign above a parked Toyota with a camel sitting placidly in the back. Inside the station’s store there were DVDs (“Memorising the Qu’ran for Kids”) next to six-packs of pomegranate juice. When the man at the cash register lacked small change to give me, he handed over some peanut brittle instead. Like almost everything in Oman, it tasted of halva or curry, or both at once.
When the Sandhurst-educated Sultan Qaboos displaced his eccentric and reclusive father in a palace coup in 1970, he surveyed the countries around him, beginning to take off in an oil-mad frenzy, and realised what he didn’t want to do. Oil would not last indefinitely, he knew, and if traditions were completely wiped out by new developments, his kingdom could find itself orphaned and bereft.
He set up schools and hospitals in the most deserted areas but demanded that no building should be more than nine stories high. He sent water and electricity to mountain villages, free of charge, but mandated that houses be erected in traditional style, with pastel colours, creating a vision of white mini-castles shimmering over the vast white sands.
The result is a kind of understated, tasteful, bespoke Arabia that couldn’t be less like its neighbours. There are tower-houses here, as in Yemen to the south, and the men wear ceremonial swords now and then; but there are also signs for McDonald’s double cheeseburgers – “The promise of joy” – all around the 2,000-year-old town of Muscat. Hilal takes his holidays every year in Thailand, recognised every last make of car on our trip and often disappeared to check on the second house he’d bought with his military pension; yet he kissed the Qu’ran before he picked it up in the Grand Mosque, could spot an eagle from what seemed like miles away and greeted everyone we passed with so rousing a “Salam Aleikum” that I could not tell if they were friends or strangers.
Women can drive here, unlike in Saudi Arabia to the east and yet, Hilal assured me (as “How Deep is Your Love?” played on our sound system from his flash drive), he would not even say hello to a woman until they were married.
At times, this careful sense of protectedness gives Oman something of the feeling of a Bhutan of the Middle East. “We enjoy a cut-and-paste system,” a shy young Omani woman, covered from head to toe in black, told me on the first afternoon of my return to the country. “We take the new things, like malls and fast food, and we paste them on to our traditions.” At other times the air of paternalism can make it feel a little like the Singapore of the Perfume Coast. “Roads monitored by radar,” shout the signs above the empty highways, and Omanis can be fined if their cars are dirty.
The first thing that struck me as I walked into my luxury three-room tent at the Desert Nights Camp in Wahiba Sands – nothing around but golden dunes, some as high as 450ft, stretching for 50 miles in some directions – was the mini-bar, rainforest shower and air-conditioning unit. The second was a sign announcing “CCTV surveillance”. In the leather-bound handbook to the camp’s facilities, the headlines moved in one smooth flow from “satellite TV” to “saw-scaled vipers”, “scenery,” “scorpions” and “Scrabble”.
For the casual visitor, though, this all makes Oman one of the undiscovered treasures of the planet.
In the middle of miles of soul-clearing silence, suddenly I was near the water pools at Wadi Bani Khalid, where locals were swimming in clear emerald waters, the little girls decorously covered by veils. Such surprises were frequent. At the end of the long, dusty, drive to the sumptuous Six Senses resort at Zighy Bay on the Musandam Peninsula – not many miles over the water from Iran – I did not know whether to order saffron honey or fig ice cream, or sorbets of carrot and basil, apple and coriander.
In the summer, Salalah, in the southern region of Dhofar, enjoys the only monsoon in Arabia, and one hot July afternoon I watched families from across the peninsula delightedly picnicking in the mist and light drizzle, beside frankincense trees and camels. Oman is not cheap, and its diet has not improved much since Ibn Battuta, travelling up the coast in the 14th century, dined on dates, fish and bread here. You may balk when you hear that one of the country’s most celebrated traditional dishes is called “rabees” and blanch when you hear that it is boiled baby shark. But to stay at the six-star Al Husn wing of the Shangri-La, 15 minutes outside Muscat, or to dine in the minimalist splendour of the Chedi hotel on the beach, is to enjoy the pleasures of the best south-east Asian destinations, say, with none of the crowds.
The hundreds of watchtowers and ancient forts that are among the country’s most dramatic sites recall that Oman has long been home to tribal warfare. Some of the most secret spots in these elegant jewels among the mango and papaya trees are “murder holes”, designed for dropping hot date oil on invaders. In the quaint Beit Al Zubair museum in Muscat, the main items on display are shields made of rhinoceros hide and swords disguised as walking sticks. (In the 19th century, Omani navies controlled parts of Pakistan, Kenya and Zanibar.) Yet even as demonstrations were bursting out across the region during the Arab Spring, the only small unrest in Oman I came across was in the industrial port city of Sohar, where we met tanks, surrounding the roundabouts leading into town, and every passing car was checked.
What happens when the childless sultan, now in his seventies, moves on is not something anyone is keen to think about, and I could not tell how durable Oman’s delicate balance would remain. “There is a mosque over there,” a local we ran into said, “and next to it, a shop selling alcohol. What you do, you do.”
Doesn’t the government mind? I ask.
“Maybe they catch you, they put you in jail. For 24 hours. Then, when you are better, you go home.”
With that, Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves a Woman” began playing from Hilal’s flash drive – we were nearing another dazzling oasis – and we were back in either 1966 or the 14th century.
Pico Iyer’s latest book is ‘The Man within my Head’ (Bloomsbury)
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