Review/Gallery: Oman - full of eastern promise

Camels on the beach (oman travel feature, Paul Thomas)

Camels on the beach (oman travel feature, Paul Thomas) - Credit: Archant

Paul Thomas stopped off in Oman for a few days - and was surprised at what he found

There are countries in the Middle East whose names are synonymous with tourism, but Oman isn’t usually one of them.

All that, however, could be about to change.

The oil-rich sultanate in the Persian Gulf is said to be one of the most stable and developed countries in the region and in 2010 was chosen by the United Nations Development Programme as the most improved nation of the last 40 years.

What’s more, its capital city, Muscat, was named Arab Tourism Capital in late 2011 by the Arab League’s tourism ministers.

I stopped off in Oman and its immaculate capital for four days on my way to Sri Lanka and, having experienced the country for myself, I can see what all the fuss is about.

In Oman I saw potential for a new future in tourism.

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The sultanate has been built largely over the past 42 years on the wealth and direction of an apparently benign dictator, keen to help his land and people.

I found it particularly appealing for two very different reasons, both waterborne.

The first is its likeness to our one-time east coast fishing industry. Muscat has a thriving fish market – masses of action, teeming with fish – and a fleet of boats making much of the ocean’s apparently great wealth of fish.

Once Lowestoft was the model for this; now its market, alas, but a pale shadow... our great fishing fleets gone.

The second attraction is Oman Sail, a team chasing potential America’s Cup involvement and other yachting accomplishments. Like us here in the east of England, its sailors are seeking to bring on young people to world competence levels – and Oman also has a major programme for women, conceived as part of the wider vision to rekindle its maritime heritage.

The programme is part of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Al Said’s vision to release the Omani citizens’ creative energies. Recently, more than 150 women from 18 to 35 from across Oman applied to become part of the programme. None had sailed before and only a handful could swim. They were put through a tough selection process and 30 were selected to go forward.

But Oman isn’t only about the sea – it is the Land of Frankincense, with two million nationals, plus a million from Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. The main religion is Islam but there are populations of Christians, Hindus and others.

Religion and the sultan’s leadership, much of it in a philanthropic sense, play a major part in daily life. Omanis get free education and healthcare, land for housing and other benefits, which have thrived since he succeeded his father in 1970, starting an era of phenomenal growth.

The immaculate, flower-dressed modern city of Muscat is likely to star in any visit. It has the Royal Palace (the sultan has many, of course, plus a superyacht moored in the port), the Grand Mosque, shopping areas for gold, jewellery, clothes, luxuries – and, of course, frankincense.

There are also beautiful hotels, again products of the past few decades.

The sultanate prospers in its own right with 5% GDP growth, increasing influence in the Middle East and no major conflicts for a long time. In 1995 it celebrated its progress by building the Grand Mosque, taking six years and goodness knows how many millions.

The Grand Mosque is the second-largest in the world and one of 14,000 in Oman, with an acre or two for 6,000 men to worship (women have their own space for a mere 600). Above you is suspended an eight-ton chandelier with 600,000 Swarowski crystals and 1,122 bulbs. The floor has a huge carpet with 6,000 flowers in 28 colours woven by 600 Persian women over four years.

Population growth – from 600,000 to three million (two million of them nationals) in 42 years – seems high. Much is down to Islamic practice – men here may have up to four wives, each with children. Children gain free land from the government at 23, build on it and produce their own families. Arranged marriages predominate. Women dress fully-covered, usually in the traditional black.

And so back to tourism – there are excellent hotels and tours. We went to sea, watching dolphins.

Oman is not cheap. Its Oman Rial is one to £1.70 and even $2.65. You negotiate prices in shops and a taxi can be pricey – or “shared” on certain routes.

But if you want to visit a truly “new” Arabian destination – Oman is it.