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Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

Arriving at Dubai airport at 3am is not as easy as it should be. Having walked a country mile to board an up-escalator, one then strolls above the Duty Free hall in order to mount a down escalator, only to be confronted with miles of trattoir roulant. Fortunately they were roulant, so I collected my bags, jumped a cab and headed for the Fairmont Hotel, which was very nice indeed, despite the 4am arrival.

Alison and I duly met up at the breakfast buffet and decided on the general plot for our girls’ day out. We started with the recommended nearest mall. It came as a bit of a surprise to enter to “Frosty the Snowman” bawling out, accompanied by massive cascading snowflakes in the atrium – this in an unending vista of sand where the only greenery has been planted by man and watered by irrigation, but who’s carping?

First stop, the cosmetics counter. I picked up all the required spackfiller (no guarantee) at better than duty free prices and headed for the cash register. The lovely assistant tracked me down and foisted upon me a king’s ransom in freebies (Guerlain), which I graciously accepted and we ratted through the rest of the joint at high speed, pocketing the camera that Jo had requested from the local lad, at a price better than could reasonably be expected.

Back into a cab and off to the gold souk. For some reason I’d expected a large warehouse full of shoddy-droppers racketing orangey tat that looks like Indian dross run over by a truck. Not a bit of it. This warren consists of small streets full of shops with fine displays and more gold (18-24ct) than you could shake a stick at. Much of it is beautiful, but the choice is overwhelming.

We were accosted by several vagrants inciting us to visit their employers’ stores – “genuine copy handbags – Gucci, Prada…”- but resisted. Easy to smile and keep walking.

Eventually the temptation proved too much and Alison helped me part with a large portion of my credit card limit in exchange for a rather nice necklace and bracelet.

Passion salved by the ecstasy of purchase, we went in search of a drink. By this time the sun was well over the yardarm, but, being Dubai, the only places that serve grog are hotels/resorts. Alison had spotted a Hyatt on the skyline, so we headed in that direction, despite my protestations that it was a long way off by foot, and probably a mirage.

Half an hour later we entered the said oasis, expecting to find an open air bar overlooking the Persian Gulf, or at least a swimming pool. Islam is not so encouraging of Gentile habits. The bar was wall-locked – sombre, timber-lined; an emulation of a pub in a cold climate. I made the mistake of assuming that the cocktail of the day – a frozen margarita – would be something with which the charming Arab bartender was familiar. Not so. It took fully fifteen minutes for her to read the instructions, open the required hooch, tip in the ice and finally serve a very ordinary tipple. Alison was far wiser, ordering a glass of wine, but was no sooner satisfied, as it had to warm up on the bar while my drink was being constructed.

Our hotel had recommended a second mall at Jumeirah, supposedly a happy hunting ground for Italian labels. The building looked like a child’s interpretation of some part of Venice; multi-coloured and turreted. Inside was even worse, with murals, columns and a feeble attempt at a manger centrepiece, covered in fake snow, with a sofa, table coffee setting. None of the usual manger occupants was in sight. The shopping was of no interest, so we headed back to the hotel for afternoon tea, consisting of a bottle of white wine (a sauvignon, chardonnay and marsanne blend by Michel Laroche – excellent stuff) and bruscetta with tomato, basil and three cheeses.

Suitably fortified, we went in search of the various options for dinner, and stumbled across a rather nice jeweller, where I did more damage in the form of a white/rose/yellow gold ring that looks like a Christmas decoration.

Dinner at “The Exchange” was pleasant if unremarkable, except for the price of Alison’s crayfish – just short of the annual oil export account. It was ‘Australian Seafood Week’, so I chose vodka and tomato soup with yabbies, and grilled marron. Alison received a call mid-cray to say that the ship would be delayed for boarding until 2pm the following day.

Next morning, Ruth arrived safely, having had a pleasant trip from Hong Kong in the company of one Michael, who heads a small empire of merchant ships and had, by his own account, unsuccessfully tried to buy our favourite ship, Hebridean Spirit, a couple of years ago.

After breakfast, we took one of the hotel cars for a reconnaissance of the major resorts at Jumeirah Beach. We started at the Mina Resort Hotel, which was quite lovely as such things go, with its architecture saluting traditional Arabian peninsula style. Then onto the Four Seasons, which is designed to look like a wave but acts like an American resort anywhere in the world you care to mention.

From both resorts we had excellent views of the Burj al Arab offshore (it’s the hotel in all brochures, shaped like a dhow). We passed the palm tree islands construction, which fans out into the Gulf and which will be able to be seen from outer space, but there was nothing worth seeing from the ground.

The red carpet was being rolled out from ‘Spirit’ as we arrived at the dock. The cruise terminal at Dubai is quite spiffing but seldom used, so our little ship was right at the front door. We settled on the mizzen deck with a glass of bubbles in hand and waited for the rest of the guests to arrive, then sailed at 6pm, bound for Muscat.

During the morning at sea, we passed through the Straits of Hormuz and went to the lecture by one Josh; a large Brit who is the Master of the Sultan of Oman’s Royal Yacht Squadron, which consists of a very large yacht and an even larger escort vessel.

Not a natural speaker, it was of no consequence, as the combined knowledge of the audience on the history, geography and politics of Oman was precisely zero.

In summary, the name ‘Oman’ derives from ‘Yemen’. The Ooman were a 5000BC tribe from the interior. In times gone by, the Sultan of Muscat ruled the coast, with different rulers – Majan and Masoon – running the inland mountainous territory. Shi’ite (Abardi subset) is the religion of choice for the local Muslims. Oman was actually the first State to embrace Islam, in 630BC. The Iman were elected leaders, unlike Caliphs, and controlled the Jebel vastness.

Oman was the last jumping off point for India and China. Sinbad the Sailor hails from here, if you believe the local mythology (his name is Sohar in local tales). The port of Soher, now a container port, was the point from whence the dhow traders wandered forth from their shambolic boatyards. The dhows were able to carry 250-300 tons into the Persian Gulf and around to east Africa and up the various rivers. Dhows are now only used for fishing and recreation.

One Achmed showed Vasco da Gama the way to India. This is one of history’s dumbest moves, firstly, because he didn’t check out the moral qualifications of the colonialist Portuguese, and secondly, because he made a commitment without understanding that he was now in deep trouble with the locals for all time.

Sometime around C11, the Persians sidled down the gulf, opened up the country, took a look at the lie of the land and designed a system of falage</em> – funnelling and tunnelling water from the mountains to run it through the country by a system of sundials and 10,000 canals, giving all residents an equal share of the precious bounty, which they could count upon to arrive on schedule for their allotted time every day.

Nowadays, most water is provided courtesy of a massive and wonderful desalinisation plant and a clever system of tankers. Blue tankers deliver potable water, yellow tankers take grey water for reuse, and green tankers return recycled water for the stunning gardens that are a feature of Oman’s capital city, Muscat.

Back to the history. In 1744, Achmed bin Said founded the present dynasty, and managed the feat of combining the power of the Sultan and the spiritual leadership of the Imam in one person. Things hotted up a bit in 1804, when the then Sultan knifed an opponent to death, and expanded the State to become a significant imperial power, covering Iran, Pakistan, and the east coast of Africa as far as Tanzania. Mombasa was under the suzerainty of Muscat, and Zanzibar shared Muscat’s flag until the 1950s, even under the Brits. Muscat sent ambassadors to Washington, had a large navy in the 1840s, and donated a ship to Queen Victoria, HMS Liverpool, which she promptly renamed Imam.

In 1646, Soher granted the use of its port to the East India Company as a base for the suppression of piracy. Being such a strategic position, the British ensured overtures from other powers were repelled – the Dutch and French were constantly sucking up, including Napoleon sending a letter to the Sultan. In 1800 a flowery agreement established formal relations with the British Government, including the commitment to send “an English gentleman of respectability until the end of time, or until the sun and moon cease their revolving careers”.

The French tried to get into Muscat via a secret lease agreement with the Sultan, which the British, with their typical gunboat diplomacy technique, foiled by sending a message stating they would blow up the palace at 1400 hours unless the Sultan came on board. He duly arrived in good time and was greeted with a 21-gun salute!

The Russians also turned up with no good intent, in their perennial drive for a warm water passage through the Straits of Hormuz.

The British Consuls to Muscat were appointed from Calcutta and ran a constant anti-slavery vigil against the east African trade, which was not as iniquitous as the western Africa trade to the Americas. When the Sultan died in 1865, he had 8000 personal slaves (not to mention 110 children) in his role as the Sultan of Muscat and Zanzibar. The dominion consequentially split, with Muscat getting the short end of the stick, given that Zanzibar had a global monopoly in cloves, ivory and a rampaging slave trade. The end of the slave booty dealt an economic blow to Muscat.

To equal things up, Lord Canning imposed an annual levy of 40,000 crowns on Zanzibar, which, not being stupid, they never coughed up; so the honourable (or stupid) Poms put their paws in their own pockets instead and provided the Canning Award to Muscat until the 1960s!

In the 1950s, the new Sultan was the stooge of the Saudis and the US. The US wanted to establish Saudi rights to Muscat oil and there was a major standoff between the US UK followed by a short sharp war played out by the protagonists, after which the Sultan got to take over Oman.

Oman is barren, but in the mountains at Jebel Aktar (9,000 ft) they grow apples, grapes and olives. The area is SAS country, with 2000’ drops and impossible terrain. It was a military stronghold and one needed a pass to go there until the late 90s when, after a major road building exercise, it was opened up.

The depression almost bankrupted Oman. The contemporaneous Sultan took charge after his dad abdicated and he restored the finances of the country before the oil bounty kicked in. He refused to borrow, so no major development was undertaken, apart from a couple of schools and a port. He also had to put up with a communist infiltration into Doha. The 60s scene was pretty subdued – the city gates were shut at 9pm, signalled by the 9pm gun, and the pace of the place is aptly represented in the following extract from bureaucratic life: 1960 letter from archives, relating to the search for an Omani National Anthem: Letter from the Consul General Muscat to the Earl of Home, Foreign Secretary: August 17 th 1960 My Lord.

  1. I have the honour to refer to Your Lordship’s dispatch No. 8 of the 29 th July, in which you requested me to ascertain, on behalf of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, whether the Bb clarinet music, enclosed with your dispatch, was a correct and up-to-date rendering of the National Salute to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman.

  2. I have encountered certain difficulties in fulfilling this request. The Sultanate has not, since about 1937, possessed a band. None of the Sultan’s subjects, so far as I’m aware, can read music, which the majority of them regard as sinful. The Manager of the British Bank of the Middle East, who can, does not possess a clarinet. Even if he did, the dignitary who in the absence of the Sultan is the recipient of ceremonial honours and who might be presumed to recognise the tune, is somewhat deaf.

  3. Fortunately I have been able to obtain, and now enclose, a gramophone record which has on one side a rendering by a British military band of the ‘Salutation and march to His Highness the Sultan of Muscat and Oman’. The first part of this tune, which was composed by the bandmaster of a cruiser(*) in about 1932, bears a close resemblance to a pianoforte rendering by the Bank Manager of the clarinet music enclosed with Your Lordship’s dispatch. The only further testimony I can obtain of the correctness of this music is that it reminds a resident of long-standing of a tune, once played by the long defunct band of the now disbanded Muscat Infantry, and known at the time to the non-commissioned members of His Majesty’s forces as (I quote the vernacular) ‘Gawd strike the Sultan blind’.

  4. I am informed by the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs that there are now no occasions on which the ‘Salutations’ is officially played. The last occasion on which it is known to have been played at all was on a gramophone at an evening reception given by the Military Secretary in honour of the Sultan, who inadvertently sat on the record afterwards and broke it. I consider, however, that an occasion might arise when the playing might be appropriate; if, for example, the Sultan were to go aboard a cruiser which carried a band. I am proposing to call on His Highness shortly at Salahah on his return from London, and shall make further enquiries as to his wishes on the matter.

  5. I am sending a copy of this dispatch, without enclosure to His Excellency the Political Resident at Bahrain. I have the honour to be Sir, (J.F.S. Phillips) H.B.M’s Consul General(*) H.M.S. HAWKINS

To start our tour of Oman, we climbed onto a lovely air-conditioned Daewoo bus for a jaunt into the countryside to visit a fort (there are a lot of these in Oman). Our charming Indian guide opened the bidding with the remarkable news that Muscat is the cleanest city in the world, after Singapore. It was Friday morning, so most of the population was enjoying their day off.

In a second surprising piece of guiding, our chap told us to look at the beautiful roundabouts. This seemed to be odd, until one got accustomed to the fact that all the roadways are lined with beautiful plantings of trees, hedges, annuals, and punctuated with roundabouts featuring clock towers, fountains, sculptures of frankincense burners, coffee pots, a large ship set in the middle of wave ponds – all quite extraordinary and utterly pristine. No graffiti, no rubbish and begging is also illegal. We passed a telephone exchange, built in the form of a fort. Apparently all the telephone boxes used to be fort-like as well. Another joy to behold was the motor vehicle purveyor who goes by the name “Al Basha Cars”.

The population of Oman is 2.6m people, 500K of who live in the capital, Muscat. They’ve just had their second census. 50% of the population are ex-patriots. Football is the national sport, although cricket seemed to be getting a good workout at every ground we passed. The beaches are clean, lined with gently swaying palms, and the Gulf was like a millpond.

We passed the largest mosque on the Arabian Peninsula, built, like almost everything else in Oman, by Sultan Qaboos. The awesome statistics it has managed to rack up include the 40,000sq metres marble podium at its heart and the largest chandelier ever built, weighing 8 tonnes, at 40 metres high, with 1122 lamps. The prayer hall is 70mx60m, its carpet was made by 600 women over four years, comprises 70 million knots in 58 pieces with a total weight of 21 tonnes. It’s open to non-Muslim visitors.

At this time of the year, the temperature is a very comfortable15-25C, with humidity of 50%. Summer is something else again. Averaging 44-45C, the heat tops out at 52C, with humidity of 99-100%. Planning regulations mandate Islamic architecture, which results in a very pleasing homogeneity of streetscape.

Qaboos was born on 18/11/1940 – the Oman national day. He was educated at Sandhurst and posted to the Rhine regiment in Germany for six months. On his return to Oman in 1970, he repaid his father in spades by tossing him off his pedestal and exiling him to England, where the poor old duffer died in 1972.

Qaboos married a Bedouin woman, but they separated almost instantly, without issue. Seems all that time at Sandhurst turned the Sultan’s desires in another direction. With a gay Sultan, a consultative body has been established to determine his heir, and there’s reputedly a secret letter holding the Sultan’s wishes.

The Sultan spends a couple of months every year problem solving with local communities. Before 1970, sunglasses, bicycles and Western hats were banned, and there were only three schools, one hospital with twenty beds, three doctors and one tarred road in Oman’s 300,000 square kms. Now there are sixty large hospitals and 4000 schools serving even the remote interior, with free transport to and from school. Education and health are free, there’s no tax, and the roads are sensational. It’s a pretty barren landscape, which includes the evocatively named Empty Quarter. The Pakistan/Indian monsoon cuts across a small area at Salahah, where coconut palms replace the standard date palms of the Arabian Peninsula.

Forts are Oman’s claim to tourist fame, and we visited the Bayt an Naman fort which is a curious little cutie with a blurry history. It has lethal conical stabbers on the outer gate and on the doors at the entrance to the fort and only one person can enter the gate at a time. Downstairs there’s a prison for the ladies, upstairs is the entrance to the prison for men, which is a pit downstairs into which they were dropped through a hole. We were shown a piece of cloth, which supposedly is reserved for the royals by dint of its colour. The library and living quarters were very attractive, with latticed Moorish windows.

We stopped off at a beach resort for morning tea. I was handed a coconut with a straw in it. Coconut juice is mediocre when it’s chilled. When it’s warm it’s absolutely disgusting. However, the coffee was excellent, unsweetened and spiked with cardamom. I declined the invitation to ride a camel.

After lunch, I joined the jaunt to the Muttrah Souk, close by the harbour, which was a wonderland of exotic smells and paraphernalia. My favourite was a clock radio in the shape of a mosque (available in mint green, gulf blue, or pomegranate pink), which sprang forth with calls to Allah in lieu of the customary alarm racket. In the excitement of all the available retail therapy with too short a time limit, I neglected to purchase the said wonder.

I did, however, come across both frankincense and myrrh to accompany the gold I’d pocketed days earlier in Dubai – all very topical, with Christmas just days away. I also collected frankincense burners and ‘magic coal’ (made in Japan) to fuel the incense conflagration.

Muscat is a delightful and easy place to visit. The people are gorgeous – friendly, welcoming, handsome, polite and everyone speaks English as a result of the long-standing relationship with the British. All signage is in both Arabic and English, and the way the script is read makes signage even more convenient for all parties, with the English (secondary) running left to right, and the Arabic reading from right to left. It’s much more appealing than Dubai, for mine.

It’s interesting that the leaders of the two countries have taken such diverse approaches to the development of their respective countries. Sheik Rashid has taken an entirely external focus, with very western-style development (high-rise, spectacular resorts, premium horseracing, golf and shopping), his objective being to make Dubai the world’s favourite tourist destination.

Sultan Qaboos, on the other hand, has set about developing and empowering his subjects to enable his country and citizens to survive and thrive after the oil runs out (which is in about 15 years, although Muscat has vast reserves of natural gas), whilst simultaneously gently welcoming tourism and its economic potential. Under Qaboos’ approach, the Omani people appear to be thriving as a result of the investment in physical, environmental and social infrastructure, and good governance.

We whiled away a gorgeous evening on deck. The moon was a crescent, hanging heavily over the illuminated fort. With the backdrop of mountains, and dhows bobbing in the foreground, it was exotic in the extreme. And then there was the star. Huge, luminous, probably Venus but it certainly was impressive and added to the mood of being in the Middle East at this time of year.

Next morning, we headed out on air-conditioned and comfortable buses for a day in the desert and lunch at the Nahar oasis.

Our guide was Abdullah, a lively lad determined that none should miss out on his potted tour of his country “I ‘ope you can hear me in the backside”. The working day is 7.30am – 2pm in Government offices, and for private companies 8am-1pm, then 4pm-7pm. Shops open from 9am-1pm, then 5pm-11pm. Qaboos (“the King’s a Queen”) is the 8 th Sultan of the Saiade family. Qaboos has modernised the system of marriage – boys can marry from age 22 and can choose their own bride (age 18+). Males can have up to four wives, but only with the consent of wife #1, and he has to keep them all equally. The minimum monthly wage is 150 Rials (USD$480), with free education and medical and no tax. As an adult, an Omani is entitled to two pieces of land – one on which to live, the other to start a business – farm, factory, shop, whatever. The flag of Oman is red, green and white – red for the blood of the war of 1972-74, between (then) Oman and Yemen; green for Islam, white for peace.

Water is in short supply, although a flash flood a few years ago drowned several unlucky punters in the souk. The volcanic mountains surrounding Muscat look to be barren rock, but in fact support a plethora of wildlife, including gazelle, mountain goat, leopard, wolf, desert orax. Unfortunately we were on the official twitcher’s bus, so were constantly interrupted by him leaping to his feet, having spied a rabbit at 200 metres or a hawk whirling on thermals. We didn’t get to see the famed feathered varieties of the world’s largest owl, sunbirds, the booted eagle, weaver bird or sand grouse. Apparently the birdies around here have absorbent breast feathers, so they fly 50-60 km off to the local wadi for a quick dunking, then fly home and their chicks suck the water out of their feathers.

The vegetation is weird – spiky acacia with thin grey leaves designed to minimise moisture loss and singeing by the fierce sun. It must be hell when the 50 degree days swing into season. Acacia leaves are used as a treatment for headache.

We stopped about an hour in at a wayside camp, with portaloos, and wonderful tea (sweet and mint-infused) and fresh dates sprinkled with sesame to eat with cardamom coffee -a lovely, refreshing combination. The birdman made a nuisance of himself setting up his telescope in the middle of the portaloo village, having spotted a bunch of twigs in one of the acacias there, much to the discomfort of the ladies trying to avail themselves of the facilities.

The highways in Oman are sensational. Each village has plantations down the main drag – olives or local flora, and all the bus stops are fashioned as miniature forts (somewhere to crouch out of the sun). The mountains may be comparatively barren, but the colours are lovely – pink, tan, ochre, striated.

We stopped at the Al Hawiyah village oasis, with a lovely falagem system and a forest of date palms. A truck rocketed past driven by an unspeakably beautiful teenage boy. Another not so pretty local scurried up a palm tree to forty feet in five seconds flat, demonstrating his date harvesting skills. There are supposedly more than 50 varieties of date palm.

By this time we were late for lunch at the Nahar Desert Oasis, and we were consumed by thirst. The first beer would be fantastic. No such luck – we were instead treated to half a dozen varieties of lolly water.

The piece de resistance was lamb slow cooked in an earth oven. I’d sampled this delicacy several years ago at a Bedouin camp in the Negev desert. Distance hasn’t improved it. Conversely, the salads, chicken and rice cooked with saffron and spices were excellent.

Our hosts included two charming girls plying their trade of henna hand painting – they’re both quick and artistic. Although cautioned against such frivolity, I decided to have one ankle adorned, on the basis that the henna fades/washes off in a week to ten days. (It doesn’t. I spent the next two weeks scrubbing the tattoo off, to no avail.)

Next, a demonstration of local dancing, which of course is a joy reserved for the men. It involved a lot of chanting, foot stamping, sword wielding, mock deaths, and more chanting, by a mob of seriously unattractive fellows. A couple of small boys in their long white robes were gorgeous as they trundled around following their dads. We trekked across the paths to the racecourse for the camel races. This was great fun, although I struggle to find anything attractive about camels, especially when a good racing camel will set you back several hundred thousand dollars.

The Arabian horses were a different kettle of fish – compact, beautifully cast animals, with an assured nobility of movement – even a novice couldn’t fail to appreciate their calibre. And their owners clearly adored them, cooing their respective steeds into action. We had a veterinarian in our party who examined the horses up close and came back in raptures over their health and beauty.

It was a long haul back to Muscat, passing dozens of bus shelters along the way, all cast in the form of miniature forts and we arrived just in time for dinner before weighing anchor for the voyage across the Arabian Sea to India.

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