Oman: Shifting Sands

  • In an arched corridor of the ceremonial Al Alam Palace in Muscat’s old quarter.

    In an arched corridor of the ceremonial Al Alam Palace in Muscat’s old quarter.

  • Navigating dunes amid the Wahiba Sands.

    Navigating dunes amid the Wahiba Sands.

  • Inside the domed men’s prayer hall at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

    Inside the domed men’s prayer hall at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

  • The mosque’s 91-meter-high main minaret.

    The mosque’s 91-meter-high main minaret.

  • A receptionist at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah.

    A receptionist at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah.

  • Part of the same complex, the Al Husn hotel is set on a limestone bluff overlooking the Gulf of Oman.

    Part of the same complex, the Al Husn hotel is set on a limestone bluff overlooking the Gulf of Oman.

  • A terrace at the Al Husn hotel.

    A terrace at the Al Husn hotel.

  • Birkat Al Mawz, an oasis village southwest of Muscat.

    Birkat Al Mawz, an oasis village southwest of Muscat.

  • On the streets of Muttrah.

    On the streets of Muttrah.

  • The pool at The Chedi, arguably Oman’s most stylish hotel.

    The pool at The Chedi, arguably Oman’s most stylish hotel.

  • The old souk in Muttrah.

    The old souk in Muttrah.

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Above: Gazing across the Gulf of Oman.

An ancient kingdom with a modern-minded ruler, Oman and its frankincense-scented capital Muscat are luring a growing number of visitors with the promise of pristine beaches, empty desert, lavish accommodation, and some of the most hospitable people in the Middle East

By Warren Singh-Bartlett
Photographs by Frédéric Lagrange

The first conversation I have as I arrive in Muscat is an argument. Because Omanis pride themselves on being unfailingly polite, it is a gentle argument, as arguments go. No voices are raised. No fingers are pointed. No imprecations are uttered. But it is an argument nonetheless.

“First time in Oman?” Khaled, my taxi driver, asks as we pull out of the airport and onto the moonlit highway to the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa. I tell him that I’ve been twice before.

“Third time? So you like Oman then?”

“Very much,” I say. “It’s a very beautiful country.”

Khaled swells with pride. “Beautiful, yes. Very beautiful. And very old,” he says, warming to his subject. “We have an ancient culture here, you know. Not like the Bedouin next door.” He jerks his head vaguely in the direction of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

I reflect that the simple fact that my taxi driver is a local, and not some bonded laborer from Pakistan or the Philippines, already sets Oman apart from the rest of the Gulf. But Khaled is right. Omani culture is very old. In Roman times the ancient coastal kingdoms of what are now southern Oman and Yemen were called Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia,” for their wealth of frankincense and myrrh. Having settled here long before their Arab brethren elsewhere on the peninsula, the Omanis were the first among their neighbors to take to the seas. Renowned for their skill as shipbuilders and navigators, by the late 1700s they had established a trading empire with colonies as far away as Zanzibar and modern-day Pakistan.

“And you know,” Khaled adds, “Sindibad was an Omani too.”

“Sinbad? The sailor? The one from One Thousand and One Nights?” I chuckle. Khaled’s shoulders tighten.

“Yes sir, that’s him, but in Arabic we call him Sindibad, not Sinbad.” After an uncomfortable pause, Khaled adds, “He came from Sohar, just up the coast from Muscat.”

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