Arabia

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
1
128
144
Trip End Oct 06, 2013


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Where I stayed

Flag of Oman  ,
Saturday, January 5, 2013

Since we have until March to make our way back for our audience with the boys at Revenue Canada, we've decided to take a less than direct route back. Since many of the flights from South Asia make connecting stops in the Gulf area, we decided it might be nice to get a small taste of Arabia. Since DH refused my suggestion of wearing a head-to-toe black burka and following 10 steps behind me, we had to eliminate the mystical state of Saudi Arabia. And the member states of the UAE are throwing something of a hissy fit since the Canadian Govt won't grant their national airlines extended landing rights in Canada (not sure who's in the wrong on this one but it is somewhat grating that this looks to be government protection for grumpy Air Canada), so Canadians are now persona's non grata (we were also evicted from our military base in Qatar). Zero dollar visa fees are great, $10-$50 visa fees are government graft, $50-$100 is just plain greedy, but the $250 that the UAE wants from Canadians is simply unwelcoming. If I want to feel unwelcome, I can do that for free by showing up at Bonnie D's with a stack of travel photos (and even there if I don't pull out the photos too soon I can usually score a free dinner). Yemen is Yemen, with far too much shooting going on so our options were narrowing.

Tucked in on the corner is little-known Oman and there just happened to be a cheapie flight heading to Muscat so our Arabian adventure was settled. Oman has only allowed tourists to enter its territory from the beginning of the 1990s. We looked to the Canadian Gov't (yes, the same one that got us blackballed in the UAE) for pearls of wisdom on Oman and they provided us with the following:

"OMAN - You should exercise a high degree of caution due to demonstrations and the threat of terrorist attacks."

We learned a long time ago that if you were to follow government advisories, you would likely not travel too far beyond the safe confines of your basement but it was nice to know that someone in Foreign Affairs actually knows where Oman is. The Arabian Peninsula is famous for one thing and that's oil...lots of oil. The rapid evolution of the area fueled by the boatloads of oil money pumped out of the ground has resulted in a head-on collision between an orthodox culture of long standing traditions, and a me-first modern world that has shrugged off ancient customs, and the results have not been pretty.

Many of the citizens of Arabia have become burka-clad high-end shoppers and denizens of leisure while most of the work is done by imported workers. Etihad, Qatar Airways, and Emirates all have regular scheduled flights into places like Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Philippines, etc. and that's got nothing to do with the Sultan of Qatar wanting to para-glide in the Himalayas. We saw planeloads of labourers being ferried back and forth (the Dubai airport is a case study) and it's hard not to see it as virtual slave labour- menial work tends to be performed by immigrants even in the West but there's at least some attempts made in the West to ensure fair treatment and compensation (admittedly back in my working days I tried to implement the UAE model with Andres P and his Spanish Mafia but somehow they spun it around to secure high pay for very little work??).

We missed out on seeing the famous ski hill inside a shopping mall in Dubai but I was hoping for a more authentic Arabian experience in Muscat since Oman doesn't have the oil wealth of it's neighbours (although in the past, Oman used to be one of the richest countries in the world, with the wealth originating primarily from the incense trade- the biblically famous Frankincense grows in the wild here). Now I'm not sure what I expected but it certainly wasn't too close to the reality of this country. Muscat is not Dubai and with very few tall buildings, it hasn't subscribed to the need for modern skyscrappers, but oil wealth does show itself in a very modern and clean city (albeit one that does try to retain an oasis look and feel in the many white buildings with fortress type tops). Oil wealth also shows up in the endless parade of high performance vehicles driven by young Arab dudes in traditional dishdashas at blurry speeds while trying to control their raging testosterone (and impress the girls with their big engines), and the pedestrians are clearly on their own. Think I'm kidding- in a country of less than 3 million people with a state-of-the-art road infrastructure :

* every 8 hours, a life is lost in a road accident in Oman
* every hour, someone is injured in a road mishap
* speeding and reckless driving account for 72 percent of all accidents
* compared to 2010, 2011 witnessed an increase of 30 percent in lives lost due to speeding related accidents

We had only scheduled 4 days in Oman (which in hindsight was too short) so we didn't move much beyond Muscat. Once a thriving and strategically located port of the Arabian peninsula in ancient times (it was the centre of the highly lucrative African slave trade at one time), Muscat is the capital of modern Oman. Its medieval appearance with two old Portuguese forts, Jelali and Merani, flanking the rocky cove around which the city is built, makes it a unique and unusually exotic place. Muscat's picturesque old buildings co-exist with modern commercial and residential quarters giving the city an ambiance of its own.

The highlight stop had to be the Grand Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world - this glorious piece of modern Islamic architecture was a gift to the nation (or himself?) from Sultan Qaboos to mark the 30th year of his reign. A major feature of the main prayer hall (for men only- the women have their own) is the hand-made Persian carpet consisting of 1,700 million knots, weighing 21 tonnes and made in a single piece measuring 70 x 60 meters. From the design stage, it took 4 years to complete it and 600 women weavers from the province of Khurasan in Iran were employed. The magnificent eight ton (!!) chandelier dropping from the central dome is made of Swarovski crystal and gold-plated metal work and has 1,122 lamps. It's surrounded by 34 chandeliers which hang along the wood paneled ceiling outer bays surrounding the dome. .

The Sultan (net worth  in 2012 was $695 million) might argue that the other highlight in Oman is his cruise ship sized yacht- 155meters long and the third largest yacht in the world (I think Indy E, net worth unknown, still has the largest one). This mega yacht is built to accommodate 70 pampered guests along with 154 qualified crew members to give them the VIP service. Given that we seemed to be the only tourists in town we hung around the dock area hoping for an invitation but I guess the Sultan didn't see us.

We really enjoyed our short visit and if we're in the neighbourhood again I'd like to see some of the more far-flung areas of the country.
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Comments

Rita on

Loved your Indy E. reference :)

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