The ship slowed and the armed guards came aboard at 7:20 pm, just as the captain had said. It seemed odd as we had just turned south out of the Strait of Hormuz and headed into the Gulf of Oman. The Omanis were known to be jealous of their long coastline and an entire fleet of Omani patrol craft continually prowl the coves and small bays of Oman. Seems an unlikely lair for pirates.
No matter, we think, as we wake in the morning, secured to the pier in Mutrah Harbor, the harbor for the capital of Oman: Muscat. Starring back at us, and looking down on us, is Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the last of the ocean liners, as they tell it. Huge, it was built to plow through North Atlantic seas without a ripple regardless of the weather. It now finds itself here with us in Oman, a country like no other in the region.
We ride the shuttle bus a hundred yards to the Port Headquarters, where we all must pass through metal detectors. Then back on the bus for the short trip to the center of town, the Mutrah souk. At the souk confusion reigns as the 3,000 passengers from the QM2 muscle aside our small contingent of 600 from Seabourn. The locals, however, love it. The cruise ship season is coming to an end in the region and they will not see shoppers in this quantity until the fall. We opt for quieter climes.
We winnow through a variety of taxis who seemed overwhelmed with work and not too inclined to engage. Dawood Mohd waves at us from his new Toyota taxi, indicating we should get in. First, the price. He recites the going rate of US$30 for a tour of Old Muscat, the most scenic and classic place. We jump in and head up a narrow road, away from the harbor front promenade, away from the four lane highway, away from the green grass and flower art, into the completely desolate and brown hills. This is the old road from the port to Muscat as history knows it. This road is not on the maps for tourists. Dawood calls it the “Father Road” and, indeed, it was the main road until the current Sultan deposed his father in 1970. Narrow, climbing, a bit winding, hemmed by rocks close to the edge as no shoulders exist. We stop just beyond a narrow pass and look into a low, white village: Old Muscat.
Two hills frame both sides of Old Muscat, each topped with a stone watch tower. Forts are very big in the region due to its contentious past. In the distance, just beyond the town, is the gleam of the small bay which had served Old Muscat as its harbor. Both sides of the narrow entrance are guarded by old Portuguese fortifications. The harbor is almost deserted now, but the Portuguese had made it a pivotal point in their attempt to turn the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese sea. So much ambition.
We drive down into the old town now, its streets very quiet. Not many people live in this area now, it is mostly government buildings, as the houses are small and old, most prefer the new Muscat area on the other side of the ridges. Dawood is able to pull over almost anywhere to allow for ‘picture taking’, as he puts it, gesturing with his finger. We pass through a wall of some fortification, then through a tunnel to emerge next to the old harbor. We have a nice view of the Sultan’s palace, where we drive right up to the locked gates. A palace guard eyes us warily, but the only ones who seem to come here are taxi drivers with tourists eager for ‘picture taking’. The guard declines to be included in the ‘picture taking’.
The Sultan is rarely at the palace these days, but its beautiful blue exterior and manicured green grounds are in instant readiness to entertain heads of state from anywhere in the world. Dawood winds the taxi through old and curving streets, pointing out this ministry and that ministry, this museum and yet another. He then pulls into a car park, shuts off the engine and says: “Follow me”. He strolls through an arched tunnel
like he owns the place.
We walk out onto a large promenade or parade ground immediately in front of the palace. It is obviously intended as a grand entrance to the palace and Dawood parades on it like a member of the royal family. We are the only people present. Dawood seems pleased that we are impressed by the scale of the palace grounds. Oman is a modest country – no huge glass and steel skyscrapers here. As a matter of fact, no building over 10 stories may be built. No home over 3 stories may be built. It is decidedly low rise, both ancient and modern.
The Sultan has attempted to modernize Oman. When he deposed his father there were only 3 schools in the country. One hospital. Sun glasses were forbidden. Women did not attend school. All this in spite of modest oil revenues. Although Sultan Qaboos’ picture now is literally everywhere, it may be he is looking down on his modern creations: four lane highways, a new airport, international hotels, 5,000 new students in Omani colleges. And peace. Since the Sultan’s father married a girl from the hill tribes there has been peace within the country. They are even at peace with their neighbors to the south, in Yemen. Very low crime. If it wasn’t for jobs or to investigate traffic accidents the police force would be redundant. The First Mate continues to marvel: “it’s so clean”.
We are stopped by another Omani who wants to chat, in perfect English, with these visitors. His flowing white robes, his white headdress, the sandals, all demonstrate the hold the old culture has on the young. Dawood is a bit miffed that this government person, whoever he is is treated differentially, should deign to tell him where to take his tourists. We depart suddenly, if politely.
Back in the taxi we head south down the main highway, only to pull over along the coast. Below us several hundred feet, is a modern yacht harbor, sheltered by breakwater and obviously where the wealthy keep their yachts. Not the Sultan, his two super yachts are over at Mutrah, docked close to the cruise ships. The Portuguese, however, had liked the Omani coastline. It was pocketed with small bays, many of them offering some protection from the Arabian Sea. The very steep hills close to the bays meant it was very difficult for an opponent to surprise or even attack ships at anchor here. No one pines for the old days, though.
We continue up the four lane highway to the Omani Parliament Building. The Parliament here is based upon an unusual concept: the Sultan appoints half the members and the other half are elected by the people. The purpose of the Parliament is to ‘advise’ the Sultan. The Sultan is still an absolute monarch. Few seem to care, however, as all Omanis have jobs, education if they desire, and gasoline is US$1/gallon.
Dawood now represents that he will show us a magnificent sight: it is a palace where we can stay! As we drive though the palace gates we note a sign: Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The grounds along the drive are a garden, manicured like the Sultan’s. Apparently it is part of the regular tour for taxi drivers as the bellmen are most accommodating and wave Dawood over to the side. He points: “Go in. Take picture.” We wonder what all the excitement is about, so we stroll in to investigate. Oh my, is our first thought.
The hotel lobby is huge and towering, dark and muted as an Arab home in the desert would be. Over the center of the lobby hangs a three story high chandelier. The walls are carved in ornate Muslim style and the floor is all marble. In the corner are couches with a huge coffee pot, the symbol of Arab hospitality. I’m impressed and the First Mate heads for the reception counter to check on rates. A very pleasant young Omani girl is more than happy to print off the rate schedule for us, even as she chats us up in perfect English. Unfortunately, she informs us, the hotel will be closing this fall for renovations. Our jaws drop and we have to laugh, she giggles with us. Talk about guilding a lily. But, one must keep up with the times. Still, today we can snap up a deluxe sea view room, with king bed, for a mere US$499/night. Upgrading to one of the usual suites will be a bit more. We don’t ask.
Back in the taxi we only nod when Dawood asks if we were impressed. Then we smile. Heading back into town he points out Al Jalali Fort, Al Minani Fort, Riyam Park with the world’s largest incense burner and finally the souk, where we started. Dawood certainly gave us the deluxe tour and threw in a few languages lessons in Arabic. All we can recall, though, as we stroll off to renew acquaintances with haggling in the souk, is the word for gratitude: shook-ran, Dawood.