Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Oman’ Category

South to Sur

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th February, 2019

59A74439-0048-477A-81BB-FF109212357BYesterday I went by local coach from Ruwi to Sur, a town I last visited about 20 years ago. It only took two-and-a-half hours this time, thanks to the four-lane highway that now cuts through the barren black hills before joining the coast. There has been quite a bit of new construction in Sur itself since I was last here as well, but I was pleased to see that much of the old centre is more or less unchanged and the heart of the souk district is getting some covers for its alleys. Sur was historically best-known for its boat-building — great wooden dhows (or variants thereof) that would sail down the coast of East Africa and across to Bombay in British India. I visited one of the few remaining boatyards 20 years ago; local craftsmen had been replaced by workers from Bangladesh, though the techniques were still the same.

A582E31F-0913-44AC-8A34-3DFAE0799280So I wasn’t surprised today when I walked along the sweeping corniche and then round the bay to the (restored) old watchtower, to see Bangladeshis out with boats. Even though the weather at present is delightful, unlike the furnace that is summer, one sees very few locals about, unless they are driving a car on largely empty roads or else men going into the mosque in response to the prayer-call. The variety of mosques in even a modest place like Sur is quite astonishing. When I was wandering round one residential quarter this morning, a small herd of goats came running over to take a look at me, as if surprised to see a human out and about, Much of the Omanis’ lives, especially for the women, takes place within the four walls of their residences, many of which are substantial, though rarely as grandiose as those in some wealthier parts of the Gulf. The shopping mall culture that dominates social life in the other GCC states hasn’t really caught on here in the same way yet. There isn’t even a Starbucks outside of the capital, Muscat, which would doubtless dismay some American travellers. But there are countless Indian “coffee shops” and juice bars, serving fabulous fresh fruit juices, my two favourites being mango and papaya.

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Ambling from Muttrah to Muscat

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th February, 2019

AD0CEBC9-6A94-43A9-BA4E-837C982579C2The short, winding coastal road from the port of Muttrah to Oman’s capital, Muscat, was the first in the country to be paved. Even the current Sultan’s arch-Conservative father recognised that it would be sensible if goods being brought into the country arrived in one piece. But the trucks bringing produce to Muscat needed to get there before nightfall as otherwise they would find the walled town’s gates firmly locked. That is all now all part of history, but I was in the mood for nostalgia as I walked from Muttrah to Muscat this morning — a cloudless blue sky and a temperature of about 23 degrees making it a very pleasant amble. The local bus from Ruwi, where I am staying, dropped me at the gates of Muttrah port, where memories started flooding back, as that is where I disembarked from a ship that had brought me from the Musandam peninsula (part of Oman, but separated from the rest of the country by a slice of the UAE) a quarter of a century ago. I was pleased to see that the modest Marina Hotel, where I stayed that night, is still standing. The Corniche has been widened, but it is still full of interesting little shops as well as the entrances to the Gold and General souks.

4239C53A-778C-4A5B-AA8C-F4373DB4A7DFThe great advantage of walking along the shoreline is that substantial chunks of the original road are still there, separated from the modern, well-landscaped four-lane dual carriageway sufficiently for one to savour the contours of the rocks, as well as the plants, trees and birds. Conveniently half way along the route is the tiny village of Kalbuh, where one get a coffee or a soft drink, or even bathe off its little beach, if one wishes. There was one Indian family doing just that this morning, but otherwise the place was deserted. Once one reaches the crown of the hill beyond Kalbuh, suddenly the great gate of Muscat is visible — now housing a museum — though the old gate to the intimate inner city is quite a lot furt(er on. Inside this inner city is the Sultan’s office complex, government offices and beautiful flower displays, but it’s also worth finding your way through a small tunnel in the cliffs to see the impressive hilltop fortresses that once guarded the entrance to the tiny, sheltered bay.

(This walk can be done from November to March, but summer is much too hot and humid).

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Welcome to Muscat!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th February, 2019

D8954DF2-8EE7-4811-B6DA-72AB9C5C2BB1Since I last came to Oman a new airport is up and running, serving the capital, Muscat. It’s rather a splendid affair, toned in mellow browns and greys, rather than the usual garish international colours. The interior is extremely spacious, with travelators to ease weary passengers’ way, as well as an efficient and friendly immigration and baggage claim environment. These days travellers can apply for an Omani tourist visa online (valid for 10 days or one month), which has definitely smoothed the entry procedures. There is an exchange counter in the baggage claim area. The most striking difference for me, though, is that there is now a well-signed route down an escalator to the bus station below, with regular departures to Ruwi downtown — a 45 minute to one hour ride for the princely sum of a half dinar, not much over £1. You pay the driver on the bus. Ruwi bus station is conveniently located in one of Muscat’s most animated districts, only a five minute walk to the hotel where I am staying for the first few days, the Tulip Inn.

D1FE9D30-FD9E-4070-9B53-71DFD5664D45I initially stayed in Ruwi when I first came to Oman over 20 years ago, making a half-hour radio documentary on the country for BBC World Services, later travelling down to Salalah to cover ambitious plans for the development of its port. I was invited back in 2000 for the 30th anniversary celebrations of Sultan Qaboos’s assumption of power. He has overseen the transformation of Oman from one of the most isolated countries on earth (there were only 10 kilometres of paved road in 1970), shifting its dependence on oil revenues towards a more diversified economy and opening up the country to carefully managed tourism (not mass package holidays). In fact the last time I was here was leading a small tour group to Muscat, Salalah and Nizwa, site of Oman’s most impressive fort. There are lots of historic sites in the country, reflective of Oman’s former imperial and maritime glory and the rugged scenery as well as the desert in the south make it by far the most attractive of the Gulf States. The sun has now risen over the rocky outcrop outside my window, so it’s time to get out and about.

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