Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Muscat’

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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Resurrecting Heritage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th November, 2017

50A7EEC0-E10B-4108-B0DD-F23EE99C4BB1Tourists who visit Britain often sigh that half the country seems to be a museum: a cornucopia of historic buildings, gardens and magnificent vistas. On that count, Italy is even more spectacular, let’s admit it; I will never tire of discovering fresh antiquities and stunning palazzi in Rome. But here in the Gulf, where I am once more at the moment, heritage is often harder to find. Of course, with the notable exception of majestic Oman — with its castles and forts and jewel of a capital, Muscat — the Gulf states are relatively modern, and in the case of parts of the UAE in particularly, aggressively modern, championing the new and the awe-inspiring. Yet even in Dubai there is now a realisation that both for its intrinsic value for the local population and to lure visitors, emirates and their cities need to treasure what heritage they have. Or, in some cases, resurrect it.

9778D95D-F65F-4AC0-9023-3BB6F5852BABThe most impressive example of that resurrection is the Souq Waqif in Qatar’s capital, Doha, with its pedestrianised streets, reconstructed market shops and sidewalk cafes. Critics may sneer it is more Disney than authentic, but hats off to the Qataris for a noble effort that is a pleasant place to stroll or stop off for a juice on a cooler evening. Here in Dubai, where I am now, a massive amount of regeneration work in one if the historic districts of Bur Dubai, Al Shindagha, is underway — frustratingly cordoned off at the moment — as new wind towers are erected, pathways laid and old buildings restored. At least UAE does have some vestiges that can be rescued. Others in the region are not so fortunate. Virtually all of Kuwait’s heritage was demolished in the 20th century — the Iraqi occupiers in 1990-1991 adding their own dose of destructiveness while they were there. It is fine being modern, even ultra-modern, but a country’s identity is only retained if one foot is kept firmly in the built past.

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Oman’s Quiet Diplomacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th November, 2014

Oman flagOman is probably the most low-key of the Gulf states, certainly when compared with the UAE’s Dubai or Qatar. But it is the one with the greatest sense if history; for centuries, Omani merchants were key players across the Indian Ocean and down the East coast of Africa and its navy was a force to be reckoned with. For the first two decades of my life, it was largely a closed country, as the old Sultan was mistrustful of modernity and the West — understandably if one reads how the Omanis were mistreated by the Portuguese and then outmanoeuvred by the British. All that changed in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos took power, and he started to use the country’s oil-wealth to build up its infrastructure, as well as to raise the living standards of his people. Moreover, while some of the other Gulf States have trumpeted with great fanfares their activities in international diplomacy, Oman has done so quietly. It was one of the first Arab states to accept that someone who had been to Israel should not therefore be a prohibited visitor. And today there are efforts underway to further the Western dialogue with giant neighbour Iran, with the US and the EU represented at the highest diplomatic level at talks in Oman’s capital, Muscat (which I left this morning to fly to Salalah). Sultan Qaboos himself is unfortunately detained by medical treatment in Germany, so unable to greet the participants, as I am sure he would have wished. He will also miss National Day celebrations here on 18 November. But when he went on the radio on Wednesday to say he is doing OK, cars full of flag-waving young men took to the streets of Muscat in celebration. Oman may not pass the Westminster-model democracy test, but on so many levels it is an undoubted success, including in its quiet diplomacy. And many Omanis say they like things the way they are — so long as Sultan Qaboos is in charge.

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41 Years of Oman’s “Renaissance”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th November, 2011

Omani Embassies all round the world have been celebrating Oman’s National Day today, in London’s case with a sumptuous reception at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge. Gulf Arab hospitality is invariably generous. There were no speeches and no-one acknowledged (at least in my hearing) the obvious landmark that has just been passed: with the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman has become the Arab world’s longest serving ruler. Not that one should draw parallels between the two men; far from it. Having gently ousted his father in 1970, young Sultan Qaboos set about bringing his country into the modern world, with such daring innovations as paved roads and electric light. When I first started going there, there were still communities on the Musandam peninsula (itself then still a no-go area for many foreigners) which were only accessible by sea. But in contrast to some of the flashier emirates of the UAE, Oman under Sultan Qaboos’s guidance has maintained many of its traditions and its heritage. Muscat is by far the most charming cpaital in the Gulf. The country had enough oil to lift its people out of poverty, but not so much that it spoilt them. Indeed, the oil has been running out for some time and so diversification of the economy and the Omanisation of the labour force have been top priorities. The government refers to the 41 years of Sultan Qaboos’s rule as the “Renaissance”, and objectively it has been, given the deliberately old-fashoined ways that his father imposed on his subjects. But inevitably in 2011, with the new Arab Awakening, there have been questions raised in Oman too. There were some disturbances yjrtr earlier this year, but little was reported about them and the Sultan has endeavoured to defuse dissent by acceeding to a degree — though only a degree — of democratisation and assistance to unemployed youth. But loved as he genuinely is by much of Oman’s population, Sultan Qaboos is still a million miles from being a constitutional monarch. Moreover, no-one has any idea who will succeed him. His marriage was shortlived and did not bear fruit, and he has so far resisted the temptation to point the finger of succession at anyone.

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Islamic New Year

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th December, 2008

islamic-new-year     Yesterday was the first day of the Muslim year 1430. It’s unusual for the Islamic (Hijra) and Western calendars almost to coincide in this way, as the the former is about 11 days shorter than the latter. And for many in the Arab world, this had led to hopes of a joyful, extended holiday.  But with Israel launching its ‘all-out war’ against Gaza, people are not in the mood for celebrating. There was a dignified demonstration by several hundred Palestinians and local sympathisers on the Corniche here in Manama yesterday afternoon (Bahrain being one country in the region where political demonstrations are allowed).

Gaza is understandably dominating the summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which opened in the Omani capital, Muscat, yesterday. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, Prime Minister of Qatar — which is the only GCC country which has diplomatic ties to Israel — rang the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, to inform her that ‘Arabs feel that Israel had no intention of achieving peace’. This bodes ill for 2009.

The global financial crisis is the other big issue for the GCC leaders, but this should not in principle stop them progressing with their plan for a regional single currency (provisionally dubbed the ‘khaleej’, or the gulf), by 2010. This plan is very much based on the EU’s model. But Oman — perhaps inspired by Britain’s example — is going to opt out.

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