Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Oman’

Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

Advertisements

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Sindbad Voyage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st January, 2015

imageAs someone who travels a huge amount, researching, lecturing and writing, I never lose the thrill of encountering new places and new peoples. But I’ve always been a bit mystified by travellers for whom the journey and the mode of transport themselves provide the adrenalin: round-the-world yachtsmen, balloonists and so on. But occasionally one such traveller manages to convey the essence of their passion in a book, as is the case with Tim Severin’s The Sindbad Voyage (1982). Severin had form, having travelled by motorcycle with Boris Johnson’s father Stanley from Oxford to Afghanistan while they were undergraduates, then later in a tiny boat made of animal hide across the Atlantic to prove that many centuries before Christopher Columbus early Europeans could gave done it. The Sindbad Voyage project was the most ambitious of all: to build a traditional Arab boom of the type Arab traders used in the ninth century and then sail it all the way to China, as Arabs did when Haroun Al Rashid was the Caliph in Baghdad and the T’ang dynasty ruled the Middle Kingdom. Severin was fortunate to get sponsorship from the Sultan of Oman, and it was in Oman that the craft was built. Omani sailors made up most of the crew, along with a motley collection of European volunteers and scientists. Though the number of places at which the ship made landfall was limited — notably India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and China — the atmosphere of various ports is well captured. But essentially the book is a love song for the ship itself, the Sohar, with all its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And once again, Tim Severin had proved that something was possible.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

White Gold and Black Gold

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th November, 2014

frankincenseLong before Oman struck oil, providing the wherewithal for the modernisation of the country and its infrastructure after Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, this South Eastern corner of Arabia acquired a significant part of its wealth from the trade in frankincense, the aromatic resin of a long-living tree found notably in the Dhofar region. In biblical times and well into the Middle Ages, frankincense was very costly, making it worth the while of traders to transport it by camels across the desert to Jeddah in what is now Saudi Arabia, for shipment to Egypt and beyond, or overland via Petra and on into the Middle East and Europe. Just as oil was dubbed “black gold”, so frankincense was referred to as “white gold” — the most prized type being a milky white, though other less expensive varieties are a murkier brown or grey. The value dropped hugely in modern times, as other forms of air purifier and perfumes were commercialised, but it is still produced in significant quantities in Oman and sells well in e markets here, not least in Salalah, where I am writing this blog piece. Earlier today I visited the UNESCO world heritage site in a wadi where there are hundreds of trees, many of them centuries old. Outside the fenced-in area of government production, the trees have been shorn of lower foliage by camels, but one only needs to make a small nick in the bark for a tiny emission of sticky white resin to emerge, already full of scent. In normal harvesting, which happens between May and September, the trees are left for three weeks for them to bleed sufficiently to provide the requisite amount. Frankincense was one of the wondrous products presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Kings, according to the New Testament, and it is somehow reassuring to think that this white gold will continue to be garnered in Oman long after the black gold runs out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »