Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Sultan Qaboos’

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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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.

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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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