The Ballards - Syndicate


We visited Muscat during April 2005: not our first Arabic country, but our first Middle Eastern trip.
We felt the girls were old enough to experience the cultural shock that is Islam.

In 1974 OPEC flexed its economic muscles, quadrupled oil prices, and gave many Arab states wealth hitherto only dreamed of, in the name of state improvement (or in practice, because they could...).
They inflicted enormous damage on the world's industrialised economies, where the street price of the oil drug quadrupled virtually overnight, causing rampant inflation and mass unemployment.
In Britain in particular, traditionally high oil taxes could have been drastically cut and the effect on the economy correspondingly reduced, catapulting us to a hugely competitive position in Europe by the late-1970s, but politicians are always very reluctant to actually cut taxes by any more than a token amount, so we suffered instead.

It would be interesting to see how the Arabs had spent the money in the intervening 30 years...


Our first sign of Islam was the Mecca symbol on the aircraft information system, showing where Mecca was and how far.
I can understand the "where", but why the "how far"?
So they knew how loudly to pray?

After an appallingly-managed (check-in: huge queues, flight: delayed, food: delayed and they ran out of all the main options, seat-back video: non-existent, sound: not working on 1 out of 4 seats....) 8-hour Gulf Air flight to Abu Dhabi and then on to Muscat, all the remaining passengers bar us and just two others vanished in to the transit lounge at Seeb Airport, leaving us outnumbered by the Immigration staff.
This would become a common occurence: Muscat has no tourist industry.

Whilst now starting to position itself as a winter sun destination for well-heeled Northern Europeans, Omanis saw the effect of mass tourism on the Mediterranean in the 1980s and simply refused to grant tourist visas until 1987, when the country was deemed "ready" for foreigners.
The results are an underdeveloped hotel industry catering almost exclusively to the 5-star business and expat brigade, and a beautifully-organised but entirely under-utilised tourist infrastructure.
We met precisely 1 tourist the whole time we were there: the remainder of the Westerners were either shadowy ex-military types on undefined "business" trips, serving UK Forces personnel, ex-military types who had decided to stay on, or oil-industry workers.

In 1970 the current Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, British Public school and Sandhurst-educated; impressed with the British, deposed his prehistoric father (with small but accurately-targeted help from the British Special Forces, I understand) and packed him off to the Ritz, where he died in 1972.

Since then, Qaboos has managed to put down a Communist-backed rebellion in the extreme South of the country (with a little help from his British "friends"), completely rebuild the country's technical infrastructure from the ground up, educate and house his people for the first time in history, and encourage them to procreate, as the population was only 440,000 in 1970 (it's now 3 million or so).
Qaboos is a benevolent dictator, but he's 74, with no wife and no obvious successor, so the post-Qaboos transition will be difficult and risky.

Given the money, how do you modernise a backward country wholesale? Where do you start?

I suppose with aerial photos, then accurate maps, then concentrating on communications, so roads and airfields, then technical infrastructure like clean water, drainage, electricity, decent housing, then education.
Like India, with the added impetus of the example of good Governance presented by the British, this inevitably leads eventually to demands from the now-educated middle classes for more political representation.

Sultan Qaboos has managed to accelerate his country from peasanthood, through manufacturing, to a services economy in one generation, but at the expense of democracy.
So when he goes, the conflicting forces of Fundamentalist Islam (Sharia law, women can’t vote/drive/must always be veiled etc) and George Bush-led gung-ho American “freedom-ism” will have to fight it out.

Apparently, anyone can make an appointment to see Sultan Qaboos to air a grievance. This sounds like good democracy, but does he listen? We could do with some of that here: I know a few people that would like to have a one-on-one with Mr Blair and Mr Brown...

The next 30 years will be "Interesting Times" for Omanis.

In Oman, there is compulsory education, free schools, hospitals & housing.
So how does that work, exactly:
Do they give out houses to all and sundry?
Do you get one on your 21st birthday?
Can you sell it?
Do you pay rent?
Do you pay Stamp Duty?
Is it open to abuse?
What happens if you don't like your house?
Can you stone-clad it/add an Aga/garage/swimming pool?
What about conservatories?

Oman is remarkably clean, and resembles the UK in the early 1970s. Everybody is well-dressed, polite, and positive. Unlike elsewhere in the Gulf, the young people are engaged and willing to work, not dissatisfied and unwilling.
This alone lessens my worries about the longer-term effects of Fundamentalist Islam in Oman.
All Omanis also seem to have excellent white teeth: whether the result of good genes or good dentistry remains unknown...

The country is pursuing a process of "Omanisation" by which as many of the foreign workers higher up the management chain are replaced with home-grown talent.
It's interesting that in all this the assumption is always, as in many countries, that the Pakistanis will continue to do the manual labour and the Filipinos the cleaning and washing.

Oman is well organised in an anally-retentive, British Forces way (everything is "Omanis, Civilian personnel, For The Use of").
All the electricity pylons are painted red and white where low-flying might be expected (like over the whole country...).
All cars are required to be fitted with an "I'm breaking the speed limit" pinger, but most vehicles seemed to have these disabled...
There was obviously a huge British technical input in the 70s and 80s, because the entire public infrastructure is British, down to the square-pin 13A plugs and the yellow "H" water Hydrant notification signs everywhere. Weird.
Also, everything is labelled. So even the little alleys in the souk, where the buildings nearly touch, and the overhanging handbags and belts make you duck, have signs.
The roads look recently built, but it's hard to tell: nothing degrades in the desert and the traffic is very light. There were few big trucks; the ones we saw were mainly carrying CNG pipes. We saw a few places where CNG pipes were being laid, and the roads in the interior had little plaques where the oil and CNG pipelines crossed.

The local TV is interesting: Bollywood is a big influence, and Indian soaps look like "Neighbours" (it's fun making up the story when you don't know what's going on).
TV stops for prayer time, and they play mystical Moslem music whilst they pray.

There were very few Americans, but quite a lot of expat Brits choose to live in Muscat. Their lives revolve around the pools of the international hotels (and the associated alcohol).
A good life I suspect, but they must be getting nervous about increased Islamic Fundamentalism in the region. A little Christian Fundamentalism in the West might make them see that Fundamentalism is a Bad thing all round, whatever religion it emanates from.

The clothes people wear are formal, everyone wears long-sleeved shirts and long trousers or dishdasha, and they all look very smart.

We visited the Sultan Qaboos mosque in Muscat, which is very beautiful (and very new).
It is protected by pistol-packing Moslem guards, but as protection against what I cannot imagine: tourists are rarely armed with anything heavier than a fully-loaded Nikon camera, and Fundamentalist suicide bombers won't be stopped by a pop-gun.
Their demeanour as they demanded the tourists cover their arms and legs before entering was indicative of Islam as a, stern, unforgiving religion. But then Oman is a stern, unforgiving land. Salt water against rocks, furnace heat and a harsh environment.
The women's mosque is next to the men's mosque, and is smaller (why?), less grand (why?) and separate (why?)

We went out dolphin-watching: the Straits of Hormuz are full of common long-beaked dolphins; not as visually attractive as the better-known bottle-nose dolphin (the one you usually see in captivity).
We found a school of about 500 and spent two hours chasing them, or them chasing us, as they frolicked and jumped, smacking the water with their tails.

There were boats fishing for tuna with lines and bait: the fishermen wore floppy balaclavas against the heat, making them look like amateur terrorists.
When the line twitched one of the fishermen would haul it in with their bare hands and when its head was out of the water the other would beat the life out of it with a baseball bat.
You knew when the tuna was dying because the whole fish jerked spastically. It looked like hard, dangerous work: these tuna were not 4-inch tinned chunks: they were 6-foot long and vicious.
Strangely we saw no tuna on the menu at any restaurants; whether only the Indians eat it, or it's more profitable to can and export it I don't know.

In Muscat, everybody drives new 4x4s, Mercedes, or 1995 Nissan Micras. There seems to be nothing in-between.
Having a dirty car is illegal, punishable by a £5 fine, and is enforced.
Would the UK Police do anything as useful?
No, they're far too busy with their radar guns...

The fishing boats had huge outboards. You wondered what they did at night. What could they smuggle in to and out of Iran?
Apparently there is a big cigarette market.

The countryside is monotonous: hills large and small, all of fractured rock that is no good for anchoring anything, so all the road cuttings and embankments are held in place by land anchors and gabons.
When it rains the lack of surface vegetation and soil means instant run-off in huge quantities which scours the landscape, leaves dry river beds (wadis) and washes away roads, which were often built in dry river beds. Duh.....
Where they have yet to get around to providing surfaced roads (especially along the North coast to the East of Muscat, all the way down to Sur, although a Chinese company are building a nifty dual-carriageway), the roads are terrible, utterly impassable in anything other than a 4x4 (and the inevitable local beer lorry - there must be a manufacturer of indestructible beer lorries somewhere in the world...).
We travelled along this road and visited the salt-water, crystal clear sinkhole near Bamah which is fabulous and should be seen before too many tourists get there as you can swim in the nude without anybody noticing...

We also visited Wadi ash Shab further down the coast which is a long climb up a gully. About 2 miles up are fresh water pools you can swim in, which by the time you reach them in the heat is exactly what you need.

Vanishingly few Omanis choose to live the harsh Bedouin desert life now as the Government has supplied houses, schooling and education away from the sand dunes.
Those that do drive 4x4s, go to work in villages during the day and maintain tents with propane stoves and a TV running off a car battery.
There's even a good mobile signal in the desert, it can't be long before they have broadband as well......

We spent a night in the desert and rode camels. Touristy, hackneyed, I know, but the rotational movement is good for the lower back, chiropractors should recommend it (NHS, are you listening?)
We also went wadi-bashing (well, sand-dune bashing) in a 4x4. Environmentally unfriendly but huge fun! You let the tyres on your 4x4 down to about half pressure, lock the hubs and give it plenty of throttle. The sand was so fine we could ski down it in the Landcruiser. The sand blows back.

Oman is trying hard to be a bridge between the East and the West. There is much Indian culture here: the Indians and the Pakistanis bring Bollywood culture. This is dominant over American influence, which is minimal here. Only one token McDonalds, and few malls.

Leaving, we saw Royal Oman Air Force ex-RAF Jaguars, Strikemasters, SC-3s, C-130s and Hueys on the tarmac at Seeb. Largely a token force compared to the Saudis, but this lot could still ruin your day if they were so inclined...
And a Nimrod ASW.
Low-visibility roundels, so obviously not shouting about being there, but they are official, so I can mention them. Apparently they support the Coalition efforts in Iraq as well as monitoring ship traffic through the Straits of Hormuz.
And watch the cigarette smugglers going to Iran, I don't doubt...