Oman clings resolutely to the majestic traditions of the Arab world.
Surrounding me on the pavement at the front of my hotel was the low-rise clutter of the Mutrah waterfront – the souk, minarets, a tangle of shops and apartments and the crescent curve of the corniche. At one end, fishermen were unloading their cargoes for the morning market. The dhows that cast their black reflection across the harbour were locally built to a design that has remained unchanged for the last few centuries.
Unless you have a hand in the oil business, Muscat will not delay you much longer than the day it takes to sniff the spicy air in the souk, inspect the local museums, peer through the bars at the sultan’s palace and stroll along the corniche at sunset.
The next day I headed inland, following a pair of muzzled camels in the back of a pick-up truck. For most of the journey the road ran along the side of a wadi that carved its way through the stark, gravelly flanks of the Hajar Mountains. These mountains also mark a spiritual division. While the coast has long been exposed to the mellowing influences of traders from the Far East and Europe, the interior was a separate country until the mid 1950s, staunchly fundamentalist, and ruled by elected imams rather than by hereditary sultans.
Their capital was Nizwa, a photogenic tangle of knotted alleys rising to a mud-walled fort surrounded by date palms. At its heart is a souk with an antiques market stuffed with copper plates, bedouin chests and jewellery.
Any excursion into rural Oman brings you into contact with the falaj. The falaj is an elaborate and ancient plumbing system that conducts water from shafts sunk deep into the mountainsides into the valleys, where it is distributed among terraced gardens, down to the very last drop. The effect of coming across one of these desert oases is startling. In a scoured wilderness of stone and bleached hills, suddenly there are date palms and alfalfa crops, boys on donkeys, and the flash of wings through the trees.
One of the most surprising components in the Oman experience is wildlife. Thanks to its conservation-minded Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, Oman has several refuges where such exotic species as leopard, tahr and the Arabian orxy still thrive. One of the most spectacular refuges is Ras al-Jinz, about a three-hour drive from Muscat, where green and loggerhead turtles wade ashore every night to lay their eggs in the sand.
Deep in the south of Oman, Salalah is the capital of the province of Dhofar and the country’s second largest city. Salalah’s credentials come straight from the Old Testament. The prophet Job is buried in the hills behind the city and the Queen of Sheeba once had a palace nearby.This is the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to feel the moist breath of the monsoon. The city is ringed with coconut and banana palms, and between July and the end of September, when the rest of the peninsula sweats under a burning sky, the hills are flushed with green and visitors pour in to experience the eerie Arabian phenomenon of rain and misty hills.
Since biblical times, the fortunes of Dhofar have waxed and waned according to the market value of a single commodity – frankincense. Between March and May, the aromatic gum is collected from incisions made in the bark of trees of the Boswellia genus and shipped off to the bazaars in Salalah. These days, it’s is one of the cheapest souvenirs you can buy. A couple of dollars and you can keep your house perfumed with the finest quality rose-pink hajari for a month.
As well as the frankincense trees, the standard tour of Salalah takes in the royal gardens, a couple of ancient towns, the local souks and a drive through chiselled cliffs along the road to Yemen. The beaches are miraculous – broad and fine and all but empty, the sea at bathwater temperature and the sky reliably cloudless.