If I said that Oman was full of sloping mountains, a never-ending coastline as well as an expanse of desert, it might be difficult to believe. Couple this with a population of whom 90% are employed in the oil industry and a Sultan who is both king, prime minister, defence minister, finance minister, chief of the armed forces and head of the central bank and suddenly a country that can be seen as an oasis from the rest of the Middle East becomes far more intriguing.
Before my trip to Oman I was relatively unaware of what to expect. Peaking in the 19th century, the Omani Sultanate was a powerful empire, competing with the British for control over the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, both key trading routes. During the 20th century, it came under British rule for a period, before emerging as the Sultanate of Oman led by Qaboos bin Said al Said in 1970. When you think of long-standing leaders throughout the Arab World, it is dictators like Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who served 31 years as President of Libya, or Saddam Hussein who would instinctively spring to mind. However, Sultan Qaboos is the longest serving ruler in the Arab World. Unusually, too, he has no named heir. He is divorced without children or a brother and so tracking succession by Middle Eastern standards, the Sultanate should logically pass to a child of his late uncle. The legend, though, goes as follows: we were told by Omanis that we met that Sultan Qaboos has written the name of his successor in a letter, one of which is in his palace in Muscat and the other at his palace 800 miles away in Salalah. Upon his death, the Al Said family are to reach a consensus themselves on who should succeed Qaboos, before opening his letters. The big concern though, is that when he dies, it will open up a huge power vacuum, and that there will be multiple parties fighting for power. The Omanis definitely appear wary of this.
We arrived into Muscat after a six-hour bus journey from Dubai, where we had spent the previous three days, jumped into our 4×4 that was to be our home for the week, purchased camping gear and just started driving. Some advice for visiting Oman, only go in the winter. We went in May, where the temperature ranged from 40-50 degrees, even at night. We spent a night camping on the beach, suffering at the same time from sleeping in our sauna-like tents and an irrational fear that pirates would come and kidnap us (it turns out they do frequent those waters, but would not dare come ashore); followed by a day exploring Oman’s beautiful wadis. Wadi means valley in Arabic, but the Wadis in Oman are not what you would imagine. You trek or walk up the base of the dry section of valley, closest to the sea, until you hit the water and what can only be described as an oasiscious paradise. From there it is a swim up through crystal-clear water, over rocks, under waterfalls. It is one of the most beautiful places I have been. We then drove 12km into the desert to a camp on the edge of the 12,500km2 Wahiba Sands. Of note, driving on sand. We thought driving on the flat was tough; it wasn’t until we were hurtled up a fifty-metre sand dune at 60mph that we realised why the drivers had laughed upon our arrival.
Perhaps the best story from the trip came the next night. We had driven hours down to a turtle sanctuary, hoping to catch a glimpse of the turtles coming out from the water to lay their eggs. Camping 3km away, on the beach, with the intention of waking up at 4am to drive to the centre, we ate our bread and hummus and under the lights of car and went to bed. Alarms go off, we pack up and get ready, and attempt to switch the car on. Nothing. The battery was dead; we had no working phones and were 3km from the nearest village. We eventually walked to this village, any hope of seeing turtles had totally vanished, and quite literally knocked on the first door we found. I doubt that the look of surprise on this man’s face when he opened the door to four westerners ever be replicated. But as any Arab would do, for any friend, neighbour or stranger, he put us all in his car, fetched his friends and some jump leads and through a lot of gestured and improvised Arabic, we got the car started. Friendly, Arab hospitality at its finest.
Whilst Oman remains relatively separated from the turbulence of the rest of the region, two things will stand out as being significant in shaping its future: firstly, what will come of the power vacuum after Sultan Qaboos dies? Will there be a power struggle that sends the government and authority into chaos or will we witness an easy transition to a distant relative? Speculate all you want, but if the Middle East’s track record on leadership battles is anything to go by, nothing, especially when this level of wealth and power are involved, is ever simple. Secondly, oil. The wealth and relative calm of the nation has relied on the extensive oil revenue for years. What will happen to Oman when these reserves begin to deplete? As of yet, Oman has not looked into diversifying its economy. This could prove costly to both the ruling family as well as its citizens. While it remains off the radar in the current climate, do look out for more attention as its relative strength begins to destabilise.