1 Day out of Salālah
En Route to Aqaba, Jordan*
With no waking witness, the first milky light of day notched into the cabin around the time our ship slipped into port. A short time later, when the door chime announced breakfast’s arrival, the living room was fully lit in a diffuse glow.
Salalah Oman lay just outside, and a half day’s exploring it just ahead.
As Ellie poured strong coffee, I pulled the curtains fully aside, uncovering a view of docks, and container vessels, and cranes in methodical operation, and limestone quarries crossed by trails of dust, and busses all in a row, and workers busy sweeping in a choreographed procession to clear the after effects of a day-earlier sandstorm we found to be the reason the day’s light had its particular character upon our arrival.
Throughout the day, the cloudless sky never turned blue, and the air carried a dust so fine as to escape any direct observation. All we saw was its veil-like effect on the light, and its remains on flat surfaces. It added nicely to the sense of the exotic, in this, our first visit to the Sultanate of Oman.
The sense in India was of a country that’s become a global power (of sorts) despite itself. Where it works, it does so despite deeply rooted factors of inertia and disfunction that give pause.
My sense of Oman was of a country that, through an applied sense of vision and will, originating with its 74 year old ruler, has brought about a Renascence of broad and truly impressive scope. While the availability of petrodollars throughout his rule clearly provided the means, I was deeply impressed with how wisely His Majesty Qaboos bin Said Al Said has used them to create a functioning nation today, with a future of possibility, all the more impressive for the deep problems of the neighborhood in which it sits.
Development is visible everywhere, and ongoing, but intelligent and modest. New highways and manicured roundabouts marked our route, but of an appropriate number of lanes, not three times that. Handsome buildings of six or eight stories were evident everwhere, typically in the Islamic style, not mega-skyscrapers competing for glory on a global scale. We learned that the Sultan established free education and healthcare for all, and no personal income tax for anyone.
It’s each to see why he is respected, especially after learning that the hundred years before he came to power (pushing aside his father, in 1970) were a fallow period for a once great trading nation with a sprawling maritime empire.
As in our time in India, these impressions were mostly formed while in transit between tour stops, listening to a knowledgeable guide, rather than at them.
Those stops were however independently enriching: a couple of archaeological digs (one with a very impressive museum), an old castle now in custody of the state, and a souk.
The digs gave further evidence of enlightened thinking. In order to lay the foundations for a great future, a nation and its peoples must understand the nature of its past. We walked through that past, thanks to that thinking, and the efforts of scholars from Italy, the US, and elsewhere.
We learned of Frankincense — its harvesting, history as a major spice trade commodity, and current uses.
We learned how pre-Islamic cultures shaped Oman’s early history, and how the religion unified them and their languages.
We learned how adept the local peoples were, thousands of years ago, in capturing water and sustaining agriculture in the harsh desert conditions.
I left our short time there deeply impressed with Oman… and reaffirmed in my long-standing view of the power of effective leadership with vision.
As he is now infirm, it will be interesting to see if his good works will be sustained and extended by the Sultan’s successor. He has no sons, and just who will take the throne is the subject of much speculation, here and abroad, given the strategic position Oman enjoys on the world stage.
I sincerely hope that the Sultan’s work will be sustained, and further that Oman can be a positive example for its as yet less enlightened and less successful neighbors, past which we are sailing as I write these words, about to make our way into the Red Sea.
* Note: we learned just before departing Singapore that our planned stops in Egypt were going to be bypassed as a result of security concerns, to be replaced with additional stops in the Med. As I said, difficult neighborhood.