Why I Hate The King Of Sweden
I hate the King of Sweden. In the last few days he’s played havoc with my holiday plans. It began on the flight. ‘The King would like you to join him in first class,’ whispered the steward, bending close to my ear before realising his mistake, dashing my hopes and sliding away to the distinguished Swedish gentleman seated immediately behind me. As we coasted into Muscat airport, I watched a crimson-suited band assemble, and waited while the King took a leisurely stroll up the red carpet to be greeted by the Sultan of Oman.
But when he began to tour the country in the Sultan’s company, I realized his travel schedule was pretty much the same as mine. The difference was that he could get whole areas closed wherever he went. First the two largest forts in Nizwa, a town South-East from the capital of Muscat, were shut to the public so that he could visit them. I crossed them off my itinerary with a shrug. But then the King took over the luxurious Thousand Nights Desert Hotel, where I was supposed to be staying, with the result that I was bumped to a venue without electricity. I wouldn’t have minded if his trip was providing an important contribution to the world banking crisis, or essential to the Middle Eastern discussion of global warming. But no, as the head of the World Scouting Federation he was in Oman on dib-dib-dib business. Everywhere he ventured, smartly turned out Omani scouts stood at the roadside sporting giant pink and mauve flags, nervously awaiting the king’s arrival. It was clearly a big deal in the scout world.
Killing time outside the souk in Nizwa, waiting for the royal procession to pass, I spoke to a merchant selling rifles, knives and canes. What would Sweden, a pacifist country, make of these?
‘Our love of rifles is misunderstood,’ he explained. ‘They hold an important ceremonial purpose, together with the curved knives. Guns are fired into the air for celebration at weddings and circumcisions. We do not hunt with them. Every Friday there is a weapons market, a tradition dating back over four centuries.’ It was suddenly easy to see how news footage of celebrating Arabs could be misinterpreted. ‘What about the canes?’ I asked, pointing at three distinct varieties of decorated whippy sticks. ‘They are for beating children,’ he replied, more prosaically.
Human settlement in Oman dates back to the Stone Age. Its name probably originates in the Arab tribes that migrated from the Uman territory of Yemen, which it borders. Now it’s a country that exists in distinct Muslim faiths and tribal zones, roughly matching city, desert and woodland. After a civil war that ended in the mid-seventies, Oman has embraced tourism, but my delight in finding the country so unspoiled was mitigated by the fear that all this might soon change. Already some beaches suffer from shipping lane pollution, the ubiquitous plastic water bottle mars landscapes and around 15 animals and birds face extinction. But where Dubai has bling, Oman has grace. The Sultan has brought in social housing, cheap healthcare, good roads and low taxes, at least for as long as the oil holds out.
Determined now to avoid all things Swedish I head into the desert, where Bedouins are slowly abandoning their camels for jeeps. Still technically polygamous, my guide explained that it was simply too expensive to keep three wives. ‘You need a plasma TV, a 4×4, a bigger house, a pool. Before you could have bought another wife with a good camel.’
Dates still provide incomes, but the ancient mud villages where they were harvested have been outgrown. Follow the line of palms through river beds and you’ll find the shells of ghost towns where only the ornately carved wooden doors of crumbling houses remain in dusty, deserted alleys. We’ll soon see those turning up in Chelsea as coffee tables. Meanwhile, new homes of white cement offer larger, cooler rooms, and have been constructed next to these abandoned shells. They follow the lines of wadis, the emerald pools that form as rivers make their way from the mountains to the sea.
Omani archaeologists face a familiar dilemma – do you restore old buildings or leave the past to return to dust? We passed a forgotten graveyard with odd headstones – two for a man, three for a woman. ‘An extra one to make sure your wife does not come back,’ my guide joked. At the moment these temperate havens are visited by a handful of French, German and English tourists who are still rare enough to inspire waving frenzies from local schoolchildren.
With the gilt rubbing away from Dubai, Oman seems keen not to make the same mistakes. There are no high-rises here, no footballers’ sea-villages, but the country’s new prosperity means roads are connecting previously unvisited towns. A spectacular turtle beach is filling with camping tents, and a hotel can’t be far behind. When I asked a tribesman how he got such a perfect crease in his white dishdash, he explained, ‘Now I send it to the laundry.’ Bedouins are replacing their palm-husk roofs with plastic sheeting, and it’s hard to begrudge them even though it might spoil our photo opportunities. But there’s still more of the old here than the new. A reason is provided by Oman’s powerful connection with faith and its Portuguese history; the past can’t be truly forgotten when it is all around you.
Oman is spectacular, rugged, beautiful. Its people proved to be immensely warm-hearted and helpful – and there wasn’t a tourist in sight. If your only view of the Middle East has been that Vegas by the sea, Dubai, you should go and experience the real thing.