Wollaston in Muscat
Inside the fortress at Nizwa,
up in the mountains of northern Oman, a fettered prisoner hopped
across the sun-baked courtyard to the well. His ankles were
linked by a bar of iron and he could only lope along, rather
like, a hobbled camel, except that a camel’s legs are usually
bound with rope, not iron.
I wasn’t meant
to have seen him. The guard wouldn’t let me question him or
photograph him, and my Omani companions hustled me up a stairway
to admire, the view from the ramparts, hoping that I would
forget him. When I persisted, they laughed him off as just some
silly fellow who had probably insulted the Koran by drinking
alcohol and been caught.
abound in Oman, the cliches of a country that has passed from
the mediaeval to the modern in seven years. Outside the fortress
walls in Nizwa market, among melons, spices and pocket
calculators and goatskins and briefcases, a group of tribesmen
squatted entranced around a merchant who had just unpacked a box
of Chinese mechanical toys. A veiled housewife haggled over
Heinz Tomato ketchup, while above the lovely, pale, flat-topped
old houses, now bristling with colour TV. aerials, a jet fighter
thundered through the bright Arabian sky.
The people of
Oman have got off their camels and into their Toyotas without
bothering about the bicycle stage. Led by a young Sultan,
sustained by their own equanimity, helped plentifully from the
outside, they have gone through the 20th-century sound-barrier
and emerged with an attractive ragbag of the past and the
present. The future is something they have hardly had time to
of Arabia, now smothered by the fumes of oil, lingered in Oman
longer than elsewhere. Cut off by the terrible sands of the
Empty Quarter, its merchants looked to trade to India and East
Africa rather than to their Arab cousins in the north. They
sailed their dhows to Ceylon and Zanzibar, they sent their sons
to school in Bombay sooner than in Cairo. Oman is the second
biggest state in Arabia, after Saudi, but in 1967, when it
became the latest member of the oil producers’ club, there was a
lot of catching up to do.
Not much was
done until 1970 when the previous Sultan, an old-fashioned
potentate famous for his conservatism, fled to London to be
treated for bullet wounds-some say in his foot and stomach,
others say only in his buttocks. His son Qaboos, a product of
Sandhurst, moved into the palace and set about sweeping out the
cobwebs. In seven years the change has been astonishing.
A visitor to
Muscat, the little capital, with its twin town of Matrah, may
feel he has been dropped into a quarry or a vast building site.
A smell of cement hangs over it, with a roar of lorries,
stone-breakers and bulldozers. In the glare and beat of noon,
even the unremitting stony mountains that crush the town into a
narrow foothold along the coast seem to be still under
construction, as if the finds ran out and they were never
finished. Only when, they are softened with shade and colour by
the falling sun, before it drops suddenly behind them into the
desert, do they look like real mountains.
At that hour, to complete the magic, a circle of old watch
towers appears on the tops.
Side by side at the head of Muscat bay, guarded by a splendid
pair of forts, lie the Sultan’s palace and the British embassy -
the one gaudy and recently remodelled, the other restrained and
dignified with a verandah courtyard and a portrait gallery of
confident English faces up its wide wooden staircase.
and proportions of the two buildings are symbolic. For nearly
200 years we have kept an imperial and post-imperial eye on the
fortunes of Oman, and recently, with those fortunes boosted to
the skies, the gaze has been returned. Six thousand British
people work now in Oman, and a trickle of Omanis have come to
buy houses in Britain. A weekend in London is more
than a dream for several Muscat businessmen.
Qaboos’s coup in 1970, many of the Omanis who preferred to live
abroad during his father’s repressive reign went home. Oman
could hardly have done without them, and any Cabinet Minister or
under-secretary, with turban and long white gown and immense
hooked dagger stuck into his belt, is likely to have spent most
of his working life in another country. (The swashbuckling,
costume, is exactly suited to the relaxed aristocratic civility
which, with a whiff of coffee laced with cardamom, pervades the
corridors of Muscat.)
But of course the Omanis, despite the help of Europeans and
other Arabs, could never have made such progress without
imported labour. Schools, roads, hospitals, mosques, harbours,
shops, garages whatever is built the men who get their hands
dirty, are almost all Indians and Pakistanis. An Omani will
leave manual work to someone else - not because it was
traditionally the job of slaves, or because as a warrior he
ought to be sitting under a tree with a rifle, or because £50
a month is not enough, but because there is simply no need
;for him to consider it.
Flying over Oman is like
flying over a very big, very old chapatti. After the northern
mountains, where the soft greens and duns of a rare village are
the only relief, the dazzling gravel desert stretches from the
Indian Ocean to the ferocious seas of sand. It is criss-crossed
by tracks of goats and camels, bedouins and oil prospectors but
nobody knows how many people live in Oman. The Sultan’s guess is
a million and a half, cautious foreigners say that he has at
least doubled the figure.
At Salalah in the Dhofar Province, 500 miles
from Muscat, the scene is altogether different. Groves of palms
and fields of crops catch the monsoon rain and people speak with
resentment, even contempt of the northeners. History and
emotions link Dhofaris with the Hadramhaut and Yemen and Aden,
not with Muscat.
Two years ago the war in
Dhofar was declared finished, and although 60 or 70 rebels are
still at large, they have been cut of from their Communist
masters in the Peopl&s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The
frontier west of Salalah, in breathtaking country with no roads
and almost no water, is defended by a battalion of the Oman Army
commanded by a British colonel in a turban.
I arrived at
his wilderness HQ by helicopter, with a British pilot, slipping
up the narrow wadis and keeping below the skyline so as not to
provoke the Yemenis -making sure the morning sun is behind us.
We brought meat and water barrels slung in a net under the
fuselage (the battalion uses donkey transport between its
Beside us a
cliff dropped a thousand feet to a wide ledge of scrubby forest,
beyond which another cliff dropped into the sea. As the colonel
said, it was old-style soldiering, good NorthWest Frontier stuff
and a rare treat for anyone in the modern Army; but sadly his
time, was up and an Omani officer had already been appointed to
After breakfast the colonel took me by
helicopter to some of the positions up and down the line, diving
down a gully, soaring up a cliff face, settling on a flattened
patch of stones. Young British officers and their troops,
manning spectacular but lonely sectors of the frontier, greeted
us and gave us tea, while through binoculars I watched the
enemy, a thousand yards away, watching me.
All is quiet, but
occasionally a disenchanted soldier walks across from the Yemen
side and surrenders. After debriefing for news of Russians and
Cubans and East Germans (the Chinese have gone home) he is often
given a new-rifle and enrolled in a firquat, the irregular Omani
militia. Loyalty. even in Arabia, has a price. Recently a man
gave himself up to the battalion, a veteran of several armies
who had not only been trained at Aldershot but had attended an
English language course at the same, Army school where the
British colonel had learnt his Arabic.
There are six hundred British officers serving
the Sultan of Oman, a third of them on loan from the British
Army the rest on private contract (“ mercenary” is a dirty
word). In a country so riven with tribalism, it seems quite
proper that the commander of the Army should be all officer of
the Inniskillings called General The O’Morchoe – a chieftain
himself, a sort of Irish sheik - but the General is no romantic
Irish imperialist. “Omanisation” is his mission, though with no
Omani officer having a University degree and very few having any
secondary education, it will be many years before the Sultan can
send his British soldiers home.
In many ways the Sultan is a fairy-tale prince
brought up to date. He is handsome, he has only one wife, he
likes horses and yachts and beach buggies and holidays at
Gleneagles and regimental marches. Being a military man, also a
ruler answerable to nobody, he prefers swords to ploughshares
and recently he bought himself an extravagant defence system
complete with Jaguar fighters ,and Rapier missiles.
To his northern
neighbours, as gatekeeper of the gulf he must be a comfort. With
a Communist state next door and turmoil in the Horn of Africa,
he can count on friendship from the rich oil producers who need
his stability for the safety of their exports. To his subjects
that stability - a mask for. Autocracy - is a questionable
advantage, though few would dare to question it.
The Sultan is
his own Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Foreign Minister.
He allows no political opposition, no critical Press, no
elective system, no assembly in which the people, can be heard.
His birthday is the annual National Day,
November the 18th when shiny new enterprises are
first expected to be finished, or anyway opened. Next Friday he
will be, honoured by the completion of an immense stadium, an
airport, two luxury hotels and several fountains, as well as
triumphal arches of wood and bunting decorated with slogans, and
fairy lights. For the occasion, a suburb was bulldozed to the
ground one recent afternoon, to make, way for the visitors’
There are the makings of tragedy in Oman. It is
10 years since the oil pumps started up, and already the flow,
never mere than, a drop in the total Gulf supply, has passed its
peak. In 10 more years it may run dry and the Omani oilfields
will be the first to go through the cycle of exploration,
discovery, production and exhaustion.
Meanwhile, in, the, prosperity of new Oman,
precious features of old Oman get lost. Water, more vital than
oil but also in uncertain supply, has been conserved for
centuries by a remarkable system of conduits often under ground;
Many of them now neglected by Omanis having money to drill
boreholes indiscriminately heedless of falling water tables the
seepage, in, coastal places, of sea water.
There is talk of more desalination, but it needs
a lot of fuel. There is talk of further new oilfields, of
natural gas, of copper and several other unknown riches as
alternatives to oil, just as there is talk of improving old
industries like farming and fishing. There is plenty of talk,
but nobody seems very troubled that so little is done while it
can still be paid for.
The Omanis are some of the nicest possible
people friendly easy-going, orderly, courteous but hardly
dynamic; and if they haven’t done much to bring the present boom
upon themselves they are not doing much more to avoid the
disaster that could come afterwards.