Oman: land of beautiful beaches, friendly people -- and few foreign tourists

OMAN, on the southern end of the Persian Gulf, is a breathtakingly beautiful nation that few people are ever likely to see. The Omanis are not eager to publicize that their 1,700 miles of coastline boast some of the finest white sand beaches in the world, hugging an Arabian Sea that is warm, clear, and teeming with fish. There are no ``Visit Oman'' campaigns to introduce the world to Muscat -- the capital that is still guarded by a pair of medieval Portuguese forts -- or to Muttrah, where high-prowed wooden dhows bob at anchor in the harbor alongside sleek yachts.

In fact, there is no such thing as a tourist visa to Oman. Anyone who travels here can do so only if he or she is sponsored by someone already in the country. That applies also to Arabs from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, a fact that infuriates some GCC nationals.

``I hear it [Oman] is beautiful, but I will not visit any Arab country that demands visas from other Arabs,'' sniffed a woman in the fellow GCC state of Kuwait.

Officials and other Omanis credit the government's tight immigration and travel restrictions with keeping this nation relatively free of crime and free of the terrorist incidents that plague many of its neighbors.

But with steeply declining world oil prices, oil-dependent Oman is looking for other sources of revenue, and some businessmen have urged the government to develop tourism. However, it appears unlikely that policies will significantly change any time soon.

Abdul Azziz Rawwas, minister of information, says the government's reluctance to allow tourism stems from cultural, environmental, and security concerns. The only real possibilities for tourism in the near future, he says, are small specialty groups.

``There are benefits from tourism, but there are also problems,'' Mr. Rawwas says. ``Our people are not ready for bare-breasted women on the beaches.''

Omanis are in general so relaxed and friendly with foreigners that it is easy to forget what a deeply conservative and traditional society this remains. Most Omanis belong to the tiny fundmentalist Ibahdi sect of Islam. Although Omani women in cities are entering the labor force, and the women dress in costumes much more vivid than in other Gulf states, many still wear the anonymous black abiyehs draped over their heads and shoulders.

In Salalah, the southern capital, the only women to be found in the souk are the descendants of slaves originally brought from Zanzibar. These women sit atop concrete slabs in the vegetable market, driving tough bargains with their male customers. But only the men of Salalah come out of their homes to do the shopping.

The Omani government is acutely aware of the wrenching changes its people have lived through in the past 15 years. Before Sultan Qaboos ibn Said came to power in 1970, Oman was cut off from the world, with only three elementary schools in a nation of more than 1 million people, and virtually no paved roads, electricity, or hospitals. Now there are several thousand miles of roads and subdivisions inhabited almost entirely by Europeans and Americans -- part of the estimated 300,000-strong expatriate community that has helped build the nation's infrastructure, man its oilfields, and staff the new hospitals and schools. A Baskin-Robbins ice-skating rink has opened just in time to beat summer's 125-degree heat, and next fall the nation's first university will open its doors to male and female students.

Such dramatic changes in a predominantly agricultural society have caused problems for autocratic regimes in the past, and the government here is determined not to repeat history. The Sultan remains the absolute ruler of his people. There are no elected institutions or political parties; and strict press censorship exists.

Omanis under Sultan Qaboos's rule are free to travel in the world, but the Sultan is not eager to bring too much of the world into Oman.

``We are very cautious from a social point of view of the impact tourism would have,'' says Ahmad Macki, undersecretary of commerce and industry. ``This was a country so closed over so many years that you cannot open it completely for tourism. . . .''

For those who do get into Oman, particularly an American who has spent time in an increasingly hostile Arab world, it is difficult not to sound saccharine.

``I feel totally safe here,'' said an American marine who serves with the United States Embassy. ``It's not like other places. They still like Americans.''

Said another embassy employee: ``After I thought about coming to Oman, I asked around -- found people who had recently returned. They all raved about it.''

``We have been a seafaring nation, a nation of traders, for thousands of years,'' Omani businessman Kamal Sultan says. ``I think that gives the Omanis a sophistication, a maturity about dealing with outsiders. . . .''

In Salalah, fishermen readily invited me for a ride in their launches. The biggest changes in their lives in the past 15 years have been the switch from wooden dhows to fiber-glass boats with outboard motors and the appearance of the Toyota truck that has replaced the camel as the main means of land transport.

But Mustel, the slight, wiry man who gave me a ride, explained that some things have stayed very much the same. ``I only fish for lobster sometimes,'' he said. ``I am a herdsman. I have cattle, goats, and camels. I sell the cattle and the goats sometimes, but I never sell the camels.''

Although Toyotas have made camels virtually obsolete, herds of them still graze in the desert and roam through the mountains. They are so tightly entwined in the psyche of many Jeballis that, like Mustel, most cannot imagine letting the camels go, except to slaughter one for an honored guest. ``Life is good,'' Mustel said. ``We are poor, but we are happier than anyone.''

``The difference between the Omanis and some other Arabs'' is explained partly by their attitude about camels, says an anthropologist who has spent more than 20 years in the Middle East.

``In Iraq,'' the anthropologist says, ``if I wanted to take a picture of an Iraqi and his camel, the Iraqi would want to smash the camera because I was an imperialist looking down on him for being primitive. In Oman, if you want to take a picture of a man and his camel, the man will tell you, `Yes, fine-looking beast isn't it?. . .' The Omanis are utterly secure in their sense of who they are.''

Ghanim, an Omani friend, agreed when I commented on the beauty of Salalah's deserted beaches.

``Yes, it is true, the beaches are beautiful, and there should be more people to see them,'' he said. ``But then again, if so many people came, they wouldn't be the same beaches, would they?''

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