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Raining in a desert kingdom


 

The manager of the Salalah Hilton is sitting in the lush gardens of southern Oman, lapped by the Arabian Sea, a place where rain is important. For visitors for whom rain is something to get away from, however, Oman is an autumn and winter destination. The weather is warm and dry but the green aftermath of the rains remains and the staggering beauty of the country - endless white beaches, magnificent mountains, oases, blowholes and even fjords - can be enjoyed without an umbrella. And for the other Gulf States, suffering temperatures of 40°- 50°C midsummer, the coastal region of Dhofar, of which Salalah is the capital, becomes an earthly paradise for a parched desert people. Instead of date palms, there are bananas, papayas and mangoes - and a traditional welcome in Salalah includes a fresh drinking coconut. Oman is the most south-easterly of the Gulf States, and it is its proximity to India that explains the rains. They are called al khareef, highly topical monsoons that fall here as a constant drizzle along the small strip of the Omani and Yemeni coastlines. In July and August, the rains help the gardens burst into flower and the grand sweep of the southern slopes of the mountains, the jebel, turns green and fertile, wadis become fast-flowing rivers and stark cliff faces waterfalls. It is not just Oman's weather that confounds western expectations of the Middle East. This is a stable, peaceful country, spotlessly clean - the streets are swept twice a day and it is an offence to have a dirty car - with an enviably low crime rate. The people are courteous, welcoming and eager to talk of the renaissance they have undergone since the bloodless coup in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos deposed his father to create a modern Oman. However, as they point out, Oman is accustomed to prosperity. Dhofar is one of the few places where the frankincense tree grows, the foundation of southern Arabia's wealth in the ancient world, and it was the hub of trade in this precious commodity as long ago as 5000 BC. This historical wealth and trade was, literally, fabulous. It was the stuff of the Arabian Nights - Sohar in the north of Oman is the birthplace of the legendary sailor Sinbad - and produced cities and palaces of dazzling splendour. One of the most famous, Omanum Emporium, featured on Ptolemy's map of 150 AD. It was an earlthy city built to rival paradise, surrounded by marble walls, set with precious stones, topped with golden roofs, and its gardens filled with singing birds and exotic flowers. Known as Irem in the Koran and Ubar in the Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, its debauchery and paganism provoked the wrath of Allah who buried it under the sands. There it stayed, despite many expeditions to find it, until an octagonal fortress with nine towers was discovered by satellite in 1992 in modern Shisr. Surrounded by a web of caravan tracks thousands of years old, Shisr could just be the fabled capital of the frankincense trade. Now, though, there are only scant remains to be seen and it is getting there that is of more interest to the present-day traveller. About 150km north from Salalah, Shisr is a breathtaking drive up from the empty beaches, populated only by fishing boats and flocks of flamingos, through fertile river valleys and into the magnificent jebel, home to soaring eagles. In Shisr itself, you are on the very edge of the Empty Quarter and 250,000 square miles of a shadeless, windswept, shifting sea of sand. Only the foolhardy ventures into the Empty Quarter but for those who want to sample desert life, Wahiba Sands in the north of Oman are just a couple of hours from the capital, Muscat. It is far hotter here than in Dhofar. Cars shimmer in the heat and herds of camels, goats and sheep shelter under the shade of acacias. A short drive off the road and there is almost literally a line drawn in the sand. Copper-coloured dunes rise up out of grey stony scrub and suddenly you are in the desert. Latter-day Lawrences can savour the romance by staying at Golden Sands, a stone-built camp deep in the dunes near Bedouin tents. The desert night sky is awe-inspiring (the goat curry is good, too) but for those of a less poetic and more active disposition, there is always dune driving - the 4WD equivalent of throwing yourself off a soft sand cliff. Muscat has a covered souk - leather, pottery, silver, hunting guns and knives - and a tiny, old gated town but is essentially a new city, built by the Sultan on a grand scale, with wide roads, lined with trees, fountains and statues, splendid white palaces, embassies and houses. Tourists are still a curiosity, though numbers seem set to grow. Visa restrictions have relaxed and new hotels are springing up, all at the magnificent end of the architectural spectrum. The tone of the capital was set by Muscat's Al Bustan Palace, probably the most famous hotel in the Middle East, built for the 1985 Arab Co-operation Council Summit and featuring rich carpets, exquisite mosaics in graceful arches and an atrium high enough to fit a jumbo jet on its tail. Restraint is not an option here. It may be some time since the Queen of Sheba passed this way but a love of opulence and voluptuousness lingers like the scent of frankincense in the air.
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Raining in a desert kingdom
Raining in a desert kingdom

By Anna Selby Financial Times 22nd November 2003 The manager of the Salalah Hilton is sitting in the lush gardens of southern Oman, lapped by the Arabian Sea, a place where rain is important. (30/12/2003)

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Oman

The news that published in Islamic Tourism Trade Media

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The articles which appeared in Islamic Tourism magazine

Once Upon a Time in.... Oman

  Issue 72

Mark Kirk, returned to the Gulf as General Manager for Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa in Muscat.

  Issue 70

Muscat Arab Tourism Capital 2012 Brand Competition

  Issue 67

Sultanate of Oman

  Issue 45

Oman
Natural Splendours And Magnificent Markets
  Issue 38

Oman
Full of castles and smiling people
  Issue 29

Oman’s Heritage
Forts and Castles From Rubble to Restoration
  Issue 23

Salalah
Oman’s Historic Incense Capital
  Issue 22

Oman Mosques
Symbol of faith
  Issue 18

News
Salala - A unique cigy, A unique atmosphere
  Issue 5

Nizwa
Tourism in the Omani heritage
  Issue 3




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