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July 22nd, 2016
Oman The nice thing about being in the middle of the desert at dusk is that there is hardly anything there and thus no sounds. That is, except for a roaring in the distance. If there’s one thing that the Omani’s love to do in the desert, it is to race their 4WD’s up and down the sand hills. As for me, I am happy and content if I can walk in the dunes for a few hours and gasp at the many colours of the sand and the different patterns that the play of the wind creates in that sand. It is pretty much like walking in the dunes around the Dutch coast, although those of the Arabian Peninsula cover an area which is unfathomably larger and which does not seem to end anywhere. The sheer size of this sandy desert is reflected in the limitlessness of its horizon. Whichever direction one looks to there is just sand, sand and more sand. This arid zone, which is shared with Saudi Arabia and the United Arabian Emirates, is not called The Empty Quarter without reason.

How different it was in Dubai a few days earlier, the starting destination for my short trip. It was full of lights and full of hustle and bustle. Dubai does not come short of superlatives, especially when it comes to such things as the most luxurious hotel in the world, the Burj Al Arab, or the highest man-made structure in the world, the Burj Khalifa, 828 metres from base to peek. Other interesting landmarks found in Dubai are the Dubai Aquarium which holds 10 million litres of sea water and is the largest suspended aquarium in the world. Then there is Dubai Ski, a ski-hall in the middle of the desert where temperatures are kept around 3 degrees Celsius, even if outside the mercury hits the 50 degrees Celsius mark in summer. The ski hall can probably qualify as the world’s least eco-friendly manmade structure ever, but it sure does keep expat heads cool in the hot season.

Driving in the dunes is a favorite
passtime for the Omani's

Dubai was basically built by expats. It is hard to imagine that about fifty years ago there was really nothing going on there, or in the rest of this region for that matter. The discovery of oil warped the region into super-wealth and transformed the goat-herding have not’s into Lamborghini-herding haves. Because the Emirates lacked expertise in the construction industry, the Western expats arrived in their droves and because there was no desire for the natives to do heavy manual labour, the Asians turned up en masse. Professionals and manual labourers alike were able to earn good money. The absence of income tax might also have helped, although when one talks with the Western expats it seems that there is something that is called the ‘Arab tax’, substantial and equally vague fees that have to be paid here and there to keep things rolling, including the extension of visas.

The Western expats are better off than most of the Asian expats, many of whom work in lowly paid level jobs that sometimes pay them only 250 Euros per month. With the high costs of living in Dubai these poor migrant workers can only save a few dirhams a month but even that small amount of dirhams, which is sent overseas, makes a huge difference at home. Some of them have been in Dubai for years, often working six days per week and only going home once a year, for a month. The many Indians, Pakistani, Filipinos and Bangladeshi that I spoke with, primarily men, were married but were not able to bring their wife and children to Dubai because of the high costs of living. Most of them sleep in rooms that they share with many others to save on costs. The cheap labour allows Dubai to have a fine service infrastructure and a round-the-clock construction industry which builds towers three times as fast as anywhere else in the world. This is because three shifts per day are worked where other countries will only have one or two due to more strict labour laws. This cheap labour can probably be qualified as a kind of modern day slavery, but those that are in it seem to prefer it over the circumstances that they would be in at home.

The Burj Khalifa (Dubai)

One other reason that the region could develop so quickly into what it is today is the various authoritarian regimes that hold a firm grip on their countries. In the Arab world the concept of a ‘benevolent iron hand’ is widespread and has produced success in many Arab countries. Aside those leaders that got a bit out of control, such as Saddam Hussein, in many cases the sultans and kings that are considerably authoritarian but that equally consider the people’s interests have greatly contributed to the growth of the countries on the Arabian Peninsula. It makes one contemplate about an unquestioned support for democracy, especially in the light of all the chaos that resulted from the Arab Spring, which did hardly anything for the betterment of the lives of those that live in those countries. The impulse of many Arabs to follow tribal or religious lines rather than those of the nation state is probably the reason why benevolent authoritarian regimes in the Arab world generally turn out to work well. Actually, the only real democracy on the Peninsula is Yemen, which can be qualified as a failed state.

One Arab is not the other, and that difference can readily be observed between the Emirati’s and the Omani’s, with the latter being a bit more hospitable and considerably more open. Many people in ‘the West’ seem to project what they see on the news about the problem regions, their own negative experiences with the ticks working in the tourist industry that they met on holiday in Egypt, or the misbehaviour of the derailed Moroccan-by-origin youth in their own countries, on the whole region, all while some of these Arab countries are culturally and geographically further apart from one another than Iceland and Greece. This certainly hold true for a country like Oman. Nobody is trying to sell you stuff, nobody is trying to rip you off and there is not a single moment where you feel that you have to keep an eye on your belongings. To the contrary. On several occasions when entered a restaurant I was invited to dig in with a family that was already enjoying the shared dishes that they had ordered.

Bedu woman (Oman)

There are still some interesting similarities in cultures which could clash with those that are typical in Europe. I learned to deal with some of these differences through the journeys I made to Arab countries and through happily working with Arabs when I was still in the mobile network industry. Let me explain this with an example. I had a small car accident when I was in Oman. I had wanted to reverse from my parking place at a gas station. Over my right shoulder I could see a taxi driving by behind me, so when I thought it had long passed I did not bother to look into my mirror and hit the gas. I found out two seconds later that the taxi had abruptly stopped behind me with its back stuck out onto my return path. Of course one could argue that the driver should have seen that I was about to drive back, but technically speaking the resulting accident was of course my fault. I stepped out and assessed that the damage, a small scratch on my rental car which fitted nicely with the dozens that were already there, and a few scratches on his. Within no time twenty people had gathered around the two cars, heavily discussing the misfortune. I was immediately made clear that money had to be paid or otherwise the police would have to come, which was said to take a long, long time. One of the men whispered in my ear that the damage payment could possibly be arranged for a hundred Euros, more than likely twice the amount of what it would really cost to fix it.

The mesmerizing mihrab of the Great Mosque
(Muscat, Oman)

I was in a hurry, but had said that I wasn’t and that I was happy to wait for the police. Just as an Arab cannot be intimated, neither can I. The police were there two minutes later, but they left after ten seconds without saying anything. My guess was that they were not even vaguely interested in this mini-collision. I was in favour of arranging things on the spot, as involvement of the insurer of the rental company would have cost me my two-hundred and fifty Euro deposit, so I offered the other driver the hundred Euros that was whispered in my ear earlier. Since he smelled that there was money to be earned he suddenly wanted much more because of the very special paint on his very special car, a taxi of which hundreds can be seen driving in downtown Muscat. If I was not willing to pay that, then unfortunately we would have to go to the police station to arrange matters. Here I did not budge either. I took my bags out of my car and asked if he would mind if we could drive together to the police office, in the knowledge that he would not able to take his customers that he already had in his car to their destination if we went to the station. Seconds later he happily accepted the hundred Euros that I had offered. We shook hands and laughed things off. Then he sincerely thanked me for my flexibility and he deeply apologised that I drove my car into his. That’s how things work out here.

Oman is probably best visited by renting a car and just driving around. That has partly to do with the incredible lack of transport possibilities, which probably does not put it high on any backpacker’s list. Such is also mirrored in the number of rials that have to be handed over to rented accommodation. The cheapest budget places that can be found in Oman are still about 50 Euros per night. The other reason that a rental car is also a necessity is because of the sheer size of the country. Driving from landmark to landmark sometimes takes several hours and although the American readers of this blog are probably used to such travelling times, most Europeans are not. While driving through the country I was in for a nice surprise when I had to pay for filling up the tank of my rental as the smile on my face became as big as the bill was small. With a gas price of 45 Eurocents per litre, Oman’s gasoline is even cheaper than bottled water. Recently fierce protests rose when the Omani government substantially raised the price of gasoline to the current level. It shows how relative people’s perspectives sometimes can be.

Oman has several of the few beaches in the world where turtles hatch

Oman is clearly not a budget destination. Yet there is so much to see. On the whole it has great nature. Because of the activities of the tectonic plates, landscapes alternate between deserts and mountains, with both in many different shades of red, yellow and green. Sometimes these mountains hide small paradises in the form of natural springs, wadi’s, where one can swim in fresh water, surrounded by palm trees. The smaller mountains are occasionally topped with desert castles. All in all, Oman is a great tourist destination but has as yet not been hit by mass tourism, so get there before the crowds find out about it.


Next time: Yawanawa

Last time: Yah, Mon!

The skyline of Dubai, as seen from the Burj Khalifa The Buraj Al Arab (Dubai) 1.001 lights (Dubai)

The Dubai Aquarium Mosque in the evening light (Dubai) Ski Dubai, probably the most environment
unfriendly ride in the world

The desert dunes of Oman The wind forms different patterns in the sand (Oman) Ever changing, ever new (Oman)

Pricky (Oman) Castles dot the landscape (Oman)

Bedu women (Oman) Omani hats Omani

Fighting onyx (Oman) Even the kids wear hats (Oman)

Weird desert creature (Oman) Oman is not just deserts Nizwa Fort (Oman)

Oases provide refreshment (Wadi Sahab, Oman) Colorful flowers grow around the oases
(Wadi Sahab, Oman)
And give wonderful flagrances
(Wadi Sahab, Oman)

Underwater, Oman is just as
intriguing as above
With beautiful corals to be found
in the Strait of Hormuz
Only in Oman

At 35 eurocents a liter,
gas is cheaper than bottled water (Oman)