The term ‘jewel in the crown’ has been well used but never more is it so apt in describing the Kingdom of Oman, the jewel in the crown comprising of the Arab states. Oman simply is the ‘essence of Arabia’.
Dominated by an interior of jagged mountains (jebels), vast desert and plains, Oman is a panoramic delight occupying the eastern bulge of the Arabian Peninsula, and until recently has been among the backwaters of world tourism. The country’s vast and varied landscape has almost a childlike innocence – unspoilt, unblemished and uncorrupted.
Geographically the country ranges from the fiord-like barren majesty of the Musandam Peninsular that plunges into the Strait of Hormaz in the north, to the lush, monsoon-laden tropical Salalah in the south. In between lays the vast sandy desert (Rub al Khali, the famed ‘Empty Quarter) and the fertile Batinah Plain.
Populated as early as 6000 years BC, few countries can boast to have suffered so little oppression. Only in the 17th century was Oman partially occupied by the Portuguese, and once expelled, the country has maintained self rule through the royal sultan family of Bin Said. Held back by years of over-conservative, inward thinking rule, Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to the throne in 1970 after disposing his father which began a renaissance that brought Oman from the dark ages into the 21st century. Today the country has great prosperity through its oil, copper, gold, marble & granite, and more recently tourism. With this wealth Oman has gently modernized the country without the show of flashy excesses as displayed by its neighbour, the United Arab Emirates.
Oman is made up of 6 regions and 2 Governorates. From the north moving to the south they are: Musandam Governorate, Al Batinah Region, Muscat Governorate, Dhahrah Region, A’Dakhiliyag Region, Al Wusta Region, Al Sharqiyah Region and Dohfar Region
Remote and rugged, it is little explored and yet for divers, nature lovers and explores who make the effort, they will be rewarded with an unsurpassed opportunity to immerse themselves in the stunning diversity of fjords, hidden coves, coral reefs and an abundance of birdlife. For history buffs there are many old watch towers and mosques worth exploring and in Madha there is evidence of human settlement dating back to 3500BC. Rock paintings and other ruins also date back to the Iron Age. Musandam is now just awakening and a number of stunning environmentally resorts are being developed.
Al Batinah Region
Wedged between the Gulf of Oman and the northern Hajar Mountains, the coastal plain of Batinah is the most fertile in the country and also the most densely populated. It is in this plain that the majority of the crops are grown for the country’s demand. Sohar, dating back 5 millennia is the main town on the coast and worth a visit for its famous fort dating back to the 13th century. Nearby is Rustaq, once capital of Oman and renown for its plethora of ancient watch towers and forts, the most notable being Rustaq Fort. Being mostly a plain there are numerous wadis offering lush date plantations.
Gateway to Oman is generally through Muscat, the capital. In general, Muscat presents a relatively homogeneous appearance of low (rarely more than five story), generally white buildings, with residential, government, and commercial architecture frequently recalling historic regional styles. Even though this city is on the brink of the Arabian Peninsula with extreme climate, it is remarkably green and main streets lined with trees, lush grass, flowers and shrubs link the districts and public areas.
Muttrah, the ancient port exudes a delightful old-world charm, with a bustling historically significant souk, set back from the famed Al Bahri Street (Muttrah Corniche). Here one can stroll easily along the waterfront and gaze at ancient styled dhows loading and off-loading cargo whilst shark fins cut the surface of the sea chasing fish! Best time to visit here is late afternoon when the suffused sunlight softens the majestic tapestry of colour.
Before leaving Muscat to explore the rest of Oman time must be spent visiting the number of museums, art galleries, beaches and in particular, the Grand Mosque and Sultan Qaboos’ palace, two visually stunning architectural masterpieces.
This inland region which sits on the border with the United Arab Emirates is mostly an arid desert swathe intermingled with massive mountain landscapes. There is little reason to visit here except to see one of Oman’s most prized archaeological treasures – the beehive tombs at Bat, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A number of ancient forts and citadels can be found in the region that was used to protect the water resources in wadis from invaders.
More usually known as the ‘Interior’, the Dakhiliyah region is the centre of Islam in ancient Oman. With such history it is not surprising its abundance of fortifications and historical edifices. With sheer mountain massifs, precipitous gorges and vibrant traditional crafts this region is a very popular tourist destination within Oman. In particular the ancient town of Nizwa stands out as a ‘must see’ place to visit, with its formidable fully restored ancient fort. Nizwa was once a walled town and ancient capital of Oman. Today visitors can walk through the tiny streets and souks that make up the old quarter in the walled-off interior. All around the town lay date palm orchards and farms making the area visually lush. Another poplar site are the rose gardens of Al Jabal where in April thousands upon thousands of rose bushes in bloom cascade down terraces cut into a mountain to the gorge below.
Al Wusta Region
Rich in oil, Al Wusta stretches from the Arabian Sea on the east to the Empty Quarter in the west. For tourism the region is better known for its flora and fauna a haven for specialist study groups. Here the world-famous Arabian Oryx Sanctuary occupies 25,000 sq kilometers of desert expanse. On the eastern seaboard of Duqm are seldom visited breathtaking sandy beaches with spectacular promontories.
Al Sharqiyah Region
Spread across the north eastern area of Oman, this region encompasses the huge Sharqiyah Sands, more commonly known as the Wahiba Sands. The ancient town of Sur is the most prominent in the region, renowned for its centuries of trading and dhow building. Nearby lays the Majlis al Jinn caves, one of the biggest cave systems in the world. One cave alone can hold the equivalent of 6 jumbo jets! Another big attraction is the green turtles that come to lay their eggs during summer, the area of which is now being made into a conservation site. Perhaps though, the biggest attraction is the Wahiba Sands, a splendid region of extremely fine reddish brown sand dunes and desert life, A very popular area for ‘dune bashing’ in 4 x 4s, camping or taking camel treks.
Dhofar in the far south of the Sultanate with its unique monsoon season is climatically far removed from the rest of the country. With mist shrouded mountains, lush landscapes, stunning beaches, historical treasures and a wealth of flora and fauna, tourists aplenty flock here to immerse themselves in arguably the showcase of Oman. In antiquity, Dohfar was known for its Frankincense and today this has not changed as it supplies nearly 90% of this aromatic gum to not only Oman but to the world. Salalah is the regional capital and gateway to Dhofar. This quaint historical town, famed for its ancient shrines is the ideal place to base oneself to explore all the treasures of this region. Unlike other countries when monsoon is a season to avoid, monsoon is Dhofar spells the tourist high season where thousands of visitors (mainly from nearby Arabic countries) travel to the region for its dramatic mist covered mountains, rushing streams, lush vegetation and rich heritage. And whilst the interior is so visually stunning the coastline is a destination within itself with kilometer after kilometer of barren, unpopulated, pristine white beaches and turquoise sea.
With Oman’s new found wealth of oil and tourism, rapid strides are being made by the Sultanate to become the next ‘new frontier’ in soft adventure and cultural tourism. Many beautiful yet tasteful ‘Arabic’ style resorts are in the planning that will bring to Oman all manors of tourists. There is also the development of the wetlands for sanctuaries of migratory birds plus the expansion and upgrading of Jiddat al Harasis Oryx Sanctuary. The time however to see Oman in its simplest and purest state is now, before tourism changes forever the face of this country.