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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

The Middle East's New Frontier

Sophie Powell and Christian Westra
April 24, 2008

As we gazed down from one of Oman's oldest fortresses, the ancient oasis town of Nizwa glistened under the Arabian sun. Below us, a sprawling souk was selling everything from frankincense to racing camels. Beyond the marketplace, past the surrounding date palms, a row of crumbling hill towers attested to this desert kingdom's turbulent past.

Only half a century ago, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger was warned by his Bedouin guides against venturing to Nizwa, lest he perish at the hands of the tribal zealots who controlled the city. By contrast, the biggest danger we'd encounter in making the ninety-minute journey from Nizwa back to Muscat, the Omani capital, was nearly hitting a stray camel with our rental car.

Dubai may have the Persian Gulf's only après-ski scene, but Oman offers a taste of old-world Arabia: the land of Sinbad and Ali Baba, of sweet tea and saffron. Although this U.K.–sized strip, on the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, could hardly be called a Jeffersonian democracy, we felt welcome wherever we went. Americans can easily purchase entry visas at the airport, English is spoken widely, and street signs are in English and Arabic. Many Omani women dress in head scarves and full-length ensembles, but Westerners are not expected to cover themselves unless they are entering a mosque.

For all the country's traditionalism, Muscat, in particular, retains a cosmopolitan aura, having once been the center of a trading empire that extended eastward to India and south to Zanzibar.

The highlight of our trip by far was a day spent in the Wahiba Sands, a vast sea of undulating reddish-hued dunes three hours east of Muscat. Here we roamed around a Bedouin village and picnicked beside the crystal-clear waters of an idyllic wadi (riverbed). With no other soul in sight, we felt the perfect tranquillity of the desert silence.