Nearby Santa Fe, NM like to use the slogan, "A City Different." Indeed it is, and I thought it the subject line would be an appropriate introduction to a country that is quite different from all those in the area: Oman.
Oman sits on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula; until 1970, there was an almost medieval quality to the country: virtually no public services, a leader who was extremely xenophobic and reclusive. Certainly there were no "tourist visas," and the few intrepid explorers who visited the area usually had some problems with the locals. One man changed all that: Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, who deposed his father, and said, essentially, we will modernize, and join the world, but retain our traditional values. And the country did, with amazing speed, and without serious social disruptions. Shirley Kay is an "old Middle East hand," having first gone to Lebanon, with her diplomat husband, in 1965, to study Arabic. This book was first published in 1988, just as Oman was issuing its first tourist visas.
The implicit message of the book, as well as all the smiling kids on the cover is: Bring the tourists on; there is a lot to see, and the folks are friendly. (True, on both counts, in my opinion.) Also, the book is not all "gloss"; there are frank admissions about the country's pre-1970 backwardness, the 19th century prosperity due to the slave trade, and the war in secessionist Dhofar. Kay has written a good 20-page introduction to the country. Of particular interest to someone living in New Mexico is the "falaj" irrigation system, extant for five millennium or so, precursor to the Spanish acequia irrigation system here, with the "connective tissue" being the spread of Islam from Oman to Spain. Alfonso de Albuquerque took Muscat in the 16th century, but that is a connection that is NOT... Alfonso was a famous Portuguese explorer; New Mexico's principal city is named after the Spanish Duke of this town, which sits near the border of the two countries.
Kay then divides the country into its principal areas, and devotes a few pages to each. She starts with Muscat, the capital, with its suburbs that have spread well beyond the area of the original town of 5,000. The most populous region is the Batinah, the thin coastal plan that extends for about 270 km from Muscat north to the UAE border. It is the main agricultural and fishing region of the country. The "backbone" of the country is the Hajar mountains, with Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain) being the most prominent. It has been a redoubt that foreign invaders could almost never penetrate, and was an area of rebellion with the Omani government. The Gateway to the West is the Buraimi oasis, which is part Omani, and part belonging to Abu Dhabi (that part is normally referred to as Al Ain). It should be noted that the Saudis seized this area in the `50's, claiming rights back to the 19th century, and beyond, but they were forced to withdraw. South of the Jebel is the main break in the Hajar range, which leads to the dhow building port of Sur. In the area, interestingly enough, are some Saudi "wahabbis" from Bilad Beni Bu Ali. The massive Wahiba sand dunes are nearby (No relation!) There is section on the mountains of Musandam, which form the western land side of the Straits of Hormuz. Finally, there is Dhofar itself, now peaceful and accessible, green in the summer because it catches part of the monsoon bound for India, and famous for its frankincense. It is the one area of the country that, most regrettably, has eluded me. I did spend the winter holidays, gloriously camped, on the beach, with only dirt road access, between Muscat and Sur. Overall, the reality of the country lives up to the "gloss" in this book. Polite, easy-going and friendly people.
Being a tourist book however, it is cliché ridden, for example: "Omanis are a proud and self-confident people." And there are a number of redundancies. Perhaps she did not think that someone would read the whole book through, but much of the section, "A Turbulent Past" was covered in other sections. She had done some of her historical "homework" however, quoting Palgrave's Narrative of a Year's Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia (1862-63), etc. [With maps and plans.], Ibn Batuta's The Travels of Ibn Battutah and James (Jan) Morris' Sultan in Oman.
It is a country worth visiting, and as for the first tourist guide to it, 4-stars.