Having only written blog entries when I’ve traveled for slightly longer periods of time, I thought I’d try something slightly different by combining my notes on a couple of smaller trips within the Middle East.
After moving to Qatar the first piece of travelling I did in the region was to Dubai (actually pronounced doo-bay) and having not really travelled in this part of the world at all I was really looking forward to it. I’m aware that for many people Dubai conjures up a certain type of hell associated with expats who now live there or where people in TOWIE or Sex and the City go on holiday and there is obviously some truth to that, but it is nonetheless an incredible achievement in the desert.
Like many of its neighbours, Dubai made its initial money from oil but unlike Abu Dhabi or Kuwait for example it didn’t have that much in reserve. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the far thinking owners spotted a gap in the market and rapidly developed in the city as a trading hub between Europe and the subcontinent. Later on they started successfully investing in tourism and the ‘new economy’ (IT and media firms) and now oil makes up less than 5% of the GDP.
Whilst it was famous in the 1990’s for being the ‘world’s biggest construction’ site, most of the major works are now finished and I think the city now looks fantastic. The major highways and metro are complete and all over the city are pieces of bold architecture which really add a 21st century iconic feel to the city. Whilst they don’t have a Colosseum or Trevi fountain they’ve simply built new wonders. Whether it’s the world’s highest building (Burj Khalifa), biggest mall (Mall of Dubai), world famous hotels (Burj Dubai, Atlantis) or amazing new neighbourhoods like the Marina or the Palm, you’ve got to admire the ambition they’ve shown in making the city what it is.
It is a fantastic place to spend a week or so as the above mentioned attractions as well as the beaches, restaurants, wonderful nightlife and the old town means that there’s loads to fill your time. I also found Dubai a really interesting and quite complex society to be in; around 90% of the population are immigrants making it the lowest proportion of native residents in the world. Whilst in other Middle Eastern countries, immigrants are simply there to make money and often don’t earn that much, in Dubai the immigrant communities felt both more permanent but also more ‘middle class’. In Qatar for example every business has to have Qatari 51% ownership and owning property is very difficult. By contrast in Dubai the government encourages foreign investors with Special Economic Zones and it creates a more mixed society. Restaurant owners or small traders from the subcontinent or even office workers from Europe or Asia are much more common than Qatar. They’re clearly not rich but they’re doing OK and makes Dubai feel like a more mature society.
That said, the knowledge that Dubai is both literally and metaphorically built on sand never feels far off. Since it doesn’t really produce a great deal, much of it’s economic growth has been based on real estate and using increasing land values to take out more debt and build ever more with the expectation of increasing value. This bubble mentality works fine during boom years such as the early part of this century but when recession hits it can hit Dubai very hard. In 2008 house prices lost 50% of their value in 6 months and the emirate was in danger of defaulting on their loans. They had to be bailed out by their much wealthier neighbor Abu Dhabi and bizarrely part of the deal was that the Burj Khalifa was named after Abu Dhabi’s ruler. There’s no doubt Dubai had simply overreached, thousands of luxury apartments now stand empty or half finished with the famously disastrous ‘World’ project going down as perhaps the most expensive white elephants in history. Part of the problem for Dubai is that whilst it’s still probably the best place in the Middle East to do business, lots of other places have had the same idea to attract international investors and their first move advantage is gradually being eroded away.
For the moment though, as global economic confidence has gradually returned they appear to have weathered the storm and perhaps have learned to become more sustainable into the long term. It’s definitely somewhere I found a lot of fun and would like to return to.
The following Easter we visited another country on the Arabian peninsula and probably the one I was most looking forward to visiting: Oman.
Our first stop was the capital Muscat which has an unusual feel to it. It’s perhaps better described as 3 villages that have loosely been connected by urbanization to form one ribbon shaped settlement along the coastline, penned in by sea and mountains it’s never more than a few kilometres wide. It’s got some impressive sights in the gorgeous opera house and huge mosque which boasts the world’s biggest chandelier and 2nd biggest carpet. One part of the city is set aside almost solely for the majestic palace of Sultan Qaboos and the port to his two (why two?) $300m yachts. Aside from the magisterial architecture you can explore the winding alleyways and souqs of the old town meaning the city has a nice balance of old and new Arabia.
Aside from the huge portraits of Qaboos looming down everywhere, perhaps the most memorable thing about Muscat were the roads and the difficulty of navigation. Based on a system developed in China, there are few roundabouts or traffic lights designed to keep the traffic moving and reduce road rage. That’s fine but it means there are flyovers and turn offs everywhere and if you don’t know exactly where you’re going and stay on the road too long or take a wrong turn you can get lost very easily. Without doubt one of the most frustrating cities to navigate in that I’ve been in, even with a SatNav you could find yourself getting lost for 20mins at a stretch as you struggled to get back to where you were.
When we eventually got out of the city we did the amazing drive up to the Saiq plateau South West of the capital and began some incredible trekking over the next few days. The rocky West of Oman rises some 3000m above the sea but the tourist infrastructure in Oman is superb and you can drive around much of it (with a 4x4). After leaving our stuff in Saiq village we started climbing the rocky slopes of the Hajar mountains up to an extremely enjoyable trek called Jabal Akhdar. After grinding to the top of the mountains in the sun we were then greeted by the incredible sight of looking down into a 1200m deep bowl shaped landscape with the mountains forming the rim. Our route was to get down to the beautiful green villages below and thankfully we were now in shade. The descent path looked unpassable on numerous occasions from afar but it kept going and finally we made it down to the wonderful oases below. The villages survive using the ingenious falaj system which traps and transfers water to irrigate mountainous areas and allow people to survive in the harsh climate. They’re so ingenious they’re listed as Unesco world heritage sites and they were a great spot to refill our water and marvel at the watermelons and other fruit being grown. We camped in a dry canyon bed then got up early to enjoy walking in the cool of the morning. I found the path very tricky as the harsh rocky landscape was very unforgiving on the feet but eventually we got to the last village and started the climb back up to the mountain top to complete the circuit. In the heat of the day the climb was extremely tough and you can see why the British army love using Oman as a base for desert training as the terrain is so punishing. With the mixture of challenge and incredible landscape, I’d have to rank it as one of the best hikes I’ve ever done.
Oman as a country immediately felt different to others in the Middle East and culturally offers a pleasing contrast to their neighbours. Oman has some oil but not that much and unlike other countries in the region where generous welfare states mean the locals basically don’t bother to work, in Oman everyone has to work and make their own way. In Dubai and Qatar this means locals don’t really interact with foreigners much but in Oman they’re much more likely to strike up a conversation and talk to you. They follow Ibadi Islam (small school of Islam that predates the 2 major branches) and happily step out of all the regional disputes between their neighbors meaning the country comes across as pleasingly relaxed and maybe a bit more old fashioned. Our next stop of Nizwa was a good example of this where the smells of the old souqs and gorgeous majlis add a gloriously atmospheric feel which can be lost in ultra modern Dubai or Doha.
After meeting a couple of friends we then drove up to arguably the biggest attraction in the country, the mighty Jebel Shams. Known as the Arabian Grand Canyon, it’s a 3000m deep canyon which rises magnificently out of the desert. An impressive drive took us up to the rim and after marveling at the vastness of it all we then hiked to the summit of the mountain beyond. It was a 2 day walk and again trying to do it in the piercing sun was a real challenge but seriously rewarding too. We descended somewhat exhausted and celebrated with Fanta (no alcohol here of course).
Arguably the thing I’ll remember most about Oman are the colours; as we drove across the desert the contrast between the orange desert and blue skies is stark and feels like the opposite of overcast memories of the UK. Our destination was a place called Wahiba Sands which is pretty much anyone’s desert fantasy. Singing 200m high sand dunes as far as the eye can see, kissed by golden sunrises and sunsets it’s difficult to imagine a more romantic setting. Tourist camps have been set up and as we listened to traditional Arabian music on the dunes, things felt just about perfect.
You obviously can’t spend too long in the desert during the day so we headed to the incredible Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadis are river channels in the mountains that form in the rainy season and along with sinkholes, Oman is blessed with many beautiful ones. If the desert offers beautiful yellows and oranges, the wadis offer wonderful blues and greens in marked contrast to the rocky slopes around them. Gloriously cool and refreshing, it had various caves and waterfalls and the pools keep going so you can swim explore the landscape in an unusual way. We followed this up with an amusing night out in the pretty coastal town of Sur with Omanis naughtily drinking and eager to chat to us before flying to our final destination of Salalah near the Yemeni border.
Oman has a large section of the Rub al Khali (Empty quarter) on the Arabian peninsula and there’s a stretch of about 1000km in the middle of the country where virtually no one lives. Eventually the landscape starts rising again and when you start flying over Salalah though, a verdant coastal city emerges as water flows down from the mountains above to fruit plantations and farms that skirt the city.
It’s a fascinating cultural melange of Arab, Indian and Swahili influences and was a key part of ancient trading routes. In the city itself there’s a fascinating archaeological park called Al Baleed and outside there are a few plantations which stands testament to the role the city played in the Frankincense trail. Frankincense is a resin from a tree which grows here and smells fantastic. Aside from the Biblical significance it was very valuable and led to this part of the world becoming moderately wealthy as the abundant camels would transport it via oases to Mecca, Damascus and even as far as Constantinople and beyond. Whilst the camels looked perfectly happy, in the blistering heat the guys cultivating it had one of the hardest looking jobs I’ve ever seen. Reminiscent of salt cutters in Uyuni or Danakil, the sheer lack of any shade or relief for months at a time made me very grateful to do a job which has climate control.
The heat was a problem in Salalah as the middle 6 hours of the day were simply too hot to do anything. There’s little shade anywhere and when we tried camping on the beach that didn’t work as the sand had been heating up all day. We found we were at a loss as to how to fill the time between 9-3 and you can’t really hang around towns or villages as everything shuts down and there are no people around. Once the sun started to go down though you can explore a bit more and a real highlight was the cliffs of Marneef where fascinating rock formations are joined by some pretty impressive waterspouts.
We then flew back to Muscat and had a wonderful night out before finishing our time here. In some ways it was a fairly tough 2 weeks but extremely rewarding too. I loved the landscapes which I think I was expecting but the more traditional culture was fascinating to see and adds up to a terrific holiday destination.