Approaching Salalah in Oman we started to see some signs of life with dolphins jumping and bobbies scudding around the ship. It was good to see. There has been a dearth of animals on our voyage. At least some were still alive. The sunset was a wonderful orange surrounded with shrouds of black clouds. Then we were in Salalah – Oman.
Oman a country only recently emerging from the dark ages on a subterranean sea of oil. Salalah – a sprawl of a city on a flat plain sandwiched between the mountains and an idyllic turquoise sea. It is a situation creating a rare microclimate that supports life. It has only one season – hot – yet for much of the year that heat is enveloped in a cloud that creates a warm, life supporting drizzle and keeps the temperature down so that while it remains in the thirties it, unlike surrounding Arab States, does not soar into the forties and fifties. The brown mountains turn green.
We arrived in the dry season when the soil was arid and the mountains bare, revealing a rich brown colour. It had a desolate dusty beauty that made it hard to imagine it ever being transformed to green.
We drove through the spread-eagled suburbs shrouded in haze and dust with building work and heaps of rubble everywhere and yet, incongruously, camels wandering the streets in small herds like refugees from a distant past that is not distant at all.
Oman exists on a bubble of oil. Everywhere the housing and development is built on oil. It has created prosperity. Since the 1970s people have become relatively rich. No income tax has to be paid, land is free and petrol at fifty pence a litre. There is free schooling and health care. Can’t be bad. The oil lubricates society and has transformed it from a small semi-nomadic set of tribes scratching a living from fishing and Frankincense to a large urban population.
One day soon that bubble will burst.
We drove 0n the windy steep mountainous roads on the scent of the Frankincense trees stopping to visit the tomb of Job – now claimed as a Muslim prophet – shrouded in green and buried with his head towards Mecca. It is one of a number of tombs allotted to Job throughout the Middle East. From the size of this one he was a giant of a man.
We admired the wadis and canyons, as we passed, with their limestone outcrops and ubiquitous brown colouration.
We finally tracked down the elusive, though exceedingly common, Frankincense tree by a coach stop in the mountains, surrounded with small gulleys of plastic litter – a little, bare tree with delicate branches who’s bark, scored in patches for cropping, exuded resinous beads of pale green turquoise. I placed a bead in my mouth and tasted the delicate fragrance – a little like pine but much more subtle and wholesome – when burnt producing a pleasant perfume used in sacred rites – used medicinally for its digestive, skin or respiratory improving properties or as an aromatic cosmetic.
Then it was to the beach – beautiful beaches deserted of bathers. It is not in the Arab culture to swim. The turquoise breakers were also devoid of sharks, crocodiles and jellyfish though full, I was assured, of a multitude of beautiful coral fish. It sounded attractive. The cliffs and caves were magnificent and the blowholes sent water cascading into the air like cold geysers when a big wave crashed through the honeycombed rocks we stood on. That was fun.
There is a population explosion taking place here. It is buoyed on oil. The average size family is somewhere between five and six. We were told of one man with four wives and thirty four children.
When the bubble bursts and the oil dribbles away I can’t help thinking that this expanding mass of people with be left high and dry, marooned and without any means of support. I cannot see how frankincense and fish will support such a burgeoning population. Perhaps selling the limestone to India and the land to China will fill the void or perhaps they’ll build an Arab Disneyland?
Well that’s enough!
Back off to confront the Somali pirates on the way to the Valley of the Kings and Petra!!! Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!!! Forty bandits on a dead man’s chest!!