The Slow Luxury of Oman

This is not an article about Dubai, which is a place you hear about all the time these days as a great tourist destination. Maybe sun lovers who are there for the first time still think it is. (Or maybe they’re the kind of people who like any place with sun, even if it’s a spoiled tourist trap like Marbella, Ibiza, Phuket or Cancun.) They don’t seem to see the pollution, the congestion: the relentless encroachment of property speculation on the sand, the sea and the formerly blue sky. The national bird of Dubai is the building crane. I’ll tell you, it may be a great place to get rich, but I wouldn’t want to visit there.

No, this is an article about Oman, the place where people who’ve made their fortunes in Dubai go when they want to get away from all that. Its landscapes are still arid and pristine: iridescent mountains change color with the changing light of day, and the horizon stretches across open water toward faraway India. The sea is full of life, including spectacular game fish. The few, excellent luxury hotels make no effort to awe you, as the architectural extravaganzas of Dubai do. Instead they aim to comfort you with quiet design, professional service, understated diversions and superb food.

You might wonder how Oman has managed to be so different, given that its capital, Muscat, is only a four-hour drive or a very quick plane ride from Dubai, and the city’s own international airport is well served by direct flights from Europe and Asia.

Well, in this deeply despotic part of the world, it’s not too much to say that the Oman we see today is the work of one man. Ever since Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father in 1970, he has gentled the country toward modernity with remarkable taste and restraint.

One little example: air-conditioning units protrude from the walls of houses and shops in Oman, of course, just the way they do in many hot countries. But in Oman, it’s decreed they will be covered with wooden latticework so they don’t look so ugly.

Some bigger examples: those luxury resort hotels around Muscat.

The first one built, and in the most spectacular setting, was the Bustan Palace, put up to host a summit of Persian Gulf princes and kings in 1985 and managed by Intercontinental. A whole fishing village was moved to make space for it in a secluded cove between the mountains and the deep blue sea. The suites designed for the regional potentates were said to have gold bathroom fixtures. I never saw those rooms, but the floors below, where I stayed in years past, were quite opulent enough. Each level had a different decorating theme: Chinese export, or European modern, or traditional Arabic with tiles, stucco and accents of carved wood. Double rooms were enormous, the service impeccable and the grilled lobster not to be forgotten. Alas, the Bustan is now closed for a massive multi-million-dollar restoration, so you won’t be able to stay there until December of this year.

The newest of the luxury resorts is the Bar al-Jissah, which is part of the Shangri-La group out of Hong Kong. It’s a little further outside Muscat than the Bustan, in another secluded cove, and parts of the resort are still under construction. Some of the palm trees look like they haven’t really put down roots yet. But its three hotels offer a wide range of prices and styles of accommodation. The Al-Waha (Oasis), is family oriented. The Al-Bandar (Port) is more businesslike and well adapted for conferences. Finally, the Al-Hosn (Castle) on the top of a seaside cliff offers sumptuous luxury in the style of the Persian Gulf, with lots of dark wood and gold trimmings, oriental carpets and spectacular views.

And, then, there is The Chedi, part of a Singapore-based group with hotels mainly in Asia (and the Setai in Miami’s South Beach). While the other luxury resorts are outside the capital, the Chedi is in town, between the airport and the old walled city. When I first went there, I thought I was lost, meandering along residential streets and through a low-rent shopping district. In fact, even when I drove up to the front door through what seemed a large vacant lot, I still figured I’d got the address wrong. Could this be the place I had heard so much about from wealthy and well-traveled Italian friends who stayed there?

Once I was through the door, I understood that it was. The Chedi is not about outward appearances, at least not outside the hotel; it’s about inward appearances and inner peace for the guests. The contrast with the hubbub of the street makes the Zen-inspired tranquility of the hotel all the more impressive. Palms and grass, freshwater pools near the rolling sea and an extraordinary variety of foods prepared to the best international standards—all make you want to linger and luxuriate.

As I sipped a glass of one of my favorite Chilean white wines in the Chedi bar one evening in March, it was impossible for me not to think again about the remarkable transformation of Oman, and, on reflection, to thank not only the present Sultan, who gentled it into the present, but his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who tried so hard to keep it in the past.

When I used to visit Muscat in the 1980s, the shadow of the old man could still be felt, and many stories were whispered. During his 38-year reign, he was known to say, “The people shall not have what they want but what I think is good for them.” And as I wrote in “Expats” (Atlantic Monthly Press), my 1990 book about travels in Arabia and Iran, his ideas on that subject were all his own: “Did they want to go outside the wall of Muscat after dark or wear dark glasses against the glare of the sun? These things were not allowed. At night, within the forbidding wall of the old city, each man had to carry a lantern to light his way through the narrow streets. No flashlights were permitted. And a hundred eyes were open, always waiting to report if the rules were broken, even after the sultan himself moved to Salalah, far in the south, for a sojourn of 12 years. Along the flat coastal streets in that land of monsoon rains, green fields and frankincense trees, he would travel in a car pushed by his retainers. He did not bother to have gasoline brought in. And so he ruled, running on empty, until 1970.”

British military advisers and an American medical missionary couple, Donald and Eloise Bosch from Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, were in many respects the old sultan’s only contact with the wider world. In the late 1980s, I met the Bosches in the seaside villa that the present sultan built for them after he moved them out of their home in the village razed to make way for the Bustan Palace.

Donald Bosch talked about the old ruler with genuine sympathy. “His major problem was that the country was very poor. He did some very good things. He gave power to the mission to develop a tuberculosis hospital and a leprosarium.” The old sultan did not rule out oil exploration, and eventually he encouraged it. He began the construction of a major hospital. “But as time went on I think he developed an honest conviction that too much of the Western world could have a negative impact on the overall society in this country.” Already in those days there were cautionary examples up and down the gulf, and now there are more.

But why had Sultan Said banned sunglasses? “You know, I think he wanted to be able to see peoples’ eyes,” said Bosch. The old sultan’s window into their soul was lost when their eyes were hidden behind green glass. And the flashlights at night? Because they were too easily turned on and off, while a lantern identifies the person who carries it. Sure, it all seems silly, but as Bosch said, “when the tide is coming in and you’ve developed a policy where you’re going to slow the incoming tide, it leads you to take actions that in retrospect seem foolish, like building barriers of sand.”

By the 1960s, part of Oman was facing a communist-backed rebellion. The British wanted to make sure the Arabian Peninsula and the strategic Strait of Hormuz were secure for oil and commerce, and they were getting nervous.

The old sultan only had one son, Qaboos, born in 1944, and when he was a teenager Sultan Said was persuaded the boy should know something more of the world. A Maj. Leslie Chauncy, personal adviser to the sultan, took the boy on what was later described in one history of Oman as “a slow, round-the-world trip that took a whole year.” Later Qaboos went to Sandhurst to be trained as British officers were trained.

In a picture book called “Old Oman,” available in Muscat’s hotels, there is a photograph of Qaboos in 1963 just after he finished his military training. He has a neatly trimmed mustache, in the style that modern, educated Arabs affected in those days. He is wearing steel-rimmed dark glasses.

A few years later, the old sultan was out, the new one in and Oman was on its way to join the modern world, but slowly, ever so slowly. And now it is the best place in Arabia for people who know what a luxury it is to take your time.