10 - Dispatch From a Sultanate

Jean has lapsed into full-on tourist mode. This woman who has rafted the Grand's "Lava Falls"; dropped Crash Creek's dreaded "Ol Mother" waterfall in a borrowed canoe; and even paddled off from the base of Vic Falls to bash down the mighty Zambezi - has today braved "Lazy River" - a moving swimming pool that meanders thru our resort in Oman. We are only in the 5 star, but a 6 star is just down stream.

We are miles outside Muscat and must drive a tunnel thru the mountains to leave our all-inclusive tourist ghetto beach paradise. Jean did not pick this one, but floats right into resort life - while I grumble at the lack of surf in the Arabian Sea.

The sheikhs, emirs, kings, and sultans of the area know that the boom is running out. Many are betting that these fancy resorts will replace some of the oil revenues - maybe so. Arabic we've learned matters little here as everyone is from everywhere else - full of Europeans, Russians and others seeking winter sun - it did snow in London last week.

Until lately, Oman had only one small path of a paved road - from the old fort down to the old palace. No one was invited in, and many found a way out. Then, in a 1970 plot worthy of Macbeth, the old Sultan was overthrown and exiled by his son - someone the U.S. Ambassador told us was a true "renaissance man" - Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

As soon as he took power, the place took off - with the Sultan calling all the shots and cutting any red tape. He quickly opened the doors and invited all to return and help build a new Oman. The efficiency of absolute power, effective use of relatively modest oil wealth, and the proud traditions of a people who once roamed and ruled a good portion of the world - were all used to transform an Islamic head-in-the-sand group of tribes, back into a more modern member of the world's community - just as they had been when Sinbad first sailed away from these shores.

Now fine highways connect the capital of Muscat to the rest of the country - and its neighbors. The jammed traffic circles are graced with large art pieces inspired by Omani traditions - not war heroes. Stately new ministerial and public buildings line the main drag and new housing has replaced nearly all the old mud/straw construction even in the countryside - and the restored old forts are symptomatic of a cultural revival and pride.

In this land of frankincense and myrrh the ubiquitous dishdasha robe has a unique collar tassel for dipping in perfume - and every man wears it in odoriferous style. Women are in various stages of traditional dress - from full veiled mask to slacks and heels - but are also found in the elected and appointed royal councils. I time Jean - hair and makeup vs. burka ... no contest.

Every year, the Sultan goes "camping" and moves his court around the countryside until each tribal sheikh and village mayor is met - problems addressed and loyalties reaffirmed. The Sultan speaks all the local dialects and tribal languages - as well as most of the European ones. He leads from top down, but gets support from the bottom up.

One of his first Royal Decrees was to give land for all other religion's use. The intolerant Saudis next door, who export their anti-everyone-else view as far as our oil dollars allow, complained bitterly about this. The Sultan famously rebuffed them, "I have no trouble finding a Mosque in London." Those who still object are encouraged to take their intolerance across the border to Saudi Arabia and stick their heads back into the sand - unfortunately sand full of oil.

By Royal Decree, (these are published on page one each morning) all building designers must choose some style of Islamic or Arabesque architecture and use traditional colors - so all the buildings look like they are a part of Oman - no black glass box towers to be seen. Ugly air-con units and the like are covered with lacy lattice, and even the plastic water tanks on rooftops are molded into little white tower shapes that complement the grace of the buildings. This capital needs no theme building to identify it - and the effect is comfortably stylish.

The Sultan is a handsome man, always impeccably dressed and groomed, loves music and the arts (opera house under construction) and obviously has fabulous taste - from housing tracts to the Grand Mosque complex - that quietly screams of attention to detail and understated opulence - yes, the Sultan Qaboos exudes class. He also has no wives and no heir. Can he be all that unless he is gay?

But no - the President of Iran (another of the our-way-or-no-way religious set) has informed us that there are no gays in the Islamic world. Too bad - some of the neighborhood could use some sprucing up.

- Sandstruck Stew