Sandwiched between the sea and the Al Hajar mountains, Muscat runs as a ribbon along the coast. The sun here is just as bright as anywhere across the border, and the humidity makes the heat feel that much more intense. Yet somehow the place (if not the air) felt cooler and calmer than anywhere else on the peninsular.
Oman is different. Everyone says it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Arriving at the airport I simply walked to the main street and caught a microbus; the country’s system of private-public transport seems cheap and efficient. Mutrah, Muscat’s port area, was, when I got there, as different from anything in the Gulf as I have seen. Despite the huge cranes in the hazy distance, it had the feeling of a sleepy fishing village, albeit one with a gigantic royal yacht at anchor. A blue-domed mosque sat in the centre of the corniche; either side of it stretched a line of whitewashed houses, their slatted fronts giving the place a look trapped in time. Running maze-like away from the sea, a network of residential streets took me past assorted shops and restaurants and further mosques. Despite the sleepy heat, people were out, walking to and from the coffee shops or gazing out at the water.
Behind the houses ranged the mountains, and on the peaks of their barren rock were strung a chain of watch towers. The single cylinders of stone, now hollowed out, stood as a reminder of a more dangerous past, when life here had to battle not only the climate and the land, but conquerors and bandits as well. Mutrah’s fort, built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, was under renovation, its high walls themselves surrounded by a builder’s metal fence. Still flying high above, the Sultan’s flag caught what little breeze there was.
A little further along the coast is Old Muscat, now little more than the seat of royal power. Here the Sultan’s palace, a gloriously blue and gold coloured building, is set at the end of the white marble Colonnade and among white-fronted government buildings. The entire area is immaculate: there is no rubbish to be seen, not even a grain of sand in the wrong place. Despite the heat, a few tourists are still wondering about, taking photographs of themselves and their friends in front of the gates.
Modern Muscat lies fifteen to twenty miles east of the palace. Here are found the giant shopping centres no self-respecting GCC city can be without. But here too is the Grand Mosque, completed in 2001. Though smaller than the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi, and perhaps less opulent, Muscat’s Grand Mosque is at once stunning and accessible, huge and welcoming. Like everywhere else in Muscat, the atmosphere at the mosque is relaxed. There is no security, no compulsory guides; we are free to enter and wonder, stop and look.
This relaxed atmosphere is mirrored in the friendliness of the people. Everyone stops to say hello; everyone is friendly and helpful. Walking along the beach before sunset you can see families picnicking and friends playing cricket or splashing about in the water. In this, and in so much else, Oman is different. Everybody says it, and it is true.