Dubai and Oman, Opulent extravagance and the transition from Oil to Trade and Tourism

Pathfinder, already stressed, managed to get entangled in Iranian
fishing nets a 3rd time which especially in the light of the Iranian
abduction of 15 Royal Navy personnel a bit later was not ideal - but
they managed to get out. They motored for 9 days continuously because of
light winds between Sri Lanka and Oman and had to buy more than 1200
litres of diesel and fix a string of repairs when they arrived. We had tried
hard to sail when we could even if the winds were very light, and motored
for only 12 hours which is quieter and more friendly. We also avoided the
nets, although Lanah was tense as we
zigzagged round the Iranian fishing boats in dead of night.

Salalah is in the SE of Oman below Saudi Arabia, to the west are Yemen
and Aden and the entrance to the Red Sea, to the north-east, Muscat and the
entrance to the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. Because of this, Oman is
developing Salalah as a container port - it is already massive and is
expanding further - it already carries more containers than Southampton in
UK - one can appreciate that container ships would prefer to call in at an
easy stable port than sail into the
Arabian Gulf, and Salalah has certainly expanded - Nicky and I were last
there in 1983 when we were about the 50th car to drive the newly
constructed 1000 km blacktop road to Salalah from Muscat the capital in
the north.

There is no marina in Salalah yet so yachts have to anchor in the Omani Navy
basin - a frigate reverses out every day passing us about 20 metres away.
The problem comes every 2 or 3 days when other naval vessels need to enter -
then all yachts have to move. Problem: we wanted to visit Dubai and the rest
of Oman. Fortunately Mohammad who is the jetty supervisor for BP has a part
time business as yacht agent.

Mohammed's love life is complex in the extreme but we only wanted his agency
services so turned a blind eye to sexual morals. His girl friend of the
moment (Christina from NZ whose husband was in Turkey on their yacht) would
say she was staying on Intrepid, and we gave them both lessons on anchoring
Intrepid and we flew off to Dubai with some trepidation - but they both
seemed to know what they were doing in all sorts of senses. Lanah took the
bus - 1100 kms, seated in front with other women.

When it appeared possible that oil might be found in what is now the UAE, a
British diplomat rode around on a camel asking each Bedouin encampment to
which Sheikh they owed allegiance. The result is the present United Arab
Emirates, a patchwork of discontinuous desert areas some of which have vast
oil reserves, others have little. Abu Dhabi has lots, Dubai has relatively
little, but when the UAE formed, they agreed that Dubai would be the
business centre. It may not have seemed much at the time, but the result 40
years later is stunning - as we drove along Sheikh Kalifa Zayed Road (SKZ)
huge 30 and 40 storey office and residential towers dominated the road on
both sides, 3 "palm tree' developments jut out into the Gulf, and the
Burj-al-Arab is a monument to glitz and extravagance. We were visiting Tim
and Rima who work in Dubai - Tim sailed with us from Bali to Singapore, and
is a director of PDO and Rima is a recruiter, who takes on the tougher ME
projects. We had dinner with Tim's Shell colleagues in the regional office
including Ian Blair who I had taught assessment techniques years ago. Tim
and Rima's villa was an oasis of calm, and Nicky revelled in a bathroom that
did not move, and a swimming pool that was fresh.

Dubai is booming as a banking, transport, conference and regional office
destination - and surprisingly also as leisure location - Tim told me it is
now the most popular short break destination from Europe. Dubai's role model
I am sure is Singapore. To this end, Dubai is planned to make the most of
the Creek - the original port where pearl fisherman and traders haggled over
the natural pearls that funded Dubai's first early development. The abras
that cross the creek still only charge 1 Dirham (15 pence) for a 10 minute
ride across to the Gold Souk on Deira side, and humus, fresh fruit smoothie
and Greek salad at the boardwalk restaurant over the creek is 25 Dirham
(about 4 pounds). Gold diamonds and pearls are also relatively cheap - we
could have saved ourselves thousands of pounds - but to do this we would
have had to buy even more thousands of pounds of jewellery so while we
bargained a bit our heart wasn't in it.

Metered taxis are everywhere in Dubai, but not always when you want them, so
we alternated taxis and buses from shopping mall to creek golf and sailing
club, to squash club.. During one bus ride, my wallet came out of my
trousers - and despite tracking the bus and the driver searching, it
remained lost. Cancelling cards at least limited the loss to a few hundred
pounds, but since my driving licence was in it, Nicky has to drive from here
on.

Each Dubai Shopping Mall strives to provide a unique experience - usually
over the top - so Pyramids Mall is shaped like ...the Egyptian Pyramids,
complete with statues 20 metres high and hieroglyphics; Mall of the Emirates
has a complete indoor skiing centre with ski lifts and people in arab
clothing skiing down. A London consultancy reckoned that so many malls are
being built, that spending in Dubai has to double for them all to be
economic. Fortunately Emirates and Dubai's open skies policy are bringing
visitors in by the planeload, so Dubaians may not have to do it all
themselves - although they are trying - apparently levels of personal debt
in Dubai are soaring, many individuals are failing to keep up with loans,
and banks are so busy they have to book time with the Police to haul off
debtors to prison. But the Government has just announced new rules requiring
proper contracts of employment and accommodation for all low paid workers
(for which read Pakistani, Indian and Philippino), and there seems to be a
genuine desire to raise standards all round.

We decided to take the bus to Muscat in order to see the mountains on the
way - Oman's geology is laid out as bare rock with almost no vegetation.
It's a 5 hour journey for 50 Dirham (about 7 pounds). When Nicky and I were in
Oman for 4 years in early 1980's the only visitors allowed had to be
sponsored. Now Oman has decided to develop tourism, and it's much easier to
get in. We drove to the PDO Boat Club and looked round the camp, almost
unchanged from 25 years before. It was a strange feeling to see so many
familiar sights, but not see people we knew - most have moved on or retired.

$60/barrel oil is transforming Oman - its oil is in complex formations which
require enhanced oil recovery, mainly water flood, to produce; so low oil
prices make the margins tight. High oil prices however enable lots of
projects, so PDO now has 47 drilling rigs operational at any one time, (in
1980's we had 11) and roads, offices, showrooms and residential property are
all booming, while Oman LNG based at Sur is very profitable exporting liquid
natural gas. Bandar Jisa is now a hotel complex, and Wadi Yiti which used to
be an idyllic estuary 10 miles SW of Muscat is now planned for  a golf
course, residential and hotel development that could have been lifted
straight out of a western town planner's book - and probably was. The Al
Bustan and Sheraton hotels are having complete face-lifts, and the centre of
Muscat which used to consist of winding old streets, small Omani houses and
the occasional elegant mansion (including the old British Embassy next to
the Sultan's Palace) has been demolished entirely to provide a parade ground
and space for the Ministry of Finance.  In general Oman is doing well to
preserve its environment and 30 or so forts, watch towers and other
historical sites, so it's a shame they decided to modernize so drastically and sever all the
links with Muscat's past. The only reason I can think of is that Sultan
Qaboos came to power in a British engineered 1960's coup against his father
who had resisted modernization - so perhaps there is a feeling that hanging
onto old Muscat was a symbol of a past era.

Certainly Oman is developing fast - mud brick houses are now concrete, and
its population of some 4 million, and
size (roughly the same as UK) is large enough to enable local Omanis to do
much of the development, although PDO still has some 500 expats. When we
were in Oman in 1980's PDO had about 500 expats pumping about the same
600,000 barrels/day, and there is some frustration among Omanis dealing with
oil that this number (and overseas contractors) are still required. That it
takes more effort to extract oil and gas from mature fields is not always
understood. 600,000 barrels gives $36 million/day or $9/day/Omani, which is
more than poverty but still not rich, so the Sultan's efforts to develop the
country and generate more income is laudable. Dubai is opening up to world
trade because it doesn't have much oil, Oman has more options - for now.

We also found many more mosques. In 1980's Omani women on the Batinah coast
dressed like parrots - a riot of colour with robes of all shades, with no
faces covered. It was a disappointment now to find at last half dressed in
black, with half of those veiled so that even the eyes were covered. And
getting on the bus to the plane was positively eerie - we just jumped on,
and discovered a real black/white apartheid - in the back, black veiled
women, in the front Omani men in white dishdash  - all 'voluntary'. At least
the Omani women have not lost all their style - the black robes carry
elaborate designs in sparkles and sequins, and the eyes we did see wore
heavy make-up. A veiled Omani woman that Nicky talked to said that she
preferred to be veiled in Oman as otherwise she thinks everyone stared at
her - but when she visits the west, she goes unveiled as
otherwise ----everyone stares at her. But it does illustrate the trials that
Oman - a modernizing moderate arab state has in store for the future.

We met Chris and Jill (who live in Sydney and sailed with us for 11 weeks in
the Pacific) in Muscat.We will sail with them to Yemen and up the Red Sea to
Cairo. We rented a 4WD Nissan Patrol, and drove along the coast road from
Muscat to Wadi Shab. A Chinese contractor is building a black top road from
Muscat to Sur, but they are 1 year behind schedule, so we bounced over
graded roads that sometimes ended in 10 metre blind drops and finally
arrived at Wadi Shab. Our first year in Oman, it had not rained for a single
day; but when it does rain it pours - a few days before torrential rain had
washed many cars down wadis, wedging them under bridges to the delight of
onlookers. So Wadi Shab had water in it, and Saeed took us up to a pool
where Chris and I swam through a cave entrance no bigger than our head, then
swam further in, scrambled up a ledge and finally returned downstream to
find Nicky and Jill. Saeed is engaged to be married to an Omani goatherd who
is his cousin, living in the hills 3 hours above Tiwi. But she hasn't been
to school, and can only cook and clean the house, while he is attracted by
an Omani-Australian magazine editor he met in Oman.

We left Saeed to his marital problems, and prepared a camp on Tiwi Beach,
sleeping on the sand (there is no hotel between Muscat and Sur although one
is planned). We gathered kindling and firewood and BBQ'ed steak over a
campfire then huddled onto Korean blankets we had bought in the souk, and
wondered whether scorpions or foxes would be attracted or deterred by the
fire as we slept. Next day we discovered plenty of tracks, but were
unbitten, so moved onto Tiwi, now a rapidly expanding town, (before it had
been a sleepy fishing village), then onto Sur which always has been a big
port.

Sur Hotel is right in the centre of town, but is quiet and good value at 16
Riyals (about 21 pounds) for a double. We liked Sur, it has an energetic air
perhaps deriving from its trading days to Zanzibar, every square metre of
sand seemed to have a soccer pitch with people playing, and the harbour was
full of dhows for fishing and trading, while more were being built in the
boatyard. Rumour has it that the Sultan has arranged for there to always be
one dhow being built to keep the industry alive. Certainly the Sultan (who
was educated at Sandhurst the UK military academy) is very popular with his
subjects, and every year goes on meet the people tours, listening carefully
to any individual grievances, and instructing ministers to get it right when
necessary.

Oman shares a vague northern border with Saudi Arabia in the Empty Quarter,
but the Wahaiba Sands are closer to the Omani coast - 100 miles by 50 of
classical sand desert, with only the occasional scrubby bush. I had arranged
for us to stay at Al Raha desert camp - the only one I could contact. From
Al Mintrib we drove 18 kms straight into the sands, to a well designed camp
with water well. We passed a number of Bedouin encampments, but Al Raha was
not one - we slept on beds in small bedrooms with fans. But sunset was
unique as the reddening sun tinged the dunes with gold, and Bedouin raced 4
WD's up the dunes, a long way from camel trains. Most of the guests in Al
Raha were from UAE or Oman, including veiled women, and 4 pretty arab girls
in western clothes , who were making passes at a group of Omani guys.
Contrast!!

After a camel ride next day, we drove back to Muscat, passing 3 camels in
the back of a pick up on their way to the races. We had planned to meet Andy
and Trisha Wood, who had been in Oman when we were there. Andy is now Shell
Country Chairman, and was keen to take time off from diplomacy and show off
his 7 metre racing keel boat, all slim lines and sporty performance, berthed
in the marina in Muscat. He and I had a great sail in 10 knot winds,
Intissar a JS7000 reached 10 knots, while Nicky and Trisha watched from a
converted fishing boat. Also there were Alan and Anne Parker - Alan worked
with me in PDO and we all had kids about the same age, so it was a really
pleasant time, but we had to get back to Intrepid.

Mohammed had looked after her well, which was a relief, but the fridge
obviously felt petulant and failed to re-start. Mohammed had swapped
Christina for a German woman (he is also married to an Omani/Tanzanian girl
with whom he still lives and has 2 daughters), and has a woman from
Copenhagen up his sleeve as well, so to speak. We arranged for refrigeration
engineers, but Salalah is too remote for there to be much expertise, and I
had diagnosed a faulty controller before they did. The winds in Salalah are
tricky and we had 600 miles to sail to Aden through some of the worst pirate
areas where only the week before 200 people had been forced overboard and
drowned by people smugglers operating between Yemen and Somalia - precisely
where we were going. We were the only yacht in Salalah by this time, and
weather windows when the wind is not South West are increasingly uncommon as
the SW Monsoon builds, so when the wind shifted NE we decided to go and I
arranged for the parts to be sent to Yemen, where we will have bureaucratic
nightmares getting it out of customs, but at least should have winds to get
us there.....

Well, that was the theory. The parts seem to be on their way, but the wind
when we set off on Tuesday 3rd April has died, so as I wrote we were
becalmed near the Oman-Yemen border. However later the wind came in and we
caught (and released) a 3 foot shark. We don't want to use all our fuel
before we reach the danger area 300 miles away between Mukallah and Aden, so hopefully we will continue to
get some wind before then. Meanwhile we are hardening ourselves for warm beer and G&T -
its tough cruising. Luckily Chris and Jill are very good friends and
resilient - a pleasure to have them with us even in such demanding
circumstances.

Andy Nicky Chris and Jill. .

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