Sitting next to me on the flight to Muscat was a Palestinian man in his late 20s who worked for an American high-tech company and lived between Bahrain and Jordan. "What is the Arab Spring bringing?" he asked me rhetorically. "Nothing except for insecurity. I am so worried for the future of my children. I thought it was safe for them in Bahrain, but when the demonstrations broke out there, I sent them back to Jordan. And now there are growing problems in Jordan. I know this is going to sound crazy, but the safest place for them at the moment is in Ramallah in the West Bank."
I had lunch on my first day in Muscat with a young Omani journalist. He told me that he had been involved in the protests in 2011, which had been small-scale but still surprised the regime. "We called for better governance and an end to corruption -- not the overthrow of the regime," he said.
I asked him whether the demonstrations had any lasting impact. "There were some protesters killed," he told me. "But Sultan Qaboos made some changes: Ministers were replaced, and some new jobs were created. This calmed things down." He told me that Oman had a parliament of sorts, the Majlis al-Shura, with 83 elected members. But it was the sultan who wielded real authority.
After the restrictions of Saudi Arabia, it was a relief to discard my abaya in Oman. Feeling free, I jumped in a taxi and headed down to Muttrah, the old part of town. I walked through the markets, eying the silver daggers, inhaling the frankincense. I wandered through the back streets, looking past the whitewashed houses to the fortresses perched on top of the mountains. I strolled along the corniche, sprayed by the waves crashing against the harbor wall.
I stopped in the vegetable market to admire the local produce. "Where are you from?" the old vegetable seller asked me. I told him I hailed from Britain.
"It is good there," the old man nodded. "There is no chaos. Do you have rain?"
"Yes," I said, "plenty of rain -- too much, in fact." I told him it was my first visit to Oman and that his country was beautiful. "We have security here," he told me. "It is safe. The sultan is a good man."
To explore Oman further, I hired a guide, Abdullah, who owned his own four-wheel drive car. He was in his late 40s and, like most Omanis, wore a white dishdasha (a long white robe) with a kumar (cap) on his head. On our first day out, we headed westward toward Jebel Akhdar, the "Green Mountain," apparently so named due to the flora and fauna that sprouts up after it rains. Abdullah showed me the irrigation system, which was established 500 years ago and must have been among the most sophisticated in the world at the time. We left the car to head off on foot into the remote villages, built out of mud on rocky hillsides.
Ruins of Birkat al-Mouz in Oman's Jebel Akhdar.
Every village, no matter how remote, had electricity around the clock. Abdullah pointed to places where the sultan camped out in order to hear the needs of the people. As I was to discover during my stay in Oman, Sultan Qaboos is extremely popular.
"We are mostly Ibadis -- not Sunni or Shiite," Abdullah told me. I asked him how Ibadis differed from other Muslims. He was not really able to answer the question, just saying, "We are very moderate and tolerant. We have good relations with everyone. We are the only Arab country to have good relations with Iran."