by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE
Oman: The Real Arabia
Other than hearing that Oman was the “real Arabia”, I had no expectations of the country prior to landing in Muscat on a re-routed journey via Bahrain, following a marathon journey and a missed connection in Istanbul. I was there for 4 days to deliver training to local specialists and government officials in the area of Business Events accompanied by my best friend and work colleague, Pat Delaney.
Upon arrival at 5am we were met airside by a young Filipino who dispatched us smilingly through the entry formalities, despite the ungodly hour of our eventual arrival. And, no, he didn’t mind working the night shift, grateful for his exit from Asia to this “high paid job” where his fluency in English set him apart. There’s a vast ex-Pat community in Oman often with pre-determined roles – the Indians, apparently, are the shopkeepers, the Bangladesi the farm labourers, the Pakistanis drive the trucks and the Sri Lankans work in the hotels.
Kempinski, Al Mouj, Muscat
In recent years, Oman has attracted massive inward investment particularly in infrastructure for tourism and Business Events. A taxi took us in about 7 minutes from the impressive international airport to Al Mouj, a rapidly expanding mixed use development that includes the relatively new and very beautiful Kempinski, Oman, where your eyes, upon arrival, are quickly captivated by a temple-like, pure white interior with views over the mill-pond stillness of the Arabian gulf.
Kempinski, Oman is one of many upscale brands that have identified Oman as a rapidly emerging and extraordinarily appealing destination for Business Events. IHG is there (Crowne Plaza) and Marriott will shortly open a flagship JW Marriott adjacent to the Oman Convention Centre, a magnificent architectural statement that puts Muscat firmly on the map for global conferences.
A Warm, Welcoming Embrace
Over a short 4 day stay in Oman we experienced the warm, welcoming embrace of a country, culture and lifestyle radically different from our own. At a time in history when you can fly 8,000 km west to San Francisco or twice that distance east to Sydney without any requirement to recalibrate your cultural compass, it was refreshing to find oneself in a place where the differences actually outweigh the similarities.
Perhaps the differences were best illustrated during the day we spent with Nasser, our guide, who took us around the vast magnificence of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and on to Nizwa to visit the eponymous castle and seventeenth century fort.
Nasser is in his late 50s, slightly younger than the two Irishmen he took around in a powerful Toyota LandCruiser. He grew up with 11 brothers and sisters in a one room dwelling in the Omani countryside typically sleeping outdoors in the sand dunes. His father had 3 wives.
A local dignitary in the village where he grew up procured him a passport that stated he was 2 years older than his actual years. This enabled him to join the police force where he served happily and successfully in the mounted section. At 17 he married a 14 year old girl from his local village.
When he retired from the police force due to health issues he trained as a guide and, in his late 40s, learned to speak English.
Nasser’s fascinating story unfolded as we left Muscat behind to explore the untamed beauty of the surrounding countryside. The stranger and more remote the terrain, the greater the distance appeared between our lives in Western Europe and Nasser’s in Oman. If ever there were a perfect instance of Pavese’s “brutality” of travel where you’re plucked from your comfort zone and made to encounter true diversity, then this was it.
On two other occasions we found ourselves with intelligent, articulate and wonderfully open young men and women who welcomed our torrent of questions about life in Oman. Both of these young people had won government scholarships to study abroad and were educated to masters’ levels at universities in Europe and the United States.
But 5 years in California didn’t convince Mohammed that western “freedom” was any more a guarantee of inner peace than faithful observance of his Muslim faith; years on the east coast left Zainab feeling that many young Americans were like gerbils on a wheel, mimicking each other in a futile pursuit of shallow things that sparkle and shine.
Equally both were critical of the growing consumerism they saw in Oman and felt the next generation coming through was losing focus, more concerned with external appearance than purity of heart. It was fascinating and inspiring to hear two under 30s express viewpoints and opinions that, in western society, we take a lifetime to discover.
There was a beautiful, child-like wisdom to their musings that came from solid inner conviction. They had a moral compass that gave them purpose and direction and families and communities behind them that supported them in their choices.
“My Arabian Dream”
Other States in the Persian Gulf have powered ahead in terms of infrastructural development with Dubai, in particular, now an international hub and a firm tier one destination. It’s all gleaming glass and steel and dense high rise and, with Emirates, super-connected to the rest of the world, north, south, east and west.
It’s high tech, contemporary, future proofed and forward focused. When you survey the city and its hinterland from Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, you experience a deep pride at the extent and the beauty of this world made by humans.
Oman, on the other hand, is deeply connected to its past. Its capital city Muscat is laid out some what sprawlingly around oases, wadis and arid mountains. It complements nature and doesn’t try to dominate it. When you take your 4 wheel drive to the stunning Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort and stand on the viewing platform there, you’re met by a vista that no human could ever fashion and are left weak and speechless in the presence of God’s creation.
Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist advisory working with destinations, venues, hotels, agencies and association on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events market.