When you arrive at Oman's ancient city of Nizwa, surrounded by mountains and desert, you'll encounter an unusual piece of roadside sculpture: a giant Arabic coffee urn surrounded by silver-lined cups. This modern rendition of a traditional symbol of Arab hospitality could stand for Oman's intriguing combination of old and new. Long isolated from the rest of the world, Oman only recently began welcoming travelers inside its borders. But even as it has opened its doors to the world and brought modern improvements to the remotest villages, it has also retained many of its traditional desert ways. Along the coast, boatbuilders in small fishing villages still craft dhows by hand. Inland, Bedouins carve out their living on rocky terraces, their villages perched on the precipices of a yawning gorge.
Travelers could also see the giant urn as a kind of magic lamp beckoning them to one of the most exotic places in the world: to wild desert villages and palm-lined oases, where women wear black silk robes and brightly hued masks, and men wear ankle-length robes and colorful cashmere turbans. But for those who prefer the more comfortable pleasures a genie might offer, there are also luxurious tropical seaside resorts, with opportunities for scuba diving and fishing.
Although Oman is not for everyone, it is certain to charm those with an eye for natural beauty and an interest in Arabic tradition.
One of the oldest states on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman was once an important sultanate whose influence was felt as far away as Zanzibar and Pakistan (it sent an ambassador to the U.S. in the 19th century). Today its people reflect a mixture of African, Indian and Arabian influences. Its customs are shaped by those cultures, overlaid by a very thin veneer of British practices (the British were dominant in the area from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries).
Oman doesn't boast the extraordinary oil wealth of its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, but the standard of living is still much higher in Oman than in many other Arab countries. Roads, electricity, water, health clinics and schools have arrived in even the most remote mountain villages. The economy remains among the best managed in the region. Although the population enjoys some political representation through a consultative parliament set up after the Gulf War in 1991, the country remains essentially an autocratic monarchy in which the line between the state and the Omani ruling family is blurred.
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