On a Thursday morning, the plane from the United Arab Emirates' capital, Abu Dhabi, to Oman's, Muscat, looks like an exodus. Arabs and expats flee the monotony of their oil-rich states for a long weekend in Oman. "Oman is the only interesting country in the gulf," declares a Kuwaiti princess. "All the others are just the same." Compared with the singularly flat and bland desert landscapes of the gulf coast states, Oman's raw, rocky mountains, plunging fjords and ribbons of white sand beaches are a visual buffet to sand-seared eyes.
It's not just the landscape that draws people to Oman; it's the Omanis themselves. Before landing in Muscat, a Kuwaiti oilman tells me, "Omanis are hospitable, hardworking and humble." Rashid, a young Omani man who works in the oil fields of Abu Dhabi, responds with a wry smile: "That's because we are poor." It's a stretch to call Rashid poor—he sports a new mobile phone and a watch-mounted digital camera—but in relative terms, he is right. Oman's oil reserves are modest compared with the rest of the gulf states', and many Omanis like Rashid work in the United Arab Emirates, lured by the better pay.
The Bedouin of Oman scorned the towns of the coast, preferring the desert sands and open skies. But the towns offer the best introduction. Muscat and its port town Muttrah, wedged between the coast and the imposing Jebel Akhdar massif, evoke an old-world flavor. Portuguese-style whitewashed mansions—remnants of the colonial era—crowd the harbor front. Ancient forts crown the heights, securing dominance over the lucrative spice trade between Arabia, Africa and India. From here Oman controlled an empire that stretched from Zanzibar, now in modern-day Tanzania, to Baluchistan, now part of Pakistan.
Muscat's handful of museums give a good sense of Oman's history and traditional crafts. However, Omanis are proud also of their recent past and are just as likely to encourage a visit to the new towns of Ruwi and Qurm. Just beyond the mountains that enclose Muscat, they are testament to the measured development policy of Sultan bin Qaboos, who overthrew his isolationist father three decades ago. Ruwi is home to a number of five-star beach hotels, as well as scores of new government buildings and residential areas. The most impressive sight is the enormous Qaboos Grand Mosque, which can hold 20,000 worshippers. The mosque's massive size—the main hall alone houses a 263-sq-m carpet—is softened by intricate carvings and stained-glass windows.
From Ruwi, it's easy to plan day trips or expeditions into the interior. Frequent buses run to the inland ancient capital of Nizwa, and private cars or tour guides can be hired to drive into the desert. In Oman's vast interior, austere rock and sand dominates, but oases, green orchards and plentiful wildlife offer beautiful contrasts.
If along the way an Omani invites you home, don't be surprised, and don't refuse. Hospitality is fundamental to Omani culture. Thesiger's Bedouin guides shared their few dates and salty desert well water with everyone they encountered. Luckily, the fare in the cities is more abundant. Omani delicacies include shrimp, dried fish, lentils and raisin-spiked basmati rice and tender spiced mutton, smoked for three days in an underground pit. But even that tradition is evolving. "We used to wrap the meat in banana leaves," says my host, a young Omani woman. "But now in Muscat we wrap it in foil."
Thesiger feared this kind of development. "I went to Southern Arabia only just in time," he wrote. "Others will go there to study geology and archaeology, the birds and the plants and animals, even to study the Arabs themselves, but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs." Modern Oman proves Thesiger partially wrong: it still offers an Arabia worth visiting and Arabs worth knowing. But should you long for old Oman, bring along Thesiger's book Arabian Sands. You can journey through the Empty Quarter without having to risk your life—or your vacation.