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Before travelling to Muscat this week for the inauguration of the new airport terminal and Muscat Duty Free stores, I mentioned to a few people that my next trip was to Oman. Even those who knew a little about this Gulf state struggled to conjure up an image of the country and its place in the world. (A few knew of its reputation for pure bred Arabian horses.)
In one way that lack of noise suits Oman fine. It’s a secure, peaceful, relatively prosperous Gulf state right at the heart of a region where tensions (that often spill over) are part of the everyday landscape. It shares land borders with the UAE, but also with Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and marine borders with Iran and Pakistan. No easy task then to steer a path through regional rivalries. Oman does so quietly and in its own authoritative way. In fact, it is often the arbiter of peace between the states that surround it and in the wider region (both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership visited here in recent days).
In other ways, though, Oman now wants to make its voice heard as a smart, progressive, tolerant country, one that has its own story to tell. The Minister for Transport and Communication His Excellency Dr Ahmed Al Futaisi said as much when we met him at a media dinner on Thursday night.
He said: “Some of our people say that we are too humble, that we should expose more of our story to the world. This is a story of a country that has lots to say. There are many achievements that we are proud of but that the world does not know about yet.
“We are proud of our infrastructure, our world-class roads, ports and airports; we are proud of the education system, the young generation that is full of energy, innovation and entrepreneurship. We produce things in a modern way, but we do everything with an Omani touch.”
The aviation chapter is part of this story of course. The new airport to be inaugurated on Sunday (the full story will follow) is a tale of big ambition, of blending modern technology and design with Sense of Omani Place (mirrored by Muscat Duty Free’s stores, a highlight of the commercial offer). Oman Air’s growth is part of this too. Its CEO, Abdul Aziz Saud Al Raisi told me: “We invest today for Oman tomorrow. The returns will come down the line but they must be made today. As an airline, we have been around for more than 20 years and the only thing we lacked until now was a proper airport.
“We are promoting Oman as a destination. Today we have about 30% point to point to Muscat and the rest is hub traffic. We would like to have 40% point to point at least. We have about 40 new aircraft on order and we are expanding but gradually and steadily, to Europe to Asia, to Africa.”
There’s much more to the story of Oman besides, as I learned on a tour of the city arranged by Oman Aviation Group (the new body that controls airport and airline, with the Oman Aviation Services division partnering ARI in Muscat Duty Free).
This is a country with great heritage and tradition but it’s a young country too. Some 58% of the population is under 22 – what a contrast to ageing Europe. They will all need jobs in future of course, a task that presents its own challenges, but the government is trying to steer a (sometimes tricky) path to ensure that Omanis are equipped to become leaders in society over time.
It’s a relatively undiscovered tourism jewel too. The country offers the visitor everything from mountain ranges to the desert and the sea – and tourism reflects that diversity. Packed charter flights to Salalah in the season are full of Europeans arriving for outdoor adventure; there is culture and superb hospitality in Muscat from the deeply impressive Grand Mosque to thrilling trips up and down the Arabian Sea coast, as we experienced in a traditional dhow on Friday. And there’s a move to attract conference and exhibition business, with a new Convention Centre just opened in Muscat, well located close to the airport. Above all, Oman wants to target a more premium guest; mass tourism is not on the agenda, as the Minister said pointedly.
The strong cultural connections with East Africa (Zanzibar to the south was once one of two Omani capitals when the Sultanate was itself an empire) and India can be seen in the varied and excellent cuisine. The herbal taste of Omani coffee offers a blend of many such influences from around these coasts.
There’s a lot more besides, all encapsulated in the warmth of the people we have met in our short time here.
His Excellency Dr Ahmed Al Futaisi now takes the view that Oman should come out of the shadows. He told us: “We would like you in the media to look at our achievements, talk to our decision makers, see the airport and city and convey the message that this country has a story to tell, something different and special.”
In the coming days, we’ll help tell the airport and travel retail story; other media here (including influencers from China, Russia and India) will tell the story of Omani tourism, food and lifestyle. And when I next plan a visit here and mention it to the people at home, I hope Oman’s voice and reputation will go before it.