Since Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani deposed his corrupt father, Qatar’s powerful oil and gas economy has expanded and diversified. The state follows an interesting and idiosyncratic foreign policy. It hosts the largest American miltary base in the Gulf, and it also hosts – against American and Arab objections – al-Jazeera. In terms of the regional ‘Resistance Front versus US-client’ dialectic, Qatar stands in the middle, and in 2008 it helped negotiate a Lebanese compromise between the two sides. Wahhabism is influential (my five-year-old niece wants to attend ballet classes, but ballet classes are banned because the costume is considered unIslamic – even for five-year-old girls in a man-free environment), yet women can vote and drive.
Overall, I don’t much like the place. I had a good time with my family, ate some fine meals, went to a book fair. But there’s a bad power game going on in Qatar. Nobody is smiling. I met some very pleasant Qataris – the staff in the excellent Islamic Art Museum, some men in a bowling alley, a retired pearl diver – but I also noticed many refusing to descend from their cars at the grocery shop. (Arabs often expect take-away food to be brought to the car, but not groceries.) Expatriates form a majority of the population. As elsewhere in the Gulf, expatriate wage and class status can be mapped reasonably smoothly onto ethnicity, with white Westerners on top, followed by Lebanese, then other Arabs, then Indonesians, Pakistanis and Indians. Expatriates don’t have citizenship rights, although the infrastructure depends on them. Many contemporary Qataris, in contrast to their proud grandfathers, are obese. The city is one of close walls. The surrounding desert is flat, pale, and begrimed by industry.
Oman is an entirely different kettle of pearls. I love the Omani atmospheres, both physical and metaphysical. In the city there are wadi dogs and sun birds and bats as big as owls. By the roadside the trees are always flowering, so the first thing I wanted to do after arrival was pray. In Scotland I am too hindered by philosophical problems to pray. I carried the philosophical problems with me to Oman, but there they were beside the point. The point was to stand with my brothers and worship reality, which I did. Then we collected food from a restaurant and went home to meet my old friends.
Omani streets are strung with playing children. The neighbours are Zanjibari, so my Syrian brother-in-law’s daughter speaks Omani Arabic with a Swahili flavour. Contrast Qatar’s Um Saeed, some dunes on a beach overflocked by whooping men and dangerously driven four wheel drives, with the beach five minutes from my brother-in-law’s place in Muscat. Men from six to sixty play football in swollen teams. Women walk fast, swinging their arms against the breeze. A dark-skinned old man with a white woolen beard smiles a smile more beautiful than any to the west.
Oman felt a lot like coming home. Fine company, a city whose corners I know, familiar land. There was the strangeness of going into the university staff club and meeting former students, not quite understanding how I should speak to them now, forgetting how I’d spoken then. There was the strangeness of one of my children swimming in the staff club pool, in the sea, in a wadi stream, while the other walked across a frozen lake in Scotland. It seemed almost as if the last year and a half were a cold, misty dream. I had the illusion of life unchanged.
There has been change, if not progress. The Wave, an absurd gated community for foreigners which confiscated and industrialised miles of public beach, has failed to sell houses. The mysterious roadworks savaging trees on the beach plain turn out to reveal not a private route to the Wave as we thought but a flightpath right over its head – a new airport runway. Millions more tourists are expected. The Wave, meanwhile, was flooded in the hurricane and battered by the recession. One Wave-related casualty is the Muscat Festival, cancelled this year because it failed to break even last year. Why? Because the Omani director of the Wave project was dismissed for conflict of interest from his other position, as Mayor of Muscat, and in a fit of pique he claimed a further kilometre of urban beach for the imagined jetsetters – a kilometre that had housed half the Muscat Festival. The site was moved out of the city almost to Barka, and nobody went.
The official excuse for cancelling this year was Swine Flu. That’s the version I heard. But perhaps Swine Flu wasn’t an excuse at all. According to friends, Omanis quaked in their houses and expected apocalypse throughout the scare. School and university were closed. People didn’t leave home even at Eid. Nobody talks about it now.
When my family lived in Oman we often used to drive through the hills to the beach at Yitti. People from the city swam and played and explored in the rocks and coves and all along the bay. The fishing village had a couple of cafés and a mosque. Sometimes we camped in the next, more inaccessible cove. On the rock outcrops above I’d seen gazelles springing away. Then shortly before we left Oman, Yitti was designated for development: a couple of gated luxury residential projects, still more five-star hotels, a glorious road to carve the mountains to the liking of the glorious guests.
Now the owner of the Salam Yitti project, an Emirati company called Emar, has gone bust. Emar’s flashy HQ in al-Khwair has been sold. The new road to Yitti has not worked; never finished and washed out in rains, its legacy is criss-crossed bulldozer tracks, muddy scraped land where a roundabout was dreamt of, clumps of rolled up tar, and a savage plunging swipe dismembering the hillside. Yitti the village and beach is left as it is, not as it was before the project began. The wadi mouth as it enters the bay, once a wide stretch of marsh grass and mangrove, is plugged with concrete bolts and smears of wire. There are no birds. No fish. No weekend tourists. The ex-fishermen and their families weren’t consulted about any of it.
There is nothing more decent than the Omani people. It’s almost worth getting lost and thirsty in the mountains so you can throw yourself upon their hospitality and be reminded of how human beings are supposed to operate. In the past I’ve been led, fed and watered by mountain people. This time we decided – three adults and a child – to scramble up a hill and back before dark. One of us scrambled out of sight of the others as dark fell. The three stragglers, including child, had soon lost sense of the way down. We could see our fire below us, but whenever we worked towards it we came to a cliff, and had to climb again. We descended and ascended repeatedly until we grew tired and worried. A loose boulder rolled into my son’s back (he was unhurt). So we found a cave and planned to stay there for the night, waterless. It would have been safe but uncomfortable. But our friend who’d gone ahead alerted the nearest village and in a couple of hours we were rescued by Daud and Khaled, young men in flip-flops. A crowd of men was waiting at the foot of the mountain with bottles of water. We thanked them profusely. “It’s our duty,” they said, “it’s nothing.”
We drove south and west towards the Empty Quarter. The mountains gave up and the desert stretched out. At a truckstop café and the last petrol pump we turned onto a dust track. The land became flatter, redder, more baked. We had two cars in case one got stuck. We camped amongst dunes. There were no people for many miles but we could see the glow of unmanned oil installations on the horizon beneath the stars.
The desert gives a traveller illusory confidence. It seems easy to navigate because it’s open and clear. I remember walking all morning in a southern Moroccan patch of desert. I could see a minaret marking my destination, and didn’t fear losing sight of it because there was nothing else to see. But I walked for three hours before the minaret changed size. Here in the Crow Sands, mirage bunches the sparse scrub into inexistent forest. Photons line up to shimmer in lakes of light. You see mangroves in the distance. Perhaps it is like this in east Africa, approaching a great lake.
There are reasons for it – the cooperation of eye and elements – but still the fact of the mirage seems intelligent, whether maliciously or mercifully so, seems that a spark of nature or God or of the jinn is animating it, so that in the desert we see water even before we tire and grow dry. And when we do tire, how long does it take to walk towards the water? How long does it take to walk into it?
Crows and flies and pipelines. Complex amalgams of pipe hooped and bracketed alongside the track and swerving abruptly away. Driving back, we were discussing how easy it would be for an oppositional Islamist movement in the Arabian peninsula, if such a thing existed, and if it wanted to, to cripple the oil industry by randomly and repeatedly chopping at the pipes. And we began wondering if such chopping goes on all the time but we never hear of it because it’s never reported.
We were wondering this when we came to a roadblock. We were on Oman’s main north to south artery, the Nizwa to Salalah road, near the Sultan’s palace at Manah. It was a proper staggered military roadblock, stopping traffic in both directions. Two tanks, one at each end, perhaps 200 metres apart. Tense soldiers gripping rifles, standing well back from vehicles until they had a firm idea of their contents and occupants. They wanted everybody’s papers, car documents, to know where they were going. They wanted you to open the doors. An officer asked questions. I’ve never seen anything like it in Oman before. Back in Muscat I saw the news: al-Qa’ida men had been attacked in Yemen. So the Omanis had intelligence that someone was fleeing north.
We returned to Qatar for 24 hours, en route to Scotland. I was reading ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ by Shlomo Sand. ‘Is everything sacred only metaphor?’ I asked myself in anguish in the arrival hall. ‘Is metaphor enough?’ There were queues and commerce and duty free perfumes assaulting the nose. I didn’t feel in the least like praying.