Muscat is rather different to other capital cities in the Middle East. The city centre is remarkably clean, indeed you can be fined for having a dirty car, and the multicoloured water statues dotted around town look exceptionally well attended. Everything seems aesthetically remarkably well ordered. When you discover that the Sultan has no children and is not married, you may suspect that more than a few Barbara Streisand albums have found their way into the royal palace.
Greater Muscat encompasses a few nondescript strip malls blocks, which would not look out of place in some lower middle class American burg; the walled city of Old Muscat, where one of the Sultan’s palaces is located; and Mutrah, a sleepy coastal district which holds the souq and the nightlife. During the day, Mutrah is like a ghost town. There is the obligatory presence of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis tending their stalls but during the 40 degree day time heat, even they can’t be bothered to hassle you to buy anything. The only person who seemed to have the energy to interact with passing strangers was a large Rasta, perched conspicuously on the Corniche. Given that all Omanis, without exception, wear the white dishdasha with a rather modest fez-like hat, his Jamaica flag coloured beanie and his offers to sell weed made him an unlikely undercover officer for the Muscat police.
At night after the sun has gone down, the city lights come on and the giant incense burner overlooking Mutrah bathes in its multicoloured glory, like a candelabra on Liberace’s piano. The black robed women and the white clad men wonder around the coastal road looking like yin-yang signs, evidently not doing much other than sipping on Pepsi and enjoying not be baked to death by the overwhelming heat.
Indeed, there really isn’t much to do in Muscat in general. When the guide books recommend the French-Omani museum, you realise that really you should just learn to enjoy the sleepy ambience of the place, and reflect that not all capital cities have to feel like Manhattan, before slinking back to your five star hotel.
Whilst the city centre is the bastion of the subcontinentals, the western hotels are ultimately dependent on the Filipinos. Like the US without Mexicans, most of the Gulf relies on them to act as the interface between the Western tourists and the grubby act of providing service. The Filipinos seem to have an incredibly wide ethnic stock, which was confirmed by a fellow called Rail who gave me a Thai massage. He seemed rather surprised that I was bothering to interact with him, asking him questions about Tagalog and Filipino ethnic politics. I got the impression that most guests at the hotel only spoke to him in imperatives. True, it is rather hard to have a conversation whilst someone is digging their knees into your back whilst simultaneously pulling your arms out of their sockets but he did at least describe what it was like to live in Oman. Comfortable but dull was his description. He seemed to hope that he could one day transfer within the hotel group to a branch in Canada. Which is funny as comfortable but dull is how most people describe Canada.
Whilst the varied Filipino faces are entertainingly curious to look at, the identikit Omani dress code is creepy and oppressive, despite it looking superficially practical and comfortable. Without exception, they all dress the same and I have never seen such a chronic lack of individuality. Mao would surely approve but I would hate to be a dry cleaner sorting out different customers’ clothes.
Arriving at 2am, Dubai airport was still a scene of utter chaos. Outside the arrival gate, throngs of Subcontinentals waited for their families or new workers to arrive. Luckily Mel had arranged for a transfer to the hotel and so we were guided through the multicoloured sacks of clothing that pass for luggage outside the West, to a waiting Lincoln Town Car. An aptly decadent vehicle for Dubai, its epic leg room heralding the fact that if you have money, you need not suffer any inconvenience, least of all the annoyance of not being able to stretch your legs.
Like the airport, the streets were also still crowded with cars, but fairly soon we hit the iconic 2×7 lane highway that cuts through the skyscraper lined avenue that leads to the Jumeirah district. The strip feels like a mix between Las Vegas with its shiny neon and Flash Gordon with its futuristic rocket tipped skyscrapers. But when you realise that the buildings are only one street deep it begins to feel more like a Hollywood film set, where only the veneer of construction and activity needs to be passed off to be able to sustain the illusion of a city. The frequently described statistic that 25% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai seemed credible even at night, as white dotted lines apparently hovered in the middle of the air all around us. This turned into a Close Encounters style light display as we hit Jumeirah Beach proper. To say that the hotel was in the middle of a construction site does not convey the carnage of building work going on at 2am in the morning as we arrived at our hotel. It is not for nothing that all the hotels room are fitted with extensive double glazing, at no insignificant cost, to keep out the noise. Thank god it works.
In the light of the day, the extent of the work was even more extraordinary. An area the size of lower Manhattan seemed to be trying to will itself into existence in one go with about 100 cranes visible to the eye in any 90 degree view. The subcontinentals in their blue overalls were out in such numbers that one got a glimpse of what is must have been like to watch the pyramids built. As the posters says, it is amazing what you can achieve with an unlimited amount of cheap labour.
Taking up the national sport, the first thing we did was go shopping in one of the malls. The Mall of Emirates sticks out amongst the other buildings due to one noticeable architectural feature. It has a ski slope inside it. If the incongruity of seeing chador clad women queueing next to Russian girls wearing less clothing than a topless bather is a jarring image, then sitting in shorts and a t-shirt watching people shivering at the bottom of a ski slope on the other side of a window is perhaps more so.
If the ultra-Western environment of the new malls and hotels, where Muslim sensibility elides with Western tastes, represents what Dubai has become, then Deira, the old downtown, still shows what Dubai was. Countless dhows were still unloading their Asian products onto the wharf, only now they were mostly electronic goods, showing that a large amount of consumer goods still get moved around the world by sea. The creek that cuts through Deira, where the dhows are moored, is crossed by small boats called Abras, which act as water taxis ferrying 15 or people across the creek each time. Sitting on one, surrounded by mostly subcontinentals workers, you get a chance to see both sides of the creek, which in contrast to the new Downtown and Jumeirah area, is populated mostly by old, colonial era stone buildings and the souqs. With the late afternoon sun reflecting off the roofs and the only real noise being the glugging of the abra’s diesel engine, the relative tranquility of Deira is something that the Dubai marketing department seem to gloss over in its effects to focus attention on ever taller skyscrapers being built.
It is a cliche to say that people want to come back to Dubai in 2, 5 and 10 years to see what it looks like, but aside from the Sim City sensation, it is a fascinating experiment in building a new global city with all of the cultural and ethnic questions that it raises. Either the current soullessness of its new districts with their empty buildings will be occupied and a new city-state will spring into existence or it will prove to be a massive folly dreamt up by a tribal family in their attempts to gamble on a legacy o
nce the oil runs out.