Knowing Oman and UAE in my early
days in the Gulf
Mahananda Medhi, Dubai
was just a matter of good luck that I came to Muscat 32 years ago. As per the
army norms, I received an official briefing in Delhi, whereby I was asked to
board a ship to Aden first and then to Muscat by a train
my last leg of journey. I repeat. This was what I was told by our top hats in
Delhi. With high hopes and excitement I reached Bombay on the appointed date and
reported to the shipping agent (Graham Macenzie). The young lady at the counter
gave me a ticket for the ship, but none for the train, which I was supposed to
board in Aden. She laughed at me,
when I put pressure on her for the train ticket. I felt somewhat out of place
but not completely surprised at the ignorance of our Delhi babus and
I reached Muscat by sea after ten days instead of a normal four or five days
voyage with a stopover over at Karachi. I wore my three piece long suit for the
occasion. The one man immigration team headed by
Mr. Lashkaran moved my papers very fast. He was disturbed by my attire,
probably it was out of fashion or most inappropriate for the occasion. He had an
wonderful personality and was well past his retirement age. But his mannerism
and loving attitude won my heart. He remained my good friend till my last
assignment in Oman.
spent many of my happy years in Muscat and Oman by which name the Sultanate was
known then. During my long stay in
Oman, I have witnessed the countryís metamorphosis from a medieval past to a
modern state. I was involved in an insurgency and separatist war for 10 long
years. On many occasions I was shot at. My vehicles were blown off by land
mines. The last being the helicopter accident in a war zone. I was very much
lucky to be alive and managed to escape with
a minor back injury and multiple peppering wounds. Probably my stars
were in my favour which shielded me from further mishaps. This was not
the case with many of my friends who died young and did not live to see another
day in their lives.
is a vast desert country, the sixth largest in the Arab world with a small
population of around half a million or little over in the late sixties. Omanís
total revenue was about a million UK sterling pounds
in 1966-67. The legal currency was Gulf Indian Rupees, printed by the
Reserve Bank of India till 1970. Buying and purchasing in the village markets
were conducted in MTD (Maria Theresa Dollar), a large solid silver coin, minted
in Europe in early eighteenth century.The new found petro-dollars contributed
the most towards the state coffer. The United Kingdom and India were the only
two countries represented at the Consular level. There were only a half a dozen
Landrovers and Pickups
outside the PDO and the Armed Forces. Large
camel train moved commercial items from one place to another. A very common
sight in the desert and in everyday
life in Oman. Muscat was a small
city heavily fortified with three historic forts and dozens of watch towers.
Portugese occupied Muscat and a few of their coastal towns for a period of over
50 years. The old city of Muscat
was their main base. The Omanis beseized
fort Mirani at Muscat which happened to be their
headquarters and starved them to submission.
The plan was initiated by an Indian merchant to avoid his daughter
getting forcefully married to the Portugese commander. I have come across many
Indian families living in Muscat for more than
fifteen to sixteen generations. One of them had a land holding rite going
back to 400 years (1600 AD).
are divided into many tribes, who had earlier migrated from Yemen and the
Northern Arabian Peninsula. They are a very proud race, whose rule once extended
to both sides of the Gulf water and 2000 Kilometers long east coast of Africa
from its horn to Mozambique. The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba included. The
Omani ruling families had friendly relationship with the Great Mogul Emperors in
legendary Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan had an embassy in Muscat for a
number of years. His Highness Late Said Bin Taimur
(1932-1970) the twelfth
ruler of Oman was a product of Mayo College, Ajmer and so were his two Uncles.
We are very close to Oman in history, which is beyond the scope of my writing in
was fortunate enough to see Oman as it was in the last few hundred years. The
country has a long and proud history going back to 5,000 years or more.
The land was peopled by hunter-gatherers as early as 10,000 years ago.
They have left their marks in history. There were places, where this primitive
people once lived and prospered, before they became part of the desert
landscape. Oman is known to be explorers paradise. My army job gave me endless
opportunities to explore the country side, its mountain ranges and the sprawling
deserts. They were untouched by human civilisation. Most of my journeys were
made by sturdy land rovers or on Camelís back, where the machine failed. I
spent days at a time under the scorching sun with limited food and water.
However I felt I was thousand times better off than the earlier travellers who
made their journeys much earlier than me (1908-1946 AD). They had handful of
camels, very little food and water to sustain their long journeys for months
together. They had to travel on many occasions through unfriendly
and hostile country side. I did experience hostility only once when our
party was pelted with stones and subjected to verbal abuse. On odd occasion, we
were left with little food, after entertaining our casual beduoin guests. A
little selfishness on my part would have upset my companions, who came from the
great Bedu stocks of Oman. They knew the deserts very well. We always cooked
extra meals and rationed our food and water very strictly.
Desert can be a paradise and an exciting place to live in , but can also
be a killing field. I had seen giant sand dunes being formed overnight and thus
obscuring the travel routes. It is always impossible
to forecast the number of days, one will require to complete his or her journey.
We were always over cautious and made such journeys after careful
planning for days together. We used our compass bearings very well and often
took directions from the night stars. A little mistake may lead someone to
nowhere. This has happened to us once when we were 300 kilometers deep inside
the Saudi territory. The advance
party did not follow the correct compass bearings. The longest journey I had
ever made was to travel from Salalah to Habroot and then to Mekinat Sehan,
Marsudid Fassad and Mughshin, all
in close proximity of the Saudi and Yemen borders. This was through the edge of
the great desert, The Empty Quarter. From Mughshin I travelled to Adam
and then to Muscat. We covered 3,800 Kilometers in eleven days and made contact
with many of the great Bedouin tribes of Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A
true Bedouin does not restrict himself within the man made boundaries.
He roams the desert as it pleases him. They are the true desert dwellers.
It will take at least a decade or two for some of them to come out of their
nomadic existence. However they do love fast running 4x4 vehicles and for many
of them, lives have changed from Camel to Cadillac. But when it comes to living
in the cities, they are completely out of it and are very much reluctant to do
is the land of thousand and one forts. Many of them have played their historical
roles in shaping the nationís destiny. The country is dotted with running
falajes (water channel). They are all man made and
had served the nation for hundreds of years. Each one of them is owned by
a particular tribal community. I have come across falajes which run for 30-40
kilometers underground, before they are made to flow over ground.
They are the handwork of hard working human beings with primitive digging
tools like chisel and hammer. Omanís
economy was based on agriculture like date plantation and lemon. The country
produced sixty varieties of dates. Dry lemon and dates were exported to India in
do fondly remember my short stays with some of the great Bedouin tribes of Oman,
like the Durus, Wahibas, the Harasis, Al Bu Shams and Jenebas. Their hospitality
is beyond description and seen to be believed.
During my last days in Oman, I was hosted for fourteen lunches and
dinners in two days. On each occasion a goat or two were slaughtered. My bedouin
friends went one step further by killing a camel for my lunch and entertainment.
Many of them looked upon me as their friends. This bond was further
consolidated, when I raised Omanís flying doctor service and rendered medical
aids to them in 1976-1978.
are great people, when it comes to friendship and generosity. Oman today is a
modern state with a world-class infrastructure, whether it is their highways,
school/college education, healthcare or communications. In the late sixties the
Sultanate had only one missionary hospital, three government clinics and two
rudimentary primary schools. The country now boasts in excess of 50 state of the
art hospitals, a university, schools, colleges, number of modern cities and more
than 7,000 kilometers of superb highways. Countryís infrastructure is probably
one of the best in the Arab world. This all began with Sultan Qaboos, the most
dynamic and enlightened ruler of the country. Oman today occupies a coveted
place in the world and in the international community. Things have changed
dramatically in the last few years. Omanis now enjoy one of the highest living
standards in the Middle East. I am happy to say that I have witnessed Omanís
rapid progress to modernity in the quickest period of time in history.
coming back to UAE, I must admit that the Emirates were a shade better than Oman
in their development activities. They
were all individual emirates, prior to their formation into a federation in I
did visit Al Ain and Dubai in my early days in Oman. Al Ain is an oasis with 6
running falajes and had just initiated their town planning activities. The city
of Abu Dhabi was no more than a coastal village. Many households in Abu Dhabi
and Dubai had a goat or cattle pan for cows under a tree or in the open space.
The emirate of Dubai was the first one to embark on a massive development
programme, centered around the creek and the Airport. Sharjah remained stagnant.
Fujeirah, Umm al Quain, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah were coastal villages with their
own forts and lush green date plantations. The distance between Muscat and Dubai
and Buraimi/Al Ain was covered in 2 days journey. The drive through Wadi Zizi
was very agonising, slow and a bone breaking experience. The route was flood
prone and mostly strewn with boulders of all sizes. Al Ain had a large
concentration of bedouins with a dozen or so expatriate population involved in
the development projects. Each of the bedouin family maintained a small herd of
camels. I had been to Ain Al Faydah only once during my recruitment drive for
the Omani Armed Forces. It is a natural spring
the largest in the region with a large volume of free flowing water. Many
of the local population believed of its medicinal property. I had camped in
Dubai and Al Ain for more than one occasion. Dubai was a fascinating commercial
city for gold and Dhow trade. The Indian business community lived happily and
were found to be a prosperous lot in Dubai.
had once walked from Musandum to Dibba and then to Sharjah through the Emirate
of Fujeirah during the course of my duties. I had accompanied the British SAS
team on an eleven daysí walk and sight seeing mostly through the barren
desert. I then left for Oman in a single engine beaver aircraft.
Dubai today is a major financial centre. The city never sleeps or as they say
fly buy Dubai. The UAE as a whole is a role model of a true federal country.
Oman has succeeded a lot, where the others have failed. The Sultanate is
slowly developing into a major tourist hub in the world. The peaceful
environment in UAE and Oman can be an example for others to follow.
I would have loved to write further but for paucity of time and space. However I will not hesitate to re-write this article a bit longer if circumstances permit me in the very near future.