Knowing Oman
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Knowing Oman and UAE in my early days in the Gulf

Col.(Retd.) Mahananda Medhi, Dubai

It 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 on 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 bureaucrats.

Anyway 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.

I 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.

Oman 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.

The 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).

Omanis 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 Delhi.

The 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 this article. 

I 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 so.

Oman 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 large quantities.

I 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.

They 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.

Now 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.

I 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.