Note: In the wake of what happened in London recently this post, which was inspired by a holiday I have just returned from, seems all the more fitting, if only because the imbecile who killed people because of his corrupted view of life is and never will be representative of the majority of people who call themselves Muslims and practice Islam. I do not identify with any organized religion but I do identify with other people; I follow a more humanist path.
Despite being entranced by 1001 Arabian Nights and the tales of Sinbad the Sailor as a child I cannot say that Arabia was ever a place that interested me particularly. Even after reading T. E. Lawrence’s ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and seeing David Lean’s epic movie Arabia held no particular fascination for me, but I ended up going there all the same.
To be fair it was my wife’s fault. She works as a hospice nurse and her experiences have led her to pursue the living of life with a vengeance, also, she is an impressive hunter of bargains. Late last year she suggested that we go on an early summer holiday, in February to be precise, and added weight to her argument by pointing out that our first grandchild is due this June and we did not want to be away for that event did we? That was, of course, a rhetorical question.
Looking into the details it became apparent that she had found a very good deal, practically half-price with a drinks package included as well, for a round cruise from Dubai on the Thomson Celebration. The ‘Cities of Gold’ itinerary would take in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Manama in Bahrain, then both Muscat and Khasab in Oman, before returning to UAE for Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Well, it looked warmer than England anyway!
I am both a fan of history and a modernist. I like looking both to the past and the future. I found Dubai to be something of a soulless city, lots of steel and glass skyscrapers but little else. This is not surprising when you stop to consider that the wealth from oil is only a little more than 50 years old and that there was precious little else in the region prior to the discovery of the black gold. I do not wish to be too harsh on Dubai but it just did not do anything for me. Yes, it looks modern and the wealth is obvious, perhaps a little too obvious, but there seemed to be no sense of community or shared identity.
Manama in Bahrain appeared to be carbon copy of Dubai, it certainly shares the ambition to be tall and modern, but it least it has more of a history and there’s plenty of the old town still present, although I got the impression that it is being encroached upon and will most likely be built over in the next decade or so.
It was in Muscat that I actually felt that we had come to somewhere different. This is an ancient place with a real history and, perhaps more importantly, with a vision of the future that is built upon the past. Building is controlled in Muscat and there is a real desire to retain the culture of the inhabitants. You will not see any skyscrapers here but you do not have to go tall to be impressive, the Sultan’s Palace is a beautiful place to visit and the peace and tranquillity a real antidote to the speed of Dubai and Manama.
Unfortunately we could not explore Khasab due to the fact that it rained all day! Yes, it rains in Arabia as well, at least along the coast it does. Our next stop was Abu Dhabi, another modern city but one that is also trying to retain its past. We spend more time exploring Abu Dhabi than anywhere else as it turned out. I liked the place, it felt like it had a direction about it, a vision like Muscat where both the past and future have a presence.
One of the things that was unavoidable before we went on this cruise was a general and
undefined fear of the Muslim world expressed by family and friends alike. This was quite sad but, I suppose, understandable. The media in the west seem obsessed with reporting only negative stories about the world and the middle-east in particular. Wherever we went in our short tour of Arabia the Arab people themselves were consistently polite and friendly. English is spoken widely; even the road signs are repeated in English and look almost identical to ours. At no time did we feel threatened, resented, or our presence unwanted. This particular area of Arabia is well aware of the finite nature of the resource that has built their wealth and they are already looking to encourage tourism for future prosperity. Ostentatiousness does not do it for me but clearly many people like what they see in Dubai, but then there are places like Muscat for anyone who prefers more culture.
I am not sure that I will return to Arabia after this visit but that is not because of any negative connotations, my experiences there were wholly positive, it is just that the visit did not capture my imagination. This has nothing to do with the Arab people or Islam, it is just me, but I am glad that we went all the same.