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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
The draw of Oman
By Sebastian Usher
BBC News, Oman

The sultan of Oman is pursuing the development of his country by attempting to blend the old with the new.

On the seashore of the most eastern point of the Arabian peninsula, a huddle of British, French and Germans wades through rich white sand in the moonlight.

The Sultan Qaboos grand mosque rises over the capital, Muscat
The Sultan Qaboos grand mosque rises over the capital, Muscat
An Omani guide in a white dish-dasha leads the group between the surf breaking into phosphorescence on the beach and jagged, unearthly cliffs above to a round depression in the sand.

In it, a 70-year-old green turtle strains her flippers to dig a deep enough hole to lay her ping-pong ball sized eggs.

Just visible in the distance, another turtle emerges ghostlike from the sea and struggles up onto the beach.

This is Ras al-Hadd - the main site for green turtles in Oman.

They have been coming here to nest for thousands of years.

Strange ritual

One of the Omani guides tells the group of tourists not to speak and not to use flash photography or touch the turtles.

Everyone gathers in a circle around the nesting turtle, the sand she is scooping up flecking their clothes.

It seems a strange ritual to gather in such a remote spot staring down at a creature whose ancestors have populated the oceans for 200 million years.

Leatherback turtle
The turtles of Oman have become a popular tourist attraction
Despite his own warnings, one of the Omani guides shines a torch on the turtle and pats it on the back.

In the main nesting season in late summer, hundreds of turtles make their way each night onto the beach at Ras al-Hadd, leaving early in the morning after laying their eggs.

There are many more visitors as well - several hundred at a time, creating a risk of disrupting the nesting ritual from which, according to one of the guides, only two out of 1,000 hatchlings finally make it to the sea.

The Omanis are trying not to disturb this ancient ritual, while at the same time exploiting it as one of the main attractions for their growing tourism industry.

Access to the nesting grounds is restricted.

All the same, headlights often shine down on the beach from the 4x4s in the car park, disorienting some of the turtles, who head towards the light rather than the sea.

Suburban

In just half the lifetime of one of the middle-aged turtles on the shore, Oman has changed from a closed, almost medieval society to a far more welcoming country built on oil and gas money.

Sultan of Oman
Sultan Qaboos opened up Oman after years of isolationism
Its capital, Muscat, has some of the airless anonymity of other Arab cities built from nothing in the past 30 years.

It runs like an ever-expanding suburb on either side of a motorway, Sultan Qaboos street - named after Oman's modernising sovereign.

Its main souq lacks the dynamism and mystery of those in Marrakesh or Damascus.

Apart from curved daggers and silver, bedouin bangles and necklaces, much of what is sold is from outside Oman, as are many of the stallholders, who come from India or Pakistan.

But unlike Dubai or Abu Dhabi, the architecture is low-key and traditional - offering vistas of whitewashed mansions squeezed between the only truly high-rise features of the capital - clusters of small, rocky mountains with razor-sharp summits.

An hour's boat ride out at sea from Muscat, shoals of dolphins can be seen.

Their presence is first indicated by rolls of breaking surf in the otherwise flat and desolate expanse of sea

The waves are caused by a hundred or so small speedboats fishing for yellow-fin tuna, attracted to the feeding grounds as are the dolphins, who dodge in and out between the boats.

Like the turtles, the dolphins are one of the major tourist attractions in Oman and key to its attempts to sell itself as an untouched haven for wildlife both at sea and on land.

But it is the surreal sight of the mass of fishing-boats that is even more striking.

Tourists wince as they watch the fishermen - their faces almost hidden by scarves to protect them from the heat - club the huge tuna senseless as they haul them into their boats.

Concealed faces

The fish can be seen later in the day lying in rows that look like mass graves in the market at Nizwa, Oman's former capital, a morning's drive from Muscat in the interior.

Here, Omanis also stock up at the goat market and taste the country's curious version of the Arabic sweet, halva, which seems to have a hint of goat in it too, all in the shadow of the city's massive fort.

As it encourages more tourism, Oman is trying to protect its traditions, like its markets and national dress, and its environment, the turtles and dolphins, while using them as its major draw
The women at the market wear black abayas, their faces concealed by a burqa that covers everything but their eyes.

But their public dress is misleading. When they are at home and have removed their cloaks, the colourful traditional clothes reflecting the region they come from are revealed.

A Lebanese teacher at Nizwa University tells me how forthright these women students are.

Even in such an apparently conservative city, they have had no concern about inviting him over for dinner.

Some of them come from a town called Ibri, he confides - so famous for the beauty of its women that the dowries they demand are higher than anywhere else in the country.

As it encourages more tourism, Oman is trying to protect its traditions, like its markets and national dress, and its environment, the turtles and dolphins, while using them as its major draw. It wants to rival Dubai by being its almost exact opposite.

And it hopes to do this by achieving a similar reputation to that enjoyed by the women from Ibri - as alluring, authentic and reassuringly expensive.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 11 May, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO
Timeline: Oman
02 Feb 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Oman
20 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

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