Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oman, Jan 11

From Yemen we flew into Oman. I was probably most excited for this part of the trip -- I had always heard about Oman as a sort of Arabian Nights place, and one that had connections (bad connections -- slave trade) with Africa, and Zanzibar in particular. I had seen some of the Omani-style architecture in Zanzibar and wanted to see the real thing.

We arrived at night so I didn't see much at first. But even in the dark the place is a stunning contrast from Yemen. Its streets are wide and well kept, often bordered with elaborate flower arrangements. The roadway snakes up and down, through mountain passes, and then deposited us at our hotel -- another grandiose Gulf place, with a HUGE lobby adorned with gigantic crystal chandeliers. The rooms were looking a little worn tho, and we were so tired I just went to bed.

Daybreak revealed a whole new aspect. The hotel is set on a small bay, where sharp, steep mountains drop directly into the ocean. It is a stunning backdrop. The hotel beach stretched empty in the morning so I had a good walk.

We were loaded into the vans and proceeded to Clinton's only public event of the day, another "town hall" meeting, this time with Omani NGO people.

The drive there showed how well set up..or at least orderly, Oman is. The Sultan (famously unmarried) is apparently very persnickety about how his people organize their lives visually. All the buildings are more or less the same cream color, and most of them are some variation on traditional Arab. Even the air conditioners sticking out of windows are covered with a "traditional Arab" sort of sounds silly, but it does give the place a uniform, well-kept feeling.

The landscape really is fantastic..jagged peaks, some of them topped with small old stone watchtowers, diving into the sea..and bay after bay. The "town hall" was similar. Held in a museum made out of an grand old house, it featured about 30 Omanis (all speaking excellent English) asking polite questions about Clinton's opinion on generating civic engagement. Oman is, after all, a dictatorship but the Sultan does allow elections for "consultative committees" and his people seem satisfied with that. Unlike Yemen, where the town hall audience shouted and waved their hand to be picked, cat-called each other and were generally raucuous, this was a very well behaved crowd and the event went off without a hitch -- completely free of news.

Clinton then went off to meet the Sultan, meaning we had some free time. So we headed to the "souk"..again, a very tidy version of an Arab bazaar. There wasn't much to buy but it was fun to walk around and nice to see the main bay of Muscat, with the Sultan's huge motor yacht parked right at the center. There's a nice sort of corniche that people walk on, the weather is balmy, it all seems very relaxed. Good place, and I'd love to see some of the interior where the countryside is far wilder. Maybe next time.

We got on the vans about 1 p.m. to head to the airport to meet Clinton. We've waited in various palces the airport, on the airplane, and, after we arrived in Qatar, we are now waiting at the Qatar Ritz Carlton. Clinton was supposed to hold a press conference, but the government of Lebanon is collapsing right at this moment and she is likely to face questions on that. I'm not sure they know what the next step is, so they may not be eager to go in front of the press...

Anyway, here we wait.