There is no shortage of local competitors to Dubai’s meteoric rise. Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and even Saudi Arabia all have big plans to attract more investment and more visitors. Some have few obvious natural attractions – but then, that never stopped Dubai, which worked a successful variation on the motto “if you build it, they will come”. Others such as Saudi Arabia have attractions in abundance but many are off-limits to non-Muslims. Then there is Oman.

If Oman’s moment has come, it is about time. Until a few years ago many would have struggled to place the country on the map. In part that was because of the deliberate policy of its Sultan, Said bin Taimur, who took power in 1932 and did his best to cut off relations with the outside world. In 1970, there was just 3km of asphalt roads. As the official (text provided by the Omani Ministry of Information website, version would have it: “Curfews were imposed: anyone found outside the city walls after the retort of the cannons would be shot unless he carried a lantern. Radios were banned as they were considered the work of the devil.”

Not surprisingly, the country vanished from world affairs. Finally deposed in a bloodless coup and exiled, the elderly Sultan spent his remaining two years in a suite at the Dorchester Hotel until his death in 1972, and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey. His son, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, took power on July 23, 1970 and set about bringing the country into the modern age.

To our eyes, 36 years later, it might seem that progress has been rather slow, but the challenges were huge – not least in unifying a country which until then had been known as the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, and replacing the plain red national flag with the red, white and green standard. He also had to address the education system (there was widespread illiteracy) and the health service (there was only one hospital). In 1973, the Seeb International Airport was opened, which “…replaced the confined airstrip at Bait al-Falaj, a runway which was situated perilously close to the mountains”, ( and is now home to domestic airline Oman Air.

There are still hurdles to overcome. While the visa situation is straightforward when compared with, say Saudi Arabia, it is still a mess. You need a visa to visit, which can be obtained in the UK, but only if you are prepared either to send your passport to the consulate in London or present yourself in person. The opening hours are short and various, the information provided is confusing, and you would probably be best waiting until you arrive at Seeb International Airport, just outside Oman’s capital, Muscat. There you will join a large queue in front of the colourful banners of the Travelex currency counters, since few arriving have Omani Rials. The visa costs 6 Rials (£8.50) – not a huge amount, but for holidaymakers, a family of four will cost £17.40 (although children 17 years and younger are exempt).

Still, Oman markets itself as a real place rather than a fantasyland, and the visa hassles at the airport at least prove that the marketing is accurate.The recent reorganisation of flights has much to do with the confusion. Until recently, Oman’s national airline, Gulf Air, was also the national airline of Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. But since Abu Dhabi now has Etihad, Gulf Air has only two masters, and the number of flights into Oman has increased considerably (see box), which is good for the country but presents a challenge to the airport. Having said that, the queues we experienced arriving in Oman were nothing compared to those we faced clearing Heathrow’s security at Terminal 4 on the way out with British Airways.

Once you depart the airport, things become easier. The road system is excellent with few traffic problems, and due to a long history of British influence the second language is English, making negotiation a simple matter. Seeb International Airport is only a 20-minute drive from Muscat.
Clearly the government has provided strong support for new developments. The “three hotels in one resort” of the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa with its bay (“barr”) and stunning backdrop of mountains is an obvious example. But when building began, the only access was by sea, and a road had to be built along the coast. Arriving at night we could see only darkness and the silhouette of extremely forbidding mountains against pale clouds, but when we retraced our steps a few days later the size of the undertaking became clear – it must have been rather like constructing an Alpine pass for one resort.

Mr Mohammad Al Zubair of the Zubair Corporation, which developed the resort, sees the project as ” … a pioneering step in the process of laying down the foundations of tourism and developing Oman as a prime and distinct international tourist destination”. It’s difficult to disagree. This is by far Oman’s largest resort, consisting of 680 rooms divided into three separate hotels: the family-orientated Al Waha (the oasis with 302 rooms), Al Bandar (the town with 198 rooms), and Al Husn (the fort or castle with 180 suites and rooms). Each is aimed at a distinct market and is very different from the others. What all 680 rooms and suites do have in common is that they are sea-facing and overlook 580 metres of beach. Most importantly, all are five-star. It is a definite statement of intent by Oman.

The resort opened at the end of last year, but when we visited in April it was clearly still a work in progress. Sometime before the end of this year, the separate “CHI Spa Village” will be completed, which will consist of a spa with eight large and four single private villas. There are also some restaurants still to open; the eventual total will be 19 food and beverage outlets, including six main restaurants, seven casual dining outlets and pool bars, three lobby lounges, two bars and a nightclub. Also to come is an Omani heritage village; an open-air amphitheatre seating up to 1,000; a dedicated marina and dive centre; an archaeological site open to visitors; and some residential projects.

For the business traveller, Al Bandar has outstanding meeting facilities, allowing Oman to host conferences which until now would have gone elsewhere. During our stay it was hosting the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship 2006 “Under the patronage of His Highness Sayyid Shihab bin Tariq Al Said, adviser to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said”, as the Times of Oman told us the next morning. Attending were “over 600 CEOs, decision-makers and speakers from around 60 countries who have come together for three days of workshops and round table discussions to… help create a new future for the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

Reading the newspaper by the pool the next morning while the conference continued inside, we learned it had been addressed by Maqbool bin Ali Sultan, minister of commerce and industry, who expressed his hopes that the conference would provide Oman with fresh ideas on how to achieve greater success for businesses operating in Oman. There was certainly a high calibre of speakers, including Michael D White, chairman and CEO of international businesses for PepsiCo International. We noticed that some of the delegates had brought their families, who were relaxing with us while the delegates sat through lectures and workshops.

The entertainment here is also impressive. One evening we walked from Al Waha over to Al Bandar by the side of the lazy river connecting the pools of the two resorts, to have an al fresco dinner at Al Tanoor, the hotel’s buffet restaurant, which serves Middle Eastern food as well as a fair selection of other national cuisines. It was a magical scene, with an outside terrace hosting the main entertainment for the conference, and an open grill smoking high into the night sky, reminiscent of Djamaa El Fna in Marrakech (well, at least from a distance). Looking down on it all was the largely dark, not fully opened, luxury third hotel Al Husn. Suddenly the cliff face was lit in a lumière to accompany the son of the delegates’ African chanting entertainment, the light show first illuminating the tops of the surrounding mountains, and then focusing its reds, blues and whites into a kaleidoscope of colours, creating a fantastical backdrop to the music. It enabled ordinary hotel guests like us to enjoy the spectacle without being overshadowed by the performance or the conference.

Al Husn is the last of the three resorts to open, and the one intended to be the place where CEOs and royalty stay, its cliff-top location keeping it away from the prying eyes of mere five-star mortals. It is opening gradually and is so exclusive that the only way of seeing it (other than paying to stay) is to book into one of its two restaurants, which are open: Sultanah (designed like a ship with fabulous views) and the Moroccan Shahrazad.

Most visitors from the UK are leisure travellers and, with competitive pricing through the low season of the summer, there are some excellent deals (it gets hot here in the summer, but not as hot as Dubai). There can’t be many five-star resorts this size, and just as with, say the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai, you could stay here for a fortnight and not exhaust the dining possibilities. We tried Bait Al Bahr for fish, Al Tanoor for Middle Eastern, Sultanah for international cuisine (named after the first Omani ship to sail to America), Capri Court for Italian, and Samba for breakfasts (though it also has a buffet in the evening). Our favourite bar was the Piano Lounge in Al Bandar, though the happy hour (6-7pm) at Assira pool bar was always tempting.

One thing we found strange was the licensing hours, which we never got the hang of. They seemed to include a period during the afternoon when alcohol wasn’t being served. I heard that this was a hangover from the English influence, and the times when we had similar license restrictions. It certainly didn’t seem to have anything to do with religious concerns.

For those travelling with children, the buffet restaurants have a kids eat for free policy, which cut down on our bill at the end of the week. There is also a special free meal for children in the Surf Café between 6pm and 8pm, which we learned was a response to so many children staying up in the evening and eating with their parents (evening babysitting services are also available if booked by lunchtime). We were impressed by this five-star style of handling problems – especially as the resort grew increasingly busy as the Easter holidays approached and the demands on the staff grew. The Shangri-La service was as unruffled as ever, though whether you would want to visit in these periods would depend partly on your tolerance of other people’s children.

As with most Middle East resorts, as the temperature soars, it’s the pools and the beachfront that become the focus of attention. The Shangri-La has 6,000sqm of swimming pools as well as the 500m “lazy” river, children’s and toddler’s swimming pools, and a Little Turtles Kids Club for both indoor and outdoor play areas. (The name comes from the turtles which use the beach – various small areas of sand were roped off to protect turtles’ eggs and there is, incredibly, a turtle ranger on staff). The eco credentials are an important marketing point for both the hotel and Oman as a whole, hence the heritage village being built and the low-rise nature of the development. We were impressed by detailing in the rooms, from the keycard that powers the room lights and air conditioning, which prevents the power being left on when no one is present, to the reuse of bedding and towels if requested by guests (and you do have to request it, otherwise it is changed daily, five-star style).

We were in Oman just as the heat was coming, and there was a shortage of shades and sun beds, though judging by the speed they appeared during the course of the week, the resort was ordering them as fast as people could lower themselves down onto them for the day. There are day trips available, both to Muttrah souk, an excellent and atmospheric souk just off the main corniche in the old port area of Muscat, and to the modern super-mall, Sabco Centre.

There is also the option of venturing into the interior and exploring the hundreds of historic forts, some dating back several hundred years, or heading out along the coast. We chose a dolphin spotting tour with Rawabi Desert Adventures. Although we were unlucky in the dolphin department, we did get the chance to have a swim and a picnic in a beautiful deserted bay further south along the coast, as well as taking a tour right in front of the Sultan’s Palace, a fantastical creation of the 1970s sitting where the old port used to be between two Portuguese forts. On the cliffs below are etched the name of visiting vessels, some from the British Navy. Other options for excursions include deep sea fishing, a beach barbecue and horse riding on the beach.

A first taste of Oman is addictive. Planning the next trip began while we were still there, particularly talk of a two-centre trip, with a repeat visit to the Shangri-La twinned with a domestic flight with Oman Air to the south and Salalah, home of the frankincense industry, as well as a gateway to a different face of the country altogether. Oman may have emerged from the shadows, but there are still plenty of hidden corners.


Gulf Air flies twice daily (except Thursdays) non-stop to Muscat from London Heathrow. British Airways flies daily direct via Abu Dhabi.

For further information on the destination, contact Oman Tourism Board on +44 (0)20 8877 4508/04; email [email protected]; or visit

Rawabi Desert Adventures offers tours throughout Oman including Muscat, the forts of the interior, and desert/coastal safaris. Call +968 95201107 (in the UK call 0800 970 4874), or visit