Unusual tourist destinations, these two Gulf States showcase history and tradition unique only to this region
After Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States imposed a blockade on Qatar, it has become easier for Pakistanis to travel to Doha. When I decided to spend a week or so with friends in Doha, the cheapest flight was by Oman Air, with a stopover at Muscat on the route to Doha.
This prompted me to contact my friends in Muscat to see if I could stay with them for a couple of days in Oman. The process was much smoother than I had expected; the visa was duly sent and the price of the return ticket was just Rs60,000, all the way to Doha via Muscat, with a stopover of three days in Oman.
The immigration process in Doha is hassle-free and the staff much more efficient than other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. The best months to travel to Qatar are between October and March but sometimes even in April the weather can be pleasant.
Since Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income, it has spent lavishly on developing tourist attractions. In terms of malls and shopping plazas, Doha is much like Dubai. But it has a couple of distinctions that Dubai or Abu Dhabi do not offer, for example, the Museum of Islamic Art. A treat in itself, it is built on an artificial peninsula near Cornishe Road.
Apart from the contents of the Museum, the building is a marvel of modern and traditional architecture. Designed by the world famous Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei, the Museum combines Islamic elements with western sensibilities. Pei was almost 90 years of age when the museum was inaugurated in 2008.
This five-storied museum has permanent and temporary galleries showcasing Islamic art from three continents. The collection is impressive and includes metal works, ceramics, jewellery, woodwork, textiles, and glass objects dating from the 7th to 19th century.
The Museum also stages the personal collection of the ruling royal family. This collection includes manuscripts originating from Central Asia, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Spain, and Turkey.
The next day I along with my friends took an hour’s drive away from Doha to the northern tip of the Qatar peninsula. We drove along the barren landscape to the Zubara Fort, a Unesco World Heritage site. Originally a coastguard station, it is now fully restored and serves as a small museum.
Following day we decided to take the desert safari in the middle of Qatar, which is much the same as Dubai. Later, we headed south to the Qatar-Saudi border to find it deserted. It used to bustle with business and cargo traffic before the blockade imposed on Qatar by its neighbours.
But before leaving Qatar, we had to visit the Education City, an initiative of Qatar Foundation led by Sheikha Moza, the wife of the former Emir Shaikh Hamad al Thani. Qatar Foundation has invited at least six American universities and one each from Britain and France to set up campuses in the country.
Being a booklover, how could I have missed the recently-inaugurated Qatar National Library in Doha. It has more than one million books and half a million eBooks, periodicals, and magazines. It was a delight to see such a well-furnished library in a Muslim country. Inaugurated on April 2018, the fresh look and smell of books made be feel ecstatic.
On my way back, I decided to spend a couple of days in Muscat, where I noticed a marked contrast between Oman and Qatar.
On landing in Oman, in comparison with Doha, I felt the airport staff in Muscat was much slower and less proficient in English. No matter what I told them, the immigration staff kept responding in Arabic and took three long hours to clear me, which compared with 30 minutes in Doha seemed endless.
Once out in Muscat, I found the city to be vibrant and historic, with almost half of the people speaking Balochi. Since Muscat has been a principal trading port in the Gulf region, over the centuries it has attracted many Baloch fishermen and labourers from Iran and Pakistan - and also from South India.
Baloch people living in Muscat are mostly from Iran and Balochistan. The families of Baloch from the Pakistan side are still in Gwadar and feel that had Balochistan still been a part of Oman, it would have been transformed into a city like Muscat. Most of the Baloch living in Oman have Omani passports, and are rich enough to travel the world. But when they come to Pakistan, they complain of being harassed by the security officials.
They say that Balochistan is their ancestral place but when they go to their native towns they are treated with suspicion, especially if their passports have Afghanistan or Indian visa, they are asked all sorts of questions. One can only wish that this attitude changes soon.
We started our tour of the places-to-see in Muscat with the Royal Opera House. It has a capacity to accommodate over 1000 people. It appears that the ruling family of Oman is open and liberal in outlook -- as it is much easier to indulge in the pleasures of life here than in Qatar. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said is known for his love of music and drama and the Royal Opera House is a testimony to this.
Then we spent an entire day strolling in old Muscat and shopping in the centuries-old bazaars that sold traditional ornaments and handicraft.
If we could spare another day, we could have taken a boat trip to the northern exclave, Musandam, which juts into the Strait of Hormuz.
Perhaps Muscat’s best attraction is Bait Al Zubair, the home of heritage and art. Initially it was a private museum that became public in 1998. Bait Al Dalaleel has been restored to showcase vernacular architecture in Oman and carries a beautiful eclectic collection. It depicts how Omanis lived over 100 years ago. Similarly, Bait Al Oud is a three-storey building that displays the early European maps of the Arabian Peninsula on the first floor. Being a fan of cartography I absolutely loved to see how the European understanding of this region has evolved over the past five centuries.
Bait Al Nahda pays homage to the so-called Renaissance led by Sultan Qaboos since 1970. Its peripheral building houses a growing art collection of over 50 Omani artists. The main museum called Bait Al Bagh, originally founded as a family home by one of the ministers in 1914, has six galleries exhibiting traditional attires, swords, firearms, antique jewellery, household articles, musical instruments, and a wedding display.
But the best part was yet to come.
Though I am not a philatelist, the Jamali stamp collection impressed me. Again, even though I am not into numismatics, the display of coins took my breath away. A unique collection of manuscripts dating from the 16th century was a bonus.
Before I concluded my trip to Muscat, an evening at Almauj was a must. It is a fine residential area with a large golf course. If you are not a fan of the game, you can simply savour your favourite drinks while overlooking the grassy fields.