My recent trip to Oman was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Oman, a monarchy with close ties to the British Royal Family, is an Arab state officially called the Sultanate of Oman. Governed by the Sultan, a Cambridge-educated 73-year old man, it is one of the most developed and stable countries in Arabia. Located on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula and home to about 4 million people, this oil-producing country was liberated in 1970 when everyone was still living in tents. Today, it is a thriving metropolis complete with freeways, new homes, glorious buildings and … traffic jams!
Muscat, the capital of Oman, is bustling with construction projects and grand glitzy malls. The world’s leading designer brands and American fast food establishments are everywhere and the Sultan, who is concerned that Oman oil may run out by 2020, is priming his country for a swift transition into a new economic era. Focusing on educating his population, his goal is to make Oman the health care center of the Middle East. Keeping things ‘green’ in the process, water desalination and alternative solar and wind energy facilities are all in full swing, as well. Their progress is very impressive.
The main purpose of my visit was to support the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) and their spectacular concert at the Royal Opera House in Muscat. That was a treat for two reasons. Firstly, the BFP orchestra was simply magnificent, garnering the “first ever” standing ovation ebullient cries of “encore.” I enjoyed the tremendously diverse audience as well; ex-pat Brits, Germans, Australians, Africans, Ethiopians, Indians, Philippines, and Arabs from all over the Gulf were there. In addition, there were many Chinese who are huge trading partners with the Sultanate. All of the concert goers were so impressed with the orchestra they formed a long red-carpet line waiting for two autographs, that of Maestro Iván Fischer, and Yosef Ach Em, the resident Gypsy Violinist who had just recovered from brain surgery. This was definitely not the Met crowd; they were much better dressed, warm, friendly and so appreciative!
As to the opera house itself, it was pure divinity. Designed by the famed British-Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, the magnificent complex rises out of its desert environs and spreads across 80,000 square meters of land. Adhering to traditional Omani architectural sensibilities, it’s constructed using traditional desert rose stones, and the amazing acoustics partly due to the input of the renowned, Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, who was instrumental in getting the opera house in shape acoustically. All the BFO Musicians were simply raving about, “the sound.” We wrapped up the evening with a very late post-performance dinner, joined by the talented conductor, Iván Fischer, and I just couldn’t have been more elated.
My trip also included other highlights. I toured the interior of Oman and visited a desert Oasis known as a Wadi. Here, the underwater spring offers the clearest of waters amidst the stark desert landscape. I also got the chance to sharpen my negotiating skills at the local bazaar amongst the huge array of beautiful Pashmina scarves. Enjoying a lunch at the elegant Ritz Carlton and a walk on the beautiful beaches topped off a wonderful afternoon.
Frankincense, they say, originated in Oman and is said to promote “harmony.” I didn’t need any Frankincense while there, however, as the culture, sounds and sights of Oman just breathe serenity. Kobe Bryant was right, Turkish Air was splendid and punctual! I just wish he’d been on my flight! To quote Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be King”… but it’s also great to feel like a Queen visiting such a lush, opulent and fascinating country.