MUSCAT // Oman is best known for its adventure tourism, beautiful shores, frankincense and history as a trading hub. But on an evening last month in Muscat, the capital's Riyam park overlooking the old city souq was transformed into a hot spot for couture.
Coiffed and manicured Omani women in abayas accessorised with designer heels and expensive bags, and men in traditional dress but sporting flashy watches, joined the fashionable crowds sipping watermelon juice as the sun set over the city.
The event was first night of the three-day Muscat Fashion Week, and tickets to see 12 top regional designers - including two from Oman - send their designs down the catwalk were sold out.
"We want the event to come to the level of Milan or Paris fashion week in 10 years," said Malik Al Hinai, who organised the fashion week on behalf of Muscat Municipality.
"We do this to showcase the country. Through the fashion week, you show what Oman has to offer."
The spectacle forms just a part of Oman's bid to become a leader in the arts - it is already home to the Gulf's only opera house, a symphony orchestra and a new art festival.
For centuries, Oman's shores were the meeting point between the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the subcontinent. Trading networks flourished across the Indian Ocean, linking current-day Zanzibar with Iran and India with Arabia. The architectural heritage from this global trade, a network of mountain and coastal forts, drew roughly 1.5 million tourists in 2011.
Muscat is now betting that such cosmopolitan tradition, blended with a traditional culture, is a winning formula in its efforts to build its arts and culture scene.
"Oman is a small country but it's a perfect host," said Razan Alazzouni, a Saudi designer who took part in the fashion week. "I can see it happening that Oman becomes the trendy part of the Middle East."
Already, a mix of East and West were on display at the fashion week. The Omani designer Nawal Al Hooti's flowing long gowns were reminiscent of abayas but thrown off by sheer fabrics, sharp colours and flashy accents.
"People are starting to change their mindset about fashion," said Amal, 44, an Omani who attended the event with her 19-year-old daughter. "The dress here is certainly different, it joins modernity with tradition."
Down the road at the country's Royal Opera House, programming is equally diverse. The current season features ballets, operas, symphonies and concerts by artists hailing from countries as diverse as Poland, India, Yemen, Brazil and the United States.
It is the opera house, opened in 2011, which carries the weight of Oman's cultural ambitions.
The project was commissioned by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who is said to be fond of classical music and has a palace orchestra composed of elite Omani musicians. The first season at the opera house nearly sold out with support from Omanis, expatriates and tourists.
Christina Scheppelmann, director general of the opera house, argues that keeping all three groups engaged will depend more than anything else on the quality of the art that is produced.
"You have to give quality for all types of events that you do, on one hand, to show off what quality means - to get [local audiences] used to what is good," she said.
"But you also need quality to attract tourists, because if they are tourists who travel for culture, they have an expectation about what they want to hear."
Tickets begin at an affordable 3 rials (Dh28.60) to encourage attendance, and the opera house has plans for educational outreach in Oman's public schools. So far Omani audiences have shown up in the largest numbers for more traditional performances, such as one on November 7 featuring the military bands.
There has also been some opposition. Just after the opera opened its doors, a video on YouTube showed Oman's Grand Mufti prohibiting attendance because it was being used for music and dance.
Also, opening night fell just months after thousands of Omanis had taken to the streets in Arab Spring-inspired protests against the rising cost of living. Some Omanis vowed to boycott the new venue, arguing that the money should have been spent elsewhere.
One way that the fine-arts push may succeed in winning more Omani supporters is by creating jobs.
Ms Scheppelmann hopes to train local artists and stage crew. Something similar could happen in fashion, as young designers gain exposure to the global market.
"We hope it will bring more designers here to work with our own local designers," said Fahima Al Baloushi, a 30-year-old fashion aficionado.
Partly to allay any potential concerns, Mr Al Hinai of the municipality said Muscat's plans would proceed carefully.
"We are a conservative society. We don't want to offend our culture," he said, adding that Oman would not copy the race to modernity of nearby Qatar, for example. "It's our tradition; we have to defend it while embracing modernity."
Yet it is hard not to notice the subtle ways that fine arts are permeating the cityscape.
Posters in the main thoroughfare, Al Sultan Qaboos Street, boast of the fashion show, the ballets and the operas playing in the coming weeks.
Violin sonatas echo through the hotel lobbies, shopping is done to the soundtrack of a Tchaikovsky concerto and, without being asked, taxis drivers switch on Vivaldi and Mozart.