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In troubled times, the Arabian Peninsula is a tourism oasis

These days, caution is advised when recommending a tourist destination in the Middle East. Parts of the Gulf peninsula, however, still offer peaceful havens for travellers.

A friend of mine recently invited me to visit his summer home in the United States. He gently suggested that I should find it easier to visit 10 years after September 11. He was also quick to announce his plans to visit the Middle East. I too, found it my duty to advise him on his trip - which countries he should visit, what he cannot miss and why he should include my country - Oman - on his list.

Now that I have been assured that the American public in his town are as kind, hospitable and aware as I have known them to be, I find myself having to dispel general fears people have when visiting the Middle East. It is this region, after all, that is now the epicentre of dramatic and turbulent events.

Recent events have complicated my tourism recommendations. If I were unencumbered by recent history, my visitor's first stop, 50 years ago, would unequivocally have been Baghdad. At that time, the city blossomed in its modern golden age with art, science, wealth and relative stability making it the cultural centre of the Arab world. Sadly, what remains from that era is a diminishing collection of memories and old songs.

If you fast forward a decade, you would see Tehran and Shiraz commanding a natural place on the "must-see" list. These cities retain some of their old charm, but it is not inconceivable nowadays for a person with a western passport wandering in the countryside to be accused of being a spy.

A few decades ago, before the civil war, Beirut was becoming the Paris of the region. Although it has kept its allure and still welcomes tourists, the whole country remains a hotbed of internal and external politics that could easily overshadow a visitor's stay.

Once, I could not have thought of a better introduction to life on the Arab Peninsula than Sanaa and Tadmur, from the ancient farm lands around the Maarib dam area to the elements-defying mud houses of Shibam. Twenty years ago, Yemen had pockets where the rule of law did not apply, but the kidnappings of tourists and violence were not as common or on the same grotesque scale as today.

Visitors to Damascus and surrounding areas in the past braved red tape and plenty of predatory tour operators, but it was well worth it to enjoy the beauty, history and fine delicacies of this ancient city. Given the continuing fighting, we can only hope that the city's grace survives intact.

Tourism in the Arabic Maghreb has traditionally included Fes and Casablanca, as well as Tunis "the green", but it was Egypt where the lion's share of tourist dollars were spent. Egypt still offers an endless array of larger-than-life historical artefacts and records dating from well before the first monotheistic religions. Two years ago, I would have said romantic Luxor and chaotic Cairo were essential destinations - now, I would advise my guest to wait another year or two.

So where now? Which city should we visit? I have so far left out the relatively new cities of the Arab Gulf - juxtaposed to the ancient cities, their history pales in comparison.

Were it not for petrodollars and the technology to sweeten the sea, the Gulf region could never have been able to support large-scale human settlement, let alone the advances in urban living that have made them tourist destinations today.

The Arab Gulf nations, however, offer a view of life in the most challenging of environments. The beauty of an ocean of sand is viewed against the adjoining water - to which some cities are also adding a sea of concrete.

We offer a glimpse into a simplicity of life and a closeness to origins. And, perhaps, there is a wisdom to this simple way of life, so that we are politically uninteresting and perhaps a tranquil oasis for visitors in the Middle East during these uncertain times.


Anees Sultan is a businessman based in Oman

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