x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bedouins see two sides of tourism coin

Although Omani nomads are compensated by the government for their land, they say projects are taking toll on traditional culture and lifestyle.

Mansoor al Hikmani says his land is a quarter of what it was four years ago.
Mansoor al Hikmani says his land is a quarter of what it was four years ago.

WAHIBA SANDS, OMAN // Government development work to boost tourism in the remote desert region of Wahiba Sands is financially enriching the Bedouins who live there, but the projects are transforming much of the landscape and, locals say, an ancient way of life.

Over the past 10 years, authorities have built major roadways leading to and between hitherto isolated towns and villages in an effort to develop local economies through investment and tourism.

Apart from the increased appearance of other Omanis and foreign tourists in the sprawling 15,000-sq-km region, the greatest change, many locals say, has been to their lifestyles, which were traditionally in herding, farming and fishing. "I had hundreds of goats, sheep and camels grazing in this farm until the road came along four years ago," said Mansoor al Hikmani, 76, a resident of the growing village of Al Sakaa in the southern Wahiba Sands.

"Now my land is a quarter of what it was and I had to sell most of the animals because there is not much grazing land left," he said, pointing to his few remaining camels and some rows of date palms that make up the border of his farm, which is hemmed in by a new road. His neighbour, Suleiman al Wahiba, whose tribe the desert is named after, had the same complaint. "The new roads cut right through our lands that our ancestors have inhabited for centuries and reduce grazing land and cut down the size of our farms," he said.

Both men said the government had "generously compensated" them for the farmland they lost, with Mr al Wahiba saying that the money he received for his land was triple the market value. Like many other farmers in the region, they have renovated parts of the remnants of their farms to cater to the increasing number of tourists to the area, building small restaurants and setting up areas for camel rides.

New roads and infrastructure have opened up the vast desert region on Oman's east coast to thousands of domestic and foreign visitors. All now reachable by car are scenic beaches, mountains suitable for hiking and rock climbing, caves, historical sites and camping areas. Once sleepy little towns on the edge of the Wahiba Sands such as Wadi Bani Khalid, Tiwi and Abu Saalih are now abuzz with tourists.

Abdulwahid al Harthy, a tour operator for Desert Dunes in Muscat, said visits to local Bedouin towns and villages, where tourists can ride camels, camp in the desert and experience the Bedouin lifestyle - at least what remains of it - are almost always part of the itinerary for visitors to Wahiba Sands. The government estimates the local population to be around 4,000, scattered throughout oasis encampments and small villages and towns.

Some locals are embracing the change their locale is undergoing. Waleed Abu Issa, 56, born in the village oasis of al Masmoom in eastern Wahiba Sands, said locals had become more connected with the outside world. "We increasingly come out of isolation and see ourselves living as part of a modern town community," he said. A former farmer now living in Wadi Bani Khalid, 120km north of his birthplace, Mr Issa owns a petrol station , a house and four pickup trucks that he uses to transport food to the local market as part of his distribution business. The money for his ventures came from the sale of his land to the government for a road, as well as the sale of 170-head of livestock to a meat distributor in Muscat.

"Animal herding and farming are no longer the prime livelihood it used to be 10 years ago," he said. According to statistics from the ministry of transport, more than 1,000 Bedouins in Wahiba Sands have had their lands affected by government developments in the past 10 years and moved to neighbouring towns. Mr al Hikmani, from al Sakaa village, said development and easier access to other people, including neighbouring tribes, had also brought about social changes.

"[T]he integration of the tribes, both in marriage and socially with other communities, is a test to our own cultures and traditions," he said. Some areas on the furthest reaches of the desert have remained untouched, but residents believe that it may only be a matter of time. Hamed al Hajjari from Gharb village in the west of the Wahiba Sands, said that region of the desert was home to about 1,000 people spread out over 50 small settlements, most of whom live the same way they have for centuries.

"We are perhaps 200 to 300 kilometres from the main developments," he said. "But I am not sure for how long." @Email:salshaibany@thenational.ae