We went to Dubai and then on to Oman. Dubai was for the annual conference of the International Bar Association, at which I was speaking. The city is unlike any other that I’ve visited. Nothing seems to be more than a few years old, but in those few years there has been an orgy of building. There are more sky-scrapers than most other capital cities put together, all of them bar one larky, restless and post-modern. They are in jolly colours and at night little lights scamper over them. The one exception is the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest structure in the world, which rises over everything else, cool and elegant and of course impossibly high.
The people are anxious that you should like their city, they are unfailingly helpful and yet nothing ever quite works properly. Massive gateways give onto waste land; premium hotel suites have nowhere to put socks. Our hotel sent me a questionnaire and I planned to mention the missing sock drawer, but the questions were all along the lines of “The GloboSuperbo is a brand I trust 110%: Strongly agree/Agree etc”, and you can’t communicate with a hotel that looks at the world in those terms.
With the recession, the offices are rumoured to be only half full and some famous developments have ground to a halt, but it is a vigorous mercantile city and I’d guess that it will sort things out. In ten years time the larky sky-scrapers will look awfully vieux jeu but maybe they’ll just build some more.
Someone said that Dubai is fuelled by cocaine, and that makes sense.
We drove from Dubai to Muscat, four hours through the desert, over the mountains and then along the hundred miles of seaside suburbia than lead you down the coast to Muscat: four hours plus the two that it takes to get through Omani immigration, about which the less said the better.
Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland – a city that in other respects resembles Dubai not at all – that there is no there there. There’s no there in Dubai: no places to hang out, few restaurants outside the hotels, no little squares, only malls. Muscat has a lot of theres, but has no there to put them in.
It is a strange city, spread along the coast. For miles there will be nothing but rocks and then there will be a bit of a souk or a luxury hotel, a palace or a police station. Nothing but minarets is allowed to be more than eight storeys high so it is engagingly modest. Whereas Dubai’s rulers glare aquiline from the posters that clutter the city, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos smiles kindly and reminds one inescapably of Captain Birdseye. He is undoubtedly an autocrat (our first day, while the world’s financial markets trembled, the main story in the newspaper was that the King of Saudi Arabia had telephoned Sultan Qaboos to wish him enjoyment of the holiday of Eid) but he does seem to be a benevolent one, and, unlike his father, whom he deposed and exiled to London’s Dorchester Hotel, sane.
One day we drove into the mountains to Nizwa. We wanted to see the fort, our friend Rob wanted to buy a Lee Enfield in the souk and I needed a haircut. Haircuts are a leisurely affair in Oman, involving the application of numerous unguents, massages and a shave with a cut-throat razor, so Rob and the better half went off into the souk. An hour or so later my barber was putting the final touches to my rejuvenated head when there was a flurry of activity. Half a dozen men rode into town on fine Arab horses and reined them in in a cloud of dust in the main square.
“Corsairs on a raid,” murmured my barber. “Look down. Then we will be safe.”
But the leader was striding towards us, attired in boots and a dusty dishdasha, a vicious-looking khanja in his belt, his face weather-beaten and deeply bearded. I saw to my horror that he was making for me.
“Hello, Dad,” he said, removing the beard.
It was my son, the privateer.
“What on earth are you doing here?” I said. “I thought that you were operating the home waters.”
He called for a couple of chais and sat down next to me. The barber had by this time scuttled off, and indeed never returned to claim his fee.
“Do you know,” he said, “they talk a lot about easing the burden on privateers, making it easier for them to carry on business, but that’s all it is, talk. There’s so much red tape. For example, if you catch a banker you can’t just make him walk the plank, you know, there is a whole rigmarole you have to go through.
“You have to tell them that they have been provisionally selected for walking the plank, that they have the right to make representations at a future meeting as to whether they have been discriminated against in being provisionally selected, and why some other banker might be preferred in the walking the plank department, and that they have the right to bring a companion to the meeting, who may or may not be a banker. The companion may even be a pirate. Having told them that, you throw them into the dungeon in the hold. Only after the second meeting can you actually make them walk the plank.
“You knew where you were with the black spot,” he said, reflectively.
“So I’ve come out here for a bit of gun-running.”
“Just like Rimbaud.”
The son looked pained.
“With a ‘D’”, I explained.
“I don’t know anything about French poets”, he said, huffily.
“You wouldn’t have a Lee Enfield that my friend Rob might buy inexpensively?” I started, but the son had vanished. His keen ears had caught the sound of the Omani police car, throwing up more dust as it screeched to a halt in the main square, and he’d melted into the crowds of the souk.
I was confident that he would be safe, with the false beard.
We did a little shopping and then set off back to the hotel. Halfway down, in one of the most inhospitable parts of the mountain range, I saw a rider deliberately allow himself to be silhouetted for a moment on the horizon, against the setting sun. He raised a hand in greeting and then vanished.
The next day, there was a package for us at the hotel. Rob was pleased. The son had remembered to include the ammunition too.