The Sultan’s Sudoku: Order and Conformity Make for Satisfying Number Puzzles, but Eerie Countries. Welcome to Oman
There is an ethereal quality to the Gulf Arab states. Unimaginable and ostentatious displays of wealth, men in long flowing robes and the mystery of silent, veiled women, all seemingly impenetrable to the outsider.
Beneath the veil however are some real surprises. We might look at the people as different (and they are) but in the end an argument can be made that we are as much slave sto our conventions as they are to theirs.
And we can be as suspicious and exasperated by outriders as they. Something to think about.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said al-Said’s eyes meet mine as I step out into the airport. Such a welcome is common, I immediately gather; unavoidable in fact. Our host’s photographed face dominates the arrivals hall. Beneath his gaze, all voices vanish. The few tourists wait expertly in line without speaking a word. Silence reigns. Instead of a ticking wall clock, an enormous white turban. Instead of a loudspeaker, a neatly trimmed beard. Instead of a television screen, long fingers outstretched in a wave. But the face on the wall does not smile.
Asked for my travel documents, I watch the official stamp my passport with the date: May 11, 2011. ‘Welcome,’ he says gruffly.
Welcome to the Sultanate of Oman. It is my first trip to the Middle East. I have been invited as a guest of honour, to present a trophy to the country’s next Sudoku champion. The championship is scheduled for the day after next: more than enough time, it strikes me, for my curiosity to get me into trouble. The timing does seem inauspicious. The Arab Spring is in full bloom. Revolts have recently toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Assad’s tanks lumber through the streets of Syria. UN planes sweep Tripoli’s sky.
A young man shakes my hand. He works for the magazine charged with organising the event. Sunlight thickly coats his waiting car and I almost leap inside to escape the heat. So hot! ‘Summer already. No spring this year,’ my driver laughs.
We drive at speed through the streets of the capital, passing curry shops and squat government buildings on our way toward the mountains. A godsend these roads, says the driver, in a country that is mainly composed of desert. Sinuous miles of compliant tarmac: every inch, the sultan’s doing. His, and the thousands of foreign workers brought in to dig and drill and shift tons of rock and sand. Suddenly, the pitch of the driver’s voice rises. Have I seen the new Fast and Furious? Has it come out in Europe yet? I have no idea. Impossible to get a ticket, he continues. Vin Diesel is huge here; every cinema across the city is packed.