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Day Two In Duqm – New City In The Desert Of Oman

I awoke in the desert.

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DUQM, Oman- I woke up in a work camp in the middle of the desert. What was I going to do? It was Friday — a day off in the Islamic world — and I wouldn’t be able to schedule any formal interviews. Many people out here in Duqm also fly back to Muscat on the Thursday evening flight, so there were even less people around to hone in on obtaining information from. But I couldn’t just piss the day away and come out with nothing.

Worker from South Asia on the side of the highway.

I came out to Oman to write about Duqm. I arrived in the country on Tuesday, did three good interviews; attended a conference related to it on Wednesday, acquired another interview; and then on Thursday flew on a private plane out to Duqm for a formal tour, where I made some good contacts, and then I scurried away from the tour and secured a room at the work camp, where I collected some good on the ground info while hanging out with the workers. So far so good for this project, however, I still needed more.

This the life of a traveling writer: you go out to the middle of nowhere looking for a story without any guarantee of finding one. Sometimes you just end up walking around aimlessly on the side of a highway just to see who picks you up.

Worker from South Asia trying to hitch a ride. 

When I was a teenager I would sometimes spend my free time walking down the side of the road. I would put my leather jacket on, spike up my hair, and just walk down the side of the road. I don’t know what I was doing, but something just seemed more exciting about it than sitting at home on the farm. The cars would fly by, I would wonder where they’re going. The drivers would look at me, presumably wondering what I was doing walking down the side of the road way out in the countryside. I always hoped that a car full of someone-interestings would pick me up and take me a way to some place cool. Sometimes someone I knew from school would stop and give me a lift home. Most often I just walked back alone.

I was standing on the side of the highway in Duqm — or in what will someday become the new city of Duqm. Today, the place is pretty much just 1,700 square kilometers of desert. I pointed my camera off into the expanse and clicked the shutter.

A black car stopped a little ways down the road and began reversing. It stopped by my side and the driver rolled down his window. It was a young Omani guy who told me that he noticed me at the dry dock on the tour the day before. He offered me a ride.

Omani worker from the dry dock who gave me a lift to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. 

I didn’t really have anywhere to go, but figured I’d tell him to take me to the Crowne Plaza Hotel — it was pretty much the only thing built yet down the road.

I filmed an interview with the driver, who had been out in Duqm for the past five years.

“When I first arrived here in Duqm there was nothing. I decided that I was not going to stay in this place. I was going to sit down, have my lunch, resign, and then drive back to Muscat.”

But as he sat out in the desert eating he had some reservations. He didn’t want to let his family down. He decided to stay.

“There are now things in Duqm. There are hotels and there are places to go at night.”

He seemed content with his decision.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Duqm is a five-star hotel in the middle of the desert in a starkly underpopulated stretch of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s an island of luxury floating in a sea of sand — one of the landmark developments of Duqm’s phase one. It was the entity that declared that Duqm was now actually a place.

A hotel in the desert. 

On days off the hotel is a beacon for Duqm’s higher-level foreign workers — the ones from Europe. They pour in and hang out by the pool and go for swims on the beach. Other than them, there’s a drizzle of rich tourists making a one night stopover on the tours from Muscat to Salalah. Basically, they come here to visit the hotel, as there really isn’t much else — which is pretty normal for new outposts of progress at any point in history.

I walked down to the beach and a big dog ran up to me. An older white guy was running after it, manically yelling to me that it was okay. People in the Middle East tend to freak out about dogs and many pets have been beaned with stones.

The guy was from Italy and was a foreman at a construction company. He was wearing a speedo and had driven his truck right up on the beach. The place was empty — empty, beautiful beach. He had been in Duqm for a little over a year.

“What do you do for fun here?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he replied simply. ” There is nothing here. There is no beer here. There is no alcohol here. There isn’t anything.”

He was laughing and something about the way he said this almost seemed like he was paying the place an odd sort of compliment.

“After two months that you are living here you kind of perceive some nice place. For example, the beach, the sea. Big fish. Fishermen there. And my dogs,” he continued.

“Are you happy you came here?”

“Yeah. Maybe I’m satisfied from job and … I have been to work in different countries in the world.”

“This place is pretty different than Italy, huh?”

“It’s another world. It’s another world. But it’s ok. We have a good feeling with all the Omani guy. We are guests. Oman is a good country, the people are very gentle, it’s a quiet place. But, yeah, there are rules that we have to respect.”

The beach at Duqm.

This is the heart of what will become Duqm’s tourism district. A string of luxury hotels and resorts are set to be constructed along this coastline. They will be connected with canals and pools and gardens. It will be a completely artificial environment planted in the sand. But all of the raw materials are definitely here to make the place very attractive if not for tourists than for foreign workers in the coming years. It was difficult to take what I was looking at too seriously, as it is all about to change very soon.

There is a nightly belly dance show at this hotel. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be happening on this night as it was a religious holiday. I really wanted to find out where these belly dancers came from and how they got lured way out here. Or just to see a woman — I haven’t seen one of these in days.

Italian worker on the beach at Duqm.

I got a ride with young guy from Salalah back to the work camp. He was Omani and dressed in a white robe with a red band around his head scarf. He told me that he was a shark fisherman. A few days later he sent me a photo on Instagram of him posing with two large sharks on the deck of a boat.

I guess he was telling the truth.

Once back at the camp I went back to my room and took a short nap before venturing back out to meet with a Bengali ship builder that I had met the day before. We went out and stood by the side of the highway for a while. I started filming an interview him about what life is like here, etc. He showed me some videos that he made of himself singing pop songs. It was him superimposed in front of a band and a microphone on a stand was superimposed in front of him. I guess this is what people do out here for fun.

I hung out with him until he had to go to work. Before he left he went to the grocery store and bought me a bag of food.

A couple of hours later I met up with Nazim after he finished working. The bars were closed in observance of the religious holiday, so we just sat in the lobby of the reception area and talked.

As I walked back to my room that night I started getting that feeling that I get when I don’t want to leave somewhere.

More photos

Bengali foreman of a dry dock work crew. 
Nobody could tell me the story of this boat. One guy guessed that it was stuck out in the sand after the water dried up. Who knows? But it stands as a final reminder of what was here before: a traditional Bedouin fishing village.  

The work camp. South Asian worker on the side of the highway.  A young Sikh worker showing off his tattoo.  A young Sikh worker who lives in the work camp at Duqm.  Workers in Duqm watching a soccer game.  A Bengali shipbuilder. 
Bengali shipbuilders.  A Filipino worker at Duqm.  Filipino worker. 

Bengali shipbuilder.


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Filed under: New Cities, Oman, Travel Diary, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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