Ten Highlights of Our Trip to Arabia.

1. Museum of Islamic Art (Qatar). Everything I hoped it would be: the ‘essence’ of Islamic architecture filtered through the geometric modernism of I.M. Pei. Wonderfully sited with a breathtaking interior: minimal yet full. Each object was given its own space and spotlight; everything seemed important, except maybe a wall of astrolabes and a court of columns. ‘Islamic Art’ did not mean the objects were all religious, though many were; it meant they had been created in or for the Islamic world, from Spain to China. There was plenty to see, but not too much to take in. And if attention flagged, outside were fountains, courtyards, arches and the view of Doha’s amazing skyline.

2. Grand Mosque, Muscat (Oman). Wealth is on display in the magnificent chandeliers of Swarovski crystal, the world’s largest seamless carpet, stained glass windows, sandstone carving and impeccably landscaped gardens; but it is the tastefulness of it all that impresses. The colors – notably blues – are delicate and elegant, not loud and brash, and work together, in rugs, wall tiles and windows. The scale, too, is more user-friendly than the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, with graceful arches framing the mountains outside.

3. Al Hoota Cave (Oman). Spectacular is the word that leapt forth when first entering this underground cavern, and it remained on my tongue the entire circuit of 240 steps up and 180(?) down. An Austrian lighting designer was credited with the dramatic effects, but nature provided the hand: slanted flat ceilings, bubble rocks, waxy stalactites and stalagmites, rock formations that looked like people. A lake schooled in blind fish added to the other-worldly, Star Wars vibe.

4. The Castle/Fort of Bahla (Oman). We saw a half-dozen castle/forts, mainly in Oman, and quickly tired of the repetitive features: the hole in the stairway, the opening for hot date oil, the library, the imam’s quarter, the food storehouse, etc. The newly reconstructed castle at Bahla, however, was the largest and most fun to explore. The angled block walls that caught the afternoon sun presaged I.M. Pei’s museum in Qatar, and the absence of signage or map left us free to appreciate the intuitive spaces. From the top the views of mountains and date orchards were a balm.

5. Carnegie Mellon University (Qatar). The educational institutions we saw – e.g., American University in Sharjah – were notable for the lack of people or any visible campus life. What a relief, then, to drop in, at Education City (next to Sports City) in Qatar, and mingle with college students – a majority Indian it appeared – studying, flirting, communing with laptops in the modern majlis. Here was a vision of what the Arab world could become.

6. The Goat Market at Nizwa (Oman). For the only time on our trip we felt we were in a National Geographic shoot. The goats of every size, shape and color were endlessly fascinating, but no moreso than the old men who sat and watched, the auctioneers calling out their prices, and the buyers, pinching and inspecting.

7. U.S. Embassy in Muscat (Oman). What could have been a perfunctory and polite reception with the Ambassador turned out to be a wide-ranging and frank discussion with a youngish section head named Jamal Al-Mussawi that brought out the best in our Yale group and made us all proud of our Foreign Service. When I asked about the ban announced that day against laptops on Muslim air carriers, he admitted, “We are scratching our heads.”

8. Hajjar Mountains (UAE and Oman). A geologist’s dream, with sedimentary rocks on one side of the road, igneous on the other. You could see plates colliding, the ocean floor being lifted up. The colors – red, black, deep gray, purple – fairly screamed of the mineral wealth lurking below the surface. The drive to Oman through Hatta introduced us to this rugged chain; then the route between Muscat and Nizwa offered one stunning landscape after another, as the mountains rose precipitously, dramatically out of the empty, flat desert.

9. Grand Mosque of Sheik Zayed, Abu Dhabi (UAE). Everything in a mosque that money can buy, or the Taj Mahal times ten. The spaces were grand, and floral decoration was everywhere – tiles on the floor and columns, carvings on the wall, in the chandeliers. A beautiful blue pool outside set off the brilliant white of the building, which absorbed several cruise ships of visitors and still seemed empty.

10. Art Dubai (UAE). Dubai is a thoroughly modern city, so it was fitting that its sole highlight was an international art fair of modern and contemporary art. We could as easily have been at Miami Basel or Frieze as far as ambience and venue layout, and the art, while not as consistently high grade as at more established fairs, included familiar names: aluminum pieces by Miya Ando, photographic portraits by Shirin Neshat, and colored pots by Ai Weiwei.

The Bottom Five:
1. Fanar Cultural Center (Qatar). Truly offensive defense of Islam.
2. Dubai Museum (UAE). Hot, crowded and ersatz.
3. Yale Alumni Club Reception (UAE). Awkward, painful, terrible wine.
4. Falaj Darsi (Oman). A small canal of water. What’s up with that?
5. Dubai City (UAE). Flash and glitz, biggest this and that, no soul in sight.