No such thing as a free lunch?

On 25th May, 1981, almost thirty years ago, the GCC or Gulf Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf was formed, with the primary aim of establishing greater unity among its members. This new foundation was based upon common objectives, political beliefs and cultural identities, originally rooted in and developed from Arab and Islamic cultures. 

Initially commissioned by the Sultan of Oman, the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, nestling picturesquely between the Al Hajar mountains and the Sea of Oman, was built as an annexe to the Sultan’s Palace, in order to accommodate visiting royal families and heads of State, when the GCC gathered for meetings and conferences. 

In December 1985, The London Symphony Orchestra, of which I had been a member for just over one year, was invited to perform at the inaugural concerts in the Oman Auditorium, integrated into the building of the new hotel as a dedicated concert hall (having been educated in the UK, the Sultan was passionate about classical music). We were also to be the very first guests in the hotel. So far, nothing particularly unusual. Except, until 1970, only fifteen years earlier, throughout the reign of the previous Sultan, Said bin Taimur, music of any description had been banned in Oman. 

No expense had been spared in the construction of this unusual and unique hotel. A small village had previously stood on the spot where it was decided to build the palatial new complex. To claim the most prestigious position for the hotel and to provide the most impressive views, the village was uprooted and shunted several hundred yards along the coastline to behind a suitably high rock, thus making sure that the somewhat modest houses of the villagers would be conveniently out of sight and invisible to high ranking and special guests of the Sultan. 

Whether or not to the taste of all, the cathedral ceilinged reception hall of the hotel is still one the most visually arresting and opulent of any hotel in the world. 

Fine dining and an ambition to place Oman firmly on the global map of must visit destinations for haute cuisine, were also on the agenda. For the first year, in order to build a high-end gastronomic reputation and to oversee operations in the flagship restaurant, the services of a French chef with 3 Michelin étoiles to his name had been secured. 

Due to the fact that heads of State and royalty would be staying in the hotel, security had been a major consideration in the construction of the building. Certain floors above the reception area were permanently out of bounds to regular guests and reserved exclusively for the use of VIPs. Many of the top end suites were built with ‘fake’ entrances, to confuse any potential intruders. The theory behind these extra layers of fortification being that should there be a terrorist attack during one of the more important gatherings, once any assailants had managed to get into the building and force open the armoured ‘pretend’ doors of the Presidential Suites, they would be greeted by walls of solid concrete. Unable to proceed further and eager to steer clear of being captured or killed, departing with immediate effect would become the only viable option open to them. The panic caused by the ensuing confusion and chaos, in turn provided VIP guests within the suites, crucial extra moments in which to exit to safety via their ‘secret’ doors and passageways. 

For such a major event as the opening of the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, it was indeed a great honour for the LSO to be invited to perform on such an important occasion. In terms of the work schedule for a British orchestra though, this was just yet another overseas engagement to be added to the long list of those that had already been undertaken throughout 1985.  

The difference this time was that in 12 days, there were only to be three easy concerts, everything would be videoed, therefore providing greater income, we would be staying in what was then the most luxurious hotel in the world and even in December in Oman, it was going to be gloriously sunny and warm. Yes, we would be working, but barely so and this was increasingly looking as though this particular trip was turning into a very high end winter holiday in the sun, that we would all be paid handsomely for! 

Added to this, such was the warmth and generosity of the organisation in Oman, that wives, husbands or partners of players were also invited, the only cost being £35 to cover the extra visa administration charges. 

Having been discarded by a long term girlfriend in August that year, by November I was fortunate enough to find myself happily ‘walking out’ with a new one. Not that it was in any way necessary, but you can imagine the impact on our newly formed relationship, of being in a position of inviting her for 12 days to a fabulous hotel in the sun, in the thick of a British winter and at absolutely no cost whatsoever (yes, I did cover the £35 for the visa!). 

A plane was chartered to transport the orchestra and instruments from London to Oman, leaving in the late afternoon and arriving in Muscat early the following day. It may or may not surprise you to discover that after the flight of just over 7 hours, not a drop of alcohol was to be found on the aeroplane. This situation was in no way related to the strict alcohol laws at the time in Oman. The journey had started with a complete selection of alcoholic beverages on board, from gin and tonic, through to red and white wine and on to port and liqueurs, but the assembled party and ensuing bonhomie had voraciously consumed what was on offer, from the second the seat belt lights were turned off. The onboard stock was diminished to zero in a matter of a few hours. 

Most of the time when the LSO toured, the atmosphere could be quite intense. If we were performing in major cities such as Vienna, Berlin, Paris, New York, Chicago, Munich, Amsterdam or Tokyo, there was a desire for the performance to be such that favourable comparisons would be made with the local or home orchestra (just the same as with teams at football matches). 

On this occasion, with such pressures completely alleviated and aided by the joyful fact that we would be staying in a luxury hotel by the sea for twelve days in the run up to Christmas, more of a ‘party’ atmosphere was definitely in the air on leaving London.  

When a British orchestra travels, all those involved receive subsistence or per diems to purchase food and meals each day. Breakfast at the hotel is usually provided and then a modest, but usually sufficient amount of money (as in cash) is handed out to cover the other two meals of the day and any incidentals, such as teas, coffees and snacks. 

However, such was the culture at the time of Omani hospitality, we were not to be given any subsistence. Instead, as we were to be their guests in this very plush new hotel and not travelling on to other destinations, any expenditure or expenses was to be covered by our hosts. All that was required were signatures to sign for all meals and drinks, thus putting expenses onto our respective rooms. These bills would subsequently then be settled with the hotel by our hosts. 

With the opulence and grandeur of this specific hotel in mind, whilst in theory this was a highly generous gesture, what the Omani promoters had failed to take on board was the general mindset, somewhere between a plague of locusts and a wake of vultures, that comes rather all too naturally to large groups of British classical musicians, when an opportunity of free food is mentioned. Offer them an as much as you can eat buffet and they will consume absolutely everything that is on the tables in front of them. Apart from anything else, those per diems are being saved, meaning extra cash in pockets. They say that there is no such thing as a free lunch, however, a group of touring British classical musicians is more than happy to challenge this theory and put it seriously to the test! 

Prior to leaving for Oman, one of the more wily and canny brass players had phoned ahead, booking himself into the ultra-high end French restaurant, for each and every one of the ten evenings that we would be resident in the hotel. In order to impress and with clearly a huge budget, the head sommelier had rather appropriately put together a wine list that really was fit for Kings. 

In this unique situation, common sense would dictate that consuming Beluga caviar three times a day would not have been an appropriate response to such generosity, but equally, as it was without doubt in their interests to present a substantial final bill to the promoters, the hotel certainly wasn’t going out of its way to discourage over-indulgence by our group.  

I witnessed this first hand soon after arrival. Having settled into my luxurious room with my girlfriend and with nothing to do other than relax for the rest of the day, we decided to celebrate with champagne. About five minutes after calling room service, a bottle of champagne arrived at the door, but not just any bottle of champagne. It was a Dom Perignon 1978! This, I had not ordered, nor would have expected anyone else to pay for, but it was what the hotel had decided to serve up. The mark up on that one bottle of wine alone would have been exorbitant. 

Needless to say, after a few days and with ever-increasing orders of expensive food and pricey bottles of wine, in particular in the French restaurant, which of course now everyone had booked into, our hosts were becoming nervous, seeing a final bill looming that would be well over budget. 

The orchestra were called together and informed that we would need to be less extravagant for the remainder of the trip. We were each allocated one visit to the French restaurant and from thence onwards, if we wished to drink wine, we would only have access to the house wines on offer. A non-vintage champagne was still there. The house white wine, that was also in ample supply, just happened to be a rather fine Chablis Premier Cru and from a splendid year. I forget what the red wine was, as with it being warm and sunny, I was naturally more inclined to steer towards a soothing glass of chilled white wine with the near daily seafood platters! 

Needless to say, after a few days and with ever-increasing orders of expensive food and pricey bottles of wine, in particular in the French restaurant, which of course now everyone had booked into, our hosts were becoming nervous, seeing a final bill looming that would be well over budget. 

The orchestra were called together and informed that we would need to be less extravagant for the remainder of the trip. We were each allocated one visit to the French restaurant and from thence onwards, if we wished to drink wine, we would only have access to the house wines on offer. A non-vintage champagne was still there. The house white wine, that was also in ample supply, just happened to be a rather fine Chablis Premier Cru and from a splendid year. I forget what the red wine was, as with it being warm and sunny, I was naturally more inclined to steer towards a soothing glass of chilled white wine with the near daily seafood platters! 

Otherwise, the Mutrah Souk with its noise, bustle and vibrant colours was a short taxi drive away. 

On the basis that we were not receiving per diem payments (a situation that had not happened to me before and has not once occurred since) the bumpy start to the trip and subsequent crossed wires as people adjusted, were extremely unfortunate. They could have been completely avoided, if everything had been made crystal clear from the beginning.  

At the time, I was inclined to apportion blame to the members of the orchestra, putting it down as an aspect of human nature, believing (as indicated above) that having been given such an extraordinary amount of freedom and choice, this too would have been the response of many, not just the LSO. After all, we do all love something even more when it is free!  

However, with the benefit of time and a chance to weigh up all sides of the issues or arguments involved, I also believe that the hotel should have taken a different stance on matters. Over more recent years and from friends who have been hoteliers, I have become aware of the areas where large profits are made in the industry. With the exorbitant mark up on food and in particular wine that exist in such establishments, the hotel management were smacking their lips, knowing full well that they would be seeing a very healthy profit from those first guests, irrespective of who ended up paying the bills.  

Those in the upper echelons of the Omani administration were understandably unhappy and annoyed. It was such a shame that a situation that fundamentally wasn’t anyone’s fault had tarnished what should have been a truly special and memorable experience.  

Prior to the trip, we had all heard stories of British musicians travelling to the Gulf to give concerts. At the end of their engagements, no fees were received but instead, solid gold Rolex watches worth a small fortune were presented. Secretly, we were all hoping that even though we were getting fees for the three concerts, we would also be flying home with several thousand pounds worth of precious metal dangling from our wrists.  

After the final concert there was indeed a presentation and we were all individually summoned to meet with the second in command of the Omani hierarchy, to receive our gifts. 

Sadly, no Rolex or Cartier watches, just a rather inexpensive looking replica of an Omani ornamental dagger, made of coated plastic and…manufactured in London, England! 

For those of you who might be interested in discovering more about life and culture in Oman before 1970 and the subsequent changes that Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said brought about, the following article from the Chicago Tribune at the time may be of interest: 

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1985-11-06-8503160692-story.html 

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