Years ago, at prep school, I fell under the spell of Oman. At the start of each term, a friend would arrive fresh back from Muscat and mesmerise us with tales of her holidays in the Sultanate. This country of sand, camels and mountains, struck through with plunging river valleys and remote rock pools of intoxicating turquoise, seemed impossibly exotic, loaded with opportunities; the land of Lawrence and romance.
Some time later, I leapt at the chance to investigate whether the reality lived up to my youthful imagination. Since those late-night renderings in a damp Dorset dormitory, the world has, depending on your point of view, either gone mad or seen the light of the Middle East, and a new destination—nay, Vogue’s Destination of the Year 2008—has been born. It’s said that it took the management of Emirates Airlines to kick start the tourist boom in the Middle East. Strategising on how to boost travel to the region, they suggested that hotels should be built on Dubai’s beachfront.
Hitherto, any Europeans landing in the Gulf were either there on petro-business or were being forced to pause in their journeys to and from the Far East, the only bonus of which was the opportunity to stock up on cheap electronic goods at Dubai’s Duty Free.
The rulers scratched their beards and wondered why anyone would want to come to a desert on holiday. Although sun and sea were in plentiful supply, little else existed to lure the traveller. However, following Plato’s adage that necessity is the mother of invention, and needing to build a nonpetrol dollar crutch for the economies to run on, Gulf State tourism was born. One aspect no amount of imaginative thinking would override was the searing, eyeball-drying heat of summers in the Gulf.
For the UAE, the solution was to provide refuge indoors, hence Dubai’s transformation into a city-cum-shopping mall (which attracts, in the local expat vernacular, a ‘chavalanche’ of cut-price-bargain hunters in the summer) and Abu Dhabi’s ambitious plans to recreate the pick of European art galleries on its shores. The only country in the Gulf to rely on its natural terrain as tourist-bait is Oman.
The al Jebel al Akhdar mountain range, which cuts a rugged dash on the skyline behind Muscat, is the envy of Oman’s neighbouring low-lying Emirates. Not only does it provide a scenic backdrop to the city but also a myriad of camping and hiking opportunities for the adventurous. The highest peak reaches 10,000 feet, and hilltop forts, which date from the Portuguese occupation in the 16th century, abound, as do medieval villages of mudbrick houses, river beds (wadis) and fields of date palms and pomegranates.
Meanwhile, the southern Salalah region is brushed by the monsoon, providing muchneeded respite during the summer months and a wonderful contrast of lush green landscapes after the stark, barren monochromes of the north. The message to outsiders seems to be: Oman is a little different. ‘Omani men have always been farmers and fishermen, rather than nomads,’ explains Pankaj Khimji, an Omani businessman and developer who was behind the five-star Chedi resort in Muscat. It’s rather an understatement when one considers the great seafaring nation that Oman once was, but it helps explain why the country stands out from the Gulf crowd. ‘We are the Switzerland of the Middle East. We even dress differently, wearing either the mussah (a form of turban) or the kummah (a cap) instead of the ghutrah, sometimes topped off by a sickle-shaped silver dagger at the waist.’
All of this added to the fact that Muscat remains little more than a bustling town, where buildings rarely exceed three storeys, made Oman a weekend destination for anyone wishing to flee from the concrete and skyrise jungle of Dubai, Bahrain and four bedroom freehold villas with pools, a boutique hotel, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, a spa and a beach club. The architecture will be contemporary yet recognisably Omani, with shaded courtyards and screens making the most of the outdoor spaces.
‘You would struggle to find a direct comparison to The Malkai anywhere in the Middle East,’ says Mr Upson, who is heading up the sales. ‘And, once the new road has been finished, reducing the journey time from the city to just 20 minutes, it’ll become the Beverly Hills of Muscat.’ Cluttons have already had ‘plenty of enquiries’ from northern Europeans, who are often already familiar with the country or were brought up there. Average prices for the two-bedroom villas are $1.5m, rising to $4 million for the four-bedroom furnished houses. ‘We’re not after speculators. But there is obvious investment potential. Anyone who does buy will be able to place their property in the rental pool when it’s not in use, and the hotel management company (Singapore-based GHM, which also manages the Chedi), expects a 10% return based on relatively conservative occupancy rates of 50%,’ (the Chedi enjoys 85% occupancy).
The Malkai is one of a handful of developments either on the way or on the cards in Oman currently. The sector is likely to grow, but with the emphasis remaining on low-density, high-quality building. Studies show that total investments into the real-estate sector reached $4.2 billion in 2007, up from $750,000 in 2005, and are likely to grow to $20.8 billion by 2010.
According to property consultants Eqarat.com, residential developments are emerging as the highest income yielding investments in the Sultanate.
‘Prices have gone up by as much as 100% in the past two years at the Wave [a development of townhouses, villas and apartments north of Muscat], for example,’ says Harry Goodson Wickes of Cluttons Oman, who has lived in Muscat for more than two years. ‘The lifestyle is a big attraction. It’s crime-free, warm, and clean, and there’s so much to do at the weekend, from camping by the beach or in the desert to motorcycling in the Wahiba Sands or sailing and Scuba diving. Besides which, the schools are very good and domestic help is very affordable.’