Oman: Constructing Authenticity

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The Bustan Palace Ritz-Carlton in Muscat, Oman, was built in 1985 to host the Gulf Cooperation Council summit. (Photo: Leah Caldwell)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Wednesday, June 13, 2012

“Muscat already has an international image and market positioning needs to reinforce its rich character, historic roots, authentic Arabian culture and spectacular mountain and coastal setting.”

- A November 2000 report prepared by Parsons International Limited for Oman’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry

In Muscat, the capital of Oman, the Bustan Palace Ritz-Carlton sits on an astoundingly beautiful piece of coast. Backed by a mountain range, the luxury hotel’s manicured palm gardens extend out to the Gulf of Oman. The hotel was built in 1985 to host the Gulf Cooperation Council summit and in 2011 was acquired by the Ritz-Carlton company.

Even though aged by more than two decades, the hotel hasn’t lost its flashiness; if Oman had a contender for a building on the Vegas strip, it could be the Bustan Palace. Like the Luxor or Sahara, it’s an homage to excess and cartoonish visions of the “exotic Orient.” Its rows of shaded, arched windows – commonly found on buildings in Muscat – are repeated ad infinitum and its turreted, circular structure is topped with a golden cap.

The Bustan Palace isn’t alone in its excess. Muscat’s luxury hotels – like others in the region – are often etched out in bloated images of the country’s architectural vernacular: arched windows, mashrabiyas, the color white, and fort-like castellations are employed with curious results. Beyond hotels, these forms are noticeably repeated across the city, forming a continuous visual link from shopping malls to houses. Even the majority of the external covers for air conditioning units in Muscat are adorned with cutouts of arched windows (the covers are mandated by law, but the ornamentation is not).

In 1992, the Municipality of Muscat issued a regulation that all architecture in the capital city should adhere to “a combination of Omani, Arab, Islamic and contemporary style.” So serious was Oman about adhering to this style, that Iraqi architect Mohamed Makiya, who has designed several buildings in Oman, even proposed prefabricating elements endemic to Omani architecture, like window awnings, so that these forms could be replicated across the country modernist-style.

This idea of an “authentic” built environment meshes well with the city’s recently-awarded title of “Arab Tourism Capital 2012” bestowed by the Arab League’s tourism ministers. Travel writers and Oman’s Ministry of Tourism regularly portray Oman as the last bastion of “unspoiled Arabia” where tourists can experience traditional architecture alongside rugged terrain. Oman, unlike its gaudy and superficial Gulf neighbors, is a destination for “culture-seekers,” according to a 2008 report by Deloitte. By 2018, these seekers will pump a projected OMR2.265 billion ($5.8 billion) into the country’s economy. Maintaining an “authentic” Oman is a very profitable enterprise, especially in the capital.

Yet claims to authenticity and culture in cities quickly come up against a much more complicated, globalized history, one where tourists themselves are implicated in building an image of an “authentic” city.

An Authentic Foreign Touch

The popularization of a strict “Omani” architectural typology has its roots in the 1960s when urbanization accelerated in Muscat. At the onset of the decade, Muscat could’ve been described as “two small towns and a handful of distinct villages,” according to J.E. Peterson in Historical Muscat. Not until 1967 when the country first exported oil did the specter of urbanization become a reality and Omani authorities looked to the outside for help in expanding and building “modern” Muscat. Soon, palm frond huts were cleared for administrative buildings and banks.

As Muscat built outwards, the conception and design process for new buildings was almost always in the hands of non-Omani architects and planners, either Arab or Western. Some of the city’s iconic civic buildings like the Ministry of Finance, the National Bank, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were designed by Iraqi architect Makiya, and German and British firms, respectively. In other words, the grand buildings of Muscat that are the glue of the city’s urban identity are basically what foreign architects imagined Omani architecture should be.

One of the early instances of this dynamic was in 1968 when, under the auspices of British architect John Harris, the first reinforced concrete building in Oman was constructed: the Ottoman Bank. The flat-roofed building with mashrabiyas and pointed arches was described by Harris as “well-mannered.” The subsequent language surrounding the project takes on the form of some elaborate ruse or laboratory experiment: with a touch of white here, and a mashrabiya there, no one would ever know this building was made of concrete and not a part of Muscat’s centuries-old fabric.

There’s no doubt that Oman’s architectural history – with countless influences and novel features – extends back centuries. There’s also no doubt that these forms persist without foreign design. The questions are: What happens when these forms are assimilated into cities? And how are urban environments shaped when there’s a vested interest in remaining “authentic”?

These questions are partly wrapped up in Oman’s growing tourist industry. Soon after international tourism to Oman began in 1987, the country looked to outside consulting firms to develop a tourism strategy and brand image. Every firm advised that the country’s strong suit lay in its “authentic” Arabian feel. Local architecture was a part of that authenticity, but there was a catch: in order to grow to accommodate tourist infrastructure, this architecture would be compromised.

The middle-ground manifested itself in buildings like the Bustan Palace.

By 2006, Oman would have 12 five-star hotels for a majority Western clientele and a well-cultivated brand image selling luxurious Arabia. The brand-building campaign was so successful that even projects like the Blue City – a $15 billion mega-development under construction on Oman’s coast planned by British Foster + Partners – could fit under its umbrella of authentic Oman. As with past building projects in the country, the firm tipped its hat to some nebulous idea of local architecture. The residences of the Blue City will respect “Omani traditions of privacy and an internalised architecture as seen on the Omani heritage settlements of Bahla and Manah.”

The projected layout of the Blue City makes the Bustan Palace look trifling. With over 20 hotels and 200 villas, the project experienced setbacks in 2009 due to the global economic downturn. The Omani government sought to salvage it, but it’s still at the center of a dispute between property developers.

On a summer visit in 2012, the project was a virtual concrete graveyard situated on a relatively isolated strip of Omani coast. It’s hard to imagine that this desolate strip of land will turn into something as glossy as the Foster + Partners design. Just a few miles from the stark Blue City is the town of Barka. Its strip of sandy beach is a few miles long and is dotted with huts occupied by fishermen. Before too long, Barka might be in need of a boost in authenticity to make it more agreeable for tourists.

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