Oman: The Sultan’s Dream Roads

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Omani villas on a road near Barka, Oman. With the rapid building of freeways in Oman, dense building is giving way to more isolated structures. (Photo: Leah Caldwell)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Tuesday, May 8, 2012

An expansive symbol of prosperity, the network of roads in Oman boast wealth and progress, but beneath every perfectly tarmaced surface, another story lies.

To its east, the flawless multi-lane freeway connecting the Omani cities of Sour and Muscat is enclosed by mountains, and to its west, the coast. The picturesque scenery provides the only reprieve from the tunnel vision induced by the recurring features of the road. Merging lanes. White arrows. Exit signs. Repeat.

By night the freeway is illuminated with the kind of sodium-vapor lights that often distort black skies with an orange haze. Yet every few kilometers or so, a section of the lights are shut off, leaving the freeway pitch-black and the stars visible.

From the car’s radio an announcer listlessly reads a litany of royal decrees issued by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, the country’s leader who came to power after ousting his father in 1970. Several of the directives proclaim the continued improvement of road networks throughout the Sultanate. It occurred to me, perhaps erroneously, that the sporadic blackouts along the road are intentional, a careful consideration of Sultan Qaboos to break the monotony of his perfect roads.

“His majesty set in place a road system years ago and we follow its rules,” said a young Omani man outside an Internet café in Nizwa, a city in the mountainous interior of Oman with a busy market place.

Overstatement or not, the past 40 years in Oman have seen the dawn of a “new infrastructural order,” according to anthropologist Mandana Limbert, with its hallmark being the thousands of miles of roads that branch into nearly every corner of the country. If the tower crane hovering over a construction site is a requisite feature of the Dubai landscape, then signs announcing road development are its parallel in Oman.

The state’s road budget for 2012 is US$817 million and in March 2012 alone, at least 15 contracts were awarded to foreign companies for building or repairing roads. A May 2012 editorial in the English-language Oman Tribune boasted, “In 40 years, Oman has achieved the distinction of being one of the few developing countries to boast a modern network of highways, dual carriageways and link roads covering 98 percent of the country.”

Limbert’s engrossing ethnography In the Time of Oil details how many Omanis feel that their path to “development” is a race against time, that is, the time when the oil runs out. This develop-now-or-perish-later attitude toward the country’s infrastructure has led to a disquiet among many Omanis prompting them to “wonder if they might ‘wake up’ one day only to discover that the years of prosperity since the 1970 coup have been a dream,” according to Limbert.

Ever since Oman began commercial exports of oil in 1967, there have been predictions that the country was on the verge of running dry. Twenty years until it’s gone became the standard calculation, but this has been adjusted so many times that it’s better to conclude that no one really knows. Either way, these depletion forecasts have put infrastructural development into hyper-drive in Oman, helping to earn the country the accolade of “top mover” out of 135 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2010.

Despite the recent development parlance praising Oman’s visible leaps toward “progress” and “modernity,” the country’s infrastructural drive also has roots in the political unrest preceding the 1970 coup. At this time, the interior of Oman was a separate entity called the Imamate of Oman, which was distinct from the coastal Sultanate of Muscat. The two areas were unified in 1970 under Sultan Qaboos as the Sultanate of Oman amidst internecine conflicts. Now, the former interior strongholds that resisted unification are easily accessible by finely manicured roads, some of them tourist sites.

One of these is the destroyed village of Tanuf, bombed by the Sultan’s allies the British Royal Air Force during a 1957 interior rebellion. The crumbling mud-brick buildings lack any explanatory placards, but it’s a frequent stop for tourists nonetheless. Past the village, a road leads across a dry riverbed and into the wadi, where Bashar, a 20-year-old Omani engineer offered to drive us around.

“There’s the war in Palestine, but here, we have a war of the roads,” said Bashar – his comparison somewhat lacking originality. Just last week, he said, five people died in crashes. Oman’s roads are an obsession of the Arabic and English-language press in the country, with full-page pictorial spreads of new roads accompanying headlines like “Nizwa-Thumrait road will boost development,” as well as “Oman road crash kills 8 family members.”

Bashar is from Bahla, a city in the interior of Oman full of palm trees and newly-christened heritage sites. Driving to his house, where we’d eat dried fish and rice while watching cartoons, he sped up to 160 kph and remarked that he and his friends often use the more isolated roads as racetracks.

Limbert, who lived in Bahla in the late 1990s, tells a curious story of the town’s relationship with roads. One afternoon, roads were cleared to prepare for a rare occurrence: Sultan Qaboos was to drive through town. The sultan cruised by in the driver’s seat of a bulletproof BMW, surrounded by a military convoy, leaving Limbert to reflect that “the road itself confirmed Bahla’s place in the Sultan’s nation.”

The road also divided Bahla in two – making it an undeniable display of the Sultan’s authority to impact Omanis’ everyday lives. Limbert explains that the divisive freeway in Bahla changed the residents’ directional orientation and even delineated proper gender spaces. In a telling observation, she said that during the 1960s, the coordinates of the North Star and the coast were used for describing locations in town, but the roads laid that system to rest.

Outside of Bahla, we passed gated, isolated villas in bold colors located directly off the freeway. It’s no surprise that the freeways made these villas, miles from the city center, feasible. I asked Bashar if government ministers lived in these villas. He laughed and said that no, the city’s sheikhs live there. The government ministers, he said, live elsewhere, but either way, they were out of the country on vacation. Indeed, just a week earlier one of the Sultan’s yachts had docked in Croatia.

Now that the roads are built – and are expanding by the day – the coming years will inevitably see more and more building projects designed around freeways, or accessible only by freeway. On the road to Muscat, the villas give way to more common roadside businesses, like the ubiquitous coffee shop, or maqha, that more often than not will be staffed by the South Asians who built the roads in the first place.

Back in Muscat, the freeway that slices the city in two seems more like a viewing platform for the city’s newest landmarks than a transportation artery. In perfect view from any lane are sites like the golden-domed Sultan Qaboos Mosque and the newly constructed Opera House. There’s also the Ministries District, where the front facades of about half a dozen ministries face outward toward the freeway, each projecting a presence of isolated grandiosity. The view of the gleamingly white Interior Ministry is the most striking, almost reminiscent of straight-on tourist snapshots of the Taj Majal.

In March 2011, striking private sector workers, as well as unemployed people, set up a protest camp in the Ministries district, demanding higher wages and a better standard of living. That same month, in Sohar, an industrial city north of Muscat, foreigners - mostly South Asian - who work in the oil industry had set up camp in a central roundabout and, in a key move, blocked the road leading to Al-Ain in the UAE, according to an article in the Asia Times. Another group of about 1,000 protested that, "Most of the jobs here go to foreigners, Asians and Europeans. When we asked for work, we are told 'no vacancy'," as reported by The National.

Ahmed Kanna, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of the Pacific, called protests like these the “forgotten rebellions” in the Gulf states in a piece for Jadaliyya. Despite Oman having a history of political rebellion in the 1950s and 60s, recent years have seen the subsumption of that unrest into the “dream state” of prosperity mentioned by Limbert. Kanna concurs that, “Once oil was discovered, the Gulf states could create new dependent classes of citizens who were bought off with relatively generous handouts.”

During the protests in Sohar, a LuLu hypermarket was set on fire. The army dispersed over 3,000 protesters with tear gas and live ammunition. They also cleared the roadblocks.

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