Land of plenty

Oman is embarking on a drive to divert its economy away from oil and towards tourism. Emily Pacey talks to designers already working in the sultanate, and finds a country offering huge potential for UK consultancies looking to expand

According to logic, the following words should spark a gold rush. ’There is heaps and heaps of work in Oman, and it’s a great place to live.’ So speaks Navyblue Muscat managing director Margaret Fitzgerald, adding, ’I don’t really know of any other UK graphic design groups out here, since most of them are based in Dubai.’

Abundant work, meagre business competition and good living conditions offer a heady combination to those with international ambitions. Navyblue opened its Omani office in May last year, and has since picked up work branding Oman’s botanic gardens and produced a major energy-saving campaign for the country’s electricity supplier.

One of the Gulf’s most traditional countries, Oman is more economically stable than some of its glitzier, more commercial neighbours, taking what Fitzgerald calls ’a slow and sustainable view of development’. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who deposed his father in 1970 and doubles as the prime minister, is spearheading a drive to divert Oman’s economy away from oil and towards tourism.

This is spawning a raft of new design work. Major construction projects include the Royal Opera House by US-based architect WATG (which also has an office in the UK), coastal hotel, residential and commercial development The Wave and about three airports, including a new Muscat Airport.

James Park Associates is working on Oman Air’s business and first class lounges at the existing Muscat airport, and is seeking to open an Oman office soon. ’The government is investing in good design as a way of promoting the country and there is all sorts of work going on in Oman,’ says a JPA spokesman.

But don’t expect creative design briefs to resemble those in UAE or Saudi Arabia. ’Fiercely proud’ of their heritage, Omanis are keen on preserving their traditional architecture, and most buildings are no taller than five storeys.

The Omani government even has an in-house design department with a remit to decorate state buildings in traditional Arabic style. UK-based architect HTP, which has been in Oman for 35 years, has worked on both state and private contracts, from ambassadors’ residencies to hotels. With Navyblue it choruses a message of abundance.

’There is a great shortage of interior designers here, and a great need for people to come out and open up offices,’ says Tony Carpenter, managing director of HTP’s Muscat-based practice Huckle and Partners. ’We need people who can do really high-end stuff.’

HTP came to the country five years after the modernising sultan took the throne. ’We were introduced to an Omani businessman in the UK who told us the country was about to really go places,’ says Carpenter.

According to Carpenter, Oman is not the sort of country that you can get the best out of without having an office there. ’You really have to be based here to get to know the system and to be on demand for meetings,’ says Carpenter.

’Working in Oman is not something you can do with a few plane trips. Like all Arabs, the Omanis want to get to know you before they work with you.’

Besides the big commitment of opening an office in Oman, designers will also need good paperwork skills to work there. ’The contracts are generally based on English JCT contracts, but they are implemented in a different way, which can be frustrating and is something make the logistics of working there more challenging than elsewhere.

As Fitzgerald says, ’Only a few miles out of the city and you could be in medieval Arabia, which is amazing.’ Park agrees, and adds, ’I only hope they find a good balance between development without spoiling the natural geography which is beautiful.’

The government is targeting Oman at wealthy, but adventurous tourists rather than backpackers or package holidaymakers, and is keen to preserve its heritage and traditions while opening up the country at the same time. Certainly, Fitzgerald believes that while there is plenty of work there, designers would benefit from persuading businesses to understand the value of marketing.

’Because there is not the proliferation of competition here as in other countries, there are still people who are content not to do much marketing,’ she says.

The Wave

This project is the largest tourist development in Oman. Located along 7km of beach just west of Muscat, the 195ha resort will include:

  • A five-star, 200-room spa hotel
  • A 300-room golf hotel and conference complex
  • A marina and yacht club
  • Restaurants, shops and a world bazaar
  • A beach and sports resort

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