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Fri 18 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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Omani frontier

There’s work to be had in the GCC’s southern-most son.

Omani frontier
The Royal Muscat Opera House is a pet project of Oman ruler Sultan Qaboos.

When the 2010 Asian Beach Games kicked off in Muscat at the end of last year,
state-owned developer Omran rightfully considered it a multi-million riyal job done.

It was Omran’s biggest project yet, the conversion of a site
that was little more than salt flats and rock into a modern sporting facility capable
of welcoming athletes from across the world in under three years. The Asian Beach
Games may not be the Olympics, or indeed the World Cup, but for Oman it was no less
important.

“We’ve had some small projects before but this is the biggest
ever,” said Nasser Saif Al-Maqbali, Omran’s vice president of construction.

“The time was a major challenge. The deadline was set in stone
and it was extremely difficult to meet, but we were successful. The project was
completed not only on time but to a high quality, with 12 million man hours without
injury.”

It bodes well for the future. Omran recently broke ground at
the Oman Exhibition and Conference Centre, which will provide 85,000m2 of office
space in Muscat.
The developer also has dozens of hotel projects underway, not least the plan to
convert the Asian Games facilities into a new tourism hub.

It is no surprise that the growth in Oman has attracted international consultants from
over the border in the UAE, not least Asian Beach Games designers Atkins, which
recently moved into new offices in Muscat
with plans to expand its staff to around 200 by the end of this year.

“I think it’s an interesting place to be. There’s more culture,
more history and more background. There’s a lot to draw from,” said John Sleep,
Atkins project architect and resident engineer on the Asian Games project. “I think
the Omanis are very conscious of that and are fostering it very well. With control
of high rise buildings and trying to maintain a relatively traditional feel to things
it’s working quite nicely.”

Commenting on the Asian Games project, Sleep confirmed that the
development had been a major undertaking – built to a two-and-a-half year deadline
on a completely virgin site.

“It was a lot to get done in a very short space of time. The
end date was immovable and everything else was effectively secondary,” he said.

There has always been a conception amongst architects that it
was difficult to get away with modern designs in Oman, but both with the Asian Games
site and the Bank Muscat project – completed in mid-2010 – Sleep said, Atkins had
proved it was possible to be contemporary.

“It is more traditional. The way in which you achieve it can
be as ground-breaking as you like but they don’t want anybody to be offended, especially
the Sultan who has quite strong views on architecture. On height and too much glazing
and aluminium cladding on the exterior, a few of those are just not permitted,”
he said. “But I think they have moved on from the days when
they used to count the number of arches on the building before they would approve
it.”

Oman certainly
does not want or need the glitzy, high-rise growth of Riyadh,
Abu Dhabi or Dubai, but in order to welcome the thousands of
extra visitors that the country wants to welcome to its shores, it will need facilities
and hotels.

“Oman’s economy is
not the largest but we plan before we move,” said Omran’s Al-Maqbali.

“For the next five years the budget is the biggest in history.
It’s the first time the government has announced that much money to be spent. Investment
from the private sector is around 30 billion rials. That’s a lot of money.” Al Maqbali added that the
bulk of this cash will  be spent on hotels
and infrastructure, such as roads and airports.

There is an intention on the part of the Omani government that
Omani architects and engineers will be more involved in this growth than in neighbouring
UAE, and Omanisation continues to be a hot topic in the country. Sleep pointed out
that this is a positive move both for the Omani architects and engineers, and their
international employers.

“We employ Omani architects and engineers. It’s not a penance that you have to so, they’re
very actively involved and open to ideas and so on. Some of the best architects
and engineers are Omanis,” he said. “It’s a nice place to be for that.”

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