By Courtney Trenwith
On a stunning tip of Oman’s almost-secluded coastline, local developer Barr Al Jissah is creating luxury like nowhere else in the sultanate, including a marina and waterfront homes in a bay that already attracts some of the richest yachts in the world and boasts three Shangri-La hotels.
Drive east of Muscat city centre and you traverse along some of the most stunning coastline in the Arabian Gulf. Jagged clifftops descend into shimmering blue ocean, while at times the road dips low, leaving the rocky mountains towering above.
It is in a nook of this arresting coastline that developer Barr Al Jissah is creating a haven for both residents and visitors. The Omani company has already built the extremely popular triple collection of Shangri-La hotels, the first of which was the first five-star resort in the country when it opened in 2005, and a marina, and recently released secluded townhouses with among the best views in the GCC.
Economic hiccups over the past decade have caused some plans to be delayed, but the chief executive managing the stunning projects, Firas Matraji, says now is the time to ramp up development of the firm’s sprawling plans. The company, owned by one of the most dominant business families in Oman, was rebranded two years ago. This year, it is building on the success of the marina by adding 69 waterfront residences, as well as retail, alfresco dining and a members-only yacht club. The residences include penthouses, duplexes, villas and apartments, each overlooking the marina.
Matraji, who joined Barr Al Jissah from state developer Omran three years ago, says the Al Mina project is deliberately small to create a cosy, family-like setting befitting of the Omani culture. Yet, there is strong demand, he says.
The marina already attracts some of the wealthiest yacht enthusiasts in the world and recently accepted a 100-metre super yacht and another from Europe complete with a helipad. If the two-year waiting list to moor at this marina is anything to go by, the residences are expected to be well sought-after.
“Sometimes people are booking birthing space without a yacht,” Matraji says from the Barr Al Jissah office, perched on the clifftop 50 metres above the marina. The water below is so crystal clear that fish can be seen swimming even this high up.
“There’s a huge demand for an inclusive yacht club. We have the location, we have the best marina in town; we have the cleanest and deepest marina.”
The clientele come mainly from all over the GCC and Europe.
“A lot of them live here; if they live here it’s their primary or secondary home,” Matraji says. “A lot of them [also] live outside of Oman, in the GCC or Europe but they all have a common interest, which is the lifestyle you can have here — a concierge, hotel services, yachting.
“They come here once a month for a few days. We arrange for the boats to go out fishing, for a long weekend. It’s the lifestyle and location bringing people together rather than their nationality.
“I don’t think you can find [a comparable] location anywhere else in the region.”
Al Mina is due to begin construction this year and take two-and-a-half years to be completed. But there are already 79 residences in the Barr Al Jissah development. Seventy are set atop the cliff at the head of the bay, while nine townhouses, with interiors created by famous yacht designers Bannenberg Rowell, are set back from the coast.
Attracting buyers to these exclusive properties has not been easy amid the economic rollercoaster since 2008. The crash in oil prices mid-2014 has seen Oman fall into deficit and its government is struggling the most of the six GCC nations. The non-OPEC member exports just less than 1 million barrels of oil a day and the government budget still relies on an oil price of more than $70 a barrel to breakeven, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
While few of Barr Al Jissah’s clients are Omani, the impact still has been felt. Matraji says it has been “difficult” in the Omani real estate sector as a whole, but Barr Al Jissah’s niche product has weathered the storm better.
“Overall there has been some slowdown, of course,” he says.
“Because we’re targeting a specific type of market or audience — it’s been difficult — but in our business not that much, because people who want to enjoy that lifestyle will continuously go ahead and grab a piece of this.
“Obviously, the sales velocity hasn’t been as strong as anticipated but we’re doing well, I think. We’re selling, people are coming to our hotels enjoying their stay. We get a lot of repeat business, a lot of referrals.”
What the economic crises have done across the GCC, including in Oman, is reduce the number of residences bought off-plan and rapidly on-sold for a premium, in what is called ‘flipping’. however, Matraji says investors make up a significant proportion of property buyers in the country, now want to see bricks and mortar before they are willing to part with their money.
“There is a gap in the market for luxury homes, however, the main focus in the market has been for pure investment — so you buy something, rent it out and you just make your yields,” he says.
“What we’re doing here is slightly different; you’re still making money but you buy here because you want to be part of something, not just for rental money. You still make money but it’s for more personal use.”
But Barr Al Jissah is not the only development in the GCC offering residences with concierge services and hotel-like amenities. Dubai, in particular, has multiple such complexes, as well as the best connections in the region — a key point for those regularly travelling in and out.
But Matraji insists Barr Al Jissah is in a league of its own. “Of course, international buyers now look at markets rather than just projects. I think the clients that want to buy in Oman are different to clients that want to buy in Europe. It’s completely different,” he says.
“We have noticed that a lot of people who’ve bought here have properties in the UAE, especially Dubai, but I don’t think it’s a direct competition. We don’t have the infrastructure, the malls etcetera. But at the same time, we have an advantage, which is the nature, the location, everything is pristine, it is luxurious.”
Matraji also boasts that Barr Al Jissah is more personable than other developments.
“You’re not treated as a number; we know all our clients by their name. We believe this is a community and it’s a small community. That’s what gives us an advantage, too.
“But we don’t think we’re competing, it’s different. We complement each other.”
The same could be said for Oman’s tourism offering compared to other countries in the region. The sultanate is renown for its stunning beauty, both along the coast and inland, where it has a plethora of wadis (water channels), old forts and beaches that could rival any island. It is precisely the natural attractions that draw visitors to Oman over its neighbours, Matraji says.
“The people who come to Oman are different to those who want to go to Dubai,” he says. “If you want to go trekking or go to the mountains or see the caves or snorkel or driving or things like that, you come to Oman rather than somewhere else.”
Yet the country has lacked international-standard hotel accommodation. The Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah was the first five-star resort when it opened in 2005. It sparked new entrants that have especially opened in the last 12 months in various hotspots, including Salalah along the southern coast and Jebal Al Akhdar, Oman’s highest mountain.
The Shangri-La has maintained its popularity, with the increased competition creating impetus for more tourists to consider the country rather than drawing away from the coastal property. It recorded a 10 percent increase in bookings during the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period in 2016.
Matraji says the resort, which includes three hotels totalling 640 rooms, is recovering well from the impact of the oil price-induced economic decline, although the entire market is still below its peak prior to 2008.
“Of course, when the oil prices hit, numbers went down. But that was a regional thing. People were scared for economic reasons, for political reasons. People didn’t know if they could travel,” he says.
“That uncertainty, I think, is almost gone and people are used to the new oil prices. Locals are used to the fact it’s not going to go back to the $120 [per barrel] and people now want to experience something new.
“Last year and the beginning of this year we’ve noticed a good increase — about 10 percent, whether it’s revenue or tourism numbers — coming into our [hotel]. [The downturn] is just making it more competitive. They [tourists] want something different, something more experience-led.
“It’s more challenging nowadays but that’s the whole global market, not just Oman. You need to be creative, you need to work harder than before.”
Matraji says the industry also has been hit by conflicts in the region and increasing fears abroad in relation to the Arab world, inflamed by moves such as US President Donald Trump’s visa ban for several Muslim countries and the laptop ban on the three big GCC airlines that fly to the US.
“Prior to 2008, visas were much easier to [obtain and it was easier to] travel around than now,” Matraji says. “The euro and pound were closer to the dollar, so travel from Europe to this part of the world was not as expensive as it is now.
“I think we’ll get [back to 2008 levels] in a few years but the growth prior to 2008 had been purely exponential and now I think it’s more of a steady growth. The beauty of Oman is that the economy grows steady rather than exponentially because it’s highly regulated, whether you’re a local or an expat. There are certainly advantages: clear laws [and] you’re treated equally. That’s why it makes it safer for people to invest or come to Oman.”
Barr Al Jissah is utilising its 4,000-capacity amphitheatre within the development to help drive visitor numbers, by hosting concerts that attract both locals and GCC expats. Matraji says there are plans to increase the number of events related to yachts, art and music. The new yacht club also will allow for more events.
“We have some surprises,” Matraji says.
In November, Barr Al Jissah also opened Al Mazaar edutainment centre with trampolines, a springbox, an art box, football and badminton fields, as well as workshops on topics such as living a healthy life or how to be eco-friendly.
It targets both local residences and Shangri-La guests, particularly families in the GCC seeking something educational and entertaining for their children. Schools are also hosting excursions there, often creating itineraries in line with their curriculum. Matraji says the centre has become popular for children’s birthday parties, with the hotel providing five-star catering.
The government also is pushing tourism more than ever as it strives to reduce its reliance on oil revenues. It has budgeted $1.17bn in annual spending on the sector by 2026, including an overdue extension and upgrade to Muscat International Airport. The number of hotel rooms in the pipeline is already 40 percent more than the current 15,000 available, while tourist numbers rose about 15 percent to an estimated 2.8 million last year. For anyone who has experienced Oman it is often surprising that the country does not already attract more tourists, given its natural attractions.
While hotel owners in other markets may implore their governments to move faster than Oman historically has in attracting tourists, Matraji supports the slow and steady pace in Oman, which he hopes will ensure a manageable increase to protect the sultanate’s heritage, both in terms of its nature and culture.
“You can’t just open it up, it might become a mess,” he says. “Numbers are increasing steadily. [The balance between] supply and demand is quite good. We don’t get a flood of people coming in at the same time, without having the right infrastructure or the rooms to support that.
“It could probably be a little bit quicker, [though].”
It is a delicate balance, preserving the natural beauty that creates a soft spot for Oman in the hearts of those who visit and developing sufficient resources for more to experience it. Given the unpredictability of the past decade, even Matraji cannot be sure of the outcome of Barr Al Jissah’s Al Mina project when it is completed in 2020, but with one of the most pristine locations in the entire GCC it is difficult to argue it will not be sought-after.