WRITER: John Defterios / CNN
Though developers were initially champing at the bit to break ground with integrated resort towns in Oman, the landscape has changed with the onset of the global financial crisis as well as the emergence of the Arab Spring. Despite these setbacks, two of the most ambitious projects are plodding on.
Muscat is something special. Having made several visits to the Sultanate, it is difficult not to be enchanted by its colours, endless kilometres of unspoilt beaches, and the slightly weathered but still mystical Muttrah port, which is getting a facelift of its own.
I was in the Oman to witness first-hand how two major hurdles, the 2008 global financial crisis and the Arab Spring, impacted grand plans to open up this vast country with a small population to foreign property investors.
Ten years ago, what is now a mini-city on the outskirts of Muscat was just a big chunk of reclaimed land. Today, the residential complex, called the Wave, is showing real signs of life. Residents sit in outdoor cafes, gardeners trim hedges and yacht owners set anchor in the marina.
A short stroll away, I toured the links-style Greg Norman designed golf course, where I met with the Chief Executive of Wave, Hawazen Esber. As we walked through the clubhouse area with his team, he told me that there’s now enough critical mass built to see the Wave through.
Photos of The Wave as it stands today alongside the masterplan, which shows the scale of this project
“Most of hard work has been done already,” said Esber, “This golf course, the marina, the ground reclamation has been done, so now’s the easy part actually, providing the rest of the puzzle.”
Big pieces of the puzzle, including a Kempinski hotel, are now getting put in place but plans for its official opening slid back to 2016. The hotel is one of five planned on the complex. This is a massive 3.5 billion USD project but on that has seen only tepid demand by foreign buyers, despite the offer of residency visas with each purchase.
Of the 4,000 properties planned, less than half have been sold, and 1,225 have been actually handed over to owners. The Wave is the first luxury community to arrive on the shores of Muscat. It is built on six kilometres of pristine coastline and has more than 3,000 residents. And, to the surprise of the developers, nearly half of them are Omani.
Locals warmed up to the traditional look of whitewashed buildings and subtle tile work, added to the luxury of all the modern amenities they normally find abroad. Najda Al Jamali, a corporate strategist at the Oman Oil Company, welcomed me into her five-bedroom villa, which looks onto one of the wide canals leading out to the Gulf of Oman.
“It is people like me who have been outside and they like this kind of lifestyle that they have seen houses like these abroad or rented them on holiday. Now guess what? I don’t have to go on holiday and rent those villas, I can come here and have it all year round,” she said as she entered the salon featuring her favourite colour turquoise, including the wallpaper with a particular Arabic print woven in.
A one-hour drive southeast of Muscat, we wind our way through the jagged landscape of the Hajar mountains. The look and feel of a distant getaway village is found here at Jebel Sifah. The 55-room Sifawy Boutique Hotel on-site has now opened and 90 per cent of the apartments have been sold.
Lorraine Paton, originally from Wales, says she and her husband fell in love with the sea views from her wraparound terrace. “It’s spectacular. It fits into the landscape and looks like an Omani village. Then you come into the marina and then you realise it’s not an old village. You come around the marina and see it’s more of a resort, I think it is beautiful,” said Paton as we watch the sunset.
The Jebel Sifah project, which kicked off in 2008, began with the opening the Sifawy Boutique Hotel and 18 apartment blocks in 2011. Since then, the 84-berth inland marina has been finished and once all the work is complete, there’ll be 950 residential units, 44 retail outlets, an 18-hole PGA golf course and a roster of luxury resorts including a Banyan Tree and a Four Seasons.
Scenic, rather remote and expansive at six million square metres, the master plan was designed before the onset of the double-barrelled challenges of the 2008 banking crisis and the Arab Spring, which froze investors in their tracks. This project is about a third of the size of the Wave, but at 1 billion dollars USD, it is nothing to sneeze at.
Jebel Sifah is majority owned by Orascom Development of Egypt, in a 70-30 partnership with Oman’s tourism development arm under the name of Muriya Tourism Development and the Wave is a 50-50 joint venture with the government of Oman and Majid Al Futtaim, the Dubai-based developer. The common link between the two projects is the depth of their financial backers.
“Yes there was a setback with the financial crisis; it affected everyone but if it is a well-capitalised company with good investors behind it, you survive, you learn and move on,” said Ahmed Dabbous, the Chief Executive, as we take in the marina.
Of the 14 Integrated Tourism Complexes or ITCs developed in the last decade, seven have been suspended. This is a case where only the strong survive
. So far, it is the Omanis who have stepped in to fill a void left by foreign buyers, who were put off by the uncertainty. To date, it seems that they are missing out on one of the most magical corners of this region.
John Defterios is CNN’s Emerging Markets editor and anchor based in Abu Dhabi. He hosts the weekly emerging market property development segment ‘One Square Meter’ every Tuesday - www.cnn.com/onesquaremeter