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Muscat - A city for the people

Interview - September 24, 2012
Leveraging on the unique natural setting of the capital city, Muscat Municipality is developing world-class infrastructure while maintaining a harmony between the city’s unique traditional identity and the benefits of modern urban development. According to His Majesty's vision, culture and history are the main pillars of Muscat’s urban regeneration and growth
Muscat is the economic heart of Oman and globally renowned for its cultural and historic appeal. What initiatives is Muscat Municipality undertaking in order to improve the infrastructure and quality of life for its citizens and visitors?

Muscat is a historic city blessed with a unique natural setting on the shores of the Sea of Oman, which is part of the Indian Ocean and the Arab Sea. The terrain itself gives it a fantastic backdrop with its sweeping mountains of the Al Hajar. It is a very exceptional setting for an urban landscape, which runs in parallel between a beautiful coastline on one side, and mountains on the other.

Muscat Municipality is responsible for infrastructure development and maintaining the city to the highest standard. It maintains its urban framework by upholding a balance between modernity and tradition as enunciated by a great visionary, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. It puts culture and history as the pillars of its urban regeneration and growth. Of course it is the capital of Oman, and by default, it’s the economic hub and political center.

Muscat Municipality has recently started an urban strategy to bring all of these beautiful elements in synthesis together, called “Muscat - A City for People”. It is work in progress proposed along with other major royal projects such as the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM), grand mosques, the new Muscat International Airport (MIA), Oman Convention & Exhibition Center, cultural center, and National Museum, which are all being executed by other agencies. Along the same lines we are revamping the road networks, and building what is perhaps the largest sewage system in the world in one go for a living city. We have now started to build civic centers. So all together, we have close to 25 projects proposed; some are ongoing and others are underway in the planning and design phases. These range from contemporary public markets to parks, plazas, boutique hotels, and parking projects.

In addition, Muscat Municipality is currently doing new projects like construction of new roads, flyovers, signalized intersections at existing roundabouts, improvements to existing roads to ease traffic snarls and boost road capacity.

Muscat Municipality has devised a scientific plan aimed at ensuring a seamless traffic flow and the upgrading of road networks by implementing vital road network equipped with cutting-edge technological systems and quality services with the aim of connecting the different facets of Muscat Governorate and ensuring secure passageways, while at the same time shortening distances and recuing time.

All of these projects go hand-in-hand with other projects of a mega-scale, which consist of the urban regeneration of old areas of Muscat. When all of these projects are completed, which we expect in the next few years, Muscat will have a different presence. The synthesis would be close to completion, and you will have a world-class city that is appropriately connected within such a beautiful and fascinating terrain.

What are your short and medium term priorities in order to achieve these ambitious goals?

As part of the strategy for “Muscat - City for People”, the immediate ongoing projects are related to infrastructure networks. These must be done on priority to complete the networks. To me, networks are the route of a city. This includes the revamping of roads, adding the completion of road networks, and building a fully-fledged sewage system.

Part of our plan to turn Muscat into a smart city for the future is connecting most of the homes and buildings with a fiber network. We are building many parks at the moment, from small children’s playgrounds in every neighborhood, to football pitches for local teams, and major parks. Some are already underway, while others are in the final design stages. We are actually floating some of Muscat’s major iconic plazas.

We have finalized the master plan for the regeneration of Muttrah, which is one of the most ambitious projects we are undertaking. We will soon float the tender to design the entire infrastructure of Muttrah before we begin execution.

We are also close to finishing a comprehensive and integrated traffic and public transportation study for Muscat that gives us enough perspective for the next 20 years. That will include all land traffic, public transportation, sea taxis, and light rail or tram possibilities for the city. Based on that, we can start execution of these projects in stages.

As part of your efforts to improve the quality of services you recently launched a toll-free contact center. What are the main benefits of the new 1111 call center?

We have always been in contact with our citizens through the Municipal Council, the Parliament’s Shura Council, and the community related agencies. We wanted to improve Muscat’s livability index, which includes accessibility and communication between the public and Muscat Municipality. To cater for that, we designed and built a contact center with the simplest number there is - 1111 - which partially brands Muscat as a very easy city to live in.

The centre is an important window to enable interaction of residents and visitors with the Municipality and is part of our on-going plan to implement high-quality services in Muscat. This service will improve the implementation of services and answers to questions.  The centre accepts proposals and observations from the public on how the Municipality can improve its services and that the responses of the Municipality will also be audited to ensure high quality services.  The new 1111 call centre aspires to collaborate with other call centres including discharge drainage, electricity, water, communications and tourism.

How receptive is the local community to all these new initiatives and projects?

Very much so, and there is an appetite for more and more. We are indeed building a city for people, not for cars. Citizens should feel that this is a place to live, work, and play in complete safety, comfort, and harmony, while trying to eradicate any sense of urban alienation. That thinking is a breath of fresh air that very much appeals to every Omani as well as all the visitors.

Today, with all of the transparency in terms of decision-making in a collective way, there is so much more pressure on us as officials and agencies to do more. That is why we have tried to push the festival and cultural events in a different direction to open up much more and attract people from all over the world. That raises the bar for the sophistication of these events, because the expectations for these events are now very high. If we can meet even 80% of those expectations, it will be good for us.

Tourism is one of the key pillars that H.M. Sultan Qaboos has identified in his Vision 2020, of which Muscat is the centerpiece. What are the main strengths of Muscat as an international tourism destination in the context of increasing competition in the region?

Our ambition is very high to make Muscat a niche destination and brand of its own that complements other cities around us. Our focus is to develop a city for the people. We adopt creative ideas from all over the world while maintaining a harmony between development and tradition.  We draw our inspiration from our progressive and enlightened leader, His Majesty Sultan. Other than the natural beauty of the country, the people of Oman are one of our major assets in developing tourism. Omanis are very friendly, down to earth and hospitable. We pride ourselves on the fact that it is a very safe place to be in. People who come to Muscat or Oman feel at home and do not feel alienated.  We also need to use the media to support that, and help spread that awareness.

This openness is historic, because this is a diverse society to begin with. Given Oman’s location in open seas, that openness is part of our culture. We share a seafaring history to Asia and Africa, and have received all kinds of foreign traders and influences. Our connection to Africa, India, and Asia has created a certain openness and a diverse ethnic and cultural melting pot in Oman.

One of the first things that a foreigner notices in Muscat is the beautiful blend of ancient and modern architecture. What regulations has Muscat Municipality put in place to maintain this balanced harmony?

People tend to think that we are very tough and rigid in terms of building codes, but we keep telling them that we are just trying to apply the basics of urban architectural design. The basics are very simple; you have to build for a context, the environment, and the culture. We cannot have cities without identities that alienate the people.

The challenge to architects and designers is to produce a contemporary building with roots to the place, while responding to the environment and embracing the cultural spirit. We do not want bland urbanism which can be very alienating. We are also strict about colors, the dominant color in Muscat is white and the remaining colors have to be modest and earthy so that they respond well with nature’s colors here. We also have a limit for the height of the buildings and they should not go over 40m. We do not want skyscrapers to compete with our mountains.

The majority of these development projects are financed by the government, but there are still opportunities for investors in Muscat. Where do you see the major potential in terms of urban investment?

I think there are three types of investment that could have a lot of potential. One is the integrated tourism complexes (ITCs) which are managed by the Ministry of Tourism and Omran. That is a high-end type of investment.

We also have upcoming projects in places like the Airport Heights in the open area of the hills that have not been built yet. I believe that this will be a high-end business district in the future, and it could be an incredibly attractive urban area for investors.

Then we have opportunities for the regeneration of old areas, because the old parts of Muscat will not remain as they are today. Eventually, we will have to regenerate these areas and make them much more contemporary and hybrid with businesses and residences, etc. With the completion of Muscat’s infrastructure networks, these places will be revived.

Another major investment opportunity in Muscat will be Sultan Qaboos Port which will be transformed from a commercial port into a purely tourism port. Once we announce these projects, I believe they will attract potential investors.

So these are some of the key areas in terms of urban investments. All these sites are in the heart of the city, very close to the airport and the cultural areas. There is a certain hybridity to Muscat that is quite exceptional. Residential areas are close to the commercial centers, so there is a sense of a village and a sense of the city at the same time. It gives the city so much tolerance that all these different activities coexists side by side. In fact, I believe that Muscat itself is a symbol of tolerance.

You are one of the 70 city leaders from around the world nominated for the “2012 World Mayor Prize” by the UK-based City Mayors Foundation. The winner will be announced in December. What does this nomination mean to you personally, as this is the first time a city leader from Oman is being considered?

It is great feeling to be nominated, but the credit should not go to me, but to the person who empowered me. We do what His Majesty has put forward for us as a vision. He empowers us and allows me to do what I am doing, because Muscat Municipality falls under the umbrella of the Royal Court. That is what allows me to achieve our goals.

This kind of nominations also gives greater visibility to Muscat on the world map.

Definitely, and if the nomination adds value to Muscat, then that is the best thing. We are too busy doing our jobs here and the stress level is so high that we don’t have the time to stop and bask in the light of the nomination. The greatest feeling of satisfaction that I have nowadays is when a project is completed. But again, I am very happy about this nomination.

What would you say are the main strengths of your team?

Our human capital is the cornerstone of everything we do. Our team works 24/7. I am very proud to say that they are all Omanis, from top engineers and top financial specialists, to media and administrative professionals. Muscat Municipality has built a huge army that works day and night for this city. If there is any issue in the city, they will be quick to respond. I am very proud of my team. They have built a very strong portfolio of expertise, because they have worked themselves over the years to build Muscat. Today, including the laborers, we employ about 7,000 people.

What message would you like to convey to the international audience about Oman?

Oman is a very exceptional place. Our Sultanate has a rich cultural and historical heritage with humanism at the core of its development policies and approach to life. It is a beautiful country, and this is not a cliché. Our people are very hospitable and down to earth. Oman has a huge potential. It is transparent and open society with a great future ahead.