Travels to the Sultanate of Oman

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al-hamra-02

arish-house-01

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Bahla-Fort

brompton

coffee-stop

day-one-in-duqm

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duqm

Mike-cycling

sunrise

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I found myself in Oman in December, where I had been invited to lead one of the challenges for the Muscat Youth Summit 2013.  This year the summit was held in the remote coastal fishing village of Duqm, on the south coast of Oman.  I say remote but in the next twenty years, if things go ahead as planned, Duqm will become a thriving international port and dry dock.

Students between the ages of 18 and 24 from all over the globe had been selected to take part in the summit, which required groups of students to respond to eight particular challenges.  These included promotional campaigns for both the port and the dry dock, rethinking city transport, a promotional film for the special economic zone authority Duqm (SEZAD), social enterprise Duqm, Duqm Fish Festival and a magazine for Duqm.  Our challenge was titled ‘Low-cost Eco Friendly Family Housing’, which the students deftly tackled by looking back at traditional housing from the region to understand the harsh climate and minimise the need and reliance on air-conditioning to achieve a comfortable living environment.

On the day I left London my other half suggested that I take my Brompton – why not?  Each day of the summit was planned down to the last minute, but being on the Tropic of Cancer means that the sun is up shortly after 6am in Oman, even during the winter solstice; this allowed me two hours of cycling before the day’s events commenced at 8:30am.

We had arrived at night so the first ride was a voyage of discovery. I had only a very crude map of the area that included some roads that were still being built as part of the new master-plan.  The first day I cycled south.  Here came my first surprise, I had six lanes of the most beautifully smooth tarmac that I have ever encountered as it curved and undulated over the pink limestone landscape.  My second surprise was that I had the roads to myself…almost.  The biggest surprise, however, was the beauty of the landscape itself.  In fact it interrupted my cycling if I am honest.  After seven or eight kilometres the road rose 200m up onto a limestone plateau giving a clear view over the area intended for the new town and a wonderful sunrise over the Arabian Sea.

After an hours cycling I start to understand the scale of the proposed development – it is vast. It is anticipated that the population of Duqm will grow to circa 50 000 inhabitants, but the scale of the masterplan could house a city the size of Bristol and a population of almost 500 000.  I should point out that space standards in Oman are more generous than those in the UK.  Each Omani is entitled to a plot of land 600square metres in size, which leads to very sparsely inhabited suburbs and extended urban sprawl – resulting in a dependency on the motor car for transport.  It may come as a surprise, or not, that the cost of fuel is subsidised by the Omani government to the tune of 10% of the GDP.  With the dependency of the motor comes another devastating statistic, Oman has the highest death rate from road accidents in the GCC and the third highest in the Eastern Mediterranean region at 30.4 deaths per 100 000 people, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – 75% of all the deaths are male and 23% are pedestrians.  The Omani government is well aware of the issues and is actively tackling the problems, but the design of new towns such as Duqm present an opportunity to reduce the reliance on the motor car by designing more compact cities.  Cycling and walking should be encouraged even if it is for only for the four months of the year that the climate allows you to.

With the WHO statistics in mind I set out to explore the roads and landscapes of Duqm over the following four days falling in love with the stoney landscape, its plateaus, rock formations and Wadis (a dry riverbed valley that springs to life after the intermittent rain).  On the last day I explored the existing town of Duqm, home to about 4000 people who are largely positive about the impending changes to their world.  Cycling along the road adjacent to the wide wadi that bounds Duqm to the North I came across a series of simple rectilinear houses made from palm leaves.  These palm houses, or Arish houses, are home to the Bedouins in the summer months.  These buildings are so simple, developed over centuries they deftly mitigate the impact of the extreme climate of sun and wind by shading the sun and filtering the light and air.  The Arish houses have great ecological credentials too, fully demountable, easily transportable and made from a truly sustainable resource.  I am reminded by our challenge at the youth summit and see a solution in front of me.

The heat of the country is also more than matched by the warmth of the Omanis themselves and their incredible country is definitely worth exploring by car bike or foot.  December in Oman was perfect the antidote to the cold wet, frantic pre-Christmas rush of London.  I will definitely visit the Sultanate of Oman again and I think that my Cinelli will find its way into my luggage next time.  For the very keen the Tour of Oman cycling tournament is held every February in the Sultanate.