Creating Sustainable Communities in Muscat, Oman

To understand anything about Oman, you must first understand the concept of Al-Nahdha,  “The Renaissance”. It refers to the period since the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, came to power after a bloodless coup in 1970. Before this period, there the health care system consisted of two hospitals, with a total of 12 physicians, and the education system included two primary schools, and no secondary schools. And to connect a country larger than Italy, there were just ten kilometres of paved road (Middle East Health, 2005; Ministry of Education, 2011).

Today there are over 500 hospitals and clinics across the country, providing free universal health care for all Omani citizens. In terms of education, Oman now has over 1000 schools (primary and secondary), over 20 colleges and universities for the pursuit of higher education.

In October 2011, the Royal Opera House opened in Muscat. A symbol of both Omani tradition through its Arabian design, and of the what the future will bring for the growing capital through the ‘Majestic Muscat’ plan, which includes 24 mega projects to develop the waterfront, revitalise the business district, create public parks and spaces etc.

In short, a lot has changed in 43 years; and there are many plans for the future.

Muscat Today:

Currently, Oman has a population of 3.3 million inhabitants over 310, 000 km2. At first glance, compared to Italy’s 60.9 million over a 302, 000 km2, Oman’s modest population does not appear to present a problem. However a closer look at the demographic makeup of the country reveals that 50.8% is aged 24 and under (30.6% 14 and under; 20.2% 15-24), and in terms of housing, as the young Omani population becomes economically and socially independent the demand for high quality,well-communicated, affordable housing will become a key issue (CIA World Factbook, 2013).

While Oman has a per capita GDP of $29,600, wealth is unequally distributed, and an estimated 73% of the population can be considered low-income (Jones, Land and LaSalle, 2011). However, a short drive down the Sultan Qaboos Highway seems to tell an entirely different story. Mansions and huge urban complexes line the highway, indicating the housing market’s focus on the provision of luxury homes, and aiming for the higher income market to take advantage of larger economic gains. This has caused a gap in the market for low-income families, particularly in Muscat, where rent and prices are soaring.

There are two main issues to be considered when discussing affordable housing in Oman: first and foremost, the construction of houses ; and secondly the creation of communities around these physical structures.

Addressing the former entails an extensive analysis of the issues around supply and demand of affordable housing. According to a study by Jones, Lang, LaSalle, there was a shortage of 15, 000 housing units in 2011. This demand represents a fairly large market for investment in low-income housing, however land prices, cost of labour, and physical infrastructure costs each have a significant and complex set of effects on investment in this sector. Similarly, conditions for buyers in Oman are difficult, and ability to access credit plays a big role in the stagnation of the market.

In order to encourage investment, the Omani government has placed an emphasis on projects that include an affordable housing element. Additionally, the government has set up the Housing Loan Programme, which aims to provide up to RO20,000 per year of interest-free loans for Omani families (Arabian Business, 2011). However, low-income consumers are consumers nonetheless, and demand a certain level of quality both in the structural aspect as well as quality of life, and as education and socioeconomic status increases, a deeper understanding of the needs of the population is necessary.

This brings me to the second issue: the creation of new urban communities. As I explained above, when affordable housing is available, focus has been on simply the construction of the physical structure, with limited thought to families that these units of housing represent, and their social and societal needs (Jones, Lang and LaSalle, 2011). The Affordable Housing Institute highlights the dangers of marginalising communities from access to social services, good schools, commercial centres, as it has a negative effect on the quality of life of those citizens, reduces social integration and cohesion among, and creates communities that are temporary in nature, based on income level.

Moving Forward:

It is necessary that the Omani government consider a long term, holistic approach to urban development, and the realities of population growth give open a short window of opportunity to act.

On the policy level, changes to encourage investment in the sector are necessary in order satisfy the increasing demand for affordable housing. For example the implementation of regulations around the allocation of a fixed percentage of investment in affordable housing projects has proved successful in other nations (Jones, Lang, and LaSalle, 2011). Additionally, costs associated with building infrastructure (eg sewage, electricity, water) to new developments must be addressed to counteract cost cutting incentives for developers to build affordable housing on less desirable real estate. Furthermore, in order to ensure durability and quality of these investments, regulations regarding quality standards must be addressed to prevent cost cutting measures.

In term of urban planning strategies for the creation of communities, a more profound look at the more complex needs of Oman’s increasingly educated population is required. Now that access to basic needs has been covered, importance must now be placed on improving the quality of life within these new spaces. Supermarkets, cinemas, social centres, schools, health centres, and public spaces are all crucial elements in the planning of these new urban developments, and not only satisfy the needs the neighbourhood, but also opens up new venues for economic growth and opportunities outside of the core, and encourages more stable patterns or urbanisation as population continues to rise.

It is evident through the ‘Majestic Muscat’ Project that the Omani government understands the importance of creating public spaces for interaction, and social integration, with many parks, markets, and plazas on the list of development projects. I believe than it is important to abide by the same principles in the approach to the creation of new urban communities.

 

Oman has achieved a lot in the last 43 years, and while there is much to be proud of, there is still much to be done.  In this regard it is my hope that our relative ‘youth’, developmentally speaking, can be one of our greatest assets. With lessons from successes and failures in countries around the world available, Oman is at a unique position to plan for the long term and put in place more holistic strategies to ensure the sustainability of Omani society.

 

Sources:

Arabian Business. Oman sets aside $208m for affordable housing. April 17, 2012
http://www.arabianbusiness.com/oman-sets-aside-us-208m-for-affordable-housing-454279.html

CIA Factbook, Oman, updated 2013.
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mu.html

Jones, Land and LaSalle. Why Affordable housing matters. September, 2011.
http://www.joneslanglasalle-mena.com/ResearchLevel1/JLLMENA_Affordable%20Housing_2011.pdf

Middle East Health. Regional Profile – Oman; Rapid Progress. 2005
http://www.middleeasthealthmag.com/cgi-bin/index.cgi?http://www.middleeasthealthmag.com/sep2005/feature4.htm

Oman Education Portal. A Glance at the Development of Education in the Sultanate of Oman. 2011
http://www.moe.gov.om/portal/sitebuilder/sites/EPS/English/MOE/eduinoman.aspx



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