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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Oman with a Plan

Lydia Moss

Stunningly situated at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, this erstwhile seafaring country long ago discovered trade routes to the Far East and Africa. Persians, Indians, Arabians and Portuguese all landed here. It is said that Omanis even clued Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama into the routes, a tip that eventually led to his voyage to the New World. Today, Oman is taking advantage of its plum location and turning to trade and tourism. But unlike its splashier neighbors who are growing at lightning speed, the Sultanate of Oman is being more deliberate in finding the right balance between the ancient and the new.

About the size of Nevada, Oman became independent in the 17th century, when the Portuguese departed. Modern Oman, however, began in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos bin Said overthrew his father as ruler. At the time the country had four miles of paved roads, and outsiders were hardly welcome. Since then, oil revenues have led to a new infrastructure that includes roads, electricity and water in even the most remote villages. Qaboos’ reign has been characterized by political stability and the slow transformation of Oman into an emerging, world-class economy that depends increasingly upon diversification. Yet, as Oman grows, it takes steps to protect the invaluable environment.Buildings can be no higher than nine stories, for instance, and they mostly adhere to traditional Islamic architectural style, which serves as a constant reminder that you are in Oman and nowhere else.

Much of Oman’s diversification is driven by a dwindling oil supply, which probably won’t last more than two decades. First discovered in the 1960s, oil was never as plentiful here as in its Gulf neighbors’ sands. New technology is being used to reach previously inaccessible reserves. The recent discovery of natural gas represents another major source of potential revenue. Mining, once an important industry, was ignored after oil was discovered but is now being revived. Construction and service industries also are growing due to substantial real estate and tourism investments, and the 2006 U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement is paving the way for more Western investment. U.S. exports include machinery, motor vehicles and plastics. Imports are mostly minerals, iron and steel, pearls and precious stones. Still, petroleum refining and natural gas account for the major income in Oman, with supplementation from chemicals, mineral products and food processing.

With 600 miles of coastline, Oman can capitalize on trade and tourism as it moves away from oil and develops major industrial and transportation ports. At the southern tip of the country, Salalah is becoming a major container port and industrial zone; with its natural deep water, it is the only port between Europe and Singapore capable of handling the largest container ships. A free zone enables investors to obtain licenses, visas and other tax advantages. In the north, a new port and industrial zone is taking shape at Sohar, which is closer to Dubai than Oman’s capital, Muscat.

An opening economy is luring foreign investors with such incentives as a corporate income tax that ranks among the lowest in the region, privatization programs and improved telecommunications. Oman’s Foreign Capital Investment Law allows 70 percent foreign investment in local industries and 100 percent ownership for projects of importance to the government. Foreigners are allowed to buy real estate outright rather than through long-term leases, albeit in designated areas. My guide, Mohammad, assured me that Oman is safe for business and pleasure, noting that terrorists would find it difficult to take root since the poor are buoyed up by the government.

Oman’s gorgeous, unspoiled beaches remain a largely untapped gold mine for tourism, which grew by 16 percent in 2006 with an emphasis on luxury travel. Oman’s largest and most luxurious getaway, the Shangri- La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, opened in 2006 and is p  utting Oman on the map as the next must-visit country.

Several other major hotel projects are under development. Most noteworthy is The Wave, an $820 million luxury residential and hotel complex scheduled to open in 2010 on prime beachfront overlooking the Gulf of Oman and conveniently located near the country’s international airport. In addition to containing four hotels, one of which will be managed by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, the mega-facility will feature a marina and a world-class Greg Norman golf course — the country’s first real golf facility.

Another significant investment, Blue City in Al Sawadi, is about 90 miles north of Muscat. When completed, this $15 billion property will be the largest mixed residential and tourism development in the Gulf region, literally a new city that will include 16 hotels and a population of 250,000. Dubai International Properties is expected to invest more than $800 million for yet another tourist and residential development at Yiti, on the coast south of Muscat. This development will include three hotels, villas, a golf course and canals leading to the nearby mountains. In the north, the Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay is the first upscale resort set among the mountains and fjords of the Musandam Penninsula. Predictably, cruise ships are discovering Oman as well. The luxury cruise line Silver Seas is anchoring at three ports to take advantage of the stunning coastal scenery and exotic culture, with stops at Salalah, Khasab and Muscat.

Despite these massive developments, some of which remain in the early stages, Oman is carefully cultivating a reputation for selective, high-end tourism rather than package tours. Even with its developing ports, industrial areas and tourist opportunities, Oman is avoiding development that mirrors its booming neighbor, Dubai. (Oman’s gross domestic product is growing about 6 percent annually.) Looking ahead, investments in tourism and construction, along with a burgeoning real estate market, should fuel the economy and create jobs for Omanis — including women, who are allowed to drive, work if they choose and even serve in government. Oman is spending more than $3 billion to expand its international airport in Muscat and will soon have three new domestic airports. And in a public relations coup, the Sultanate was named one of the world’s top 20 economically free countries — though Omanis still have the “right of the soil,” legal land rights over foreigners.