Oman’s cultural heritage is renowned throughout the region and beyond, and much of the government’s effort in relation to it has been exerted on its preservation and ensuring that the sultanate’s young population is imbued with the richness of its past. The nation’s youth are also the principal target of a drive to enhance Oman’s sporting infrastructure and proficiency, a strategy that has already established the sultanate as a growing destination for international sporting events.
Culture And Heritage Oversight
The country’s physical heritage and the less tangible concept of traditional arts are overseen by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MoHC). With regard to physical heritage, the MoHC’s functions include discovering and maintaining cultural monuments and supervising the works of archaeological missions, preserving heritage articles and facilitating their exploitation, restoring historical forts and buildings, establishing historical museums and supporting the participation of the private sector in the process of preserving and exploiting heritage. Its mandate to safeguard the nation’s intangible cultural heritage, meanwhile, extends to establishing national cultural institutions, issuing publications relating to the promotion of the awareness of heritage and culture, staging local, regional and international cultural exhibitions and festivals, carrying out research in the fields of history, heritage and culture, and developing Omani artistic, literary and intellectual works.
These ministerial functions are established by Royal Decree No. 20 of 1977, updated by a subsequent decree in 2005. In carrying out its supervisory duties the MoHC also has recourse to a number of more recent laws and decrees, the most salient of which are: the Law on the protection of Manuscripts, 1977; the Law on the Protection of National Culture and Heritage, 1980; Royal Decree No. 56 of 2005, on the adoption of the UNESCO Convention of Safeguarding Intangible Heritage; and Royal Decree No. 37 of 2007 on the adoption of international conventions related to the protection of intellectual property, modified in 2008. In 2010 the MoHC introduced a new set of regulations which it is currently applying to an array of private museums and heritage houses.
Oman’s rich heritage is highlighted to visitors and nationals alike through a museum segment that has been developed over recent decades through public and private investment. Most of this infrastructure, which continues to expand, is overseen by the MoHC’s Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, either through its direct administration of facilities or its regulatory oversight of the private institutions. The MoHC directly controls four of the major museums: The Natural History Museum is located in the MoHC’s complex in Muscat and has been operational since 1985; the Oman Children’s Museum opened in 1990 and is located near Muscat’s Qurum Nature Park; the Omani French Museum was established in 1992 to highlight the historical links between the two nations and is located in the former residence of the French consul, Bait Faransa, in Muscat’s old quarter; and the Museum of Heritage and Culture in Ruwi, located in one of the older districts of Muscat.
A number of other MoHC facilities, such as the Sohar Fort Museum, which opened in 1993, are presently closed for renovation. Some of the other government agencies, meanwhile, operate museums of their own, most notably Muscat Gate, which records Oman’s history from Neolithic times to the present and is operated by the Diwan of Royal Court, and the popular Armed Forces Museum, located in the 150-year old Bait Al Falaj fort and run by the Ministry of Defence.
Finally, a number of specialist museums have been established by quasi-governmental institutions, such as Petroleum Development Oman’s (PDO) Oil and Gas Centre, and an adjacent facility, the PDO Planetarium.
However, for some years it has been a private sector institution which has operated as a de facto national museum of the sultanate. Bait Al Zubair Foundation Museum (better known simply as Bait Al Zubair) houses a large collection established in 1998 by the Zubair family, which continues to fund its operations. Its displays of Omani artefacts constitute what is considered to be the finest private collection in the country. It is also considered to be the national leader in terms of curatorial methods and has established itself as a venue for cultural events, (including some organised by the MoHC), away days, workshops and conferences, lectures, press conferences, product launches and commercial exhibitions. “We get no government funding. Our aim is to be a sustainable and non-profit making organisation. We rent out spaces like every major museum in the world, but we have strict policies in place as to what we allow and what we don’t allow,” Sarah White, the general manager of Bait Al Zubair, told OBG.
Such has been the success of Bait Al Zubair that in late 2010 the MoHC introduced new regulations to govern the activities of a rapidly growing cadre of private museums that have adopted its operating model. The regulations address issues such as collection authenticity, display parameters and building facilities and standards, and by October 2012 the MoHC had officially certified three museums – Bait Al Zubair, the Modern Art Museum and the Omani Costume Museum in Al Hail – as well as two heritage houses.
An interesting feature of the museum segment is that a private sector institution leads it in terms of visitor numbers. In 2011 Bait Al Zubair attracted a record number of 71,756 visitors, according to data provided by the organisation, made up of school groups, private individuals, regional tourists and international tourists arriving on tours from the cruise ships which regularly dock in Muscat. The most popular public sector museum in 2011, according to MoHC data, was the Children’s Museum, with 24,013 visitors for the year, followed by the Natural History Museum, with 19,597. Total visitor numbers across all of the MoHC’s museums reached 49,473, a decline on the previous year, explained by the closure of two museums for renovation.
However, a development in progress is set to establish a public sector museum as Oman’s largest and, possibly, its most visited in the near future. Scheduled for completion in 2014, the new National Museum’s structure is already visible in the governmental quarter of Muscat. The 13,700-sq-metre facility is taking shape on a 27,500-sq-metre plot, and will be home to 13 permanent galleries and more than 6000 Omani objects. In October 2012 the final tender package, for works fit out, was revealed for the project. It has already provided a raft of opportunities to the private sector (such as UK-based consultants Jasper & Jacob and construction firm Carillion), and as it nears completion international cultural organisations as well as individuals have found roles in areas such as exhibit research, restoration and management. Foreign organisations are also playing a part in the next priority of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums – the conversion of some of its most important heritage sites into archaeological parks. “Oman is like an open museum. We have archaeological sites everywhere,” Hassan Mohammed Al Lawati, the director-general of archaeology and museums at MoHC, told OBG. “Last season we received more than 14 missions, from America, Japan, France, Italy, Germany and so on. We are now working on a project to convert three of our sites into parks: Bat, a world heritage site, where we have reached an agreement with an American-Japanese joint mission; Qalhat, where we are in discussions to do the same; and Ras Al Hamra, where we are working with Italians.” As well as the opportunities for specialists in site management and rehabilitation that these projects bring, future plans to support private museums by providing training programmes promise more openings for international cultural organisations and consultants.
cultural scene is a vibrant mix of old and new, local and foreign. The Royal Opera House is the nation’s premier venue for musical arts and culture. Officially opened in October 2011, its programme has included a number of productions from the operatic canon, jazz from Manhattan’s Lincoln Centre, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and prominent Arab artists such as Majida El Roumi. Oman’s more traditional artistic heritage, meanwhile, is promoted and safeguarded by the MoHC’s Directorate of Traditional Arts. The directorate oversees competitions in the traditional dances which each region specialises in, as well as operating a schedule of festivals, some annual and others biannual, such as the Omani Theatre Festival, Omani Song Festival, the Omani Traditional Music and Art Festival, a Cinema Festival held in association with the Omani Association for Cinema, and a poetry festival. It has also taken steps to preserve the unwritten history of the sultanate through its Oral History Project, which each year focuses on a different region and subject and records the testimonies of ordinary citizens such as the traditional fishermen of Sur. Similarly, the MoHC song programme seeks to capture the traditional songs and music of the nation for posterity and may be turned into a self-funding venture via a distribution arrangement with the Apple iTunes Music Store.
Oman’s custodianship of its ancient and living heritage has earned it the approval of the international community. The sultanate has been an active partner with UNESCO for many years and is home to four heritage sites: the ancient aflaj irrigation systems that are dispersed throughout the country (see Agriculture chapter), which are recognised collectively; a cluster of archaeological sites at Bat, Al Khutm and Al Ain; the Bahla Fort, in the middle of the Omani desert; and the “Land of Frankincense”, which includes areas of Frankincense trees at Wadi Dawkah as well as a series of nearby caravan routes. In 2010 Oman became the first Arab country to gain a place on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list; Al Baraah, the traditional dance, may be joined on the list by three more dance forms – Alazi, Alayalah and Taghrodah – if current applications submitted to UNESCO’s governing body meet with success.
Culture And Youth
The retention of the country’s cultural heritage and the transmission of its history and traditional music, song and art forms to the younger generation have been at the centre of Oman’s development strategy for decades. The sultanate takes pride in its success in modernising its economy while safeguarding the past, and this effort continues. “Our projects and programmes deal with youth directly. Through events like the Omani Song Festival we are targeting youth to put them on the correct track and open the path for them to develop. We also hold classes in the summer to teach certain musical instruments. We also offer free classes throughout the year which, although not explicitly defined as youth classes, are engaging mostly with young people,” Saeed Al Busaidi, the director-general of traditional arts at MoHC, told OBG.
The private cultural segment, too, is taking steps to engage with a younger population that is exposed to an increasing number of distractions, particularly of a technological nature. “Museums have to find ways of connecting with younger audiences, particularly in the age of TV and Facebook. We have noticed a big difference in students from when we opened in 1998 regarding their knowledge of what they are looking at. Oman and the GCC have had to contend with rapid development following the discovery of oil, although Oman is much more indigenous, and has always been seen regionally as a retainer of heritage. His Majesty has linked all modern development to retaining Omani culture,” said White. “We recently opened a Facebook page, which we found a useful communications tool, as well as Twitter account. We’re looking at introducing technology in some aspects of our interpretation here in the museum. But it has to make sense. It needs to add something, explain further.”
Engaging with Omani youth is one of the overriding concerns of the Ministry of Sports Affairs (MoSA). This relatively new arm of government was created in 2004 and tasked with formalising and developing the sultanate’s sports infrastructure and community. For some years MoSA has organised national youth leagues in a number of popular disciplines, including football and beach sports, which have provided local businesses such as mobile network operator Omantel with advertising and sponsorship opportunities.
More recently, MoSA has extended its provision of sporting activities for young people to the summer holidays. In June 2012 it launched “My Youth 2012”, which was created in order to engender the spirit of citizenship and raise the technical skills of participants. Held at sports centres and clubs across the country, the scheme saw the hosting of competitions in popular sports such as football, tennis and volleyball, as well as cultural contests such as short-story writing, Quran memorisation, painting and the theatrical arts.
The “My Youth 2012” initiative, the first of its kind in the sultanate, was developed in accordance with the Oman Sports Strategy, approved by the Council of Ministers, which calls for, among other things, a raising of awareness of the benefits of sport as well as an enhancement of the technical abilities of participants. The first of these goals has been addressed in large part by the creation of Sportsoman.com, a web portal with the intention of creating the nation’s leading sport website. Its access to ministry officials and other government sources has helped it attract a regular audience, as has its use as a portal for the recent summer sports programme for Omani youth. MoSA has also sought to raise sport awareness in rural areas, launching an initiative in July 2011 that saw the creation of football and volleyball leagues and regional competitions.
MoSA plays a coordinating role in the effort to increase the technical capability of Omanis in an array of sporting activities, and its attention has been directed in large part to Oman’s youthful population. The provision of adequate infrastructure is a central part of its drive to enhance sports performance, and the most significant of its projects have arisen out of government funding set aside for sports development in the national five-year plans that have steered the sultanate’s economic emergence since the 1970s.
The seventh five-year plan (2006-10) saw improvements to sports complexes, such as the development of a hockey stadium at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, as well as the creation of and upgrades to a number of sports clubs. The 2011-15 five-year plan calls for yet more infrastructural development, including OR6m ($15.6m) on improvements to the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex and OR5m ($13m) to be spent improving other complexes and clubs, as well as OR13.6m ($35.4m) for new complexes in Ibra and Musanah.
The development of the sultanate’s sports sector receives further impetus from the Oman Olympic Committee (OOC), which operates according to statutes approved by the International Olympic Committee in 2011. The OOC receives its funding from the Ministry of Finance via MoSA and cooperates with national sporting federations to establish development plans for coaches and athletes, as well as distributes research and technical information regarding specific sports. The organisation also offers scholarships to athletes preparing for specific events, such as the Olympics.
Oman As A Sport Destination
The OOC, through its stewardship of the Asian Beach Games of 2010, has played a leading role in the emergence of Oman as a sport destination. The event brought about QR100m ($260.6m) in revenue to the sultanate, according to local press reports, filling hotels with participants and their retinues for a week of events, including beach handball, football, volleyball, water polo, jet ski racing and triathlon. The games were the biggest event organised by the OOC in Oman to date, and attracted VIPs from the global sport world, such Jacques Rogge and Sep Blatter. It also left Oman with a legacy of new infrastructure, such as the Millennium Hotel and Sports City, as well as a new sailing academy.
The latter forms part of a growing infrastructure which is helping to establish Oman as a destination for competitive sailing. The driving force behind this development is Oman Sail, established in 2008 by the Ministry of Tourism, which has become known on the international sailing circuit for its professional racing teams. Its activities within Oman are centred on achieving its goal of teaching 30,000 Omanis to sail by 2015, which it hopes to achieve through its growing number of sailing schools. In carrying out its activities, Oman Sail has successfully augmented its public funding with private sector sponsorship from the domestic and international markets, thereby providing a useful model for other developing sports in the sultanate (see analysis).
While Oman directly addresses the challenges posed by a young population in search of employment opportunities (see analysis), it will continue to invest in the less tangible benefits that can be found within the spheres of culture and sport. Maintaining the balance between rapid economic development and the retention of cultural heritage will remain a principal challenge, but the development of archaeological parks and museums of an international standard demonstrate how the preservation of the nation’s cultural assets can be beneficial to the nation’s economy by, for example, enhancing the sultanate’s appeal as a high-end tourist destination. Attracting private investment remains a key priority, and in both cases is most readily attained through advertising and sponsorship.
MoSA, in particular, has met with success in this regard, most recently by working with Bank Muscat to develop the Green Sports programme, an initiative designed to provide finance to sports clubs across Oman that wish to green their playing fields. As the sultanate’s infrastructure continues to develop, so too will its ability to stage large-scale sporting events.
Here, again, the country has met with recent success. In November 2012 MoSA announced that the National Bank of Oman will act as the principal sponsor for the Oman Golf Classic to be held at The Wave, Muscat, in October 2013. The tournament will be the first Challenge Tour event to be staged in the GCC, offering prize money of $300,000.
Though some aspects of the sultanate’s heritage continue to be threatened by economic development, public and private investment in cultural activities, youth programmes and the sporting sector demonstrates a collective national will to overcome these challenges.