MUSCAT, Oman — On a once-barren strip of desert along the Gulf of Oman, the Al Mouj development has slowly emerged over the past 17 years, part of this country’s transformation over the past 50-odd years, from an off-the-grid trading post, with only a few miles of paved roads, to an international destination that often feels like what nearby Abu Dhabi and Dubai were a decade ago.
And the newest phase of Al Mouj, the St. Regis hotel and residences — scheduled to open this fall with 269 guest rooms and 170 residences — is currently rising against the backdrop of the Al Hajar mountains that line Muscat to the southwest. Its ocean-inspired facade of curvilinear white shapes, with views of either the Gulf of Oman or of the 7,342-yard-long golf course, was taking shape during a recent tour highlighting the development of the property alongside the Greg Norman-designed golf course, which opened in 2012. The course has been available to all residents, with discounted rates, since Al Mouj’s creation, but the hotel and residences (prices start at 285,000 Omani rial, or about $737,982) are the first to straddle the golf course and the Gulf of Oman.
Standing on the 18-hole golf course evokes a sense of subdued Middle Eastern charm, removed from the skyscrapers of those neighbors in the United Arab Emirates on the other side of the imposing mountain range. Oman’s restrained modernization feels rooted in hospitality — and easier access to retirement visas — that seems to draw tourists, retirees and, yes, golfers looking for a quieter experience in the booming region.
Oman is home to an ancient culture of mountain farmers and seafaring traders; the empire once stretched as far south as the archipelago of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, and as far north as present-day Iran and coastal Pakistan. (The nation was a stopping point in the East African slave trade during the 17th to 19th centuries. It was under Portuguese rule in the early 16th century, and some of the architectural influences are still seen throughout the country, including in Al Mouj.)
Begun in 2006 as something of a mini-city, a mixed-use development made up of townhouses (current prices start around $350,000), restaurants, hotels and businesses, Al Mouj has now emerged as a palm tree-lined residential area for more than 8,000 people, with its own mosque and nursery, new and planned luxury hotels, dozens of restaurants and businesses, and a marina free of the massive superyachts that define the Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. And unlike some golf developments in the region inhabited almost entirely by expatriates, Al Mouj is seen by some as a reflection of Oman’s history of trade and hospitality.
“You have other golf developments in the G.C.C. region that are all expats, and the nationals live elsewhere,” said Nasser Masoud Al-Shibani, 47, chief executive of Al Mouj Muscat, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the intergovernmental union of six Persian Gulf countries. “But we are about 45 percent Omani and 55 percent other nationalities. This community is diverse with 85 nationalities living in harmony.”
It’s an environment that has drawn thousands of retirees to the region in the past few years, lured by the year-round warmth and guaranteed sunshine.
For Marion O’Byrne, 72 , originally from Ireland, Al Mouj has been the ideal place to retire. She and her husband lived for many years in Bahrain, but Oman’s natural beauty and open spaces were a lure in 2005 when they retired here, as they wanted to stay in the Middle East. They moved into one of the development’s first villas in 2009.
“Our original idea for retiring here was golf, and we did that for a number of years, but my golfing days are over,” Ms. O’Byrne said, referring to an injury. “We’ve started a group here for the more senior residents and we do nature walks along the golf course, and we’re close to shopping and the airport. There’s starting to be a real buzz about Al Mouj.”
Ms. O’Byrne says she feels as if there’s also quite a buzz about Oman these days as more visitors — including her own family and friends — are coming. The country this month announced visa-free travel for citizens of more than 100 countries and recently reported a nearly 350 percent increase in arrivals last year compared with 2021.
“We have a son in London and a son in Singapore, so we’re kind of halfway between,” she said. “When family and friends visit, there are so many interesting places to visit in Oman. We send them home in need of another holiday.”
Major events are also drawing travelers’ attention. The Al Mouj golf course this year hosted the first International Series Oman (part of an enhanced series on the Asian Tour golf circuit), drawing such names as Takumi Kanaya and Brooks Koepka. That level of prestige and global visibility is quite a leap from decades ago, in the days of Oman’s original sand-only golf courses. Back then, the world had just begun to take note of the Arabian Peninsula in the wake of major oil discoveries, which transformed the region over the next few decades from a searing desert outpost to some of the highest per capita incomes in the world.
“In the 1960s and ’70s, there were sand golf courses in the Middle East,” said Mubarak Hill, 53, Al Mouj’s golf club manager. He added: “The playing areas are even called ‘browns’ instead of ‘greens.’”
At Al Mouj, the golf course’s rolling dunes — a mix of green and sandy brown — are designed to mirror the mountains behind them in homage to its natural setting. The golf course has 173 bird species, six nesting areas and, separately, five freshwater ponds created from irrigation. In the gulf alongside the development, to the east, sits a 40,000-square-meter (430,500-square-foot) artificial reef with 25 species of fish. Unlike many of its parched and mountainless neighbors to the northwest that rely heavily on desalinated water, Oman has mountains and reservoirs with water runoff for irrigation and farming.
The famous heat also prompted Al Mouj from the outset to create a more energy-efficient central plant, though Oman prides itself on often being about 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than its neighbors, given the breezes off the Gulf of Oman versus the often-swampy Persian Gulf. The system uses cold water and evaporative cooling, which reduces emissions by 50 percent compared with traditional air-conditioning, Mr. Al-Shibani said. The golf beach residences, the next phase of Al Mouj, opening in 2024, are in final stages of obtaining BREEAM certification — a global rating system used to certify buildings as environmentally sound — all part of the development’s plan to be more sustainable, Mr. Al-Shibani said. And that includes the most obscure features not evident to residents and golfers, right down to such details as the beehives that sit along the golf course and, it could be argued, have some of the best views at Al Mouj.
“The bees are a health indicator for the golf course because it’s a true indication that you are using minimal pesticides and herbicides and that it’s a safe living environment for them,” said Steven Anthony Johnson, 52, the golf course superintendent and a native of Australia. “A lot more golf courses are using them, and the plight of the bees is well publicized.”
For Mr. Al-Shibani, it’s all a reflection of what he says is his country’s approach to the future of sustainability, as well as his country’s sense of connection to the environment — and the world beyond its shores.
“We have been traders for centuries,” he said. “Omani people reached China and East Africa. We have a lot of trade and a lot of interaction with other countries for thousands of years. That’s what makes it unique. Oman keeps surprising you.”
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