Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
In a region of crazily ambitious megacities, this Persian Gulf urban project may be more viable.
The petro-states of the Persian Gulf do not lack for outlandish and ambitious urban projects: See the man-made islands of Dubai, a supertall curved skyscraper in Kuwait, or the enormous clock tower in Mecca that’s the size of six Big Bens. The region also has a particular penchant for planned cities—scratch-built instant metropoli built in the hope of diversifying economies that rely heavily on oil.
But these projects don’t always live up to their lofty expectations. After more than a decade, only about a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City has been developed, and it houses less than 10,000 of its projected 2 million inhabitants. In the United Arab Emirates, Masdar City, outside of Abu Dhabi, is a sparsely populated technology incubator instead of the dense settlement that was envisaged. And Al Madina A’Zarqa, or Blue City, was to be an Omani city of 200,000 but hasn’t come to pass due to financing woes and a lack of demand for the land.
Now Oman is trying for a new planned city: Madinat Al-Irfan will be located to the west of Muscat, Oman’s capital, near the international airport. The government has already built a convention center and a few hotels on the 1,500-acre site. Over the next 30 years it plans to add a central business district, a university, government buildings, souks, mosques, and residential neighborhoods, with the aim of hosting a population of 280,000.
The city’s buildings will only reach 10 stories, which is customary in Oman, and will cluster around a wadi (stream bed), through which water flows after it rains. A 267-acre park will surround the wadi and a series of bridges will span it, allowing residents to walk back and forth to different areas of the metropolis. One area will allow terraced farming, irrigated by channels dug into the earth called aflaj. Some neighborhoods will feature dense, mid-rise apartment buildings—a contrast to Oman’s proclivity for capacious, resource-draining detached villas.
Aurel von Richthofen, an expert on Persian Gulf urbanism, said the focus on a more compact and efficient use of land, with walkable areas and green spaces, is in line with the area’s recent affinity for New Urbanist design—spaces that are meant to foster growth that isn’t oil-based and can be accomplished more sustainably.
Can Madinat Al-Irfan succeed where similar regional projects have faltered? Alfredo Caraballo of Allies and Morrison, the British firm designing the city, said that Madinat Al-Irfan differs from previous planned cities because of its proximity to the capital. Oman’s Blue City, for instance, was to be built about 55 miles from Muscat, while Madinat Al-Irfan is only around 7 miles away. “The site is strategic,” he said. “It’s a missing link completing the development of the metropolitan corridor.”
The plan includes the potential for light rail from the new city to the airport, which the government would like to eventually expand into the capital itself. Such a move is hugely needed, as Muscat has no subway and only seven bus routes. The country’s car ownership per capita is one of the highest in the world, and its traffic congestion is fearsome.
Allies and Morrison’s plans for Madinat Al-Irfan also include practical, vernacular solutions for cooling streets and sidewalks in the hot climate. Buildings, for instance, will feature screens and overhangs, with the goal of encouraging Omanis to walk instead of drive. “Other planned cities in the region have shown an overreliance on new technology to foster sustainability, and then the tech gets outdated,” added Caraballo. “We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re reconnecting with how cities used to be made.”
Lots of big questions remain about certain aspects of the plan—the light rail line, for example, is still “aspirational,” Caraballo said, and Von Richthofen noted that it’s unclear how the city will be integrated into the larger capital area. “It might remain an island in the gradually fragmented urban landscape that will trigger more transport needs and deplete ever more land, material, and energy resources,” he said. Von Richthofen added that the city is clearly for an affluent Omani population: There’s no room here for the expatriate laborers, many from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, who comprise more than 50 percent of the workforce in the capital area—making the project neither socially nor ecologically inclusive.
Still, von Richthofen said that Madinat Al-Irfan can likely modestly contribute to Oman’s post-oil future by attracting regional investment and promoting tourism, a sector Oman has been developing more rapidly of late. A new fish market on Muscat’s waterfront, for example, is a recent project meant to attract visitors.
Madinat Al-Irfan’s aesthetic may help draw tourists, as well as residents and investors. Caraballo said a main goal was to make the city unique, particularly in contrast to some of the cookie-cutter planned cities found in the region.
“It’s designed around the landscape, and it will feel as if it’s of the place,” he said. “The wadi and the bridges make Madinat Al-Irfan distinctive. If we don’t make it memorable, we haven’t done our job.”