Oman's historic homes under threat

Villagers are abandoning or being forcibly removed from isolated settlements that the government says are too costly to maintain.

MUSCAT // Villagers in Oman are abandoning their ancestral homes - sometimes forcibly - as the government's development plans leave little room for their traditional ways of life, a trend that is threatening to wipe out the country's last remaining historic settlements.

Although local historians and advocates warn that the loss of these villages could diminish Oman's rich history - and deprive the country of important tourism revenue - young Omanis who will be provided with new homes in settled areas are hopeful about their futures. The government has since the late 1970s repeatedly notified residents of isolated villages that they cannot expect to have such utilities as electricity, telephone and water connected to their houses and that they must move to settled areas.

"They told us for years that the government finds it too expensive to do it [provide utilities infrastructure]. The solution is relocation to bigger towns where we will get free housing. But what they don't understand in Muscat is that our settlements here date back centuries," said Mansoor Shekhan, 86, a resident of Wadi Khiam village, located at the foot of Hajar Mountain, a three-hour drive from Muscat.

The village is only accessible in a four-wheel drive vehicle, and the journey from Muscat requires travellers to cross vast sand tracks, 20-metre-long sand dunes and numerous wadis and aflaaj (irrigation canals). The population of the village, which has only seven houses, is 23. There are no phone lines, plumbing or electricity, not even a shop. The nearest town with such basic amenities is Barakat al Mawz, an hour's drive away via a dirt road.

"The village is very fertile and we are self-sufficient from our farms watered by the aflaaj system. We sell our crops to Barakat al Mawz markets, that's how we make a living," Mr Mansoor said. Wadi Khiam is one of the few remaining villages whose residents refuse to budge, preferring to live the "ancient way of life". There are about 60 such villages left, down from about 700 since 1970, the year Sultan Qaboos bin Said took power after removing his father from power in a bloodless coup and embark on an ambitious development programme for the sultanate.

Since then, Oman has spent billions of dollars expanding existing towns or building new ones, partly because of changing economic structures and the trend of people to leave rural areas for the cities, and the development plan has relocated tens of thousands of residents to the nearest new settlements. "But not all of them are happy about moving from their ancestral homes," Saeed al Farsy, a retired social development ministry official, said. "They moved because of financial constraints and social pressures such as education for their children and health care. Unfortunately, it is the price of development, but the government cannot pay for progress and at the same time preserve the old heritage of places residents have abandoned."

But not all villagers have a choice of staying or leaving the lands of their ancestors. The government is building about 500 houses in the Batnah region for families who have been affected by the construction of a 240km motorway. The national economy minister, Ahmed Macki, told reporters last week the government regretted the relocation, "but the road is part of progress and it is much needed and the new homes under construction will be the compensation".

The houses of 4,000 or so residents of numerous villages that lie in the planned path of that winding stretch of road will be razed to the ground after the new settlement is finished this autumn. "With them will go hundreds of years of civilisation," Abdullah al Badri, 62, a local historian in the Batnah town of Musannah, said. "Next year we will not see the beautiful little mosques, winding alleyways, markets, village squares, silversmith and handicraft shops that go back up to 600 years."

Mr al Badri's house will not be affected, but he says the younger residents who are to be relocated with their families support it. "They inherited the houses from their parents and some are in urgent need of repairs. They will get brand new and spacious houses in bigger towns for their growing families; for them it is a gift from God," Mr al Badri said. "However, they don't know that the history of their ancestors will be taken away from them."

"My ancestral home near Fanja was too isolated from bigger towns. I wouldn't have been to university and got a good job if my parents had stayed there," said Samir al Shamsi, 32, a business graduate from Qaboos University, now working as a marketing manager for a retail company in Muscat. There are calls from both local historians and western expatriates to include traditional houses in the abandoned villages in the preservation programme of the ministry of national heritage and culture, known as the historical sites preservation plan.

"People move out from these beautiful old villages either forcibly to make way for progress or willingly to make ends meet. It does not matter, but the national heritage ministry must look after these houses and preserve them. They should not be allowed to crumble," said Hamed Kharusi, a 71-year-old historian and a former gatekeeper of the historic Nizwa Fort, in the Dakhliya Region. The ministry's preservation policy only includes castles, monuments and pre-Islamic sites but not historic privately owned homes and buildings.

Foreigners residing in Oman say the abandoned villages attract a lot of visitors and are the only way to glimpse the old Oman. "Europeans love that sort of thing," Kevin Saunders, a 46-year-old British architect working for a project development company said. "Preserving them is a good thing. These villages are a crowd puller, they [would] serve Oman's tourism ambitions well."