I travel out to Oman’s new city in the desert.
This is a blog post. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive analysis but rather a short nonfiction narrative. I will get into this story more in-depth in the articles that are to come. What follows is just a framework — a way for me to organize and structure this story for when it appears in its final form.
DUQM, Oman- The private military plane came in for a landing after the short one hour flight. As it did I was able to get a glimpse of what Duqm was all about from the window.
Yes, that’s Duqm — a new city 2.5x the size of Singapore that’s being built out in the desert of Oman. A basic highway grid has been laid, the port and dry dock are operating, an oil refinery is getting set to commence, some factories are getting going, and two five star hotels have opened.
Other than that it’s a whole lot of space.
In my book about China’s ghost cities I wrote something to the effect of: “Where Westerners look at row upon row of empty buildings and see nothing but doom and despair, the Chinese see nothing but raw potential.”
This can be said here. Investors from China, India, and all through the Middle East are jumping in but Western firms still seem to be very much on the outside.
The early 21st century will come to be looked at as the era of the city builders — where the cities that will dominate the future were still little more than foundations and dreams.
I was part of an organized tour of Duqm. Around two dozen potential investors + me were flown out there to take a look at the place. The investors would fly back that night but I was going to stick around for a few days, which allowed me to sit back on the tour and just hang out. These events generally provide little usable information anyway. What I use them for is to meet people who know the lay of the land — who I can talk to on the side lines or meet up with later.
It didn’t take long before one such individual presented himself. I was watching this guy during the conference the day before. He was always talking with people, engaging people — not just engaging the buffet and coffee canisters like everybody else. He runs a logistics firm and spent twenty years or so running cargo in the Middle East. I gravitated towards him. We spent the rest of the time talking bullshit.
I really don’t get these investor tours. They seem to exist more to not show anybody anything than to reveal a place and what it could become. We were just shuttled around on a bus, stopping briefly outside of projects so we could take in a “bus-eye view” of what we could invest in. At a few junctions far from any action they let us off the bus — great, we can see a port way over there … I think I can see a boat and some cranes … We already know there is a port way over there.
When I visit these places on my own I’m generally taken inside and shown anything I want to see. But when these people who are actually ready to put large amounts of money on the table come way out here to be shown little more than they could if they were leisurely driving through in a rental car. I don’t get it. You’d think it would be the other way around.
However, most of the investors seemed to have their minds made up about the place already. The official tour seemed to be a mere formality.
Then I met a guy who works for a company called Renaissance on the tour. They built the barracks that the workers live in here. He kept talking to me, and the more he did the more I began to realize that what his company was doing sounded interesting. I wanted to see it — and I also needed a better located place to stay.
“Can I stay there?” I asked him.
For my entire China ghost cities project I would stay around the work camps, and it’s always provided me with a spring of good information and stories. But my intent here was a little more pragmatic.
I had planned to stay in the old town of Duqm — a desert highway town full of Bedouin that sits outside of the new development area — but this would have put me in a bit of a compromising situation: the new city of Duqm is huge. To walk across the vertical axis of this place would take two hours, horizontally I have no idea — at least an entire day. It’s all desert out there and next to no public transport. I also didn’t know how good the hitchhiking would be.
“Of course!” the guy exclaimed as he handed me over a brochure.
I could rent a single room for $40 per night that would include three meals, laundry, exercise facilities …
This was significantly less than I was set to pay just for a room in a beat down hotel in the old town. There was no decision here.
After the tour made its final stop at the Crowne Plaza hotel (where we gorged ourselves on the lunch buffet), I had the bus drop me off in front of the work camp. The investors went to the airport and I stood on the side of the highway in the desert.
In every direction there was nothing but sand. Rising out of it like an apparition was this new complex built for the people who are building this city.
I walked down a sandy hill from the highway, jumped over a ditch, and entered through the gates of Renaissance Village.
As I travel and write about new cities I often find myself in and around work camps — the places where the construction workers stay. These places are usually corrugated steel shacks — kennels packed full of low wage earning blue collar workers that you wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving your dog in. Migrant workers are used to living rough and eating bitter — they sacrifice their own time and lives to make money to send home so their families can live better. They are in a form of living purgatory — they live like shit today on the chance that tomorrow can be better.
But Renaissance Village was no such place. It was something I’ve never seen before. It was a private institution built and run by a private company whose business model it was to provide a service that companies would choose to hire. They treated migrant workers going out to build the new city as an economic driver that they could profit from if they provide a superior product rather than leaving them as an inconvenience expense that the individual companies would need to take care of on their own.
It was actually nice. It was very, very nice. Nice like a place that you would choose to go.
After formally interviewing the manager of the work camp to get a better idea of the place, a receptionist named Nazim showed me around. He was 25 years old, lived in Singapore and the UK, was of Bengali descent but grew up in Oman — another third culture kid who spent his youth in a country where he is not seen as anything more than a guest.
Both low and higher level workers live here. There are buildings full of private rooms and suites on one side of the camp and dormitories on the other. Each room type had a designated dinning hall, bar, and exercise facility. At first look it seemed like segregation: the blue collar workers from South Asia, the Philippines, Africa, etc would be stored over here in dorms and the American, European, more educated workers would be housed over here. Management insisted that the difference was determined by the price of the rooms — if your company pays X amount of money per day for you to have X type of accommodation you get X service, etc. It was an organizational scheme based on raw economics rather than national origin — they would have let me stay in $10 per night dorm if I wanted.
“It’s not that what the seniors have is better. It’s just in different places,” Nazim explained.
The manager insisted that all of the construction materials, furnishings, and interior design were exactly the same between the two classes of housing, and the only difference was that the upper level cafeteria had multiple options for the main course of the meals.
Over the days that I spent there I couldn’t refute this. The only difference that I could observe was that the facilities for the dorm dwellers were larger in size — and the beer on tap in the bar was stocked with Tiger and Kingfisher while those in the senior level bar dispensed Budweiser and Stella. Everything else was identical.
3,900 workers live here, which is a major chunk of the workforce of Duqm. There are no women. There are not even any female bathrooms. This is the domain of men. A woman out here would look as out of place as a polar bear. I’m rather confident that there weren’t even any working class whores.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking around talking with the workers. They were from all parts of India — Punjab, Sikkim, Bangalore, Kerala, Calcutta — Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, and an array of African countries. They played soccer together after work. The Muslims prayed together at the mosque. Whenever I mentioned something to the effect of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis working and playing altogether like brothers as being something remarkable they looked at me like I was a little odd:
“We all bleed red blood,” they’d say.
When people are removed from their native cultural context they are essentially stripped down to the bare, raw elements. They just become human, and commonalities become more important than differences.
At one point I was hanging out with this guy from Bangalore who started talking a little shit about people from Kerala — his native intercultural rival. Then a security guard from Kerala walked up and he put his arm around him in a friendly embrace.
“He is from Kerala, but I love this guy.”
I met a quality control guy from Scotland in the dinning hall after cracking some corny joke. He invited me to join him. He was a hockey fan. His father played in the first professional Scottish hockey league, which I had no idea ever existed. We went to the senior bar after that and drank a couple of beers. I liked the guy, the conversation was enjoyable, but nothing to report here. I drank Stellas.
After that I met with some other friends and they took me to the junior bar, where the lower-level workers hang out. The place was a massive hall, but other than being larger was exactly the same as the senior bar. The bartender cooked me a special order of samosas. I drank Kingfisher extra strong — 8% alcohol.
“I don’t know why, but after drinking this beer you wake up the next morning with a headache.”
The bar closed at 11 pm and I walked out into the work camp. People were still up, hanging out and walking around. I bought a bottle of water and walked out into the desert with Nazim. At one point we stopped and turned around, looking at the brightly lit Renaissance Village.
“What do you see when you look at that?” Nazim asked. “What you see is the future.”