Urbanism Interview: Prof. Dr. Sonja Nebel

Photo of Prof. Dr. Sonja Nebel (photo credit: Rowa Elzain)

Author: Nushrat Jahan
Interviewer: Rowa Elzain, Shaharin Annisa
Date: 04/08/2018, Location: Berlin

This interview aims to understand the experience gained from Prof. Dr Sonja Nebel on urban research in Oman in regards to urban research topics, case study, organisational factors, and finally her personal impression of the urban development in Oman.

If we start from the beginning, why did you choose this topic (sustainable urban development)?
I felt the topic sustainable urban development needed further research in Oman. That was my intention. When I arrived in Oman in 2009, I drove around Muscat and observed the sprawl happening around. I thought to myself that “I would like to understand the reason behind this”. They are affecting the nature, land and the landscape. I wanted to further understand the reason behind, hence, came the research topic. Luckily for me, around the same time, The Research Council of Oman had begun to support research projects. Mine was one of the first five projects to be granted. Based on my previous experience with research projects in Germany in the past (I was working since 1980s in various research projects in Germany) I developed the research application. I had past experience in developing the research program and I was lucky to get the grant.

What is the methodology used in your research?
The research used a mixed method. Since it is an urban development (research), there is a large spectrum of aspects to be considered – social, economic, political, environmental, spatial, technical to name a few of them. So you need methods developed in social sciences and other field of sciences (to analyse the various aspects). The social science methods include conducting interviews amongst people and noting their views. In this research, we spoke to residents and experts to hear their opinions and assumptions.

We also have personal observation where you observe what is going on and document it. This relates to techniques from anthropology, ethnology, and to certain extent even social geography. There is also photo documentation done by mapping and analysing aerial maps from different stages of development. All these mixtures of techniques have been adopted in this research. Hence the term ‘mixed method’. It (this method) always makes sense when dealing with complex issues such as Urban issues.

Why did you choose Al Khoud 6?
I have spoken about this in detail in the book (Urban Oman) but to put it briefly, when I was driving around Muscat, looking for possible case studies, I came across Al Khoud 6 which was under construction at that time. I thought that within 5 years (within the duration of the research period of 3-4 years) I could have a onsite observation of the process itself. It would be different to analyse something which was already done but rather there was the opportunity to visit the site once a month and document the change. The area was also relatively close by and Mabilah in 2009 was still unbuilt.

Back in 2009, we (GUtech students) carried site analysis in Al Koud 6 and conducted interviews at the Local ministries. What was the reasoning for carrying such activities?
In Germany, from my personal background in the profession teaching, it is usual to combine research and teaching. I wanted to try out the same method in GUtech and let teaching and research influence each other. I also had student assistants. In addition, I realised that the current students in GUtech were not aware of sustainable urban development and did not now know how to carry out urban analysis.

Did you face any opposition from your team or any objection to your topic from the authority level? Did they influence your topic at all?
Not at all. It was my personal choice (for the topic).
In my particular case, I did not face any opposition. On the contrary I have been highly supported by the (related) institutions.

What was the highlight of your research?
The highlight was the freedom of research that I received from the institutions that I worked with, the ministries who supported me, the research council who was financing the research. I chose the topic along with the research methodologies that would be used and finally how to publish it.

What advice would u give to someone who wants to carry an urban research in Muscat/Oman?
The most important aspect would be to find people whom you could work with and then proceed on to do it (carrying the research). Find people who would finance you which can be sometimes challenging.

You have to have a stable cooperative team, that works together and is motivated. It is also crucial that the team is stable. For instance – if one member only participates for a short while and leave mid-way or after a couple of months, it is not very helpful.

How did you keep the members motivated?
You keep the members motivated by results. In order to do this, you have to choose a topic that not only interests the academic world, but also applies to a real life scenario. This will give the participating members new experiences (during the course of the research) as well as results that you would be learning from it too.

What would be your personal predication of the urban development in Oman? What is your personal perception?
It seems to continue as it did it in the past. There hasn’t been any big change yet. But I think that it is all going to change soon. As land is scarce and you cannot distribute it to individuals any further, there will be a change in this sense. They will have to investigate new types of housing estates that require less land. I think people have started to realize it already and soon there will be a change.