The first British political resident in 1800 was an assistant surgeon with the East India Company, AH Bogle. The climate killed him within a year, and the same fate befell his three successors over the next ten years, with the result that the agency was put in the hands of a native agent under the direct, though doubtless occasional, supervision of the resident at Bushire. It was not until 1840 that another British resident, Captain Hamerton, was appointed to Muscat to help counteract any Egyptian expansion into Arabia. Three years later, however, the residency moved to Zanzibar, then the most important of the sultan’s dominions, and Muscat was staffed by native agents until the residency returned in 1861, when Oman and Zanzibar became separate Sultanates.
The whereabouts of the agency buildings, for which the sultan paid the rent for sixty years, is not known but by 1860 the agency was housed on the seafront in the small bay between the old Portuguese forts of Mirani on the east and Jalali on the west, in a building that dated from the 1820s. The government of India sought to buy this building in 1863 but its owner, Bibi Zainub bint Mohammed Ameer, refused to sell it. She changed her mind in 1870, when faced with expensive structural repairs, but the deal was not completed until the house had been put into better order in 1878. It was a two-storey Arab house round a small central court: the agency office, post office, prison cells and stores were on the ground floor and the residence above. An adjacent small stable area was given to the consul in 1878.
In 1888 it was decided to build a new agency on the same site. The construction contract was signed with Messrs McKenzie of Karachi in August 1889 and the new building was ready for occupation in the following July. It followed much the same planning layout as its predecessor, and was built with thick walls of stone and mud, plastered with gypsum. Lord Curzon, visiting in 1892, thought the agency the handsomest, and coolest, building in the town. But there soon arose the need to house the whole of the agency establishment on the spot. In 1900, the agent, Captain (later Sir Percy) Cox recommended to the resident in Bushire that the seafront premises between the agency and the Customs Wharf to the west should be bought from its owner, a British Indian merchant called Ruttonsi Purshotum. This proposal was relatively quickly agreed in 1901, for fear of a rival consul acquiring the site: the new building was used to house the surgeon, three clerks and the recently-established telegraph office. Three years later, a tenement building next to the Wharf was bought to complete the agency’s command of the available seafront: this was occupied by the head clerk and the sepoy guard. Some of these buildings were rebuilt in 1906, one of them to three storeys, but the top storey had later to be taken off out of consideration for the foundations. In 1909, a piece of land close to the agency to its south was bought from Galpaljee Waljee to re-accommodate the sepoy guard, and this site became known as the Escort Lines. The Office of Works built a power house here in about 1930.
Within ten years of the completion of the main building, a narrow two-storey veranda was crudely built along the entrance façade, mainly to provide for small bathrooms, and a forest of columns was built at the back to support an enormous cool veranda with a lightweight roof. Immediately south of the main building, between it and the Escort Lines, was a tennis court that the agency had acquired in 1909 and a fine old building that had variously been leased by the United States consulate (twice), the Royal Air Force for a wireless post, the Flying Boat Squadron, the British visa office, and flats for British embassy staff, while its underlying ownership also several times changed hands between Omani notables.
Responsibility for the agency was transferred from the government of India to the Foreign office in 1947, the title of the agent and consul became consul-general, and the Ministry of Works became responsible for the buildings. The post was upgraded to an embassy in 1971.
(This entry draws on Ruth Hawley’sThe British Embassy in Muscat: A Short History,1974.)
In the early 1970s, the building was thoroughly renovated, more ground floor offices were inserted at the back, and a swimming pool was squeezed into the garden. The flagpole in the courtyard – for a century before 1963 clasped by slaves seeking manumission – was found to be in a dangerous state when repainted by crewmen from HMS Andromeda in 1972, and was dismantled the following year: the Union Jack thereafter flew from a pole on the building. In 1976, 350 square metres of land at the extreme western end of the compound was surrendered to the sultan. By then, the commercial section offices were out-housed in leased premises in Muttrah, and later Ruwi. In the late-1970s, a diplomatic area was being established a few miles to the west of Muscat on the coast at al-Khuwair and sites were allocated to missions. The sultan accepted at that time that the British might remain in the present compound for the foreseeable future, which was interpreted as meaning at least to the end of the century. The option on a site in the diplomatic enclave was therefore given up and the embassy building was refurbished again in the late 1980s, including the provision of new visa offices near the compound entrance. In 1985, Huckle and Partners were commissioned for a development of ancillary buildings on the Escort Lines, but this scheme was not taken further.
In late-1988, however, the Omani Foreign Minister intimated that the Sultan intended to enlarge the guest facilities at his adjacent Ceremonial Palace in time for the silver jubilee celebrations in 1995 of his accession, which would entail Britain giving up part of the compound. This pressure gradually and gracefully hardened and extended to the whole of the British compound. The foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, later recalled the result in inimitable fashion:
“[the Sultan’s] ministers for several years told me that His Majesty wanted to demolish our embassy to extend his already huge residence. I feigned forgetfulness and enlisted Margaret Thatcher on my side, having learned by now that whatever her misgivings about the Foreign Office, she always wanted to keep our traditional embassy buildings in their ancient splendour. The Sultan promised her to let us stay in possession until the year 2000, but alas the hints from his ministers soon recurred. The Sultan offered to finance for us a new modern office, and a big new ambassador’s house on a rock above the Al-Bustani Hotel. There came a point when it was politic to yield to this generosity, and the Sultan fulfilled his promise meticulously.” (Hurd, Douglas, Memoirs, London: Little, Brown, 2003, p. 275)
Several background considerations informed Britain’s approach to the negotiations. The present compound would be difficult to protect in the event of an increased violent threat. The terms of the British government’s tenure of it reached back into Undivided India claims that had never been definitively resolved: it could therefore be doubted whether the FCO had a clear enough title ever to sell the site on its own account. And, finally, the FCO thought (wrongly, as it turned out) that the Sultan was going to preserve the old agency building.
The reason for seeking two sites was that the developing diplomatic area at Al Khuwair was well located for embassy offices but poorly for a significant residence. In the event, the offered Al Khuwair site for offices was just outside and to the east of the diplomatic area, which enabled the new embassy to have a slightly different personality from the new embassies within the area. The residence site first offered was the Capital Area Yacht Club, at al-Rowdha to the south of Muscat on the way to Al Bustan, but this was declined in favour of a rocky headland site just to its south. To sugar the pill, the Omanis offered £10 million to fund new buildings on the two new sites, all in exchange for the present compound. These arrangements were incorporated into an agreement signed in January 1993, which also included the grant of planning permissions on both sites. The pace then substantially increased to meet the required transfer date.
OED arranged a design competition in 1992 for the Al Khuwair site, which was to comprise the offices, three houses and amenity facilities. It was won by YRM Architects and Planners. The construction was by Wimpey Alawi and completed in December 1994. A fine water sculpture commissioned from William Pye was incorporated into the entrance courtyard, and a polished steel time capsule installed below. The OED in-house architect Andrew Slater produced a most successful design for the residence, based on an idea by Andrew Sebire, a valued architectural adviser to OED who had also been a member of the assessment panel for the office competition. The residence was brought to fruition by local executive architects, Huckle Tweddell Partnership. The construction contract was won by Douglas OHI and the building was completed in February 1995. As many as possible of the floor tiles from the old residence were re-used, and four oil paintings of it were commissioned from John Bawtree to hang in the new residence. Douglas Hurd opened both buildings in March 1995.