Is Oman Future Ready?

Oman Debate 2012 sets a roadmap for the Sultanate’s socio-economic development in the coming years. Excerpts from Session 1, titled ‘Is Oman Future Ready?’ which threw fresh insights into shaping a better tomorrow for the country.

Tim Sebastian: Before I speak to the panellists, I would like to get the views of the audience.

How far is Oman future ready and what should the priorities be?
Audience (Wael Lawati): Creating jobs for the youth is a priority as 70 per cent of our population is under the age of 40. It should start from an early age and we need not wait till the University level. There is a need to recreate the natural spirit of entrepreneurship of our forefathers. Omanis have lost that spirit of entrepreneurship, due to our cushy jobs. The government’s plans to promote SME development need to be strengthened and there needs to be a feeling that one can create one’s own destiny instead of just queuing up for a government job.

Tim: Sir, how business friendly is Oman?
Audience: In many ways it is, but it depends on what we compare it to. Compared with our regional peers, we are doing fine, but there are challenges and a lot needs to be done. Creating employment and training the young workforce and keeping up the pace of development in the face of depleting resources should be our priorities.

Tim: How far are a burgeoning public sector and a declining private sector a cause of concern for you?
Audience: There are definitely new ways of collaboration, but certainly it is a big worry at the moment. The overwhelming dependency of the economy on the petrochemical sector is a cause for concern in the face of depleting oil and gas resources and there is a need to diversify the base of the economy, probably towards the financial sector.

Audience: The Omani workforce should be given practical training and the standard of education from primary education till the university level needs to improve. In the last three years, things are moving in the right direction, but the pace of change needs to quicken.

Tim: Manal Al-Abdwani, you heard some of the concerns of the audience: jobs, too much red tape and perhaps not being business friendly enough compared to other countries in the Gulf. How would you react to that?
Manal Al-Abdwani: I agree with the audience on some of these issues. If we talk about job creation, this is definitely priority No 1 for Oman right now. But let’s put things in perspective. If you look at the data coming from IMF and local sources, we find that on an average 40,000 to 45,000 jobs need to be created every year. Is this difficult to achieve? Let’s look at where they can be employed. If we look at the success stories so far it has been in the banking sector, oil and gas, health and education; so Omanis are looking for certain types of jobs, which offer growth prospects, good remuneration etc.

Tim: Why do a larger number of expatriate workers come into the country? At last count over 100,000 new expat workers have come into the country last year.

Manal: This is because we have a lot of infrastructure projects going on and a lot of development around construction and manufacturing. The nature of the economy does not sustain the inclusion of Omanis based on the aspirations they have. So there is a need to see how we can include more Omanis in the type of economy that is being developed. So we need to see how we can include more Omanis in the type of economy that we want to develop.

Tim: This has been an issue for some time now or have you come into it now?
Manal: No, we have not come into it now; what we are seeing is that there is a need to act now. Now that we know the number of Omanis who need to be employed every year, let’s look at where they can be included. For example the construction sector has been able to employ only 60,000 Omanis, while there are 600,000 expatriates in that sector, so we have been able to employ only 10 per cent of the labour force. Compared with this, the retail sector seems more appealing as there are 40,000 Omanis in that sector.

Tim: HE Tawfeeq al Lawati, I am sure this is an urgent issue now, but I would like to present it in a different way. Forty years ago, when we started the Renaissance, we did not have enough skilled and qualified people, so bringing in expatriates was a necessity and a must, but after 40 years we need to change the formula.

Tim: So why is this still going on?
HE Tawfeeq: This is the point that I would like to raise. It should not sound like that we should try to include Omanis. The message to everyone should be that expatriates are not an option and we have to survive with Omanis; and with this in view we should put forward what is required from the government and what is required from the private sector.

Tim: There are some concerns vis-à-vis their education and whether Omanis are in a position to take on the jobs of the expatriates?
HE Tawfeeq: If the education is not efficient, then we need to revise the educational process. Right now this is not up to the mark; there are a lot of complaints about the standard of basic education and higher education. HE the Vice Chancellor of the Sultan Qaboos University, which takes the cream of the students, came to the Majlis A’Shura and said that students required a two-year foundation course before they can join the University.

Tim: This is still the case?
HE Tawfeeq: Yes this is still the case. We have a genuine problem and we have to identify where the problem is. Today we spend almost RO1bn on education which is almost 8-10 per cent of the yearly budget, but we are not getting the qualitative outcome.

Tim: You have the director general of planning and follow-up here. What according to you should be the priority No 1?
HE Tawfeeq: The priority No 1 for me should be Omanis; we should focus on them and all our plans should focus on serving Omanis, whether it is in education, health services or any other service that the government provides.

Tim: What I am trying to get to is that, what is the government not doing and what should it do?
HE Tawfeeq: Today, we have a higher committee for economic planning, and we would like to listen to them in terms of what they are proposing. What we have today in education is oriented towards individuals. When a new minister comes, there is a lot of change in the manpower and the leaders, but there is no genuine change in the competency or skills that the students are expected to master to join the workforce.

Tim: Abdulaziz al Baluhsi, what are your major concerns?
AbdulAziz: The first question that we need to ask is whether unemployment is a big issue or it is something that we ourselves create.

Tim: Is it a big issue? Probably at 24 per cent unemployment is a big issue.

AbdulAziz: Is it really 24 per cent? And this is a question that we need to ask.

Tim: What in your opinion is the right unemployment figure?

AbdulAziz: If the figure is correct then we need to ask who the unemployed are- are they University graduates or only the people who do not want to work?

Tim: Or is it people waiting for lucrative government jobs, rather than taking lower paid jobs in the private sector?
AbdulAziz: Yes. So we need to analyse the data and see where the problem lies rather than just saying that this is the big problem. The major problem is that today we are talking about our challenges without any in-depth analyses of the problems. The government and private sector have to work together to go deeper and find the roots of the problem.

Tim: It sounds fine in theory but what does it mean in concrete terms?
AbdulAziz: In theory it is fine, but in practical terms if all of us have an open mind things would work better.

Tim: Nobody has said that you should not work together.

AbdulAziz: We could work closer and better.

Tim: What are the concrete steps or results that we should be taking about in a year’s time?
AbdulAziz: Look at the banking sector. In the sector 90 per cent of the workforce comprises Omanis: you have successful CEOs and heads of IT and compliance who are all Omanis. So let’s look at how Omanis have been so successful in the banking sector and replicate that model in other sectors. So we can work together and there is a model that is working.

Tim: If this has worked in the banking sector, then why have the other sectors not done the same?
AbdulAziz: That’s a question that we have to ask.

Tim: What’s the answer, because we are not just asking question but are looking for answers?
Manal: On the point of why it is working in the banking sector: it works because Oman is one of the first countries to create a good training institute for the banking sector (College for Banking and Financial Services) and that has created the workforce needed in this sector.

Tim: Is this model replicable in other sectors?
Manal: Let’s go through it. The banking sector remunerates well; it has good growth prospects and provides the kind of job that Omanis aspire for. There are certain sectors that seem to be successful in attracting Omanis- banking is one; oil and gas, education and health are catching up.

Tim: The oil and gas sector has seen a lot of unrest this year, sit-ins and strikes?
Manal: We are expecting 8000 jobs to be created for Omanis in the oil and gas sector this year, so we need to focus on those sectors which match the aspirations of Omanis. The other area that we need to focus on is our successful businesses today – whether they are the family businesses or the bigger industries, or government industries and businesses.

The government and companies should look at the nature of their businesses, see the value chain and the kind of opportunities that can be created within these companies. His Excellency spoke about outsourcing and the possibilities of subcontracting and partnerships in his keynote address, so there is a lot that can be done by these companies as initiators of  small enterprises.

Tim: We will speak about this in detail in a while. Stephen Thomas, what keeps you awake at night regarding the future of Oman?
Stephen: The subjects that my colleagues on the panel have already touched upon- it is about employment and creating jobs for Omanis.

Tim: You have spoken about a human resources nightmare?
Stephen: I am not saying that it is a nightmare but there are issues. The future economic prosperity of Oman depends on how many Omanis are in the workforce and that is a problem for all of us as it also depends on how productive they are in that work. And given the examples that Manal has given it does show that it is possible to have those success stories and there are Omanis working successfully at every level of the economy.

Tim: Omanis make up only 40 per cent of the private sector, which is expected to generate the real wealth of this nation!

Stephen: The private sector can step up its efforts in generating more employment for Omanis in some areas, where they have not been successful in developing an Omani workforce, but there are other issues as well. The burgeoning public sector that you mentioned in the question at the beginning of the debate is a challenge for the private sector. We want less government and less red tape, not a growing government in order to create wealth, because that’s the reason why the private sector is there.

And it has not helped the private sector in various sectors to develop their own Omani workforce because there has been an outflow of people from the private sector to government jobs that have been created in the last year and as His Majesty has said the creation of jobs in the public sector is not sustainable. So it is about job creation. Manal has given the example of the oil and gas sector, which I am aware of. Even if we manage to Omanise every single job in that sector there are 25,000 people working directly and 40,000 people working outside the fence. It is not going to solve the next year’s intake problem.

Tim: How do you react to Tawfeeq al Lawati’s statement saying that every job in the country should be Omanised?
Stephen: I think His Excellency’s comment is an idea for everyone. Private sector would want to have a local workforce as a most efficient way of operating any business anywhere in the world.

Tim: You are on record stating expatriates are not a commodity to be Omanised?
Stephen: I don’t believe they are.

Tim: Do you think you are being used that way?
Stephen: I do believe that we should look at expatriates who are here; and they should be here because they are in a job for which there is not a skilled equivalent in terms of an Omani.

Tim: The comment suggests that you feel undervalued here; do expatriates feel undervalued here?
Stephen: It is possible, if you get a general statement like expatriates are not an option anymore and it should only be Omanis going forward. That’s well and good if there are Omanis who are future ready, with the human resources.

Tim: And are they ready?
Stephen: No, they are not. There is more that the private sector should do. His Excellency the Minister spoke about every sector getting its own training institutes, so there is a lot that the private sector can do. But at the moment we are not future ready.

Tim: let me take up a question coming on Twitter and let me pose it to Ahmed al Wahaibi- Are Omanis qualified to take on new jobs?
Ahmed: In short, yes.

Tim: Despite the reservations that HE Tawfeeq raised in terms of education?
Ahmed: Let me first comment a bit about Omanisation. Omanisation has come to acquire a negative connotation. As locals, we are entitled to a job. If someone gives to an Omani a job it is seen as a favour. This perception should change as Omanis have a right to get a job. Preparing an Omani for a job is a natural thing to do and it is good for the economy. Secondly it is good to see more expatriates in the country as we are a growing economy.

Tim: So you think having more expatriates is a good sign?
Ahmed: Yes, I think. If we get our policies right ,then if we have more expatriates, it shows that there is trust in the country.

Tim: Come back to the issue of whether Omanis are qualified.

Ahmed: Yes they are. In Oman Oil Company we have 7,000 people out of which 74 per cent are local and they are in highly technical jobs and they include business leaders and CEOs.

Tim: Tawfeeq al Lawati, would you agree with this view point?
HE Tawfeeq: My point is that the problem is with the attitude. The attitude is since we have access to expatriates, why we should prepare Omanis, train them and do the hard work. This is the attitude of the private sector. The private sector needs to be informed that, “We are now in 2012 and you give us your business plan for the next eight years detailing how you are going to Omanise your workforce.” I am not saying we have to do it overnight, we are not equipped to do it overnight.

But over the next eight years you ask me what resources you need for the purpose. We are investing millions of rials in infrastructure, highways and ports. The most important and valuable asset for the country is the Omani citizen and we cannot have all this while still depending on expats. We had a crisis during the Gulf War when a number of expatriates went out to work as they were paid higher or when they moved out because of the political risks. We have to depend on our people for our future.

Tim: Let me put the same question to you – Are Omanis qualified to take on new jobs?
HE Tawfeeq: No, at this point and this is our challenge. We need to have a plan for the next 8-10 years. The government has to invest in partnership with the private sector. They have to identify each organisation and what are the positions available. I don’t want Omanis to be working only for low-paid jobs, we have to tackle, mid-management and top-management jobs.

Tim: Another question coming up on Twitter – Where does the capacity building plan stand at the end of 2012, ready for higher levels of Omanisation?
HE Tawfeeq: Omanis are not available totally, but we need to prepare them. The private sector is not taking this initiative today. There are companies which are dependent on government subsidies in terms of gas and other subsidised services.

If we recruit management trainees and invest in them, even government companies like Mr Ahmed al Wahaibi’s company should work as hatcheries from whom the private sector can recruit Omani leaders. Even banks hire only for their needs; it is all about balance sheet, profit and loss. Companies from the public and private sectors should be socially responsible; they should recruit more Omanis and train them.

Tim: Do you think that Oman’s planning is coherent; you have gone on record saying that Oman had a plan called 2020, but after five or six years it disappeared and it needs revision.
HE Tawfeeq: Vision 2020 is still mentioned but it is irrelevant today. Vision 2020 was drawn up when oil prices were $17 per barrel, while oil prices today are at $107 per barrel.

Tim: Does the plan exist today?
HE Tawfeeq: The plan exists but it is not relevant; it should have been revised based on the facts.

Tim: Manal, do you want to respond to that? Do you think that the plan should have been revised?
Manal: I totally agree and there are a number of steps being taken in this direction. The Higher Council of Planning is taking great efforts…

Tim: So when are we going to see a new plan?
Manal: It is going to be available very soon and a lot of discussions are going on around it.

Tim: Weeks, days, months?
Manal: His Excellency the Minister is here and you could ask him.

Tim: I would actually like to ask His Excellency Ali Al Sunaidi the Minister of Commerce and Industry as to when the new plan is expected.
HE Ali Al Sunaidi: Thank you for inviting me to the debate.

Tim: (Laughs) We wouldn’t have it any other way.
HE Ali Al Sunaidi: First of all thank you, you are doing a brilliant job and I am very fascinated by the spirit of the debate. Let me say that Vision 2020 still survives because the ports that are under construction are in that plan. The concessions that the government gave are a part of 2020.

Tim: It’s a bit worrying, if the Majlis A’Shura does not know that the plan is still relevant.
HE Ali Al Sunaidi: He did not say that (alluding to HE Tawfeeq), he said that it is out of sync, and I agree with that, because the plan at that time was all about hardware or infrastructure. Starting from this year as we prepare for the five-year plan and I agree that during the course of this five- year plan the government should announce a new vision; that’s already on board, it’s been discussed at various levels.

(Audience applause)
Tim: Is there a time table for it?

HE Ali Al Sunaidi: I would not comment on it, as it is not appropriate to do so here. Thank you.

Tim: Let’s take the first vote of the day and let’s make it on the essential question of the debate – Is Oman future ready? The results are here: 73 per cent of the audience think that Oman is not future ready while 27 per cent of the audience think it is. Manal, that’s worrying to you?
Manal: It is worrying because we should recognise that we did achieve something and I would like to state what we have achieved…

Tim: But there seems to be a huge lack of confidence in this room?
Manal: Just allow me to state why we are future ready and on what basis.

Tim: Would you first please react to the vote and the lack of confidence that it seems to suggest?
Manal: I know where that worry is coming from. It stems from the fact that we had worries about dealing with unemployment and whether Omanis are ready for inclusion in the economy.

Tim: This room has very influential people, and if 73 per cent of them are worried that Oman is not future ready then you are not getting your message across to people who need to hear it?
Manal: So let me get my message across.

Tim: Please, I was putting things in context (audience laughter and applause)…
Manal: My message would be based on the perception of certain international institutions to Oman. I would not like to substantiate my statement based on what I feel. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Bank always promote a sound economic framework and I am quoting what comes out of their reports. Oman has been sustaining since 1970 an average growth rate of 6.2 per cent, envisaging 7 per cent next year.

Tim: IMF also says you are creating too many government jobs.
Manal: That’s correct. The second area where we are strong is infrastructure. Out of RO15bn of planned expenditure, RO9bn is going into infrastructure, ports, airports, railways and so on. Oman is ranked 21 as far as the quality of infrastructure is concerned by the WEF, 10 in roads and 33 in ports. So this is an area where we have achieved much. We are continuously growing in terms of economic zones, in addition to Duqm which is coming up with concurrent projects worth $4.3bn, which will be operational in a year or two.

Tim: So you have given us a plug as to what you are doing, so come back to the vote.
Manal: So today we have a formula for the private sector to get engaged and to expand its business – this is what I am trying to say.

Tim: But it isn’t. It is going the other way.
Manal: With regards to the reforms that we have taken such as the labour market, some perceive them negatively, and have a hard time digesting them; but now we have realised that they have benefitted the economy. Today, there is higher purchasing power in the hands of many Omanis and the retail sector and the hotel sector is flourishing.

Tim: Tawfeeq al Lawati, why is not this happy message getting across?

HE Tawfeeq: First we should accept the fact that the cup is more than half full; no one can deny the achievements of the last 40 years. But we should not play the tricky game of numbers. If the numbers are so fancy then why we went through the crisis and protests last year and why it is still going on. There are gaps between what the government has been advocating for the last 40 years and people’s expectations.

I am talking about a more fair distribution of wealth. What is the average income of an Omani family? What is the poverty line and how many people are living below this line? I was expecting one line from HE the Minister stating that we are proud of all the highways, ports, roads. He is the key person in the Higher Committee for Planning. But what about the welfare of the Omani citizen? The focal point of every policy should be the socio-economic welfare of the Omani citizens. In all our plans there has been an imbalance between spending on infrastructure development and spending on social infrastructure and this should be corrected.

Tim: Abdulaziz al Balushi, your concerns about the vote?
Abdulaziz: I am not surprised and we should not be complacent. We should not fool ourselves by stating that we are ready when we know that still a lot needs to be done. HE mentioned that we are still dependent on expatriates; yes we are still dependent on expats and that is a reality. The future is a moving target, and it is going forward. We can’t say that we are future ready, when so many things still need to be done. We have started improving and we are going towards our target.

Tim: Stephen Thomas, on the vote and the extent of concern?
Stephen: It is a concern and I believe that the vote is probably correct not just in terms of the mix of opinions. Twenty-five per cent of the job is done while 75 per cent is still to be done.

Tim: Do you detect in Oman a willingness to do what has to be done?
Stephen: There is but there are a few things that need to change. Sticking to this major issue of employment and job creation, obviously we need to create wealth and SMEs. Something can be done in the education system to help the private sector. In education if there is a real focus on English, Numeracy and Computer skills up to the age of 14 years, the payoff for the private sector down the line would be far greater. There are some little changes that need to be made to make us future ready, but right now it isn’t as if the private sector can wave a magic wand and put everyone into jobs.

Tim: Do you think the government is complacent here?
Stephen: In the government there is no complacency, but a real worry that things have to be done and all of us have to work towards getting Omanis into meaningful employment; but everyone needs to understand that it means productive employment.

Tim: And don’t you think that a burgeoning public sector provides meaningful employment?
Stephen: No, I don’t. In the civil service you see a lot of people working hard and diligently to get things done; and then there are people who are doing absolutely nothing and that is not a meaningful job and that is not the right message to the private sector or to Omanis who feel that they want to work for the public sector because I can freeload instead of doing a real job in the private sector.

Tim: Let me take up that point with Manal. Who are these people in the government doing nothing and what benefit is that to Oman?

Manal: I have to agree that the government took a very reactive step in the last two years in terms of employing more Omanis.

Tim: But this did not deal with the underlying issues.
Manal: I agree that the government wanted to alleviate a lot of social pressure and it has been able to achieve this. The government wants to sustain stability in the market and to allow the private sector the time to readdress the issues and start the process of inclusion of Omanis.

Tim: You gave out jobs as if they were unemployment benefits?
Manal: The government is increasing its activities and what we have found out is that the government is concentrating on regional development, and by employing more Omanis there will be an improvement of services in regional areas.

The outreach of our services is going to be bigger than before. So more employment of Omanis in the government will help us in reaching our services to places where we were not reaching before. Today we talk about Musandam taking a big part of our activities, Duqm where we are creating a whole new city. So the new employees will be well deployed in strengthening our services.

Tim: Question coming on Twitter- is it more essential to move from oil and gas industries to a more diversified economic base?
Ahmed: As Omanis we are all for diversification of the economy. The oil and gas is only one pillar of the economy. We do not look at the refinery or the fertiliser plant alone while looking at this sector, as there is a multiplier effect.

Tim: But we have been talking about diversification for a long time in Oman, but it is not happening to the extent that the government says it should happen.

Ahmed: It has happened, because we did not have a number of these industries before. So it is happening, we are selling oil and gas and creating a multiplier effect in our economy.

Tim: Let’s move to the next issue raised by Tawfeeq al Lawati about the unrest in Oman this year and last year; and has Oman done enough to meet the demands of its people? Let’s take a vote on the issue. 56 per cent of the people think it has done enough while 44 per cent think it has not. Stephen Thomas, your reactions?

Stephen: Yes, I do in that there was a response from the government and there was a real effort made to listen to the comments. But I also understand people saying no because some of the quick fixes that were done like creation of extra jobs in the public sector are not a sustainable answer. As a part of the protest we saw unrest in the oil and gas fields-one earlier this year and another last year.

Industrial relations are a fairly new thing in Oman and both the employer and employees could do with a bit of training on how to conduct good, fair and proper industrial relations. The manner in which the response was conducted to the strike was an abject lesson on how not to conduct industrial relations.

Tim: So it was heavy-handed; we saw arrests, people were sent to jail from 12-18 months, bloggers and online activists were arrested.

Stephen: That was not the case in protests in the oil and gas industry. It is true that that happened in relation to the protests in the Sohar area. In the oil and gas fields the real problem was actually third party interference in what should actually have been the relationship between the employer and employee. There were very senior government officials who made concessions to the entire workforce; all their demands were met. The second time the Majlis A’Shura got involved in brokering the situation between employer and employee and this is not the way to conduct industrial relations. All we need from the government is a legislative framework on how you can conduct strikes and what a legal strike is. The strikes were themselves illegal as there was no prior notification.

Tim: Let me come back to the issue of how the protests were handled and bloggers and online activists were treated. You have said that there is a problem with the information in Oman. You say that the Ministry of Information seems to be an anachronism in the modern era, in modern Oman. I think a lot of sycophancy in the media is self imposed censorship and you ask, what has Oman got to hide?
Stephen: This is a different issue.

Tim: It is a similar issue as how Oman has reacted to protests?
Stephen: It is true that it is the case. For Oman, its future prosperity cannot just be economic freedom that we look for. There would need to be political freedom as well and there are measures being done for this. I don’t know as to what Oman has to hide. It has a great new story, as Manal pointed out the best development story over the last 40 years worldwide; and we have a wonderful head of state who is universally respected and loved. So what is there to worry about?

Tim: Let Manal take up that point; whether there is a heavy handed response to criticism in Oman?
Manal: What happened in this part of the world is true for all of us and it was a new learning experience for the government, people, the Majlis A’Shura on how to deal with these issues and we have come a long way since then.

Tim: So were the jail terms handed out to online activists and bloggers a mistake?
Manal: There is a learning curve that we need to go through. In these issues we need to strike a balance between being very lenient and being very restrictive and where does it really lead you to. We all learnt since the protests in Sohar. We learnt that we need to allow space of freedom of expression and communication; but it needs to be done in the right manner.

Tim: But Oman’s reputation for openness has been damaged. Amnesty International is saying that the sentences are the latest phase in the Omani government’s orchestrated crackdown on the freedom of expression and assembly. Is that the kind of signal that you are happy to send out to the rest of the world?

Manal: There was a misuse of a number of those channels; and a number of people and institutions got hurt just because of false arguments being made without any justification.
Tim: So Human Rights organisations have got it wrong?

Manal: There is a learning curve, for the government, bloggers and everyone as there are international guidelines on how you bring about your views to the public. This should not take us a long time and this should be done in a year’s time and we have allowed a law to be introduced in this area and today we have a good foundation for the freedom of speech.

Tim: Stephen Thomas…
Stephen: We know from models around the world and I know that there are cultural differences; but here Omani culture helps in that there is direct link between a real surge in economic progress and freedom of information. The push back from disagreements and opposition is a very positive thing. If we had that freedom in the traditional media and inside that space there is nothing to fear. The benefit to Oman is its standing in the world which is great, coupled with a wonderful foreign policy.

We want to be citizens of the world economy and its institutions; all this will flow from that. The culture of Oman is the DNA for this, because it lies in tribal and family values and Islamic values and these will always be a far better filter to absorb any negative connotations that come with open information than censorship and suppression of information.

Tim: Tawfeeq al Lawati, did the government use a heavy handed approach to criticism?
HE Tawfeeq: I would say that there have been some excesses, but I would not term them as heavy. After the protests in Sohar and the consequential ones and before we came (to the Shura), as it is our first term, there have been some changes in the laws related to the IT and the media, which made it more difficult for people to express their views.

Tim: And you don’t approve it?
HE Tawfeeq: Definitely, we should have more freedom of expression rather than making it more controlled. I personally told the Inspector General of police when we met him after the arrest of the activists that globally people breathe the same oxygen and today our people are on the net, twitter and watch satellite channels. We cannot restrict them to the same values that we were following 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Yes, we need to have more tolerance. I disagree with Manal.

For 40 years we have been going on one frequency, suddenly when there is a change in the frequency, there should be tolerance and then there should be a balance. Some of these activists are lawyers, technocrats and in high positions, they are not just people from the street and they were advocating views for the benefit of people. I don’t deny that there have been some violations but we should have shown tolerance as exemplified by the Omani tradition, and allowed them a chance for dialogue and communication.

Tim: So should the authorities have been more tolerant? We have the Minister of Information HE Dr Abdulmunim Al Hasani in the audience. I don’t know whether he would like to comment on the issue. Sir, there is a member of the Majlis A’Shura who feels that there should have been more tolerance; how would you react to that?

HE Dr Abdulmunim: Thank you very much and I am very glad to be here, listening to the open debate. It is important for us to listen to each other. In any country freedom of speech is a dream world. What happened in Oman can in no way be termed as being heavy handed. There was an open dialogue between the citizens and the government in general and there were many programmes discussing issues on radio, television and in the print media. There are some rules and laws and they have to be respected.

Tim: Minister, you are being accused by an internationally respected human rights organisation of trying to stamp out dissent. That’s not the message that you would want to send out to the outside world.

HE Dr Abdulmunim: These kind of reports can be applied to many other countries in the world. Any government in the world has to protect its interests. Even in the US or Europe if there are street protests which are illegal these will be dealt with in accordance with the law.
Tim: You have not seen people being sentenced to jail for 12-18 months for criticising the government.

HE Dr Abdulmunim: Even in Britain and the US if people came onto the streets and demolish structures or attacked institutions, the government will be forced to deal with the issue.
Tim: Do you reject the charge from Amnesty International?

HE Dr Abdulmunim: We would not like to reject, but let us discuss the issue openly.
Tim: We have a Majlis A’Shura member here who thinks that the authorities should have shown more tolerance.

HE Dr Abdulmunim: Not all of these reports are very accurate and we have to deal with them. We are trying to open this dialogue with each other, but even if a minister does anything against the law, then he will be held accountable.

Tim: Thank you Mr Minister. Abdulaziz al Balushi, do you share Tawfeew al Lawati’s position on the response being very heavy handed.

Abdulaziz: We need to differentiate between character assassination and freedom of expression. If there is some false information that will create instability in the country, that is not constructive freedom of expression.

Tim: Freedom of expression is also the freedom to get it wrong?
Abdulaziz: But you have to be careful whether what you are saying is true or not. I share the views of His Excellency the Minister.

Tim: Criticism is a matter of opinion, and people should be allowed to voice those.

Abdulaziz: You need positive criticism and not negative criticism.

Tim: So who is to decide what is positive or negative criticism? Shouldn’t people be allowed to express their opinions?

Abdulaziz: The debate that we are having today is constructive criticism as we are making arguments based on facts and people can freely say what they want to say. But when you come to character assassination or spreading false information, that is not constructive criticism or freedom of expression.

Tim: Is it worth going to jail, if it is not constructive criticism?
Abdulaziz: We don’t want people to go to jail. First of all you need to know that freedom of expression is very new in this country; so we have to go ahead in stages rather than allowing everyone to say what they want to say.

HE Tawfeeq: Let’s be a bit more specific. There were cases here of a few people insulting His Majesty and that is unacceptable to everyone, and this is common for all Omanis. There were other issues that were subjective. Today, I am raising issues, so tomorrow I can be labelled as being anti government and that I am trying to create disturbances. But we should not go down to this level. We should believe in the wisdom of the Omani people. Omani people came out on the streets and pledged their allegiance to His Majesty even in Sohar. There is a difference between people having loyalty to His Majesty and their expressing differences with the government over policy issues.

Tim: Which you think they should be allowed to do?
HE Tawfeeq: Yes, today we talk about a partnership between the government and the people. The government should reflect the aspirations of people and do what is necessary for them. For example, why were projects in Musandam delayed till people came onto the streets? If you don’t listen to people and do not prioritise their needs, then you push them to the last square, forcing them to come out and speak.

Tim: Let me ask Manal to react to this – you pushed people onto the streets?
Manal: I am right now in the hot seat.
Tim: I can change seats (laughs).
Manal: We have provided many channels for listening to people. Social media is available, most of the ministries have sections or departments to deal with public opinion and people who report to the minister. Today, we have hotlines for most of the ministries. Some of the plans have been delayed for a long time. Musandam has been on the radar for a long time and we developed a master plan some time back. We must keep in mind that Oman is a geographically large country and we have limited sources of income, so we need to prioritise between certain regions and projects. Sohar, Dhofar and Duqm took some priority and may be that pushed certain regions back, but that does not mean that it is not on the priority list. It’s just that there is sequence of implementation of these projects.

Tim: His point is that you are not listening to people.
Manal: We have created a good platform for listening to people.
HE Tawfeeq: Manal, Listening to people is not an end in itself. It is only a means. We need to translate the views of the people into a plan of action. The 8th Five year Plan, which is now in operation started in 2011 and we got the proposal in 2012 and when we reviewed the budget, I have seen very minor actions based on what happened on the streets. We have to come out from the blue prints of the existing plans and develop a new blueprint which directly serves or addresses the concerns of the Omani citizens. There is still a lot of concentration on the development in Muscat governorate. What we need is a fair and equal distribution of services and development for all regions of Oman.

Manal: We have many plans for nation-wide development like the ports, the railways etc. which are not in Muscat.

Abdulaziz: What is the role of the Majlis A’Shura? Isn’t it the role of the Majlis to get feedback from the public and share it with the government?

HE Tawfeeq: Thank you for the question. What we got from the budget plan is only the numbers regarding the allocations for all sectors; there were no objectives. How can we review if we don’t have the details? We were discussing earlier with His Excellency about the budget and he mentioned that you have approved the budget and I said we have passed the budget. The Majlis A’Shura needs more powers and more recognition from the government to represent the views of people.

Tim: Essentially you are saying that you don’t know what you are voting for? (Audience applause)

HE Tawfeeq: Yes we had reservations. The budget came in 2011. The first day that we came to the Majlis we got the budget against the backdrop of protests. When the budget came to us and we were discussing it in the economic committee, I said, “Let’s be more positive, let’s review the budget and accept it; and let’s give the government a chance and see whether next year they will come up with a more objective oriented budget rather than just numbers and figures.”

Tim: Was it a responsible to pass the budget without knowing what it stood for?
HE Tawfeeq: If you go back to the basic law of the state and see the powers granted to the Majlis, you will see that we acted within the authority granted to us and we expressed our opinion. Our role is limited to raising proposals or giving advice rather than approving or disapproving the budget.

Audience question: Why are we continuing to peg the Omani rial to the dollar over the last 45 years, when the dollar has itself lost 75 per cent of its purchasing value since the time Nixon unpegged it from the gold standard, because it means that the rial also lost its value commensurately. But we have not had an answer from the Central Bank of Oman or the concerned ministries.

Tim: We have the benefit of having the Minister of Commerce and Industry here; so let’s put the question to him directly?
HE Sunaidi: That issue has come to the cabinet more than once and a big debate took place on whether Oman should think of unpegging from the dollar. When we look at the Kuwaiti model, where they have deviated from the dollar peg and linked it to a basket of currencies, we found that the basket is still highly dependent on the dollar. This is because a large part of our exports to the world has been in US dollars, because everybody requires oil which is priced in US dollars. A lot of people who come to us and deal with us do so in US dollars. I can sympathise with the people who are in the money business and the people who are buying equipment that is not priced in US dollars. This was not just debated here but also in other countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc. I agree that we should have been more frank and communicated with our people about the pros and cons of the dollar peg.

Tim: So you agree that you need to communicate more?
HE Sunaidi: Yes I do agree that the government needs to communicate more.

Tim: And should you also tell the Majlis A’Shura as to what they are voting for?
(Audience laughter)
HE Sunaidi: That’s an issue that the Majlis has discussed with the Minister of Finance, when he visited the Shura Council and spent seven to eight hours there.

Tim: It does not seem to have been resolved.

HE Sunaidi: I think they need to visit his office again.

Some people need to go back to the background while discussing an issue like this which needs to be discussed with bankers and economists. One should not talk in isolation. There should be more such debates in Oman’s newspapers and you see such discussions happening in the newspapers. This issue calls for more transparency.

Tim: There is a related question on twitter asking – “Will the private sector be able to partner better with the government if the government was more transparent?
HE Sunaidi: Yes, they would and I would like to say that transparency should be the main issue of the next few years to come.

Tim: So Mr Minister, will you come back and tell us in a year’s time as to how transparent you have been?
HE Sunaidi: The world is watching and Oman is certainly not the worst country in the world; it is amongst the top 10 in many things.

Tim: But you want it to be the best country and not amongst the worst?
HE Sunaidi: I understand that, but it is unfair to say that since you are No 5 or No 10 you are bad. One needs to understand as to how come we are No 10 right now. I would conclude that this debate which we should encourage shows us that we should be more transparent, frank but also more active in various areas and people who have been here know that this is happening.

Tim: And I am sure your colleague the Minister of Information shares your views.
HE Sunaidi: He is not just sharing this view but is doing that already.
(Audience applause)
Audience question: My name is Nutayla and I work for PDO. If I look at the textbooks in schools today we find that they are the same ones that I had used in my childhood. If we are not going to change them how are we preparing the new generation for the future?
HE Tawfeeq: I agree with her. If we talk about education, a month ago we had a World Bank presentation on the educational system in Oman and they raised a lot of challenges based on the data collected by the Ministry of Education.

Tim: So you are saying talk is cheap?
HE Tawfeeq: This is the problem with us. When we raise an issue, it takes a lot of time to translate it into action as we are not efficient. It takes a lot of time to modify our plans and to execute them. And this is our main challenge. We know that there are challenges in our education system but we have not heard or seen any action from the Ministry of Education to improve things. When Her Excellency, the Minister of Education visited the Majlis A’Shura, there was a lot of criticism about stopping the integrated curriculum, which has shown good results in terms of competencies, mastering skills, like reading and writing, but we are still waiting for the plan of action.

Tim to Nutayla in the audience: Would you like to see such debates set specific target or a plan of action for governments, ministers and the private sector?
Nutayla: Plan of action needs to be communicated to the public. It should also have an element of ownership in terms of who will be driving that plan.

Tim: Manal al Abdwani, would you sign up to that?
Manal: I would sign up to that. I agree that we are lacking in follow-up though the name of my department is the department of follow-up. In whatever we try, irrespective of whether we achieve it or fail in it, we should go back and report it to our stakeholders. I hope that with the new planning agency we find a way for communicating the national plan to the citizens, business community and all the stakeholders, and for telling them on a periodic basis that this is what we were aiming at and this is what we have achieved or failed in. I do subscribe to that.

Tim: So what plan of action will you take away from this session? What are you prepared to commit to till next year?
Manal: I would probably commit to sitting with a planning agency and putting a format based on which each sector can spell out a proper action plan for society.

Tim: Within a few months of this debate?
Manal: This should be realistically achievable within three months of this debate.
Tim: So you have nine months of implementation time and you will come back to us in a year’s time and tell us what you have achieved.

Manal: Absolutely.
HH Sayyid Tarik bin Shabib: On the sidelines I and His Excellency Ali Al Sunaidi were having exactly the same conversation. And, Tim, as you know one of the points that I raised earlier regarding the relevance of these debates lies in what we can take from one year to another. And His Excellency has said that he would gladly take a paper with certain recommendations based on today’s debate and champion it actively within the higher levels of the government. He would take on the views of the people in this room today and also those coming online and help us to move forward.
(Audience applause)

Tim: HE Tawfeeq, are you happy with that?
HE Tawfeeq: As a starting point, why not? My request to His Excellency, who is in the higher council as the deputy chairman, is that we have to focus on education, if we need to improve our standards. Education, education, education! We have to visit the schools; we have to sit with the students…

Tim: Its sounds like a politician…
HE Tawfeeq: Well I am a representative of the people and I see the schools. We should not be result oriented, we should be process oriented, and pay more attention to the environment and the process of education. It is already costing us a lot. It needs more attention and if we improve this process, I am sure the outcome would be much better.

Audience: I just wanted to put in a little perspective the differences between developed and developing countries. Things are not done overnight. If you see the track record of Oman over the 42 years, a lot of things have been done with high speed. Even in the education sector a lot has been done. I can give you an industry perspective. I am the head of an SME. We are not in oil and gas. We look for talent and we have had a lot of good brains from Oman. What is exactly needed is a management institute wherein we can pick up directly, train and develop them. I am saying that the gap has to be bridged, between what we want and what has been achieved.

One more from audience: My name is Ahmed Al Mukhaini. To what extent would the Minister of Commerce and Industry regulate the non-profit organisations?
Tim: Manal
Manal: At a personal level, I fully subscribe to his view. We tried many times at the ministry to try and see if the non-profit organisations are really rendering service to the society and the country. So far, we have had little success in getting approval for that. But I think that the whole economy and the society are ready for such a question. Ahmed, if you are planning to raise this question again, please come to the ministry and we can put this up to the minister.
Tim: OK. Another question from the audience

Audience: My name is Salman Al Lawati, I work for Oman Cables. I just want to comment on the percentage of the new expatriates- on the number of 100,000 and the 24 per cent. I think even if you come next year, the number will be 200,000 and the percentage would go down to 20 per cent. Why do we need to analyse the percentages? Because, I believe 80 per cent is in the construction sector which we cannot Omanise.

I agree with Manal. If we go by sectors- just like oil and gas banking and industry-banking is saturated with 90 per cent, well done. Oil and gas is doing good. We need to focus on manufacturing. That’s where we have more Omanis leaving their job. We had 9000 Omanis left only last year. They went to the government-created jobs. Why people are not staying in manufacturing and why are they not leaving oil and gas and banking jobs? Because, the government gives them some advantages like interest-free loans and many other sops and benefits. So, why don’t the government and the private sector and Majlis A’Shura sit together and manage the people and tell them how to work in the manufacturing sector. Because that’s where the factories are coming and that is where the diversification is going to happen…
Tim: Tawfeeq Al Lawati…

Audience: We are having people leaving from the manufacturing…
Tim: OK. Let him answer this first
HE Tawfeeq: They are leaving the private sector because the salaries given to them are based on the salaries accepted by the expats. These salaries don’t satisfy the needs of the Omanis to lead a minimum standard of living. So we made a proposal from the Shura Council. We gave advice to the government to hire only the required people, not to hire just to absorb unemployed people from the street and give them a job.

Tim: (addressing the audience questioner) You want to come back on that?
Audience: Yes, Mr Tawfeeq, I believe the salaries have been increased from RO200 to RO300, but still we are losing people. I believe it is not because of the salaries. We need something…

Tawfeeq: There is basic minimum wage required…
Audience: Even if you maintain that, here we are dealing with unskilled people who have just left high school. You are not dealing with university people. We need something different. We need a catalyst to be kept in the industry sector so that everyone will go to the industry sector and this what the government need to do.

Tim: Abdul Aziz
Abdulaziz: I agree that we have to make this sector more attractive to work in. It’s not salary. It is also about other motivational factors that will make them work in the manufacturing sector. There are so many things that can be offered to individuals such as coaching. Most of the people would not know the job. But if we coach them, it will help them in the long run.
HE Tawfeeq: Excuse me, Tim. In our proposal, we recommended to the government to add RO150 above the salary, give a piece of land and an interest free loan for those who are joining the private sector. This is just to motivate the Omanis to stay and work in the private sector.

Tim: Stephen Thomas
Stephen: I think you need to look at the different companies and sectors in the private sectors from where there has been a migration of people to the public sector and those companies and sectors from where there has not been. Now why do people join a company? There will be brand equity of that company, of what it is like and how progressive for an employer it is, how much it values its employees and the range of benefits etc. I don’t think private sector collectively has that reputation. Private sector needs to work on its own brand image to become the de facto place where people want to work because private sector business creates the wealth and the jobs. Businesses then pay the taxes and pay for the infrastructure and everything else.

So, the salaries themselves are not the one issue. Salaries have to be earned, they have to be enough. Good industrials are about how we pay the highest wages but deliver the lowest prices, so that Oman is competitive enough. There are pockets of excellence in the private sector but private sector collectively needs to get their act together on these things.

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