Interview: Ali bin Masoud Al Sunaidi,

How are you ensuring the full benefits of World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership and the Oman-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) are realised?

ALI BIN MASOUD AL SUNAIDI: Both WTO membership and the Oman-US FTA have an impact on the way Oman does business, as both agreements demand greater market opening. Specifically, the latter allows for benefits for goods entering the US as well as for US companies setting up business in Oman. We feel that while WTO membership has so far resulted in much more competitive goods and services in Oman and will lead to long-term benefits, the FTA has created more interest among large US corporations in setting up in Oman, and benefitting from the comparative advantages of lower costs, an ideal location and special fiscal treatment. Omani companies must seize opportunities provided by both WTO membership and the FTA. With increasingly open relations it is only a matter of time before domestic businesses realise the fruits of these partnerships.

In terms of Oman’s free zones, which industry segments do you think will present the greatest opportunities for growth going forward?

AL SUNAIDI: Each free zone provides a specific opportunity for a given industry segment. For example, the Salalah Free Zone has become one of the fastest-growing ports in the Middle East and North Africa region, if not the world. It is approaching nearly 5m twenty-foot equivalent units per year and is undergoing feasibility studies to expand capacity. We also expect an expansion in terms of cargo breakage and warehousing for easy delivery to Asia, Africa, Europe and America. Another plus will be the availability of limestone in the Sohar area, which paves the way for construction-related manufacturing. Furthermore, the Duqm economic zone will rely on the tremendous capability of the Oman Drydock Company, and we are already seeing major ship maintenance operations being pushed forward by our Korean partner, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering. Moreover, the forthcoming petrochemicals refinery will lead to potential for further downstream activities, as we have already seen in the Sohar Industrial Port and free zone. There are also plans to establish the first rail network in Oman, which will link Sohar, Duqm and Salalah. The line is expected to greatly increase business opportunities in Oman and make the sultanate a gateway to the greater GCC market.

How is policy developing to ensure the private sector has an active role in diversification? What about small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)?

AL SUNAIDI: The private sector has always been a major contributor to manufacturing and services in Oman. We have started to upgrade industrial estates in order to create more space for private sector activity. Electricity generation has been privatised and is growing at an annual rate of 16%, which provides an indication of the growth rates and demand for power in Oman. Such growth is attributed mainly to the commerce and tourism sectors and value-added industry.

Similarly, Oman has privatised telecommunications, and plans to privatise sewage and refuse collection in the future. The sultanate is also now creating a new logistics hub at Barka, with a rail transport system capable of speeds of around 200 km per hour between stations.

Our focus here is on reducing the cost of doing business in Oman and to create opportunities for SMEs in all segments. In 2012 the Ministry of Commerce and Industry invited a number of SME entrepreneurs to attend workshops in Singapore to learn and partner with information and communications technology companies. Links have also been established with the Netherlands in the field of food processing and flower arrangement. There are also plans to put on networking road shows every two to three months in countries such as Spain, Jordan and Turkey in a variety of SME business segments. We hope to do the same in the US with regard to the automotive sector in the detailing and maintenance and repair segments.