Friday, February 26, 2010

News Round Up. Tour of Oman and Amouage gets us some good PR

A few miscellaneous stories readers.

The Tour of Oman seems to have been a reasonable success. It got us some great tourism friendly advertising in Europe and US with shots of the country looking pretty and safe, and the event itself seemed to go relatively smoothly. OK, there were a few problems with the traffic and access, because of the fundamental geography of Muscat using the picturesque roads for cycling means there are few other roads to either get anywhere or to actually get to the cycling or park once you did. They could have used more motorbikes to protect the riders and announce who the on-coming riders were. But all in all, a good job. I don't know how much it cost us, but at least we got the press and TV. The Wall St Journal even managed a story that worked the pun on bicycle and business cycle, Escaping the Business Cycle, Oman Embraces Cycling, that nicely noted the way Oman escaped the worst of the recent global crash.

Contrast that good news with the free press being generated across the globe by the new Dubai Mall aquarium springing a leak. Nicely summarised in quality Dubai-based blog Life in Dubai, the stories naturally drew a link with the closure of 'the world's highest viewing platform', and noted the instinctive response of those who run the mall to try and stop people taking photos. LOL. When will it sink in with the powers that be in this region that, thanks to the internet and a truly global media industry, the old methods for controlling information just don't work anymore. Thanks to camera phones, 3G networks, twitter and, yes, even blogs, stories need to be managed, and managed fast, not blocked. Sh. Maktoum's infamous "Shut up" comment to analysts, as he was under a bit of pressure to pay his vast debts, was beamed around the world in an instant. Stamping one's feet and behaving like a spoiled brat in the face of a bad news story being reported, or trying to suppress stories that are obviously already in the infosphere, are not how to handle PR problems. Toyota and Tiger Woods are lessons to learn too.

Photo: Twitter had the Dubai Mall Aquarium leak out within minutes. See Twitpic

So I'd just say, Oman, please learn these lessons from others. As our economy becomes more dependent on tourists and foreign trade, our reputation and brand need active professional management. I just hope that's what we are getting. What people want to see when a bad story breaks is not cover-ups and non-answers. Evidence of a problem being confidently and professionally handled is essential. Like any celebrity brand, long won gains aquired over decades can be eroded in an instant. It is essential we learn from the PR disaster that is Dubai. I emphasise that this is not about spin (although that is important), but about the fundamentals. For example, getting stories out about how progressive we are wrt women's rights in the Sultanate are OK, but when one sees stories about the ROP stupidly trying to stop an Omani lady getting a motorbike licence because of prejudice, this inconsistency between reality and PR is a problem.

Moving on. In news just in from Moscow, Omani crude oil may see a slightly lower market price in the future as a new Siberian Oil blend 'ESPO' hits the trading markets in the far east. As its closer to the far east markets (hence cheaper to ship) and is a higher quality oil (lighter, less sulphur) it looks like being a fast winner. This will impact not just Omani crude, but a lot of the Gulf too. OK, as long as global growth resumes, it won't be a huge problem, people will still need our crude, but it does indicate Oman will probably take some sort of trading hit on the price people are willing to pay for Omani Blend. Even if it's as low as $0.50 per barrel, remember that's over $120mln a year. Ouch.

"The crude is much better than other Persian Gulf grades, and the voyage is much shorter, so it's attractive for most of us," said a trader with an East Asian refiner that may soon try ESPO.

"ESPO is a very vanilla kind of grade, a good grade, much more pleasant than Oman, so refiners in Northeast Asia should be all over it," a trader said.

The completion of a pipeline to China from the Siberian town of Skovorodino by 2012 will take output to about 600,000 bpd from 250,000 bpd projected in the first quarter, making it easier for Chinese refiners to buy ESPO regularly, possibly via term deals.

"Once you have that kind of volume and consumer acceptance, you are looking at a situation where Middle East grades would be at a disadvantage," said Tchilinguirian from BNP Paribas.

And finally, Amouage does well.
Even perfume can create good press when handled correctly. Kudos to shockingly young Amouage CEO David Crickmore and his team for getting the good press out on their launch in Dubai (urh, wouldn't Abu Dhabi be better?) and London. Read the CNN story at Oman's royal family scents global profit in luxury perfumes. (yes, all headline editors love puns)

Photo: Left to right: David Crickmore, Amouage CEO with Syrian Actress Soulaf Fawakherji and Sayyid Khalid bin Hamad Al Busaidi, Amouage Chairman, during a private tour of the new flagship store in Muscat [AME info].

I didn't realise that Amouage was started at the direction of HM in 1983 by His Highness Sayyid Hamad bin Hamoud Al Busaidi, nor that the 'Amouage Gold' scent was created by a famous Parisian Nose & legendary French parfumier, Guy Robert. Its a pity the CEO, Art Director and Nose are expats, but hey, that's how it goes sometimes when you want the best and the best is what it takes in the International Smellies business. At least most of the employees are, I believe, Omani. You can read more about Amouage in an excellent article here.

I also like the idea of further investment in developing and extending the Amouage brand. It could be a very good way of high-grading and expanding local products, as long as extreme quality and (always an ephemeral thing) 'class' are maintained.

But well done Amouage.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Problems at Muscat Daily? Mohana fails to deliver, back to business as usual

Sorry about the delay, but I was very busy this week and thus couldn't find time to sort out a few internet hiccups. Rumours of deep and dark reasons for the short break are untrue!

Meanwhile, a reader pointed out the strange goings on at new kid on the Muscat 4th Estate block - Muscat Daily, stabled by Apex Press and Publishing, sired by successful Omani Businessman Saleh Zakwani, out of ambitious dame Mohana Prabhakar.

Photo: Mohana Prabhakar, CEO of Muscat Daily publisher Apex Press & Publishing. (Apex press release)

The newspaper launched just a few months ago, and according to my sources seems to have rapidly exceeded its business plan targets for subscriptions, due to the combination of official home delivery (a first), low cost, and a populace frankly desperate for a new English paper that might do more than simply reprint Oman News Agency propaganda and the Reuters wire services.

They also ran a few stories initially that built on the reputation of free Apex magazine The Week for 'daring' to print a few articles that actually criticised something, such as pointing out when rubbish wasn't being collected, or minor issues with parking. This was actually groundbreaking folks, pathetic though that may seem.

However, those high expectations have met reality, and the usual drivers of poor newspaper reporting in Oman.

For a start, Muscat Daily editorial is essentially 100% Expat, mainly Indians (as is Times of Oman). The problem with this in terms of a newspaper is that the average Indian population** is famously afraid of doing anything to displease the Omanis who pay them. The fear of being ignominiously sent back to India keeps the typical Indian expat** in a constant state of prostrate genuflection to authority and their paymasters.

It also means they will not print anything truly challenging to ANYONE important, as they may get in trouble, and important people tend to be connected to one of the big oligarchy groups of businessmen who dominate non-Governmental advertising in Oman. Threats of pulling advertising are common, and seem to work. The treatment of the Toyota recall by Bahwan was typical - the story did not explicitly point out how Bahwan (the monopoly Toyota dealer in Oman) were denying there was a recall that applied to Oman.

The only way Oman is going to get real reporting is to have Omani journalists, supported by Omani editors with balls and wasta. Some young Omani journalists are much more talented than the expats when it comes to real reporting. They are not so much driven by earning a salary and having a residency visa. They actually have a passion for Oman, and some are willing to write real stories. The National's Omani stringer Saleh al Shaibany is a great example of this, but of course he has to work for a UAE paper. The fact that their English may not be as polished is something that can be handled by having a good sub-editor to fix the grammar and spelling. But Omani editorial is the only way this is going to improve, and it seems none of the Omani newspapers can be bothered to develop such talent*.

In addition, the Muscat Daily has a few strangle quirks. I noticed they are printing the self-help drivel pumped out by failed businessman but aggressively hyped-up self-promoter Kevin Abdulrahman, who left a string of ripped off people in New Zealand after a suspiciously unethical multi-level marketing scheme failed and he forced to flee the country. He had such a bad reputation that the biggest newspaper in the country the NZ Herald felt moved to warn the UAE authorities of his past record. Still, he's good enough for Muscat Daily. (Again, does no-one in Muscat Daily bother to use Google??)

Also, there are reports that Mohana's famously strong ego, and a tendency to be surrounded with fawning yes-men, are resulting in big staff turnover at the paper. This is usually a sign of bad management. Mohana was always ambitious, working her way up from a lowly editor of one magazine in 2001 to the lofty heights of CEO by 2008.

Muscat Daily may be a financial success - circulation is good, and they are making The Times of Oman up their game. But as a journalistic endeavor right now I'm calling it a fail. From promising beginnings, this little filly is back to business as usual, with small non-stories and the usual everything's happy local news stuff in the attempt to boost advertising (which has been slow), especially from the Government.

And that's a shame.

The flag of real journalism in Oman is firmly held right now by gallant but small weekly freebie "Y Magazine", but they are a tiny outfit and don't have the resources to really take on giants like Apex and ToO.

* The tendency of expats to protect their jobs by blocking the development and training of Omanis is a whole story on its own. It's one of the many things holding back the expansion of Omani workers.

**Post edition
Update 1: I was making a gross stereotype here to make a point. I was never referring to all Indian expats. If you are an Indian Expat (or indeed, an expat of a different nationality) and you know this description does not apply to you, then please don't take it as applying to you! But I still think the visa/sponsorship system creates an atmosphere that severely discourages risk-taking to the disservice of journalism and several other desired behaviours, and that these apply more commonly to the NRIs. It's not meant to be about blame.

Update 2: I take the point that there were a couple of statements that were a matter of opinion, and that even the fact that these opinions were shared by more than just UD, they did not actually help the point of the story at all. These have been changed. I do actually read the comments and take them under consideration. Thanks for the input folks.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Exclusive Interview: Being Gay in The Sultanate of Oman from the POV of An English Gentleman. And advice for visitors who are FOD.

After the recent blocking and unblocking by Omantel of local blog Community Queer last week, the topic of homosexuality in our little corner of the Middle East has been in the news of late, with attention from both sympathisers and, to be fair, a lot of people extremely opposed to even the idea of homosexuality.

Yet Muscat Confidential has always received a lot of search hits and emails from people asking about homosexuality in Oman; Gay people thinking about coming here as residents or as tourists, or Omanis searching for gay hook-ups and somehow stumbling across Muscat Confidential.

Unfortunately, I’ve never really been able to answer their questions about what it’s like to be gay or a gay foreigner in Muscat, as I am heterosexual. This is not really an ‘open invitation’ situation in almost any country, and certainly not in Oman. Practicing homosexuality is illegal in Oman, and is against the instructions of pretty much all religions, including Islam. So information about homosexuality in Oman is pretty thin on the ground. I doubt we’ll be seeing any articles in the press about it either!

Making this aspect of human behaviour illegal does not stop people being born with a sexual attraction to the same gender however. And that includes Omanis, and our visitors from overseas.

Muscat Confidential is therefore proud to bring you an exclusive interview with someone who can give us some insights into the gay scene in The Sultanate. You will not be surprised to know that our correspondent chose to remain anonymous. You’ll have to take my word for it that he is a reliable and trustworthy source of information. That he is also extremely articulate, intelligent and refreshingly honest you will be able to discern for yourself.

The interview took place on a good friends’ extremely large yacht, over a glass of perfectly chilled Bollinger served by discrete staff in crisp whites, as the sun was setting over the beautiful islets of Bandar Khairan**.

Photo: Bandar Khiaran, near Muscat Oman, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

As the languid waters of the bay lapped against the side of the boat and Ms Dragon entertained herself with a novel sunbathing by the side of the pool, Undercover Dragon talked to our inside man, who we’ll call “The English Gentleman”.

Here’s what he had to say…

Muscat Confidential: Thank you for taking the time to share with my readers what it’s like to be living a gay lifestyle in The Sultanate of Oman. There's not really a lot of information out there.

The English Gentleman: Thanks for asking me about the experience of being a gay foreigner in Oman. I’m happy to pass on what I know, both for others thinking of living here and for those considering a visit. I should preface what follows by saying I’m talking entirely about men (I’m sure there are Omani lesbians, but I don’t have enough experience to talk with any knowledge), and as someone well past my ‘party years’, with a steady partner. I’ve lived a pretty quiet life here for the past six years.

MC: So – is there an Omani gay community?

TEG: First of all, I think you have to separate men in Oman who actively identify themselves as “gay” and men who are simply having sex with men. The first group is probably pretty small, and what we in the West think of as a “gay community” comes down to some fairly small groups of men, mostly in and around Muscat – more a set of sometimes intersecting sets of friends. To my knowledge, there are no formally organized LGBT groups (although times are changing, and who knows what some enterprising group of students might be up to), and there are no full-time, openly identified gay bars/restaurants/hangouts.

On the other hand, the second group [UD: e.g. men who like to have sex with men but don’t identify as being homosexual] seems to be pretty large, and there does seem to be a certain amount of (unspoken) consent within traditional society about male-male sex. Given the very limited mixing of the sexes, especially for young men, I guess that’s not surprising (teacher friends have told some very interesting stories about things they observe in their students – and this does seem to be one area in which the girls are keeping up). And then, too, there is a really interesting subculture of transvestism and gender-fluidity that doesn’t seem to have been studied too much (Wikipedia has an article on it – Khanith). I’ve been in a couple of traditional local bars at which groups of men in full makeup and partial or even full drag have shown up, and it’s seemed to be something that, at least in that context, is taken pretty matter-of-factly.

In recent years, we’ve met more and more Omanis who do actively identify as gay. Like many in the Arab world, most are very closeted, and many if not most end up married and living, sometimes very happily, what would seem to a Westerner like a double life: wife, kids, and family on one hand, and a social/sexual life with other men on the other. We do have some more “out” Omani friends, including one or two who’ve raised the issue with parents or siblings; they’re from more sophisticated families, and their experiences have been fair to very good.

Some have had experiences, personally and with family and friends, that reminds me of Western friends from very religious/conservative backgrounds. They’re conflicted by what they think their religion tells them and what they feel, and they got real problems about being both gay and religious. Some find their own way and stay quite devout, but many have more or less left religion behind and wish that their culture would open up and acknowledge that there have always been gay people here and let them find a more open place in the society. In a sense, it’s like local attitudes to alcohol – lots and lots of Omanis drink, but it’s still pretty totally taboo.

MC: Where do Gay men meet?

TEG: It’s not an exaggeration to say: everywhere. There might be some better known cruising spots, and as anywhere else in the world, bars are big (try the big hotels), but I’ve heard tales of foreign men meeting Omanis at malls, on the beach, and even in business settings. Omanis, from what friends tell me, often first meet online – the Internet is very, very important in the Arab gay community more widely, and Oman is no exception. I find it interesting that sites that Westerners think of as being entirely for hooking up for anonymous sex, Arabs are using to create online communities, of which sex is just a part along with longer-term friendships and the creation of networks of friends.

MC: Is Oman becoming a gay tourist destination?

TEG:That’s probably overselling it, but my friends and I agree that we seem to be seeing more identifiably gay tourists around. We had dinner at a very fancy hotel restaurant last fall, and it felt like it was us and about ten European gay couples. It makes sense – the country has beautiful beaches, an increasing number of “destination” resorts, and it’s being marketed as a hot new place to visit. Face it – if it’s going to become trendy, it’s the gays who will get here first, so it’s actually a positive sign for local tourism that they’re showing up!

MC: Would you recommend Oman as a place for gay men to come to?

TEG: It really depends what people are looking for. If one want lots of night life and a Mykonos/Fire Island kind of vacation, definitely not.

On the other hand, it’s a great place for people who want to see a traditional Arabic culture in a place with all the mod cons. I will say it’s an incredibly safe destination, on the whole – you’re not likely to run into the kind of predatory gigolos you might find in Morocco, Beirut, or Dubai. Omanis, straight or gay, are great hosts. Probably the best way to settle in, at least in the cooler months, is to find a nice beachside coffee shop, look open to conversation, and see what happens. One cultural stereotype that does kind of play into gay tourists’ favor is that some (many? Most?) Omani men seem to believe that all Western men are gay.

Some of my Omani friends actively look for foreign visitors, either online or at various touristy places, and some of them you’d probably think were gay (fit, Western dress, etc.). At the same time, I’ve had foreign friends visit who were genuinely shocked to be approached, sometimes very directly, by what they saw as very conservative, even slightly intimidating types (right down to the short dishdasha and long beard).

MC: Are there tourists coming here just for sex?

TEG: It does play a role, but I don’t see Oman turning into Thailand West; people come here because of perfect weather and an exotic, traditional, but generally tolerant, culture. That they might meet up with a local man or two is more of an added bonus, if it’s part of the equation at all. Most I’ve met have just been gay versions of the tourists Oman is marketing to: affluent, somewhat older, and cosmopolitan. That said, I’ve met a few, mostly pretty creepy, European guys who are just here to get under the dishdasha. But that happens in a lot of places, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

MC: What about arrests, hassles, or other pitfalls?

TEG: I honestly don’t think it’s something that the police get involved in. You can’t go around too flamboyantly, but that applies just as much to straight people. I had a slightly tipsy out-of-town acquaintance hit on a guy in a bar who turned out to be security, and he was firm but professional (“go home, now,” which was actually good advice). If you’re respectful, not running around in ridiculous clothes, and don’t go around just leaping on local men, you should be fine. Visiting friends have had Omani men visit them in their hotel rooms (something almost impossible in some parts of the region), and nobody I know has been scammed, blackmailed, or otherwise gotten into trouble.

Of course, Oman is still part of the real world, and I wouldn’t advise running off with someone who sent you a nice message on Manhunt or whatever without meeting up in public, making sure someone knows what you’re up to, etc.

MC: And what about living in Oman, long term?

TEG: Gay, straight, or anything else, you need to have a high tolerance for quiet – Muscat is a very nice city, and there are more and more places to eat, better shopping etc., but it’s still pretty provincial. The Symphony plays a few times a season, there might be a good film (censored) once or twice a month, we pop out to the pub occasionally, and that’s about it. We love our live here, but it’s what we’ve made it. Life outside the capital would be far more challenging on all fronts – I’ve known teachers in the interior who go pretty stir-crazy, or who spend most of their free time coming and going from Muscat.

But – and it’s a remarkable thing – I can honestly say I’ve never had a moment’s discomfort or unpleasantness about being gay in Oman. I work with both Omanis and foreigners, and I think most of my Omani colleagues understand our situation. I have one very traditional, conservative co-worker, and she’s very fond of my partner and always asks about him if he doesn’t drop by the office now and then. I don’t know what they say when I’m not around, of course, but I’ve felt less comfortable in a lot of places. You have to be thoughtful, and discreet, but it’s quite possible to live very comfortably here.

MC: What is your circle of friends like? What is your social life like?

TEG: We’re pretty varied – Omani, Western and Arab expats. My partner and I have learned enough Arabic to get by, so we tend to have United Nations sort of parties. One thing I really like about our friends here is how mixed we are – old and young, elite and not, thin, fat, tall, short, you name it. Probably most of the “out” people here are expat, with Westerners living pretty much as they would anywhere, along with expat Arabs from all over the Middle East, but (and I suspect this is as much about their home country culture as anything) with Lebanese predominating. I know comparatively few out Indian men given the size of their expat population, but that might be a class thing or might just be the reluctance of Arabs and Indians to socialise (meaning I’m not meeting them through my local contacts).

Our social life is far more diverse than most settings here, which I think is one of the things that our Omani friends like (they complain that Omanis only meet each other at family gatherings, on Eid visits, etc). Personally, I’ve always been impressed at how welcoming Arab gay men are, how comparatively un-obsessed with youth and beauty the way some Westerners can be. My friends are more likely to praise somebody by saying “he has a white heart” (qalbu ubyud) than “he’s hot.” That said, I have to admit: we have a lot of hot friends.

We have a lot of fun – we have house parties, we go out to coffee shops, and we do a lot of tour-guiding for visiting friends and friends-of-friends.

Once in a while I do miss living someplace like San Francisco, Sydney, or Amsterdam, where we could be wild and crazy and totally out. But then I think about how much I like our flat here, and how beautiful the average winter weekend is, and how little I miss the stress and pressure of big city life, and Oman seems pretty good. When you get too bored, Dubai’s a short drive away, and after a couple of days there I’m usually ready to come home.

MC: Thanks for the interview. I learnt a lot. I think people will be very interested in what you’ve shared. More champagne?

TEG: Jolly good idea!

**Not really, there was no yacht, obviously. I just made that part up. As you know, the Dragon doesn’t do meetings. But it just seemed to happen that way in my head. The interview was conducted by email.

Anyone - straight, gay or bi - having sex is strongly advised to read about protecting yourself and your partner(s) from harm, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. See Wikipedia - Safer Sex.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

News Round Up and Omani Bloggers' Interviews published in Times Of Oman

What a week! A few misc news updates for your weekend.

CAYC Update
The continued attempt by the Ministry of Tourism, commercial arm OMRAAN, their real estate developer friends, family and powerful well connected business oligarchs partners, plus rich GCC assistants, to take over the family friendly Capital Area Yacht Club rolls on. Despite having been gifted the deeds to their beautiful little bay (next door to Cat Island and Bar Al Jissa) by no less an individual than His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, and being totally harmless, they lost one of their recent court cases. This is a relatively low cost club where ordinary Omani and expat families can have a boat (with somewhere to go in it nearby), go fishing, have a safe beach for the kids, and offer a beer and a meal.

Photo: The CAYC - Still under threat.

But as the MoT want to make a buck, destroy yet more pristine beach environment, and do yet another high priced exclusive 'Integrated Tourist Development' for GCC foreigners. Oh, and those Omanis rich enough to get a piece of the pie. So apparently the regular Omanis have to get kicked out.

The first court date for the appeal is set for 28th February, according to my sources in the Ministry of Tourism, and the fix appears to be in. Go visit the CAYC, maybe even join (you don't even have to have a boat) and help them beat off the hyenas. More updates as they happen.

Oman hands over Al Qaeda operative to Saudi for a bit of a chat.
It seems that the journey from the caves of AFPAK to Yemen is not without its potholes. Newsweek and CNN reported that one Mr. al-Eidan was caught by Omani authorities with a bag full of Al Qaeda names, photos and telephone numbers. Interesting that we just handed him over to the Saudis to, ahem, 'assist with inquiries'. Sometimes a pragmatic system of law enforcement works. And the Taliban Civil Liberties Union is hardly a paragon of due process, so its a case of what goes around, comes around, I guess.

Washington (CNN) -- Some jihadist Web sites monitored by CNN are warning al Qaeda leaders that a recently captured field commander had more than 300 names and numbers plus important documents on him at the time of his arrest.

A U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed that Abdullah Saleh al-Eidan was captured in Oman in late January and is being held now in Saudi Arabia. The official, who is not authorized to speak on the record because of the sensitive nature of the information, would not comment on what intelligence has been gathered from al-Eidan.
But the official did say al-Eidan was caught as he was carrying information from al Qaeda "central" in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region to its affiliate in Yemen known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Frankincense cures Cancer?
Well, maybe. A nice story in the BBC and elsewhere about how the good quality stuff from Salalah might contain an active ingredient against certain cancers was good to read. BBC. Frankincense: Could it be a cure for cancer? It's always been regarded as a natural anti-bacterial, as well as smelling nice. But cancer? Maybe get a few kilos while you can!

Fame at last? Undercover Dragon's 15 column inches
The Times of Oman Blogger stories by promising journo Sandhya Menon were a big hit (at least with those of us who were interviewed), and in the end, a decent couple of fresh stories for the public too IMHO. I thought the interviews the effort generated were all damn good reads (see the blog roll if you're new). An added bonus DVD special feature, if you will, to the published story.

In a related topic, Wackos Emerge from the Swamp of Oman:
Some of the responses from the public triggered by the story reminded me of the real reason so many of us remain anonymous. It's not the ROP, or the Government, or the Internal Security.

It's the 'haters'.

There really are zombies in Oman after all.

Even relatively normal and obviously fundamentally nice people (such as Nadia of Dhofari Gucci, or Suburban of OtherOman) got a significant amount of really nasty and hate-dripping comments and emails. Me too (no surprise there I guess), although I think I actually get less than the ladies, even though I'd have said I tend to be far more generally offensive. This may be connected to my not being a girl, as these losers tend to prefer beating up women.

I don't mind the simply argumentative ones. Hey, I'm a free speech advocate after all. And occasionally the comments are on point.

But there are some real wackos out there. Generally they seem (by my reading of the runes) to be Omani, male, under 35, both homophobic* and misogynistic, passive aggressive, pretty poor English, draped in the flag, hate expats, and with a chip on their shoulder the size of Jebel Akhdar.

(*at least outwardly. Perhaps they doth protest too much? A bit of latent guilt about earlier experiences or current tendencies? Hmmm... More on that theme soon...)

These people are the real reason I'm glad to be anonymous. Some are just unbalanced. Some seem to think that hate, violence and ignorance are a feature of Islam. Most seem sexually frustrated.

So, a big FCUK YOU haters!

You'll be pleased to know I'm off for a nice night out on the town with the drop dead gorgeous Ms. Dragon in her finery, lashings of champagne included, followed by what is probably going to be the most mind blowingly great sex a human can probably experience.

Unlike you.

Hope that floats your boat.

Nice story this weekend too readers. Promise!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Times of Oman Interview with Undercover Dragon.

I few days ago I was contacted by a local reporter working for Times of Oman, along with many other English Bloggers in or about the Sultanate, for a story on blogging in Oman.

Picture: The Dragon does an interview. (From The Paperbag Princess).

Here is the unedited interview in full. The interview was held via email on 8th Feb, 2010. I'm publishing this here hopefully the day before the story is printed in Times of Oman. While I'm not yet convinced there will be any mention of Muscat Confidential in the story, I am thinking that if I am mentioned it will be in pretty derogatory terms... So I wanted to put the interview on public record. Maybe I'm just getting paranoid.

I'm very pleased to have been given the opportunity to answer some questions, many of which I hadn't considered before.

It wasn't something I'd thought of doing, but in hindsight I'm glad I did. I tried to answer the questions as much as I could. It is bit schizoid being the author of the Dragon, I must admit. I'm sure most of you realise, especially those who blog, that Mr Dragon is as much a character as he is myself.

Hope you enjoy. And well done Times of Oman*.

Undercover Dragon,
Muscat 2010.

>>>> How is it that you have your finger on the pulse of much that is Oman,
>>>> all the time?
I probably only scratch the surface of what's going on with what I can
publish. But there have been a few stories that people are interested
in that have never been picked up by the print media or other on-line
news suppliers. Actually, a lot of what I write about is already
somewhere in the public domain, and its just connecting some dots or
making some observations.

>>>> Are you not afraid your cover will be blown?
While it would not be good to be public with my identity, as I'd
prefer to keep it separate from my professional and personal life, it
doesn't keep me awake at night! More importantly, it would probably
make the blog far less entertaining. And it's very important to be
entertaining. No-one wants to just read stale news items.

>>>> (Dare I ask this?) How do you cover your web footprint?
Its not that difficult to protect ones internet footprint from casual
observers, or to a certain extent, even from the internet service
provider. But unless one goes to extraordinary lengths there is no way
to protect yourself from the professionals. Occasional lapses in
Omantel's internet censorship software indicate that Omantel is
tracking the TCP/IP numbers that access Muscat Confidential within
Oman. The website itself is hosted in the USA. In fact, how do you
really know I'm in Oman at all?

>>>> Does anyone know who you are?
A few people do. But there are not very many, and they are very, very
close personal friends who know how important maintaining that
anonymity is. You don't have to know who I am to know that Undercover
Dragon exists or is real. That's one of the fascinating things about
the internet.

>>>> Have you ever gotten into any kind of trouble with the authorities?
No, not really. Some of my posts have annoyed some individuals within
the Government, but being annoying is not illegal. If the real
authorities thought the blog was illegal it would be trivial to block
access to the site, and they haven't done so. Oman's internet and
freedom of speech laws are potentially draconian as they stand, but in
practice they are not as bad as a lot of people think. The problem is
that the laws are so vague and poorly drafted they conceptually
include almost any critique of anyone connected to the Government,
even when the information is in the public domain already and the
statements are accepted as true. The punishments include some serious
jail time, and have not really been tested in the courts at all, so
no-one knows what the laws really mean or where the legal boundaries
are. Just look at the recent court cases involving the internet forums
and the sudden deportations of journalists.

>>>> What is it that you are trying to achieve with your blog?
First, I think Oman is in a period of transition
from an economy based on exporting oil and gas to, well, whatever the
future holds. Its obvious that the present growth rate in the
population far exceeds the growth in net foreign income from oil and
gas (and the export industries based on gas, like aluminum and
petrochemicals), while at the same time we continue to import almost
everything the country needs to live, including much of our food,
technology, labour and skills. People have become accustomed to a
highly paternalistic state providing everything for them, and expect
all the nice things a modern lifestyle can provide, without earning it
on their own merits. Its unsustainable.

 I think a key part of that transition is having a society much more
open to criticism, to improve the Government and the performance of
the economic agents within the country. I'm personally convinced that
His Majesty has long foreseen a time when Oman's Government will be
able to be based on a model closer to a constitutional Monarchy,
perhaps more similar to a Northern European model, with an elected
representative chamber that exercises real control over the executive
branches of Government. But democracy is not primarily about votes.
This is where the West has made a huge mistake. Free speech, a free
press, intellectual freedom, freedom of information and freedom of
association are far, far more important than votes to ensuring a
Government has the support of the people it governs. It's almost
irrelevant if people actually cast formal ballots. Just look at Iran.
People need to be able to discuss openly how the Government's money is
being spent, the quality of their schools and healthcare, abuse of
power, and how their various Government Ministers are performing. I'd
like to think the blog is a very small part of the beginning of that
in Oman.

As you work for Times of Oman:
I presume you're curious about my occasional criticism of Times Of Oman Editorial by Essa Al Zedjali. I often make comments about the
Times of Oman editorials because I think the newspapers here could
really help drive this transition, instead of blindly supporting the
idea that everything the Government does is perfect and couldn't be
improved; its pure propaganda. This therefore supports a culture where
power and corruption win over true principals of equal rights, and
treats the people like idiots. That waste offends me deeply. I also
think that many of the comments made about Israel and 'Jews' are both
illegal under Omani law and simply serve to make the solution to the
problem of Palestine much more difficult to attain, namely a 2 state
solution based on the 1967 borders (with adjustments of equal areas to
balance realities). It's part of the attempt to distract people in
Oman from what's wrong here by getting them to think about Israel.  I
think the opportunity to really lead opinion, given the tremendous
reach and resources the printed press has in Oman, is being wasted in
the pursuit of pontificating vanity, pandering to ugly prejudices and
ignorance, and trying to obtain wasta while covering up ineptitude. In
addition, these opinions have often been picked up elsewhere in the
world media and sometimes make Oman, as a nation, look as ignorant
and, to be frank, bat shit crazy as somewhere like Yemen or Pakistan.
Unfortunately, so much of the material published by Times of Oman, and
most of the other media outlets, is so ironically entertainingly
stupid and asinine that it would be more difficult to blog if it were
otherwise! I know I'm joined by many true Omani intellectuals in my
derision of these aspects of the Omani press and TV.

>>>> How long have you been in Oman?
Quite some time. Lets just say, many years.

>>>> How do you cultivate your sources?
It's taken time. By sticking with the blog and growing its reputation,
increasingly people email me directly with various stories and
information. I also hear a lot from people who know things and talk
about it in public, when they perhaps shouldn't. Most of it I don't
publish, because I like to double or even triple check what I blog,
and to do that in many situations is almost impossible without
compromising either my sources or myself. I also take great efforts to
protect my sources' anonymity, so one develops a relationship based on
mutual trust and respect. There are some stories I would love to be
able to post, but to do so from within Oman would be illegal under the
censorship laws here, so I don't. The internet is also a wonderful
source of free information if you take the time to look, and do some

>>>> Have you seen any tangible results of all that you critique, discuss and
>>>> put forth for debate on your blog?
Thats debatable I guess. I'd like to think that part of the reason we
are seeing slightly more bravery in the printed media here over the
past 18 months or so, especially led by Apex publishing and Muscat
Daily, is due to the fact of what I blog. Muscat Confidential has been
showing, perhaps, that things are not as bad as publishers or
journalists originally thought about the law. It's early days though.
Omani culture, nor the authorities in general, are not even ready to
see what is demonstrably true being published, let alone opinion that
is offensive to some people. In the USA, for example, a standard and
total defense against libel is that what was published is true. That
is not the case in Omani law, nor is it accepted by most Omanis.
Several of my posts have been picked up in the Arabic forums which are
far more popular, and have triggered discussion on topics such as the
recent story I published on the abysmal quality of Oman's higher

>>>> How do you relate to Omanis that you deal with on a regular basis? I
>>>> mean to ask, do you see the attitudes of this country or the projected
>>>> attitudes, reflected in colleagues, friends, acquaintances that are Omani?
I don't see such stereotypes as being very relevant or useful. There's
a range in all societies. What counts is behaviour and intellectual
integrity, not your passport.

>>>> Why hasn't anyone found you out yet?
Probably because I don't meet with people, even though I've often been
asked. And I'm careful to ensure that what I write is generally
unsourcable to a unique individual. I'm sure that if I was a threat to
Omani security (which I am not) or posting things that are seriously
illegal (which I don't), that Internal Security could find me in
moments! Fortunately, Internal Security are both very good at what
they do, and have more important things to do than worry about
bloggers that occasionally offend self-righteous and incompetent civil
servants, pseudo-intellectual editors, rapacious property developers
or unemployed and woefully ignorant University students. Thank

>>>> What do you think of the Omani bloggers and their work on the
>>>> blogosphere, especially the women?
Perhaps the only reason Oman has made the progress it has is its
hardworking women, and Oman has fortunately had a relatively
progressive attitude to women in society, especially compared to the
rest of the region. I think the internet has been a tremendous boost
to empowering women in Oman and the region. All strength to them.
Plus, most of the interesting Omani blogs are in Arabic, which I don't
read very well.

>>>> Has blogging made you more aware and seeking of information? How has
>>>> your blog and people's response to it affected your personality?
No, not really. While I'm always looking for interesting stories, I
still have to hold down a job and live a normal life. It's just a
blog, lets not get too carried away. But its always nice when it comes
up in conversation. There is a certain self-centered vanity to
blogging that's hard to deny.

>>>> I know it sounds redundant, but a lot of what you say in your blog could
>>>> get you into trouble, despite you disclaimer. People will misinterpret
>>>> anything, you will agree. So how have you stayed out of trouble for this
>>>> long?
I've stayed out of trouble because I take pains to stay within the
law, and to remain anonymous. That I haven't been blocked despite
numerous complaints may indicate that some people at a sufficiently
high level within the Government support the concept of Muscat
Confidential and agree that Oman needs a greater degree of discussion.
Or they just haven't noticed and/or don't care, because nothing I do
is in any way a threat to the status quo and I don't blog in Arabic.
And people have a very short attention span.

>>>> Your analyses is usually very incisive and pretty harsh on the whole,
>>>> about various topics. What do you hope to achieve with taking that kind of a
>>>> stance on these things?
If people want to get smoke blown up their ass, and live in a
delusional world populated by Unicorns that crap butterflies and spend
all day patting themselves on the back, they already can get plenty of
that from the mainstream Omani media. Critique and satire is the
essence of what the blog is about. It's much more entertaining that
way, and people like to be amused. If the blog was boring and
happy-clappy, no one would read it, and then there wouldn't be much
point, would there?

>>>> Will you tell me where your sources are? And how you gain their trust?
Oh yes. I get a lot of emails from .... I'm kidding. Of course not.
But I suspect some of them are real life journalists who come across
things they can't print; or ordinary people who don't like something
but can't tell anyone because they would loose their job. And I have a
lot of friends in the various Ministries who tell me things.  A lot.
The trust comes from being accurate, or saying things that are true
and interesting.

>>>> Thank you for the interview.

Thank you for the opportunity, and for even trying to do this story. I am curious to see how it turns out. Keep up the effort.

* I know. Even I'm having difficulty actually seeing that phrase in print on MC...

Undercover Dragon

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Stop Press: New Omani Blog Community Queer blocked by ... Omantel

Update: 15 Feb.
Community Queer is now magically unblocked! Perhaps 'someone wearing a tie' got involved... And as Abdullah pointed out, Community Queer got a lot of free advertising and now undoubtably more popular than ever. So try to take advantage of the opportunity Scudder and Finns.

Photo: Unaccountable employees of a private company decide what you can see on the internet in Oman. And if they want to block harmless blogs by local Omanis, they can.

Well, how spookily coincidental, following a mini-post on Freedom of Expression in Oman. The arbitrary and almost absolute powers over our internet access, wielded by the faceless technocrats at a publicly traded company - Omantel - have decided to block a promising local blog called Community Queer.

Shame on you Omantel. Shame on you TRA.

Community Queer is authored by 2 Omani homosexuals (OK, one is bi-sexual). This in itself was unique and encouraging. The blog was totally innocuous.

Here's their header and info.



The members of Community Queer will hereby be known as Scudder and Finn. Scudder is a famously closeted and sexually inclined female of the lesbian variety. She likes boys too, when they look like girls (I guess she's bisexual, but whatever, right?). She enjoys classical music, quality books, and the colors purple, yellow, and green! Finn is the male half of the Queer duo. He likes boys. A lot. He likes girls too, but only if their clothes are on. Along with boys, Finn enjoys music, books, and throwing dirt at people.

So, who is it that decides these things on our behalf? Who are these people who decide, without review, without published guidelines, to impose arbitrary censorship on the entire country? George Orwell would be proud. This is fascism folks.

I wouldn't care so much if it was just for Omantel customers. But these people have monopoly control over access to the entire internet for the entire country, no matter what service provider.

So, people. Send Omantel an email asking them to unblock their site. (just try to follow the link on the blogroll on the right and you'll be offered an opportunity to send a message to the censors).

You can also refer to an old post here on the expert solutions to circumventing such low tech internet filters. You can even use Google as your proxy. I'll up date the blogroll link to do that for you automatically soon.

UPDATE: Done. See the last link or click here to tunnel around the basic Omantel censor if you are in Oman. Isn't Google so neat?

I also trust this will be perhaps picked up by the international media. Who knows what stories they'll decide to tag the story with, in a search for ironic local context?

Well done faceless idiot in Omantel!!! [just a hint, Omantel filter manager troll, you've probably got about, oh, maybe 1 day before you might find yourself really really regretting such a stupid thing as blocking this site and bringing the world's attention to this article). Think about it, you dimwit.... got it? Maybe ask someone wearing a tie.

It's not like the block is even effective against an average 9 year old.

Omani freedom of expression: Oxymoronic? Time for some definition please.

No real news today. So.

Quick one. Apropos the oxymoron of Omani Freedom of expression. What is it - if it exists?

Omani freedom of expression? Especially with respect to the internet and on-line forums, blogs, etc?

Muscati linked to a recent nice piece from my local IT lawyer of choice BlueChi*

Photo: Omani Internet star: Blue Chi

On line responsibility is real. No-where can you just say what you want. With good reason. Defamation is real, and should - rightly - be controlled by the law. In Oman, for instance, even the dead can be slandered (though not the UK/USA), and when convicted of a crime in an Omani court of law, apparently your identity still cannot be legally publicised! (which come to think of it, might help explain the lack of a court report in the local media).

And in Oman, slander remains a criminal rather than a civil issue. Why? As BlueChi mentions:

...In Oman, and many other countries, this right [UD: of freedom of expression] is restricted by some other legal principles such as defamation and breach of confidence. Defamation is generally defined as the act of spreading false information about a person which could harm that person’s reputation. This law is much more stricter in Oman than in some other places like the UK or the USA as defamation is a criminal act and not merely a civil matter. In addition to this, there is no clear requirement in the law for the statement to be false for it to be offensive, but merely requires it to have the consequence of damaging that person’s reputation.

The law in Oman is fuzzy at best, and hugely immature wrt legal precedent. It's time to clear this up, Ministry of Legal Affairs. What is legal freedom of expression these internet days? Some of the stuff being published on the Arabic and English Omani forums is waaaaay out there. What's legal? What isn't?

How does Twitter fit in?

No-one really knows.

We really need some public debate on this. And some resulting improvements to the law.

(*I used to have a link to BlueChi on the blog roll, but truth be told: he suffered heavily from an attack of professionalism, twitter addiction, and low productivity blog-wise).

Friday, February 12, 2010

A question on training and Omani Culture from the South Africans - Readers help requested

Readers, I thought you might be more able, qualified and motivated to answer the following query from a South African delegation of "soft skills trainers" who intend to come to Oman to address issues on training. They want to meet important people, avoid offending local people with intelligent dynamic women, and, naturally .... make a buck. Appreciate your responses, because I can't be arsed to do their free market analysis and due diligence.

Shit, isn't there a South African Embassy that's supposed to deal with this crap?

Oh. There is one in Oman. If you're from the South African Embassy in Oman (and how sweet a deal must THAT be!), maybe get your finger out of your ass and give them a response? It is, like, your job.


We are a soft skills training provider from South Africa who may have an opportunity to visit Oman in the near future with a delegation from SA.

We specialize in customer care, front line training for receptionists, secretaries, Personal Assistants etc. We do time management, stress management, interpersonal skills, conflict management, communication, supervisory training etc.

My questions are the following:

Is there a demand for this kind of training?

If one goes on a delegation like this, does the delegation have access to departments like "The Chamber of Commerce", government departments, private companies etc to assist you to meet potential business customers? Supposedly these are all arranged in advance so we would not be walking in cold when meeting on the first day. I would like to clarify that this is in fact the norm.

Would one walk away with business in hand at the end of such a delegation and interaction with the people above? I am not sure how quick such decisions are made and if one actually meets with the decision makers in a situation like this. It would be nice to know if there would be a return on investment when making a trip like this.

How are women perceived in an environment like this?

How are women accepted as facilitators of training in what I presume is mostly a male dominated work force?

What is the level of English like on different levels?

Is there a specific etiquette that needs to be followed? I know dress code is one of them but there may be many others Are there any tips you can give me that may assist us if we do embark on this opportunity?

Your assistance will be greatly appreciated. We have so much to offer, but we do need to know that we are doing the right thing.

Thanking you in anticipation for assistance and advice.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Omani gets death sentence in UAE for drugs smuggling.

An Omani national was sentenced to death by firing squad in Ras Al Khaimah yesterday after confessing to smuggling drugs when he was busted by undercover cops. See the story in the Gulf News

Five drug traffickers to face firing squad in RAK
Ras Al Khaimah: The Criminal Court on Wednesday sentenced five people to death. They were involved in drug possession and drug trafficking. The court session presided by Judge Bilal Abul Baqi passed the sentence on an Omani and four Pakistanis after they confessed to drug trafficking through the Oman-Ras Al Khaimah border.

A senior court official said they will be executed by firing squad.

The official added the Omani was searching for a buyer for one kilogram of opium and another kilogram of hashish when the RAK Anti-Narcotics Dep-artment received a tip-off and sent an undercover agent to do the deal with him. The Omani delivered the 2kg of drugs to the police source and he was arrested and the drugs seized.

During police investigations, the suspect confessed to smuggling the drugs in a television set, claiming it was a gift for a friend in RAK.
He also claimed the drugs did not belong to him and were for other people in the UAE who were going to sell them. During the court session the Omani did not provide any names of the people, thus a panel of judges sentenced him to death.

Drugs are now so rife in Oman that even the local papers are reporting the Government admitting this. That's how bad things are getting. While the Times of Oman reported that young Omanis are getting hooked on the demon weed of tobacco, last year Ministry of Health Undersecretary HE Dr Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Saidi confirmed that the number of registered heroin addicts had reached 1,862, and was quoted as saying that "there had been a particular increase in drug use among school and college girls". Hashish is considered common in schools too.

Being close to both major drug suppliers Iran and Afghanistan, and the big regional drugs markets of Saudi and the UAE, Oman is a major trans-shipment route for drugs and dealers are clearly encouraging a local market. Nearly 2000 registered addicts seems a lot in a country of only 2 million nationals.

Meanwhile, a branch of Bank Muscat was held up at knife-point by a masked man who got away with 48,000rials [~US$120k]. What's most surprising is the story was published in the Times of Oman too. That it was Bank Muscat is widely known but wasn't reported.

Those days of Oman being considered 'crime free' are a long way gone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The huge screw up that is the Ministry of Manpower's latest adventure in unintended side effects...And an interview with a local businessman.

Photo: Gulf News - a free visa expat getting the job done on an Omani building site

Some time ago the Ministry of Manpower started a crack down on so-called 'free visa' expats. So far it seems around 70,000 Indians have been deported and a load more are due to be deported too. Or they may be graciously allowed to leave of their own accord without first having to go to prison and pay a fine (which the law normally is if they get busted). This has been praised in both the Government Controlled press and the "Government are always totally awesome" private press Times of Oman. There was an excellent and more balanced story about this in the Gulf News in November last year.

The economic consequences are, however, starting to come home to roost. The story of how the crack down is dramatically impacting the earnings of taxi drivers published (again, unfortunately in the UAE papers) was a good example of how interdependent the economy is, and the side effects ill-considered legislation can have.

For a start, hundreds of building sites around the city are now silent, as noted by Muscato and others.

You see, it's not like these so-called 'illegal expatriates' were spending their day lying on the beach sipping ice-cold mango juice. They were the ones washing cars for a rial or two in parking lots around the capital; being part-time or full-time maids for Omani and Expats alike; or doing manual labour for around 5 rials for a 12-16hr day, especially on the capitals many, many building sites. I've heard reports that on a lot of big jobs with major contractors, up to 80% of the guys on site were 'free visa' lads. (Fortunately the standard Omani construction method of rebar, form-work and rendered concrete block is not rocket science as long as you've got a few construction managers who know what they're doing to supervise).

And we all know how many Omani are lining up for those jobs don't we?

Zero. In fact, if anyone knows where I can hire an Omani part-time maid who will actually do the housework and can read and write English I'd love to know.

Once again we are seeing a law that has not been properly thought through, because its easy and appears to do something about a problem.

I have here an interview with an anonymous businessman, we'll call him Mr.X, who was willing to give us his view on the whole free visa issue, and the impact on SME business in Oman.

Some background. What are free visa expats?

OK. Lets say you are an Omani and you have a farm up the coast. What you do is apply for visa for say, 10 Bangladeshi farm labourers. You keep 2 of them for the farm, where they will live in a small hovel and work your farm all day. The other 8 you charge say, 500 - 1500 rials for the original visa plus 20 rials a month for their continued sponsorship and labor card, and release them to the wild. They then seek employment however best they can, doing the jobs described above. As their sponsor you pull in a nice lump sum up front (usually borrowed from family back home), plus get 160 rials a month for very little effort; they get to earn what they can and keep most of it. Truly entrepreneurial types can apparently pull in quite a nice bit of cash. Its a huge gimmick. Of course, some of that money will go to ensure you get the visas in the first place through people in the Ministry.

Here's the interview* with Businessman X [also an expat, BTW]. He's pretty clear that there have been some well known and ... shall we say... rather dubious practices involved with obtaining visas from the Ministry of Manpower... Muscat Condifential does not endorse his opinions. They are presented as his personal opinion and observation.

Muscat Confidential: why is it hard to get a visa for the expats you need?
Businessman X: OK. For example. It been 10 years since my friend's last official labour visa clearance. He needs expat staff for loading and unloading goods. However, his PRO said that he will get clearance only if he have a strong contact/friend in the Ministry. Whenever he has have applied for helpers, their reply is that he has sufficient expat staff. His current staff is 5 Omani girls and 2 Omani men (men are elderly and have been working at the company for more than 15 years). Expat staff is 1 sales manager and 1 accountant. Now within 6 months these two Omani men are going to retire. And of all the interviews that he has taken, no Omani male wants the job of a helper/loader. If he mentions this fact to the Govt. official, his/her reply would be to apply for employee helpers via the Government office. It has been 3 years since my friend applied for 3 Omani drivers. Still no luck. Just imagine the difficulties of running a business without a driver and helper. If you want more examples, please visit Mattrah Souq and have a chat with the local businessmen there who have been in Oman for the past 3-4 generations, esp. the lane right behind the NBO Bank.

MC: Why can't you fire employees (Omani) who don't perform?
Mr. X: I recently met the Sales manager for a major company located in Ruseyl. He mentioned that to fire an Omani staff member which are not capable is a difficult issue. The same goes for all small business organizations. I heard this particular incident a long time ago from a friend who had to close shop because of the same issue. He had employed a Omani girl at his consultancy office. But when he found out that the girl was neither capable and stealing, he gave her 30 days notice to find another job. Now before the 30 days were completed, the girl stopped coming to office and soon the employer was faced with a court notice saying that he had made sexist remarks to the same employee. In the end of the court case, the employee won OMR 4000 in esttlement and my friend left the country for good. This incident is just what I heard. Don't know how far its true.

So Basically, one has to be very patient when it come to firing an Omani employee.

MC: who are these people hiring 'free' visa expats and who gets the 1000 rials?
Mr. X: Well I dont have much info on that. But only last month one expat just mentioned that he paid OMR 1500 for his brother to come and work in Oman. That was the last time I met him.

Please click on this link which caught my interest. Sue Hutton's 2003 article on Omanisation

One of the safest professions in the market (for getting visas) is that of an Investor (or Businessman). I am one and I know it is an advantage. Maybe 3-4 years ago, becoming an investor was an easy task. However an expat had to show OMR150,000 in working capital. Since 2006, many small business establishments have popped up with LLC certification. Now, one can wonder how these small shops, whose annual sales would not be more than OMR 20-25K, showed up with 150k in their bank accounts?

I am sure you would be aware of the many agents and corrupt bank officials who show 150k for any firm to enable them to convert them into an official LLC. That is done at a charge of OMR 3-5K. Many Bangladeshis pay the 3-5K and get their LLC done. With one Omani Partner and adding 6 unskilled workers as 'partners'. These low-skilled workers run small scale businesses like tailors, hair saloons, etc. And all they have to do is show 150k every 5 years when they have to renew their CR papers.

The Ministry of Manpower should have sited this problem and took necessary action. However, because of these actions against free visa holders, medium scale organizations like mine are also targeted.

According to many investors like me, who showed a capital of 150k and run their business in a clean proper manner, we should be given a preference based on annual audit/turnover, annual tax paid to government and contribution to society's needs and development. Now if a firm shows 150k capital, their annual turnover should be at the least OMR 1 - 1.5 million. Let these companies by upgraded in the system and attend to their needs in terms of real manpower requirements.

Another step would be to target Omanis who have farms lands in the interiors. Generally the locals hire 10 people on their farm (when only 2 are required) and send to remaining 8 for "Free Visa" jobs. These 8 expats have to earn their living, send money back hoe, pay for their own visa renewal (which i think is illegal) and pay their local sponsor OMR 10 - 20 per month. Now of the local it is income sitting at home. I know an Omani who had 20 expats at one point of time, working as "Free Visa." I guess he made from anywhere between OMR 200 - 400 per month.

Times of Oman on December 28, "Flexibility in labour market on the anvil"
This is a major step toward better expat worker management. Many were personally waiting for such an opportunity. Under this all three benefit: Sponsor, employee and employers. Now they have been given 2 months to register for the same. I am assuming after that they might have to line up and be packed off.

As far as promoting Omanisation here is an extract from the site I forwarded yesterday.

"His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’ address to the Council of Ministers on 28th September 2001 left no-one in any doubt that he had seen the future and that, without urgent action to encourage Omanis to take their own livelihoods into their hands, it was bleak."

“Work is no longer a personal hobby but it is indeed part and parcel of worship, and therefore it should be performed with sincerity, perfection and honour.”

Published with modifications in Oman Economic Review, September 2003

Recently I meet a sales person from Fair Trade. This incident occurred maybe 4 weeks ago. An Omani driver was shifted from credit supplies to cash sales due to his poor collection. Now in cash sales there is no expat to help with loading. For two days he came to work on time and completed all his duties. On the third day he had to deliver 50 large bags of rice to a customer. On the fourth day he never showed up. He finally showed up after a week and went back to work. And then again disappeared for a week, after which he quit. I guess he forget the part where Work is no longer considered a personal hobby.

One more? The Oman Flour Mills located in Jibroo generally depends 7-8 pakistani helpers to unload a 10 ton vehicle. They get the job done within 3-4 hours. The same job was given to 7-8 Omani. It took 8 hours which included 90 mins of rest time.

In 2000-01, when Omanisation first started in earnest, there was a heavy focus on foodstuff outlets; Imports, exports, retail and distribution firms. Overnight I had to let go of 4 helper staff whose combined salary was OMR 300. In their place I hired 6 local staff with a combined salary of 720 rials. And hiring Omani staff was when the nightmare really started. Paying then OMR 120 per head, I hired around 52 employees in 1 month when I needed only 4. They would come for the first shift and then just disappear. Just imagine the same when it happens to large scale org. who had to hire 120 locals in the place of 80 expats. Hence inflation.

It is a difficult task when one has to push out expats and force jobs on locals. One should look at the capacity of the general local population and assign Omanisation targets accordingly. We dont have any local drivers, but to force Omani in to that particular field was the most difficult adjustment for employers and employees.

*Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and to tidy up the English.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cervical Cancer vaccine available at MPH - for a price

Today's Muscat Daily has an advertorial on the front page for Muscat Private Hospital's offering of a cervical cancer vaccine. This is now available from MPH, even though the Ministry of Health is still studying the 'feasibility and efficacy". That's good, right?

The good Dr. Saxton is quoted comparing the vaccine to Penicillin, which is total nonsense (penicillin being a powerful antibiotic drug that kills bacteria, while the vaccine enables the body to recognise and defend against 4 types of cancer causing Human Papiloma Virus, HPV). The article claims the vaccine offers "effective protection against the killer disease", which it doesn't. It only protects against those 4 types of virus, albeit the most common types.

To get some more accurate information is fortunately easy via the internet. Here is a comprehensive report by the US National Cancer Institute. Quote:
Neither of these HPV vaccines has been proven to provide complete protection against persistent infection with other HPV types, although some initial results suggest that both vaccines might provide partial protection against a few additional HPV types that can cause cervical cancer. Overall, therefore, about 30 percent of cervical cancers will not be prevented by these vaccines. Also, in the case of Gardasil, 10 percent of genital warts will not be prevented by the vaccine. Neither vaccine prevents other sexually transmitted diseases, and they do not treat HPV infection or cervical cancer.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting the vaccine is a bad thing. Far from it. By I'd hardly call a 30% remaining risk "effective protection". Women must also continue to get PAP screening. The article also fails to mention that it is only licenced in the US for women between 9 and 26 years of age.

Anyhow, the price quoted today? 340RO. US$884. The exact same vaccine is available in the US at a retail price of $360 (3 x $120 per dose).

That's a HUGE 250% mark-up for the accountants at Muscat Private Hospital. And they only have enough doses for 30 women so far.

Gee, thanks MPH. You really care.

And Anita Joseph, ace reporter for Muscat Daily - how about next time taking 5 fuckin' minutes to do some basic background on google before slapping such PR copy straight on the front page beneath your by-line?

Just a suggestion.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Nawras Marketing tweet caught with a backfire - Suburban on how not to use social marketing!

Just a quick lazy reblog tonight - but its such a ripper of a local story.

Local blogger (and super-tweeter, see last week's Week) Suburban has a fantastic post today on the badly mis-managed attempt by normally astute Oman mobile company Nawras to use 'Social Media', ie twitter, to promote its brand. LMAOFOFL.

It might be OK for Muscat Confidential to get snarky and arrogant, but (a)I'm not positioning (and ipso-facto representing) a major national brand on twitter; nor (b) do I claim to be an expert guru on using social media), unlike Beyrouti, some cocky young marketing consultant apparently hired by Nawras.

Unlike marketing FAIL "guru" Beyrouti, I'm also usually right.

Go check it out. You'll be entertained!

Oh, I HAD to repost this great satire of this Nawras blow-back made by developar, someone who perhaps Nawras would have been better off hiring in the first place.

Nice one Suburban. I suspect it will get retweeted and reposted around the world in around... oh... a couple of hours ago.

Big post tomorrow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Omani couple successfully sue Muscat Private for negligence over tragic death of newborn

I was recently forwarded a tragic story about Muscat Private Hospital.

Photo: Muscat Private Hospital in Bousher, Muscat, Oman. A family's child died due to negligence, according to the recent finding of the Oman Ministry of Health

A year and a half ago, an Omani couple gave birth to their child at Muscat Private Hospital, one of the 'top' private hospitals in Oman. The birth proved difficult and a C section was performed. The child was born OK though, and scored a 9 and 10 on the Apgar scale (a standard way to evaluate the health of a newborn, scored out of 10).

However, later that night there was a problem. The baby was having difficulty breathing, and had vomited some of the baby formula they had given it. Despite efforts to treat the problem, within a few hours the baby died.

The couple were convinced that the death would have been preventable if proper treatment had been given, and proceeded to seek to uncover the cause of the death through the courts and the Ministry of Health. In December last year they finally got confirmation that they had been correct, when the court appointed expert and the Ministry of Health officially found that Muscat Private Hospital and the paediatrician involved were negligent in their treatment, that the Dr. was not qualified for his role as a Senior Paediatritian, and that MPH had inadequate procedures (see document of the translated findings below).

Excerpt from the email sent by the mother following the report from the experts:

... As you are aware, we have taken up the matter with the Court and the Ministry of Health in order to ensure justice to our beloved baby and to prevent such incidents of dereliction of duty by medical professionals in Oman. Today, I’m writing to inform you that the Higher Medical Committee has finally given its verdict in our favour and found the doctor responsible for providing inadequate postnatal paediatric care and the MPH has inadequate protocols in case of an emergency which lead to the untimely demise of our beautiful baby [name removed by UD]. While their judgment won’t bring our baby back to our arms and there is no material that can compensate for him, it offers us some consolation that our fight for him and other innocent Babies did not go in vain, and hope that our efforts will prevent recurrence of avoidable paediatric catastrophes in future.

I've been sent a lot of the documentation, but here is certified translation of the key investigation findings from the Ministry of Health:

Medical errors and mistakes occur across the world everyday, unfortunately. No-one is perfect, and when imperfection meets critical health situations bad things happen. But this case highlights a few things that are more specific to the Oman healthcare environment.

For a start, it shows that ordinary people can successfully take such matters through the Omani legal process and win. This is really good, and not easy to achieve anywhere in the world. The court is due to rule on compensation and penalties for MPH this month. I understand the Dr. concerned has left MPH, but has anything changed at the hospital itself?

Second, the finding that MPH had inadequate protocols and systematically failed to execute accepted medical standard responses to what is a infrequent but very common and normal post-birth complication (generally 1-2% of births), calls into question the regulation and inspection of our many private clinics and hospitals, especially those that claim to be capable of offering advanced care. MPH's response to a neo-natal Pneumothorax - given that they are in the business of offering expensive maternity services, should have been slick, professional and effective, not dependent on a Dr. called in to deal with an emergency in the middle of the night.

Third, although this case involved an Omani couple, it's concerning that Expats in Oman are effectively forced by the Government to give birth in private hospitals unless there is a clear medical reason to go to the big state hospitals like Royal or University Hospital. Around the world, small private hospitals are fantastic for elective procedures, with no waiting, private rooms and nice food. They are almost like hotels (as is Muscat Private). But they are also potentially very dangerous places when something goes badly wrong, as they do not usually have a 24/7 operating theatre, long lists of experienced and specialist resident Doctors on duty, and are inexperienced with dealing with things when the shit hits the fan (because they don't happen very often). The usual response is to rush the patient to a big hospital asap.

And lastly these clinics are run for profit. There are often anecdotal reports of patients in Oman being subjected to expensive and unnecessary tests, or not receiving very good treatment at all. Doctors' qualifications can be dodgy. Clinics advertising "24hr Emergency care" are sometimes totally unfit to offer these services for anything serious, such as a heart attack or stroke. They simply waste time transfering the patient to a real hospital and, as a result, risk people's lives.

That the investigation was conducted and came to a ruling against MPH is to be lauded. BUT, The Ministry of Health needs to look to itself after this case, and see how it can improve the regulation of Private Hospitals in Oman.

My condolences to the family in this case, and I thank them for persevering against MPH in what must have been a devastating time of grief and something they must have wanted to do their best to forget. I also thank them for choosing to make their story public.

I am waiting to see if MPH have any comment to make on this case.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ask An Omani! This week, "what's with the creepy teenage boys hanging around playgrounds and leering at Expat women? And what should they do?

Yes folks, another question for "Ask an Omani!"... thanks to our resident Omani expert, Omani Dreamer. This week, those annoying and rude Omani teenage boys who hang out at parks.

Why do these young men late teens/early 20s, hang around children's playgrounds intimidating and taking photos of the women, esp. any Western women (dressed very conservatively)? And what would you advise them to do to stop them doing it, as it is so disrespectful and, well, creepy.

Expat Moms and Teenage Boys at the Playground

Lets say you decided to take your children to Al Qurum park, Al Riyam park, or the beach playground and were faced with the following:

You spot three teenage boys, who are definitely too old to be in the playground, approaching your zone because they just "have" to play in the swings, slide down the slippery slide, or struggle to hang on the monkey bars with your kids. Never forget the stares and the giggling followed by the tossing of a few inappropriate words (with limited English capabilities).

At this stage, you (expat mom) feel very uncomfortable, but try to ignore them. But teenage boys with lots of hormones just need that extra excitement, which is when you will start hearing the "SNAP"…giggle…giggle.. "SNAP"… more giggle… giggle… and… "We ..You... Picture"… giggle .. giggle..

Well, sorry moms. I know you are wondering "WHY!?" in agony thinking that there is a logical reason for this behavior beyond the regular "sexual frustration", but unfortunately, it is just that! .. ohh, seeing white flesh (no matter how minimal) adds to that excitement!.. Rare is always extra special!

But never give up! As, I, Reality, have a solution that will end your misery! It is simple, easy, and available to all expat moms!

Put on a serious face.. (just like this .. 0_0! .. wide eyes and pissed) and look directly at them. Take out your cell phone.. (slowly for dramatic effects) and

SNAP SNAP … (make sure your phone is not on silence) make a phone call.. and utter the word .. POLICE.. (be loud and confident.. just like Denzel Washington, and you can say pawlece too for extra special effects) ….

The result?! … the dishdasha held up to the knees and skinny legs flying everywhere... "RUN RUN"…

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oman denies denying offer of Patriot Anti-Ballistic Missiles. Secretary general Ministry of Foreign Affairs misses the memo

Great press release yesterday from Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamoud Al Busaidi, the Secretary General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denying Oman had denied an offer from the USA of some new generation Patriot Missiles.

Fair enough. Iran and Oman have long maintained cordial relations. And it's true that Oman was most concerned a couple of years ago that the US not stage attacks against Iran from the US 4 airbases based in Oman (Thumrait, Masirah, Seeb and Al-Masanah). Supposedly that's why good ol' Dick Cheney dropped by, to assuage HM's concerns as things were getting extra-tense.

The Iranians would be nuts to lob missiles at Oman. Not only would Thumrait be rather hard to hit, the Patriots would be unlikely to offer too much protection and the bases have hardened bunkers for the planes anyhow.

So either we don't need them because the Iranians will not fire on us, or we don't need them because they would be ineffective if they did fire. A few Aegis ships in the Gulf of Oman and around the Straights of Hormuz can do the job if required to say, protect the big radar installation in Mussandam, without us needing to draw a big target on ourselves with a measly couple of Patriot batteries. The US military assets in the countries that allegedly have accepted Patriots are host to some serious and more vulnerable US kit, like the 5th Fleet. It's rather hard to put an aircraft carrier in a hardened concrete and steel bunker.

Oman and the US military relationship is described at Global

As the US State dept says "U.S.-Omani relations were deepened in 1980 by the conclusion of two important agreements. One provided access to Omani military facilities by U.S. forces under agreed-upon conditions. "

Photo: Sayyid Al Busaidi, addressing the IAEA (file photo)

It seems pretty obvious that these conditions are along the lines of 'no attacking GCC or Iran'.

However it is common knowledge that the US and the UK based attacks on Iraq from Oman in both Gulf War I and II, and for the attacks on Afganistan (although most ordinary Omani have no idea that the US has big airbases here, nor that Oman was a key staging point for the Gulf wars). In addition, some NATO (and both UK and US military) support for the on-going AFPAK war is based out of Oman.

So perhaps 'the region' in the Ministry's definition does not include Afganistan or Pakistan? And agreeing to host the US airforce and stocks of US war materiel don't count as an alliance.

Ah, of such subtleties is the cloth of Diplomacy woven.

The Ministry's statement is here.

Oman denies receiving any offer from US

Times News Service
02 February 2010 05:52:16 Oman

MUSCAT: The Sultanate yesterday denied that it had received any offer from the United States offering to deploy missile shield in the Gulf against Iran.

This came in response to a report in The New York Times, published on its website on Saturday, indicating that military officials and administrative officials in the Sultanate had rejected this offer, which was apparently accepted by several countries in the Gulf region.

Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamoud Al Busaidi, secretary general, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the Sultanate’s position on such matters is fixed and that it does not accept bids from anyone or enter into alliances or axis against any state.

Al Busaidi also stressed that the country does not allow its territory to be used to carry out any military operations against any country in the region.

Patriot missiles
The New York Times, on its website, on Saturday quoted US military and administrative officials as saying that Qatar, the Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait had accepted the deployment of (Patriot) missiles of America in
their territories.

The newspaper quoted a senior official in the US administration, who did not reveal his identity, as saying: “Our first objective is to deter Iranians and the second objective is to reassure Arab countries, so that they do not feel the need for nuclear weapons to defend themselves; there certainly is another factor as well, that is to calm the Israelis.”