Sunday, June 29, 2008

Breakthrough in desalination?

The pseudonymous Mr Dryer sent me this nice link (thanks Willie). A Jordanian student, sponsored by Oman's Middle Eastern Desalination Research center to study in Canada, may have develeoped a really great membrane for desalination.

If it holds up, and doesn't clog easily, that would be a great boon for Oman.

I hope they secured some decent IP rights... But well done, H.E. Sayyid Badr bin Hamad Albu Saidi, MEDRC Chairman.

What's nice about the Centre is that is essentially funded by the Americans, plus the Europeans, Japanese, Israelis and Koreans, mainly for the purpose of helping the Palestinians and Israelis have 1 less thing to fight over - water.

Ottawa student may hold secret to Water For All
Special to
June 5, 2008 at 4:06 PM EDT

Mohammed Rasool Qtaisha knows what it's like to be thirsty. The 29-year-old chemical engineering PhD student at the University Ottawa grew up in Jordan, where water shortages were a way of life. And his experience is shared by millions of others around the world.

""The government gives us warning, of course. But the water would be off for days, sometimes two, three days per week, so people would have to prepare by storing water," he said.

But as populations increase and shortages become more frequent, lack of water isn't just a poor nation's problem any more. At least 36 U.S. states are expected to face shortages within the next five years, according to U.S. government estimates, and by 2025, nearly 50 per cent of the world's population will live in water-stressed areas, according to the UN.

Mohammed Rasool Qtaishat (right), standing here with his mentor David Mann at the 2008 Ottawa Technology Venture Challenge, won top prize for developing a technology that turns seawater into clean, drinking water much more efficiently than is available today. In recent years, nations have started privatizing or exporting fresh water, placing a value on the life staple like any other precious commodity.

But some people aren't waiting for disaster to strike before taking action.

Inspired by his circumstances, Mr. Qtaishat founded Water For All with the aim of developing a new water technology to turn seawater into clean, drinking water on a large scale.Current desalination technology extracts drinking water from seawater through several filtering steps and something called reverse osmosis, in which salt water is passed through a polymer membrane, separating solute from solvent. The main problem is that because sodium chloride is such a small particle, the process is slow and very energy intensive.

In 2004, Mr. Qtaishat approached the Middle East Desalination Research Centre in Oman to fund his startup, called Water for All, and presented his method for developing a far more efficient way of turning seawater into drinking water. The centre was so impressed, they offered him a scholarship to come to Canada and develop his technology.
Although Mr. Qtaishat's solution is top secret while the patent is still pending, he says refining the process is all about the type of material used in the membrane. With this new material, his prototype is able to run on solar panels and produce 50 kilograms of water per metre square of the membrane per hour. That is 600 to 700 per cent more efficient than current technology, which produces about seven to eight kilograms per metre per hour.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Inflation continues to accelerate in Oman.

The problem with using any single number to describe inflation is that is a simplification of a hugely complex problem. In this case, the ‘official’ Oman consumer price index annual inflation is at a record high of 12.4%, according to Reuters earlier this month.

But that March increase of 1.2% for the month represents an annual rate of 15.4%. Wow. I know I didn't get a 15% payrise this year. Did you?

The impact of this inflation on people is highly variable. It essentially depends on what your personal pattern of income and consumption is. If a year ago you spent 70% of your disposable income on food, and you only got a 5% pay rise, then due to inflation you have experienced a drop in disposable income of more than 33%. Equally, if you are a landlord who successfully put up your rents, and you only spend 10% of your income on food, you’re in much better shape.

If you used to send all your disposable income to relatives abroad, they will experience inflation and exchange rates as a real double hit: the sender has less disposable income due to inflation, and what little is left is worth even less due to the drop in the value of the US dollar, and hence the rial. Plus the same inflation is occuring back home, so the smaller amount that you send is worth even less! That’s why the second story below is of real interest to Oman – its not just about the headline inflation rate, but the effective drop in remittable funds that counts as the real driver in NRIs value proposition. And that has been a much, much higher drop than just 12%. In may cases, there is no longer any effective income to send back.

Its hard to imagine that the recent price inflation will be sustained: food prices must eventually peak, and then the inflation (which is a rate of increase) will decrease. Hopefully the fall in the dollar too will stabilize. Here’s hoping…

But Oman needs to look carefully at maintaining a relative incentive to keep the mid-level expats here, because the whole local economy is still almost totally dependent on those semi-skilled foreign workers.

And if you haven’t given your maid a pay rise this year, I urge you to do so this month. It should be a minimum of around 25%, and depending on how long since she last got a rise, perhaps over 50%.

Food spurs Oman inflation to fresh record in April
Reuters Jun 16 2008 14:8
Inflation in Oman accelerated to a record 12.4 percent in April as soaring global food prices and rents intensify price pressures across the world's biggest oil-exporting region.

Food, beverage and tobacco costs -- which account for almost a third of the consumer price index -- jumped 21.6 percent in the year to April 30, the Omani Ministry of National Economy said on its website on Monday.

Rents also underpinned the index's 11th straight monthly rise, surging 16.2 percent in April. Oman's consumer price index hit 122.1 points on April 30 compared with 108.6 points a year earlier, the data showed. Prices rose 1.2 percent over March.

Inflation is accelerating across the Gulf Arab region, where most countries, including Oman, peg their currencies to the ailing dollar, which is driving up import costs. But currency weakness is only part of the problem, accounting for about a fifth of inflation guided largely by high global commodity prices, Oman's central bank chief, Hamood Sangour al-Zadjali, said in February.

Prices for cereals jumped 36.7 percent and milk and milk products 30.4 percent in April, the data showed.

"What happens next depends very much on global food prices and the U.S. dollar," said Monica Malik, a regional economist at EFG-Hermes investment bank.

"Inflation in Oman and the wider Gulf will remain elevated going forward as strong economic growth increases demand, particularly for housing," she said.

Zadjali has repeatedly said Oman is committed to keeping a dollar peg that has helped it attract foreign investments. But forward rates show investors betting the Oman rial could rise 2.7 percent in a year.
The impact...
FEATURE-Rising Gulf inflation could push foreign workers home
DUBAI, June 18 (Reuters) - Lured by tax-free jobs and cheap living, foreign workers have long gravitated to wealthy Gulf Arab states to earn a better living, but rising costs are now forcing many to go home.

Inflation has soared to record or near-record levels across the Gulf Arab region, where migrants ranging from high-paid Western executives to low-wage Asian labourers have formed the backbone of oil-fuelled development since the 1970s.

Already pinched by rising rents and salaries, firms are finding it increasingly hard to recruit staff to countries like the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf trade hub where wages paid in the dollar-pegged dirham have eroded the value of remittances.

Inflation helped drive Indian journalist Stanley Carvalho to end a 10-year sojourn in the UAE this year to rejoin his family.

"The cost of living in the UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi, has been rising steadily, led by soaring house rents... Salaries haven't risen commensurately. So... if I had to move my family from India to the UAE, my savings would be meagre," he said.

"Also, as in the case of most Indians, we are hit by the rising Indian rupee against the U.S. dollar. Given the dirham's peg to the dollar, our remittances to India are now lower by at least 8 to 10 percent in value. A double whammy so to speak."

With economic growth of 9 percent, India now creates more jobs at better pay, prompting skilled workers to stay home.

While Gulf Arab economies are reaping a windfall from a near seven-fold surge in oil prices since 2002, analysts say soaring inflation could undercut rapid economic growth.

"The pace of growth of the economy is going to be limited by inflation ... Qatar and the UAE have difficulty bringing in workers from India because their salaries will be eaten away by high inflation and high rent and they won't be able to send money home," said one Middle East consultant.

In the UAE, foreigners comprise over 80 percent of the population, which includes 1.5 million Indians alone. Migrant workers dominate the population in Qatar and Kuwait too.

Manual labourers are feeling the pinch most acutely, their wages now scarcely enough to feed families back home. Last year, the mainly Indian and Pakistani labourers building the sky-scrapers of Dubai rioted to demand more cash.

Yet inflation, particularly in rents, is making life harder even for Western white-collar workers who came to Dubai to save.

"The price I am paying I could live in central London," said Henry Charles, a Dubai-based British business consultant. "It's eroded the financial incentives to move here. I've had to dip into savings at various times to meet rent cheques."

"It works out for people who get a housing allowance that reflects the rental market but in my case my housing allowance doesn't cover the cost of renting a room in a shared villa," he said.

Expatriate parents say school fees are rising fast too and Middle East employment portal found almost two-thirds of employees in the Middle East and North Africa think their salaries are not rising fast enough to keep up with inflation.

Rental increases have forced Qatar, Oman and the UAE to impose rent caps. The UAE government has also agreed with some supermarket chains to freeze prices on a range of foodstuffs. Expatriates worry that plans to introduce value added tax across the Gulf by 2012, and talk of a tax on luxury goods ranging from yachts to cigarettes, could tip the balance.

The saving grace for Gulf countries, say expatriates, is that inflation is biting just as hard elsewhere. Even after the credit crunch, British property prices and taxes are daunting to many Britons who enjoy the sun and glamour of Dubai.

"It is getting more expensive. You are not saving any extra money. I pretty much live hand to mouth," said Tariq Ali, a British car salesman who moved to Dubai in 2004.

"On the other hand I could not afford a big flat with a pool and gym in central London like I can here."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Its time for renewable energy in Oman!

Still the gradually ebbing waves of statements from officials are being publsihed, emphasising how great it is to be an expat in Oman. Which for expats like me, and most semi-skilled NRIs etc, I fully agree with. But this issue's been well dealt with, and you know where I stand. Instead I'll mention renewable energy.

The international consultants to the Authority for Electricity Regulation have completed their report on renewables and their potential for Oman’s energy needs. It’s a pretty comprehensive report. A really short summary is copied below from the Oman Observer today. What they don’t say in the paper, of course, is what I think are the really interesting bits from the report on the costs and subsidies in the Oman Electricity market...
Highlights of the study commissioned by the Authority for Electricity
Regulation, Oman on the potential of renewable energy resources
Solar: The level of solar energy density in Oman is among the highest in the world. There is significant scope for developing solar energy resources throughout Oman and solar energy has the potential to provide sufficient electricity to meet all of Oman's domestic electricity requirements and provide some electricity for export. High solar energy density is available in all regions of Oman: areas of highest density are desert areas. Areas of lowest density are coastal areas in the southern part of Oman.

Wind: The study identifies significant wind energy potential in coastal areas in the southern part of Oman and in the mountains north of Salalah. Wind speeds in these areas are comparable to recorded wind speeds at inland sites in Europe where large numbers of wind turbines are installed and operational. Wind speeds are observed to be highest in summer months which coincide with peak periods of electricity demand in Oman.
Electricity is currently generated in Oman using domestically produced gas, in gas turbine fired generators. They are very efficient, can be turned on or off relatively quickly, and don’t cost that much to build (compared to say, a coal fired plant). Plus you can combine them with water desalination.

There’s 3 problems to getting going with renewables in Oman however:
1/ The price of electricity is highly subsidized in Oman, and is sold well below the actual cost of generation. The price of power is hence a very politically sensitive issue.
Update: On average, the report says that the Batinah coast's power is subsidised by 38% (costomers pay on average 16baisa/kWh, average true cost is ~25baisa/kWh). In the remote areas, the subsidy is naturally such higher, over 80%, (customers pay ~14 baisa/kWh, costs ~82baisa/kWh).

2/ The actual cost of existing generation is already quite low, as its based on a gas price of $1.50 per million BTUs [approx the same as 1000 cubic feet of gas (1 MCF)] with no inflation component. While this is more than the Government pays to produce it (that would be around $0.50), that gas could be sold at a much higher price to the LNG plants to supply spot cargoes of LNG, (say around $4/MCF). In Europe and the USA, market gas prices lately have been $8, although right now the US price is over $13/MCF (the highest its ever been).
Update: If the cost of gas to the power companies was was increased to $3, those true costs above would go up another 50%.

Plus, because the gas is sold without any inflation component, and renewable energy is relatively capital intensive, that hurts the economics too.

3/ In theory there could be a partial subsidy for renewables through carbon trading, but the Omani Government has not (yet??) set up the required internationally recognized authorities to allow trading in carbon offsets under the Kyotot protocol (currently worth at least $20 per tonne of CO2 saved). At that price, this could then be used to lower the effective ‘gas price equivalent’ by more than $1.20 per MCF.

Update: I just did some maths, and I figure at the momemnt the Government spends around 120 million rials per year* subsidising the price of power. If you assume gas is actually worth $3, the effective subsidy is roughly double that, say 250 million rials

Wind is the most mature global renewable electricity generator. And in parts of Oman wind would almost be economic right now, although wind can never be a big part of your supply, as it is too unreliable. But, its obvious to anybody that if solar power is to work anywhere, it would work in Oman! Huge amounts of sunshine through a generally clear sky, vast empty areas of flat desert to place solar collectors, and in case anyone didn’t notice, in the summer it gets rather hot anyhow. Using solar to generate electricity has some problems, naturally, because at night its rather dark… but you can get around that by storing heat to use at night in massive insulated hyper-saline tanks. Also, using steam to generate electricity is not very efficient (compared to directly generating it through photovoltaic panels). This system in Spain, already in actual operation, uses a combination of photovoltaic cells and thermal mirrors.

And check out this one in the USA Mojave Desert called Solar 2.

Don't they look totally cool? Of course, they were totally uneconomic when built, but at current oil prices... what a winner. And effectively zero greenhouse gases once built.

So, if the price of gas was calculated at its ‘true’ present and future value, given the conditions in Oman, I’m a big supporter of getting going with solar right now. It certainly makes me feel better about a subsidy compared to the Government's current practice of giving gas away to big businessmen at $0.80 to make methanol and aluminium... Plus, setting up a local industry to manufacture these solar systems would be a great long term regional export business for Oman too I think.

Economic comparisons versus gas fired are only valid if you have enough gas to burn anyhow. Which in the end, we don’t. So long term, this sort of system should be the way to go, if people could actually afford to pay for the electricity it would generate, and I would think much more attractive than going nuclear.

For lots of nice stuff, see Wikipedia Solar power

* The report doesn't say what the Government subsidy actually is. But it states the Oman Power and Water company bought ~11 Terra Watt hrs in 2006 (page 38), at an average subsidy of ~10 biaisa per kWhr (page 42) gives 100 million rial, plus I've thrown in a bit for the rural areas and subsequent inflation in demand.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Blue City replaces CEO, Cyclone continue to lock out AAJH

Meanwhile, in other news, the Blue City project have replaced their CEO of BCC1 with an experienced American professional from the UAE, Mr. Richard Russell. Prof. Akhlaghi reportedly is deciding to 'pursue his personal aspirations', (which does sound very much like the ‘I have decided to spend more time with my family’ excuse so common in the West).

New Blue City CEO to re-energise Al Madina A’Zarqa
Times Friday, June 20, 2008 9:29:27 PM Oman Time

MUSCAT — Blue City Company 1 SAOC, the real estate development company tasked to deliver Phase 1 of Al Madina A’Zarqa, the most significant real estate infrastructure project in the Sultanate of Oman, has appointed Richard Russell as its new managing director and chief executive officer. Following the decision of Prof. Akhlaghi to pursue his personal aspirations, Russell has taken over the position from Prof. Fari Akhlaghi, who will now transition into a new role as an advisor to the board of directors on the project….

Meanwhile the battle as to who actually owns the project between the Bahraini company AAJH and Cyclone LLC continues. The higher court (where Cyclone successfully lodged an appeal following their defeat in court a couple of months ago) is due to rule in a few days on June 23rd on the validity of the injunction and thus the effective ownership of BlueCity.

Apparently the AAJH representatives and the Management of ASIT, including Anees Issa al Zadjali, Chairman of Al Sawadi Investment and Tourism Company (ASIT), are not really speaking. A contact working for Anees told me that after their victorious court ruling, AAJ tried to visit BCC1 to re-establish contact and find out what was going on, but he was not even allowed to enter the building. Meanwhile, not surprisingly given the price rises in cement and steel, the projected costs for phase 1 are now $2 billion, and the plans for the 27 hole golf course have been pared back to just 18 holes to save costs.

Watch this space. There’ll be more fireworks at Blue City over the next couple of weeks… I can certainly understand the motivation to battle it out when you're talking of a 70% share in the profits on a $20 billion development project...

The propaganda machine moves into high gear on State Dept report.

Well well. Muscat Confidential is certainly out on a limb on the issue of the infamous US State Dept report. The Government Controlled press today (with the notable exception of the Tribune, the most independent paper we have) is full of detailed statements from lots of enthusiastic expats about how great Oman is to live in (a point of view which I fully agree with from the point of view of a highly paid professional), and how unfair the report is (which I disagree with, but can understand).

For examples see here in the
Times of Oman
, and 2 articles in the Observer
and here. Here's a couple of quotes from the Times piece:
Human trafficking in Oman? No way!
Anita Joseph
Saturday, June 21, 2008 12:37:20 AM Oman Time
MUSCAT — The wave of resentment unleashed in the Sultanate over the recent US report on human trafficking seems to be strong, with even Americans in the country frowning at the report.

“Oman is a very tolerant country, with proper laws and measures in place to prevent human trafficking,” says Fred Rowe, an American who has been living in the Sultanate for the last seven years. “I’m not sure how and why the US has come up with such a report,” he adds.
“Human trafficking? There is nothing like that over here. The report is extremely biased and unjustified, to say the least,” says Josie, a Dutch national who has been living in Muscat for the last 10 years. “The rules are very strict here and no one is allowed to come and go without proper documentation. That being the case, I can confidently say there is absolutely no trafficking of any sort happening here.”

Obviously, no quotes from any of the prostitutes in Oman, (but Mr Dragon, that’s because there aren’t any), nor from the many abused housemaids who fled to their embassies (a small number of people, a rare exception), or from the blue-suited labourers living in containers.

The reports also contain a marked shift in tone, with less strident whinging and more focus on ‘data’ (those quotes from Expats and extracts from the Basic Law), plus a statement making it clear that they do not want to annoy the Americans, as captured in the Observer:
Oman’s firm, yet civilised, reaction to the US report is a reflection of His Majesty the Sultan’s enlightened policies that espouse openness towards all nations of the world, while extending a friendly hand to all countries, including the United States with which Oman’s relations are deep-rooted. The Sultanate’s response, Omani officials confirm, will not impact negatively on these ties. On the contrary, the tenor and substance of Oman’s diplomatic response was aimed at putting the relationship inplacing relations on right shapefooting and working in favour of Oman-US bilateral relations.

Of course, I’d be more interested in hearing a statement from the Americans that 'The Sultanate’s response… will not impact negatively on these ties'.

As with all such debates, the repost from the Government contains many truths: yes, the basic law is clear, and yes, mostly the treatment of expats is very fair. And there is apparently a draft law specifically on Human Trafficking in the works. And I’d certainly rather be a subcontinent worker here than in Saudi or the UAE.

And yes, the US itself has a history, especially under the generally deplorable Bush administration, of some pretty shady acts and decisions.

But that was not what the report was saying. In fact, given the general truth in many of the comments printed today (even if I think they are not to the point), it shows how easily it would have been for Oman to even be ranked as Tier 1, if they had simply done a few small things instead of just talking about it.:
- enforce the basic law, by showing they are willing to prosecute, rather than just talking about it
- attach a penalty to the keeping of passports, and, again, enforce it
- pass a law making it illegal to travel overseas for the purposes of sex tourism
- educate those travelers heading to known countries for sex tourism
- do some sweeps to rescue the prostitutes and prosecute their pimps and customers
- establish a victim support unit for those prostitutes that are rescued
- publicise the rights of housemaids and labourers

This point of view is made clear in the report itself, where it states (on pg 11):
Some countries have held conferences and established task forces or national action plans to create goals for anti-trafficking efforts. While such activities are useful and can help to catalyze concrete law enforcement, protection, and prevention activities in the future, these conferences, plans, and task forces alone are not weighed heavily in assessing country efforts. Rather, the Report focuses on concrete actions governments have taken to fight trafficking, especially prosecutions, convictions, and prison sentences for traffickers, victim protection measures, and prevention efforts. The Report does not give great weight to laws in draft form or laws that have not yet been enacted. Finally, the Report does not focus on government efforts that contribute indirectly to reducing trafficking, such as education programs, support for economic development, or programs aimed at enhancing gender equality, although these are worthwhile endeavors.

This is to be compared to the typical statement from the Government that, by definition, there is not a problem (the reason for the original title of my rant).

Manpower Minister Dr Jumaa bin Ali al Jumaa, in a statement, dismissed any likelihood of human trafficking in the Sultanate. He stressed that the Sultanate, under the enlightened leadership of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, has set in place institutions equipped and empowered to protect the rights of all citizens and residents. The Basic Law of the State, in its first article, stipulates that the Sultanate’s religion is Islam, which by its very tenets forbids and disdains any form of human trafficking, the minister said. This provision effectively eschews any possibility of the phenomenon being practiced within Oman’s territories, he noted. “The Basic Law of the State laid down comprehensive foundations for human rights, providing for the establishment of an independent judicial authority with a wide base of powers,” he stressed.

Hmmm. Still sounds like hear no evil, see no evil to me.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Banning Books – Did Oman ban the June 14th Edition of The Economist?

I read the Economist regularly. It appeals to my libertarian ethics, and offers a reasonably independent and socially liberal analysis of events. And I think its really well written. But I noticed last weeks edition didn’t seem to be available. Ah well, maybe late. But no, the week dragged on, and no new edition surfaced.

So I searched the on line edition, and, behold, the June 14th-20th Edition had an interesting article in it that indeed refered to Oman – on the US State Dept report on Human Trafficking.

The report, copied below, does mention Oman, although only in a cursory way along with the other GCC countries. The report itself seems pretty innocuous in general, and about Oman in particular. But is this why the edition seems to have been stopped at the border? Weird. It was hardly a state secret that Oman again was listed as Tier 3 and that the Government strongly objected. Afterall, it was the lead story from the Oman News Agency, and the fact of Omans reported Tier 3 status was in the official ONA release. So why ban the Economist? Did it just sell out really quickly and I missed it? Anyone else see this Economist for sale?

If the edition was banned, I wonder why? Is someone getting a little bit paranoid about this report issue?

I really hate book banning, or book burning for that matter. It always strikes me as the ultimate closed mindedness and is most patronising to the people. Stopping people reading ideas by physically removing the printed word makes me think of intellectual repression in Germany or China, or South Carolina for that matter.

The coloring in of the cleavages and occasional nipple is a practice I find quaint, and at least somewhat consistent with the legal code. But if this is true ... rather OTT I think. Someone was really feeling sensitive...
Human trafficking. A horrible business
Jun 14th 2008 From The Economist print edition

The modern slave trade is thriving

CONSIDERING it is a business that has provoked wars in centuries past, scant attention is paid to the modern slave trade. But one way to track the trade in people is the recently released annual report on trafficking in persons from America’s State Department. And it makes for gloomy reading. Though there have been improvements of late, the numbers of people involved are still appallingly high. Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year and millions more are traded domestically. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are at least 2.5m people in forced labour at any one time, including sexual exploitation, as a result of trafficking.

Efforts to wipe out this modern slave trade are hampered because human trafficking is a big business. It is impossible to know the exact sums involved but recent estimates of the value of the global trafficking trade have put it as high as $32 billion. The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking describes it as a high-reward and low-risk crime. People come cheap and many countries lack the necessary laws to target traffickers, or they are not properly enforced. Worse still, it is often the victims of the traffickers that are treated as criminals.

Women suffer most in this respect: the report estimates that 80% of victims of international trafficking are women forced into some form of prostitution. Women are involved in trafficking too, though this is less common. In Europe and Central and south Asia women are often recruited by other women who were themselves the victims of trafficking. In part to avoid detection by the authorities, traffickers grant victims limited freedom while simultaneously coercing them to return home to recruit other women to replace them.

The report also casts a light on the increasingly important role that technology is playing in the trade, both in combating it and its perpetration. The internet helps to identify and track down the perpetrators but increasingly it is becoming part of the problem. Chatrooms are used to exchange information about sex-tourism sites; people are targeted through social-networking sites where pornographic records of sex trafficking are also bought and sold; victims are ensnared through instant messaging.

There are a few bright spots. Ethiopia is commended for its efforts to combat the trafficking of children by establishing child-protection units across the country. Romania’s creation of a national database to identify and respond quickly to trends in trafficking is also praised as is Madagascar’s campaign to wipe out sex tourism.

The report ranks countries into 3 tiers determined by how compliant they are deemed to be with America’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Predictably, some countries listed in tier 3, the worst offenders, have responded to the accusations with outrage. But these are not the only countries that have a problem. There is also “special watch list” of tier-2 countries that need careful monitoring.

The foreign ministry of Cuba, a country the report places in tier 3, firmly denied that the report had any value and used the opportunity for a customary jibe at America, saying that “the government of the United States has a lot to do in its own country to combat the rampant phenomenon there of prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour and the trafficking of people.”

Of the six Gulf states, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were listed as Tier 3 and Bahrain crept up to the tier-2 watch list. Only the United Arab Emirates made it to tier 2 on the basis of its efforts to combat abuse against foreign domestic servants and construction workers. Foreign ministers from the Gulf Co-operation Council simply said that the information in the report was wrong. They claim that America “aims to practise unjustified pressure for political ends”.

And there is some evidence they could use to back up this assertion. One country exempt from the rankings is America itself. Self-analysis is always difficult but the report, though comprehensive, might have more force if America were to turn the spotlight fully on itself.

Copywrite The Economist.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The debate Continues: Oman is Tier 3 - Fair comment, or Lies and distortion?

To enable the debate to continue on Oman’s Human Trafficking, here’s a chain of comments that happened on BlueChi’s blog, following my earlier angry rant on Oman’s public Tier 3 diplomatic lash-back. BlueChi has since blocked further comments on the thread, but suggested we “continue this awesome discussion over at Muscat Confidential…” (hint – he may have been a teeny bit sarcastic in that last comment…)

So here we are. Enjoy.

It is certainly a more open and quality dialogue than you will find in any of Oman's official media outlets. Personally, I find the repetition of the emotive and essentially factless response from the Foreign Ministry that started this (parroted by the Majlis, Times of Oman, Press Association) a great example of how effective propoganda can be, if you can push the right emotive buttons in the general population. In this case, the Government have essentially accused the American's of insulting Oman's world image, as some sort of vague political revenge for being nice neighbours with Iran.

In moving the story away from the facts of Oman's minimal real progress in dealing with Human Trafficking (by simply stating repeatedly that the report is groundless and untrue), and then following up with attacks in the vein of 'who are they to lecture us?' 'we, a brave proud nation with a deep tradition, will not be insulted by them', 'why don't they concentrate on Iraq and Afganistan before trying to pressure us with these lies', and general flag waving, HE the Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry has indeed successfully diverted attention away from his abject failure to get Oman off Tier 3, i.e. his job, and onto how insulting the American's have been.

Brilliant. Brilliant, classic political communication.

I seriously doubt it would fool HM, but he certainly has BlueChi (and presumeably almost all the rest of the Omani population) on his side, which would make it hard for him to get sacked, wouldn't it? And the American's will understand that this is about internal and regional politics, and won't care a bit.

My congratulations, your excellency. If you could see me, I'm applauding.


I just read an extremely irritating post by Muscat Confidential, Oman's number 1 blog for political gossip, I suggest that you read the latest post on Oman's 3 Monkeys where Mr Undercover Dragon states that:
The Americans are under a federal duty to say the truth so they will never make a lie and that makes everything in their report true.It does not matter that the report does not talk about the absolute scale of human trafficking (then what the hell are tier levels for?)Oman deserves this because it used to trade in slaves hundreds of years ago. Oman should take action for the prostitution that happens in Thailand. Undercover Dragon, as you can see, is very objective and has serious suggestions to make the Omani government, his analysis of foreign labour issues are spot-on and I suggest that the government takes his blog more seriously.

I don't understand, if UD thinks that Oman is so bad with foreign labour then why doesn't he just get the [censored] out?!
posted by Blue Chi at 7:55 PM on Jun 15, 2008

MMK080 said...
... I've known you for three years now. This is a new side of you I've seen today in this post. It's refreshing.
6/15/2008 11:21:00 PM

Balqis said...
hehe this is not a new side to me
Baloo, I myself do not like Undercover blog but is a fact that some things happen here, and those articles yesterday on local press were a shame
If as foreigners, we point that something needs to be done, that does not mean we dislike Oman, otherwise we would go out
This is not an easy country for an expat and there are many better, but personally I prefer it
If I criticise and especially about the treatment that some/many Omanis have for Asian workers, is because I think Oman can become a better place and sometimes we all should remember we're Muslims and behave accordingly
6/16/2008 04:21:00 AM

Undercover Dragon said...
Hey Blue Chi,

Firstly, let me clarify your gross mis-representations of my commments, none of which I actually 'state' [check out the original post].
YOU: 1/ The Americans are under a federal duty to say the truth so they will never make a lie and that makes everything in their report true.
UD: The State Dept. officials who are responsible for writing the report to Congress are obliged under Federal law not to lie in the report. (Unlike any statement presented in the Omani press so far by Omani officials.) Its not a generic statement. And it wouldn't make the report true, necessarily, but it's highly unlikely to be a deliberate lie. Reading their report, I also do not find a lie either. Do you? State it.

YOU: 2/ It does not matter that the report does not talk about the absolute scale of human trafficking (then what the hell are tier levels for?)
UD: The stated purpose of the report Tier catagories (if you bothered to read the report) is explicitly not the size of the problem, but about the institutions, laws, procedures, enforcement, treatment of victims, etc a country has in place. In additon, a country that does nothing to seek infringements of the law, or to systematically document cases, obviously can't demostrate the true size of the problem anyway.

YOU: 3/ Oman deserves this because it used to trade in slaves hundreds of years ago.
UD: No, certainly not. This was a point in response to the holier-than-thou statements by both the Foreign Ministry US and Al Zedjali that Oman has a deep rooted tradition of respect for human rights,in part because of Islam, and as a result the report was insulting. I was pointing out that a couple of hundred years ago, your deep rooted culture included being active slave traders. So, the moral high horse of a deep rooted culture is a bit rich.

YOU: 4/ Oman should take action for the prostitution that happens in Thailand.
UD: Well, yes and no. Its not your country, so not too much you could do about Thailand directly, but Oman should indeed take responsibility for trying to stop its citizens travelling to Thailand (or other countries) and engaging in sex with children, or indeed sex slaves. Many countries make it a crime to do so, and even prosecute their citizens on their return. You should think about that.

And lastly, I like it here. Its not an all or nothing situation. And I'm trying to improve things here for such people, not pretending everything's perfect or just running away. Sorry.

See what I meant about a cultural reluctance to accept criticism?

The Dragon
6/16/2008 10:37:00 AM

Muscato said...
You don't live up to your usual high standards with this post.

This region's hypersensitivity to criticism (and the accompanying, inevitable, "if you don't like it, leave" attitude) are among the most mystifying aspects of Gulf culture to outsiders...
6/16/2008 03:01:00 PM

Blue Chi said...
I am sure that you guys know that I am not one of those people who think that Oman is the best country in the world and I would not just post anything to deny what other people say about it. I am not a wannabe-political blogger either. If you noticed, my post did not say anything about what I thought of the report or even what I thought about how Oman is doing. People have written all over the Internet about the report since the start of this week, I have not responded to anything regarding it anywhere because I am generally apathetic about the subject matter!

I got seriously irritated by UD's post, the bulk of it was just a nonsense rant that has not factual basis (read my post above). I was even more enraged by all the responses made by people who seem to agree to that nonsense. (check UD's to see how many people responded saying 'spot-in').

I don't understand how UD is *trying to improve things here for such people* (check his post above) by projecting to the world that Oman is the worst country in the world. It is bad for the country, it is bad for the people, and it is just not nice.

Muscato, when you comment on the state of our country you do that under the belief that it is a 'right' that you have, and at the same when we comment on your criticism it becomes hypersensitivity to which we do not have the right to do.

What kind of self-centered arrogance is this?
6/16/2008 04:17:00 PM

aamnaa said...
Blue Chi you are absolutely right. I would suggest to stop reading his blog, i did. I am positive he cares more about the traffic he gets out of his gossip than what he pretends to care about.
What I find weird is when some bloggers presume the readers should subject themselves to the content they provide, otherwise they are reluctant to accept criticism!
6/16/2008 06:33:00 PM

NiGhTFaCe said...
That Thailand's point made me laugh really!
6/16/2008 10:45:00 PM

Undercover Dragon said...

I'm afraid I don't mind that you got really irritated reading that post. But I defend your right to disagree, and to think my post was nonsense.

But here again, you argue with me by stating things that I haven't actually said, and then vehemently disagreeing with them and taking offense at them, ie :"projecting to the world that Oman is the worst country in the world". I didn't say that.

And criticism IMHO is not a bad thing, its how things can be improved.

What is "bad for the country, ...bad for the people, and ...just not nice" is when your Government fails to actually do the things they could have easily done that would have improved your country's treatment of expats, and gotten the US State Dept. to achknowledge it by rating you in Tier 2 (or even 1). Blaming the messenger is irrational and, in this case, counterproductive (if understandable).

Perhaps you could also consider, if my post was so factually incorrect and nonsense, why those people agreed with it? What is it that makes so many apparently intelligent and perceptive people who live in Oman see things going on around here so differently to that way you see them? Doesn't that interest you?

I know I find very interesting your country's (in my opinion) unwillingness to accept the report's findings despite being unable to offer a compelling argument based on facts to contradict it.

Perhaps you could also consider, who would be affected most by the sort of changes that would lift you to Tier 2 (or 1)? Who makes money from the curent situation, and who would loose out if those changes were made?

(oh, and I'm trying to improve things, not via my blog so much (thats for entertainment and occasional information and titillation), but in my personal life. Which you wouldn't know about.)

6/17/2008 06:21:00 AM

Anonymous lurker said...
Blu Chi -

It's nice to see the other side of the argument, but I really do have to side with the dragon on this, because, well, your facts are simply not fact, and for all its bluster via the national papers, the Government of Oman has yet to actually come up with any hard evidence to dispute the reports claims - only that they dont like being in Tier 3. No one likes being told they are bad, but shouting via it's national papers and summoning the US ambassador and getting angry with him isnt going to fix it.

Of course the Government could, you know, actually start doing something about the problem.

And I know a good reason why Oman's really pissed about being Tier 3 - it affects how much foreign aid it receives from the US. Mind you Oman was Tier 3 last year and special dispensation was given for additional funding (US troop training goes on here) so it'll probably be given again.

I beleive this is a cultural difference blue chi - just because some of us have spoken out and do not agree with the Government of Oman's stance on the topic, doesnt mean we dont like it here, or that we are smearing Oman as a bad place to be. It just means that as (mostly) foreign workers, who have experience of life in at least 1 other country, we can easily see the difference in human rights here for some people.

If you tried witholding someones passport in Canada, France, Spain, UK, US, etc (for example), you'd be definitly fined, and depending on the severity of the situation, likley jailed too.

A passport for a foreign worker in a foreign country is the ONLY DOCUMENT that person can use to get home. By witholding it, you are effectivly jailing that person. And that is just wrong. wrong. wrong.

The report has been issued, and Oman is Tier 3 for 2008. If Oman wants to be Tier 2 or 1 for 2009, then they know what to do. Just because Oman's been labeled Tier 3 does not mean that USA hates Oman, does not mean that Oman sucks, does not mean that everyone in Oman is treated badly. It just means that there is a problem here, its serious, and in the eyes of professionals who are paid to track and report on Human Trafficking around the world, Oman is not doing enough. Oman has stated they disagree with this report, but has not given any reasons why, just to slander the US apparently is reason enough. That just highlights the situation that seems to be developing of Oman not accepting that there is indeed a problem.

I thank you for your comments on the subject, and I just want to re-stress that I, personally, am not out to smear Oman. Its a great place with tons of potential, but as Oman becomes more and more visible on the world stage, it will undergo more and more scrutiny from the outside world. If you cant take criticism, then you will never truly be enlightened, for it takes true humility to be great. None of us are perfect, you can only learn from your mistakes and move on. Embrace the knowledge that this country has to do more, and see what more can be done, instead of do nothing and shout at the US, because I promise you, that's not going to solve anything.
6/17/2008 02:27:00 PM

Leo Americanus said...
Blue Chi,
The attitude you show in your question as to "why doesn't he just get the [censored] out" goes a long way toward explaining the problems here. If you don't want the criticism and don't want foreigners here, then do the job. Maybe you do the job, but most don't. Across the Gulf, people complain about foreign meddling, but if they actually worked, and worked hard enough not to need foreign workers, then there would be less foreigners here and less foreign bloggers complaining about local problems. This may drive you into a tizzy, but consider.

Maybe because I once carried and placed blocks like an Indian, and have talked to the laborers and basked in their smiles and humanity, I am more inclined to accept UD's assertions. You should try it...
6/17/2008 08:43:00 PM

Blue Chi said...
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much for your responses.

I think that all of us here had a fair chance to write a response, and now I suggest that you continue this awesome discussion over at Muscat Confidential, where Expert Expats who, unlike the rest of us Omani people, have lived in at least one other country, and, again unlike the rest of us, have once at least spoken to an Indian person, can provide us with all the answers we are looking for. (Example from the post above, Leo thinks that a solution for Oman's problem is to become self-sufficient so that we do not have any foreign labour to abuse - that is such an awesome idea! Huh?)
6/18/2008 03:36:00 AM

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stop Press Muscat Market News. The French bail out of Bank Muscat

Well, 2 big stories on the Muscat Stock Exchange today.

Minnows take a tidy profit
First of all the small shareholders lucky enough to receive their 457 shares in the massively over-subscribed VoltAmp Energy IPO started dumping them onto a market of hungry institutional investors today, after the price as expected bumped up from the (below book) offer price of 540 biasa to a nice 1.5 rial, taking their 500 rial profit. If you were one, congrats. A very easy way to make around $2,500 (because, obviously, both you and your wife registered, right?). So far 11,783,740 shares have traded today. If you know a broker, buy him a beer later. It must have been a pretty hectic morning.

The French bail out of Bank Muscat
But (for me) the real news today was a massive change in the shareholding of Bank Muscat, with the sale of 173.3 million rials worth at a price of around 1.890. That’s almost 8% of the total shares. The sellers were the French bank Societe Generale, and the buyers… apparently the Diwan, otherwise known as The Court of Royal Affairs. Looks to me like the French were, peut etre, un petite miffed at the change in regulations a few days ago hurting their profits (along with the likelihood of more to come), and so the Government bought them out before they made a fuss. Presumably the Government exercised a right of first refusal for the shares.

The Court of Royal Affairs was already Bank Muscat’s largest shareholder, with around 17% of the shares. This will bring them to 24.8%. The Government also indirectly controls another 13% of shares though various State pension funds.

I can’t wait to see the statement from Societe Generale’s Eric Faivre, CEO for the Gulf Region, as to why they have gotten out of Bank Muscat...

Monday, June 16, 2008

MSM drops; Saudi Woman busted for driving

In domestic news today, the Muscat Stock Market dipped by more than 2%. What didn’t help of course was the Oman Central bank significantly cutting the banks ability to lend money. This was done to try to reduce the ever accelerating money supply growth in Oman, as the rial remains fixed to the dollar, oil revenues continue to soar, and the Government (and everyone else too it seems) is hell-bent on building, building, building.

It’s a pity the other big construction firms, apart from Galfar, remain privately held. They are coining it right now. The Bahwans, et al must be feeling very, very rich lately. I saw a nice brand new Lamborgini yesterday in Qurm. Veeery Niiice.

So, it would be likely the MSM will continue to climb steadily long term, but only as long as oil stays high. Beware, a significant drop in oil price will precipitate a really big drop in the MSM, IMHO.

Market crashes by 266 points

MUSCAT The MSM-30 General Index opened the week on a negative note, dropping 2.22 per cent or 266.51 points to close at 11,720.6 points.

The market breadth was extremely negative with five stocks advancing while 34 stocks ended lower. Turnover was RO20.72 million on a volume of 18.06 million, lower than its 21 day moving average (MA).

Among the sub-indices, the banking and investment index was the worst performer down 1.99 per cent driven by the hike in reserve requirement for commercial banks from 5 per cent to 8 per cent of total deposits, decrease in the lending ratio from 87.5 per cent to 82.5 per cent and lowering of interest rate ceiling on personal loans from 8.5 per cent to 8 per cent.

National Securities (NSCI) lost 7 per cent to close at RO1.712, while heavyweight BankMuscat (BKMB) lost 5.5 per cent to close at RO1.888.

Among the industrial sector stocks, Galfar Engineering (GECS) continued its decline for the second straight day closing 2.17 per cent lower while Majan Glass (MGCI) ended 6.8 per cent higher.

And from the world of public beheadings, and where all women have an official owner, this gem from the Gulf News. And how I wish we had a paper even close to this one. I love the court reports.
Saudi woman detained for violating driving ban
Gulf News Published: June 15, 2008, 23:44
Riyadh: Saudi police have detained a woman for violating rules banning women from driving in the country, a newspaper said on Sunday. The woman from Buraida north of Riyadh was stopped by a police patrol after driving 10km to collect her husband, Al Hayat newspaper said.

The woman's "legal guardian" - her husband - was required to sign a declaration that he would not allow her to drive again, it said. It was not immediately clear if she was released or would face legal action.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Omans 3 Monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

OK. Enough is enough. Be warned, a Dragon rant coming… if you’re sensitive, stop now.

We had the Majlis yesterday, that hugely empowered Omani democratic institution, simply doing what they were told and parroting the view of HE The Foreign Ministry Undersecretary. And the GCC, dominated as it is by that paragon of human rights Saudi Arabia. And now good old Essa Al Zedjali, Omani intellectual supremo, wanna be furniture dealer to the Wave and the Blue City, and leader of that throbbing organ of the Establishment that is The Times of Oman.

All weighing in on the US State Dept. report naming Oman as ‘not doing enough’ on human trafficking and thus still Tier 3. And it not being fair. For those of you new to the blog, I posted on this last year, and still stand by all that was said back then, except I was wrong that a bit of window dressing would be enough to get back to Tier 2. Those State Dept officials really do have integrity.

Guys. You are really doing yourselves, His Majesty, and your country, a huge dis-service. You come across like spoilt kids who have clearly failed an exam, yet waste your time blaming everything but your own poor performance.

1/ The report is a report to the US Senate, not to you, written by US State Dept officials. The officials actually have a statutory duty to, er, tell the truth. If they don’t, it’s a US Federal offense. They are not politicians that can lie and cheat ad hoc, like Bush, Cheney and Rice et al. They have jobs and pensions that rely on not breaking the law. That’s why they tend to ignore the obvious fact that, politically, it would have been much better to pretend your workshops, and the decree and the … ummm, ummm, oh, I remember, the fantastic leaflets for illiterate workers, were actually effective. Wake up. You have done 9/10 of fcuk al. And you have done so because it suits your purposes.

2/ The report does not have an opinion on the absolute scale of the Human Trafficking problem. It does not matter that that Thailand has more prostitutes than Oman. Or that the UAE’s prostitutes are better looking and more expensive than Oman’s. Or that your murder rate is (apparently) very low by world standards. Or that the UAE deports and imprisons striking labourers more than you do. It has nothing to do with it.

3/ You may pontificate that you have a culture than respects all human rights, based on Islam, and the deep rooted Omani values and traditions, yada yada yada. But, lets face it guys. There are huge improvements that could and should be made. Accepting that its totally OK to have tens of thousands of untrained workers wearing flipflops and a cotton shirt, up 6 stories high on unsafe scaffolding, working 12 hrs a day, 7 days a week in the Omani summer, earning around $150 a month, with no right to unionise or even change employer, is a bit arrogant and exploitative. It’s not OK. You have to something about it.

4/ Your deep rooted culture extends back to the days when you were colonial masters in East Africa. You were apparently very Islamic, cultural respect for the rights of individuals, etc etc whilst at the same time you were shipping off the locals to Europe and the Americas for a quick buck. Did anyone mention slavers? Please don’t. We don’t like to talk about that part of our history.

5/ Pointing the finger back at the USA, with its Cuban ex-judicial prisons, water boarding horrors, etc etc, is not the point. We all know that. And trust me, those same bureaucrats in the State Dept would be the first to agree with you. You have to take the higher ground.

6/ Democracy, US not, etc etc. Err. Guys. Maybe stay away from this one. You aren’t a democracy, and don’t want to be one. Which is great. But sort of defeats your arguments here.

7/ That its all about Political pressure (ie Iran). Bollocks. If they were being political they would have let you move to Tier 2 watch list. Or if they wanted to be tough, suspended that Free Trade deal that’s making so much money for a select few Omani Businessmen [Methanol, anyone?]. etc etc.

8/ It’s a well known fact that many, many Omani men regularly go to Thailand to have lots of sex with prostitutes. Many of those prostitutes are underage, many of them are sex slaves. Some of them children. Are you doing anything about that? At all? No.

Guys, the bottom line is you haven’t really done anything meaningful to stop the occasional human trafficking that is in Oman, nor have you done anything to address the HUGE problems you have with the grey zone of human trafficking that are the 100s of thousands of asian and subcontinent workers [labourers, housemaids, semi-skilled workers] who are not uncommonly in Oman treated as almost subhuman, and have been for decades, and continue to be. Nor have you done anything to stop people being trafficked across to the UAE. Nor anything about your domestic sex tourists.


I have seen several comments reported, from HE, The Majlis, and Essa etc that:(quote)
the faulty report doesn’t tell the truth,
does not reflect the true facts
contains a number of fallacies and inaccuracies
Is inaccurate and misleading allegations

But no-where does any of the published vitriol state 1 fact in the report that is incorrect, nor a single allegation that is shown to be untrue. Not 1. Gee, I wonder why? My previous post quotes the report in full. And on re-reading it 10 times I fail to detect any of the above false facts. Instead this all comes across as just the tantrum of a toddler who doesn’t get its own way.

The report is harsh perhaps. Judgemental, definitely. But false and inaccurate? WHERE? And if it is so false, why, sue them! Sue the US State Dept! Why, its international liable! They have independent courts world reknowned for dealing very lucratively with such things. Lobby congress to haul those officials up before a congressional or Senate committee!!! (OK, not as tough an ordeal as the incisive questioning and in-depth investigative powers of the mighty Omani Majlis, I know, but, still...)

Here’s the first part of Essa’s Viewpoint below. The rest is missing from the online version, as half-way through cuts to something (maybe from an earlier Viewpoint I guess) on Iran. Typical.

But, this bit I found especially hilarious:
The US State Department has this habit of surprising us all with its dubious annual reports prepared by amateurs, agents and unsuccessful researchers who generalise, report and reach conclusions based on mere imagination and inaccurate information from ill-informed sources on issues covered by their reports.
Goodness. That sounds like exactly the qualities one needs to work at the Times of Oman! Careful Essa, you might be missing out on some good potential employees there! Oh, except they’re not Indians whom you can pay a minimum wage, keep their passports, stop them working anywhere else, and tell them exactly what to do because they are so afraid of getting sent back to India… I take that back.

This whole affair is one of the things that really pisses me off about this generally wonderful country. A total inability to take constructive criticism. Everything is officially perfect, all the time. No learning. No acceptance of mistakes and lessons to be learned. Nothing to be improved. Everything that is wrong someone else’s fault. Usually America, or Israel, or … anyone but ourselves. Government officials acting like they are HM, like they too are somehow totally above criticism, even when their mistakes are totally obvious.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, this attitude pervades the culture.

Exam too hard? Bad exam. Caught cheating in school? Ignore it, its OK, its not really cheatig, and I'm sure you had good reasons.
No fish? Rubbish, there’s plenty of fish.
No cement? It’s those pesky Asian blackmarketers.
Maid accusing her employer of rape or being beaten? Little lying slut, deport her.
Prostitutes in Ruwi, with an Omani sponsor and baksheesh to the authorities? Nope, don’t exist, because we haven’t found any.

Denial, denial, denial.

Grrrr. Do you think I need a holiday?

US reports imaginary, misleading
Essa bin Mohammed Al Zedjali
Sunday, June 15, 2008 12:26:30 AM Oman Time
I WAS shocked like all other Omani citizens by the fabricated US State Department report on human trafficking in the world, which included the Sultanate, for the second time in a row, as one of the countries not making enough efforts to eradicate this global menace.

The US State Department has this habit of surprising us all with its dubious annual reports prepared by amateurs, agents and unsuccessful researchers who generalise, report and reach conclusions based on mere imagination and inaccurate information from ill-informed sources on issues covered by their reports.

No doubt, everyone knows that the US claims to be a democratic country but does not practise what it preaches — real democracy. I wonder how on earth has the US assumed the role of a ‘judge on the whole world’ without being authorised to do the same? In this self-assuming role the US now levels accusations against whatever state it wants to, being, at the same time, biased in favour of other countries.

The US has been using such tactics as a tool as and when it deems necessary in order to exert political pressure on countries not upholding its interests in their respective regions. I was further astonished at the US claims of spreading democracy in the world as it so blatantly continues to ignore the basic principles of democracy by rejecting even a discussion by anyone on the crimes it commits against humanity.

(the rant continues even more in the print copy, but this electronic version stops here. Dragon)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Iranian Monitoring Station in Mussandam: More fun with Google Earth

Just an aside. The Radar monitoring station in Musandam.

One of the great things about Google earth is that it places pretty reasonable satelite images in the hands of everybody with a PC and a net connection. From countries where the idea of public access to such information, or even just topographic maps, were considered 'top secret', Google received a howl of protests originally. But, freedom of speech prevailed.

As a result, its fun to zoom around Oman and see what you can see (see previous post on the Heart Palace).

Here's a sequence of images zooming in one of the highest peaks in Musandam. You can clearly see the monitoring station's big enclosed radar dome and antenna, positioned for looking right across the straights of Hormuz. Nice.

To play at home. Load Google Earth, Type in "Thumrait" and see what you fly too.


Cool huh? Try figuring out that that was there before Google.

Confession - and a link to the best urban myth site

Confession - it turns out that photo I posted last week of an oil rig and a tornado was, how shall I put it, slightly fake. A reader [thanks A.M.] emailed me the true story, that it was taken in Florida and has been photoshopped at various times. The actual dramatic part - the funnel and lightening - are true though.

Co-incidently I was checking something else out on Snopes myself, so I thought I'd share as a lot of people don't know about Its an excellent site of various urban myths which stories are true, which not, and which are sort-of true. Its a great site [caution: its quite addictive] fuelled these days by the turbo-charged power of email, the net and photoshop that are used to spread all sorts of crap.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Advice for a single woman

I had an email recently from a single woman moving to Oman, asking what it was like?

Well, for all you single girls looking to come to Oman, here’s my take, for what its worth:

If you like drinking (alcohol), don’t mind that there are only around 5 good bars and 2 night clubs, and like men (middle aged white, or 20s Omani), you’re in for as much fun as you like. You can have as much sex as you want, as often as you want. Some of it may even be really good.

Sometimes the foreign Navy boats visit. Brits, American, French and Italian (the latter highly recommended).

I’m afraid I have no info on the lesbian scene in Oman, much as I’d like to. Comments readers? Email the pictures.

If you’re 20-45 and cute, the men will beat a path to your door. You’ll never have to buy a meal or drink again. The downside is you’ll get a lot of assholes trying to pick you up, in between the good ones. So, wear a wedding ring, so you can always claim to be married. It’ll make coming through immigration easier too. The men who you let through won’t give a shit that you're married - trust me.

If you're a little on the heavy side, don't worry. Especially the Omani guys actually prefer a little something to hang onto.

Don’t dress like a tramp – you’ll get treated like one. Be wary of the taxis. Don’t walk on Intercon beach alone in the late afternoon or at night. And if you’re blond, dye your hair brunette. It apparently sucks to be a single blond woman. Again, no-one will care that the collar and cuffs don't match.

If you’re looking for culture, like opera and good bands touring, or museums, … you’re shit out of luck. We only have 1 half decent book store in the whole country. If you like sun and beaches, and camping, you’ll love it.

I’m sure more good advice will be offered by my readers!

The US State Dept. report on Human Trafficking

Oh, here's the report card on HE. Seems pretty accurate to me.

Oman's company back in Tier 3 are here:
North Korea
Papua New Guinea
Saudi Arabia

Not the sort of club any respectable country would want to be officially named as being a part of, is it? And certainly not the company HM wants to be seen keeping. I think the Undersec is clearly a little worried about keeping his job...

Here's the link to the full report, if you're interested. And here's the report (full of lies, obviously) on Oman...

OMAN (Tier 3)
Oman is a destination and transit country for men and women primarily from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia, most of whom migrate willingly as low-skilled workers or domestic servants. Some of them subsequently face conditions of involuntary servitude, such as withholding of passports and other restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, long working hours without food or rest, threats, and physical or sexual abuse.

Unscrupulous labor recruitment agencies and their sub-agents at the community level in South Asia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) may also coerce or defraud workers into accepting exploitative work, including conditions of involuntary servitude, in Oman.

Oman is also a destination country for women from China, India, the Philippines, Morocco, and Eastern Europe who may be trafficked for commercial sexual
exploitation. The Government of Oman does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. Oman failed to report any law enforcement activities to prosecute and punish trafficking offenses this year under existing legislation. The government also continues to lack victim protection services or a systematic procedure to identify
victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, such as undocumented migrants and women arrested for prostitution.

Recommendations for Oman:

Enact legal reforms to prohibit all forms of trafficking, including forced labor, commercial sexual exploitation, and the use of force, fraud, or coercion in the recruitment process; significantly increase investigations and prosecutions of trafficking crimes, and convictions and punishment of trafficking offenders; institute a formal victim identification mechanism;
afford victims of trafficking protection services, such as medical, psychological, and legal assistance;
and cease deporting possible victims of trafficking.

Oman failed to report any progress in prosecuting or punishing trafficking offenses over the last year. Although Oman lacks a comprehensive anti-trafficking law, it prohibits slavery under Articles 260-261 of its Penal Code, which prescribes penalties of three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Oman also prohibits coerced prostitution through Article 220, with prescribed penalties of three to five years’ imprisonment. Prescribed punishments for both crimes are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other grave crimes. Although Royal Decree 74 prohibits forced labor, the prescribed penalties of up to one month in prison and/or fines are not sufficiently stringent to deter the offense. A legally enforceable circular prohibits employers from withholding workers’ passports; the circular, however, does not specify penalties for noncompliance, and the practice continues to be widespread. The government did not report any arrests, prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for trafficking offenses under these laws in the last year and has taken no active measures to criminally investigate trafficking in persons. In 2008, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) received 297 grievances from laborers, including some possible trafficking cases; the ministry negotiated all but 12 of these cases out of court. Oman did not report enforcing any criminal penalties against abusive employers.

During the reporting period, Oman made no discernible efforts to improve protection services for victims of trafficking. The government does not provide shelter services, counseling, or legal aid to trafficking victims. Oman also lacks a systematic procedure to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as migrants detained for immigration violations and women arrested for prostitution. Furthermore, workers who are trafficking victims and have fled from their abusive employers without obtaining new sponsorship are subject to automatic deportation if detained by the authorities. Such victims may be reluctant to report abuse or participate in investigations for fear of detention and deportation. Oman does not offer foreign trafficking victims legal alternatives to removal to countries in which they may face hardship or retribution.

Oman made modest efforts to prevent trafficking in persons during this reporting period. The MOM published and began distributing a brochure in nine languages, including Urdu, Hindi, and Malayalam; these brochures provide information on rights and services available to migrant workers, as well as the contact information for the Ministry’s 24-hour labor abuse hotline. The MOM also hired approximately 100 new labor inspectors and, in cooperation with the ILO, trained them in the requirements of core ILO conventions and how to recognize the signs of trafficking in persons.
The government did not take any known measures during the reporting period to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, or educate its citizens about child sex trafficking, including thorough public awareness campaigns targeting citizens traveling to known child sex tourism destinations.

Oman still Tier 3 and the Foreign Ministry is really pissed off about it

Sorry about the lack of posts this week, Ive just been too busy work-wise.

But this lead Oman News Agency story from yesterday forced me to suck it in and make some time. I had to laugh out loud when driving to work and I heard the top story: that Oman's Foreign Ministry, through spokesman Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamoud Al Busaidi, the secretary-general, stated that they had officially complained to the US ambassador that the recent report on human trafficking was unfair, full of lies, and obviously untrue. Obviously.

He sounded pretty pissed off. As well he should be, not because Oman doesn't deserve Tier 3 (they do), but because I bet His Majesty is super-dooper mad with the Foreign Ministry for not getting Oman out of Tier 3, despite his explicit instruction that they do so.

This is why over the past year we're had a workshop on human trafficking (and sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, not the ROP), a royal decree stressing that human trafficking is illegal (which it was already), press reports on how bad human trafficking is and how fantastic Oman's police have been in combating it, and leaflets for (some) sub-continent workers.

And Al Busaidi was rather miffed that all that 'effort' had been for nothing. Oman is still officially rated by the US state dept as a very naughty country. WTF? You bet HM will be pissed off. The press release was a classic CYA move.

Perhaps Sayyid is yet to learn that the rating is based on actually doing something, and not on just talking about doing something. And certainly not based on talking about maybe planning to do something, or a few propaganda stories in the ever pliant media.

Workers from the subcontinent continue to have their passports taken, worked 7 days a week, 12 hrs a day (or more), paid less than a 100 dollars a month, with no right to leave their employer for another. Maids continue to be abused. Indian and Iranian women held as forced prostitutes in Ruwi, or Chinese girls openly made to sell sex with their pimps there to supervise. And no prosecutions.

Times Of Oman
Sultanate rejects US allegation of human trafficking
Wednesday, June 11, 2008 12:23:17 AM Oman Time
MUSCAT — The Sultanate has rejected and protested the latest US state department’s report on human trafficking citing Oman for the second year among countries that have made no efforts to fight this global issue.

It said that the faulty report doesn’t tell the truth, shows the Sultanate in bad light, and shows the shortsightedness of the US views. Besides, it doesn’t reflect the real life situation of the citizens and expatriates in the Sultanate.

The above had been quoted by Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamoud Al Busaidi, secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, in reply to journalists’ questions yesterday regarding the Sultanate’s stand on the US State Department’s report, and measures taken by the Sultanate in this regard.

He said that he met with the US ambassador to the Sultanate on Monday and handed over to him an official protest note, informing the Sultanate’s rejection of the misleading information and incorrect allegations mentioned which contradict the reality.

He added that everyone knows that the Sultanate is renowned for its serious cooperation with the international community in combating crime and that the competent authorities in the Sultanate are very serious on cracking down, arresting and punishing perpetrators of all crimes and not human trafficking which has become a global issue..... etc
OK. I agree its a bit rough being rated in the lowest category when the UAE is rated as Tier 2. They are far worse. Maybe now we'll actually see some real action. But don't hold your breath. Expect another conference soon...

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Cyclone Risk downgraded to 'Poor'. Nizwa wells drying up.

The chances of a cyclone developing over the next few days near Oman has been downgraded to 'Poor' by the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The winds are not allowing the tropical depression to strengthen, and wind speeds are dropping. For details see Weather Blog.

So for now, we're OK. There may be some high clouds and moderate winds over the next few days, maybe even some showers, but its nothing to panic about.

The rain in Nizwa yesterday is just that - a bit of rain. Which they need badly. There is effectively no Government water in the whole Nizwa area lately. People are having to buy it from trucks, if they can afford it. Many houses and Mosques in Nizwa just don't have water.

Meanwhile, here's a great pic a friend sent me, taken in April near a Texas oil rig. How would you like to see this out your bedroom window?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Tagged - The Book excerpt

I almost forgot - I was tagged by Muscato a couple of days ago. Hey, why not? I'll play. (although I fear the result may not meet Muscato's unrealistically high expectations...)

The task:
# Pick up the nearest book.
# Open to page 123.
# Locate the fifth sentence.
# Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing...
# Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged me.

The book to hand was 'Blackwater - The rise of the world's most powerful mercenary army', by Jeremy Scahill. Its a pretty random sample, but the book is very interesting if you have a penchant for the global military industrial complex...

Young assumed a position on the roof and readied his heavy M249 Squad Automatic weapon. He peered through the scope of his gun, watching the action unfold below and awaiting orders. 'After what seemed like an eternity, which was maybe just a few seconds, I could see people getting out of [a] truck and start running', Young recalled.

There you go. The scene is Iraq, and Cpl. Young proceeds to act under the effective command of Blackwater, even though he was in the US marines.

I'll tag:
Leo Americanus, Per your request, Al-Maawali, Muscati (come on Muscati, we miss your posts) and Amjad.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Just a little bit of history repeating? Tropical Cyclone formation alert issued

Just in from the weather geeks and the US Navy, who have upgraded the chance of a tropical cyclone developing in the next 24hrs off the Omani coast to 'good', and have posted a tropical cyclone formation alert, but not yet a warning. The timing - exactly 1 year after Gonu hit - is somewhat spooky even the Dragon admits.

Hmmmm. Lets keep an eye on this the next few days. You can see a picture of it here.

God damn it. I don't mind getting a few days off and my house is high on a ridge, but, seriously. Nothing much has been done to improve the drainage has it. And I have many friends who got flooded last time.
AT 27 TO 32 KNOTS. ...

Google Earth & HM's Barka Palace promosed. for thode of you who can't be bothered to load Google Earth, Here's HM's palace from afar

And here's the close up. Nice pool.
Any guesses what the round structure is north of the pool?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

HM's Aunt's Palace: Ain't that sweet?

A friend of a friend was playing around on the (amazing and simply fabulous) Google Earth, and came across this wonderous image. He forwarded me the link.

It's the farm and palace of His Majesty's Aunt, just down the road from HM's place at Barka.

And its in the shape of a heart. Isn't that sweet?

23°38'43.92"N 57°59'16.15"E

Times Of Oman Editor repays Koreans: Part 1

As promised, here's a summary of the first quid pro quo stories that have been published by the self serving Editor of the Times Of Oman Essa bin Mohammed Al Zadjali, following his freebie trip to Korea for the tremendous Korea-Arab summit (paid for by the Koreans and the Saudis). Funnily enough, the reports from the incredibly important summit, in fact "a turning point in the Arab-Korea relations" weren't printed by the other papers in Oman. Strange indeed.

And no mention either that the President of Sudan, a star guest of the talk shop, is viewed by most countries as being personally responsible for committing large scale state sponsored genocide in Dharfur... Ahh, but Sudan, the largest country in Africa, is chock full of resources, and Korea wants resources... So thats all right then.

Lets keep count of how many more articles that favorably portray the Koreans come out during the year. So far 2,258 words have been printed.

Article 1/Editor-in-chief of ‘Times’ off to attend launch of Arab-Korean Organisation
Times News Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008 1:03:34 AM Oman Time
MUSCAT — Essa bin Mohammed Al Zedjali, editor-in-chief of Times of Oman, left for Seoul yesterday to attend the launch of the Arab-Korean Organisation, scheduled for Monday. The visit is taking place on the invitation of the Korean government.
Article 2/Korea-Arab Society inauguration today
Times News Service
Monday, May 26, 2008 12:55:16 AM Oman Time
SEOUL (South Korea) — Around 200 representatives from 22 Arab countries arrived here for the inaugural ceremony of the Korea-Arab Society (KAS) , which will be held under the patronage of the Korean foreign affairs and trade minister today.

The representatives include leaders from business, academic, cultural and religious circles, as well as ministers and senior officials from participating Arab nations, including Sudan, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

President Omar El Beshir of Sudan, the president of Djibouti and representative of Abdulaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria, will address the delegates.
Article 3/New society to build on Korea-Arab cooperation
Tuesday, May 27, 2008 12:49:59 AM Oman Time
WE observe with joy today, May 26, 2008 (May 21st 1429 in the Islamic calendar), the birth of the Korea-Arab Society (KAS), a new mechanism to give fresh impetus to various existing organs of cooperation between Korea and the Arab world on bilateral and multilateral levels.

Korea’s former president Roh Moo-hyun first announced the idea of the Korea-Arab Society on his visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2007. Since then Korea and the Arab countries have intimately cooperated for the materialisation of this plan. Both sides have put efforts into enhancing mutual relations in many sectors, including politics, the economy, culture, society and academy.
Article 4/A turning point in Arab-Korea ties
Times News Service
Tuesday, May 27, 2008 12:51:44 AM Oman Time
SEOUL (South Korea) — Korea hosting an international conference to launch the Korea-Arab Society (KAS) yesterday, was a turning point in the Arab-Korea relations.

“By hosting an international conference to launch the Korea-Arab Society, Korea is certainly creating an important additional instrument to further consolidate its relations with all Arab countries,” said Ahmed Bourzaim, ambassador of Morocco and a delegate at the conference.

Also present at the launch function here were dignitaries like Omar Hassan El Beshir, president of Sudan; Ismail Omar Gulleh, president of Djibouti, Ahmed Ouyahia, personal representative of the president of Algeria, and other Korean ministers and delegates. Essa bin Mohammed Al Zadjali, chairman and editor-in-chief of Times of Oman and Al Shabiba, was part of the Arab delegation attending the conference.

Gonu II continues to be put off, & Maids get a pay rise

More cyclone update. The computer models have now apparently backed off somewhat on the prediction of another tropical storm/cyclone in the next 2 weeks.

BUT, it seems there are signs of dropping pressure, yada yada yada, so the boffins say there still could be one. Its just become less likely.

There is currently some cloud (here's the current Sat Pic), but its not spinning or building cyclonic rotation. So, all OK right now. Don't panic.

And in other news
A coupe of days ago the minimum wage for Indian housemaids in Oman was raised from 50 rials/mnth to 75 rials/mnth, a 50% pay rise, the first rise for 15 years.
Embassy raises minimum wages for Indian maids
MUSCAT The Indian embassy has raised the minimum wage for household workers coming from India from RO50 to RO75.

The new wages will be effective from June 1, 2008, HE Anil Wadhwa, India’s Ambassador to the Sultanate said on Saturday. “This was necessitated by the rising cost of living in Oman and India. The wages had remained static for more than 15 years,” he said.

The wages had been raised in consultation with the Ministry of Manpower, said Wadhwa. The Philippines had raised minimum salary to RO150 per month, Sri Lanka to RO75 per month and Nepal to RO60 per month.
Well, its about time. Maximum hours are supposed to be 10hrs a day, 6 days a week, but thats harder to enforce. In theory that works out to around $1/hr.
Prior attestation of labour agreement by embassy is a must, before the worker leaves India. In association with the Ministry of Manpower, flyers which carry ‘dos and don’ts’ for workers, are placed in aircraft and immigration counters. There are also two help-lines operated round-the-clock by the Ministry of Manpower – 8007-7000 and the embassy – 2469-8491.

It has also been made contractually binding for the sponsor to provide a pre-paid mobile phone to the worker. The housemaid is also required to report to the embassy within four weeks of arrival.
This is all a significant improvement. Now they need to look at the manual workers and do something similar.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Omans largest 2 gas fields dry - according to the MOG?

A really funny story hit the streets today, in both English and Arabic papers: There is no cooking gas in the country. Why? Well, that’s a great question, one the mostly harmless Oman Tribune at least had the balls to ask.

Cooking gas shortage hits local markets
MUSCAT Local markets have been hit by severe gas shortage. The shortage is telling upon the domestic as well as commercial consumers.

Many residents could not get an LPG cylinder when they needed one and had to depend on food from restaurants.

The situation became worse at some restaurants which incurred losses as they could not get LPG cylinder for cooking food.
Wow! That IS a problem. So, why I say, why?

(The actual answer, by the way, is that huge quantities of cooking gas are being smuggled across the border to the UAE, where it's around 8 rials a cylinder, as compared to here where it's just 3 rials (a standard economic effect of subsidy in one country, and demand in another). How one manages to slip 1000s of large steel pressurized cylinders full of highly combustible gas past Oman’s finest customs agents is a question The Tribune couldn’t be bothered to ask, naturally. But read ON!
The authorities said that there was no shortage of cooking gas in the local markets, adding that gas cylinders were available in abundance.

Interestingly, the officials at gas companies admitted to shortage of cooking gas, saying that large quantities of cooking gas were being exported to other countries at higher prices and this had resulted in domestic shortage.
So, there are lots of cylinders, according to the Authorities (empty ones, perhaps?). But wait, one underling from the MOG (not that that was very clear in the report), dared to tell it how it really is. One Mr. Saif Al Salmani, was reported as seeming to think it was, in fact, because Oman's 2 largest gas fields Yibal [mistranslated as Al Jebal] and Saih Rawl [mistranslated as Saih Roul] have run dry. LMAOFOFL. Oh my God!!!! The story continued.
On the other hand, Saif Al Salmani, general manager of petroleum industries, said that cooking gas was available in large quantities and assured the consumers that the shortage was due to Al Jabel Oil Field in Saih Roul turning dry, but the shortage was compensated by the gas produced from the refinery, he added.
Lets face it folks, if those 2 fields have run dry, Oman has got waaaaaay bigger problems than having to use charcoal for a while. That would have been a great scoop for the reporter, if he actually had a few brain cells.

‘Why, really Mr Al Salmani, the 2 largest gas fields in Oman are turning dry! What do the electricity companies who use Yibal gas to power the whole Muscat coast say? When is my air-conditioning going to stop? Oh, and what about the LNG plants that rely on the mighty Saih Rawl? And the export dollars? And the Sohar industries? What will the Majalis ask of the Minister????'

Unfortunately, its not true. The fields are full of gas, in fact, they have (and I’ll use a technical terms here I heard from one of my sources close to the operator) "shit-loads of the stuff". But what do I or they know, compared to an official from the MOG and the great journalistic talent of the Trib (come on down and collect your accolades, reporter of the year …. Mr. Said Al Nabhani)?

I’m still laughing, the report was sooooo funny. I know, its sad that unscrupulous people are flogging all our cooking gas to the UAE to make a buck, but the real stories are so obvious, and yet totally uncommented upon.:
1/ how are gas cylinders getting smuggled out?
2/ why are domestic gas supplies being subsidized?
3/ Are our 2 largest strategic gas fields really running out?
4/ What is the Government proposing to actually do about points 1-3 above?

Oman's press, you gotta love em!