Monday, September 29, 2008

Internet Filters, unblocking, and what you should know

Internet filtering. Its not just OmanHel who are doing it, naturally. Iran, China, the UAE, Saudi, Tunisia, heck, even America. Until I figured out how to get around Omantel it really used to piss me off. Especially when it was just a pretty harmless site like, home site of the funny Arabian comedian.

However, even if the blocking doesn't bother you, you should be aware - especially if you're a parent with teenage kids - that it's not difficult to circumvent these Omantel blocks. Especially with both the high level of IT savvy kids have today, and the supersonic rate at which information can and is shared. For example, a super common programme popular with the kids in Oman right now is called hotspot shield. Have a look and see if you can find it amongst the applications on your kids computer. Google will help you find it (although the home website is, of course, blocked by Omantel).

Most people don't actually have a problem with OmanTel blocking criminal, pornographic, or dangerous sites, or monitoring your every move on the internet. But I know almost everybody - except it seems the TRA and Omantel - gets really pissed off with the blocking of Skype and other VOIP providers just to protect their old world monopoly on international phone calls, and to assist the security services in listening in on those calls too (its notoriously difficult to listen in on skype calls). Same with blocking YouTube, or MySpace (neither yet blocked in Oman, BTW).

[One excellent VOIP that isn't blocked so far, BTW, is www.XXXXXXXXX.YYY .... no, I won't tell Omantel here (I get several readers from the countries IT monopoly). Email me and I'll send you the link if you're desperate.]

Omantel also, understandably, block pretty much every proxy site and proxy programe download site too. So, you may need to be persistent.

To assist you in getting access where you want, and to give my readers real, solid advice from someone who's an expert and really smart (rather than you trying to get advice from your little brother's IT savvy friend) - here's an excellent professional guide on the issue of filtering, site blocking, unblocking, and how to circumvent those controls by Ron Deibert, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto. They've produced a laymans guide that explains all you need to know to get around Internet censorship and filtering systems, and the serious considerations you should consider (for example, it may be illegal, and you may not be as anonymous as you think...).

So. here is all you need to know about Internet circumvention technologies:Everyone's Guide to By-Passing Internet Censorship for Citizens Worldwide. Highly recommended.

You will be pleased to know (or maybe not?) that getting around the filters is straightforward, especially if you have a friend on the outside who can email you the applications discussed in detail in this article. But be aware that this may be dangerous and illegal.

Another WayA
nother way around if you don't have time, don't like messing with scary proxy programs, are on a shared computer, or just aren't very IT savvy at all, is to use good old as an effective proxy because Google is, of course, not likely to be blocked by Omantel. This works because the IP address will appear to Omantel as Google instead of you. Note that this is not always effective as it can easily be combated by the more sophisticated techniques, and it is NOT anonymous, but no harm trying!

There are 4 ways:
1/ After a normal Google search, select the "cached" version, which will download from Google's memory banks rather than the original site.

2/ Use google images - its not filtered, especially if you set safe mode off in the preferences (although following the links probably will be if you search naughty things).

3/ Even better, Use the fantastic Google translate utility to access to blocked sites. Here's the URL to use directly:|en|http%3A%2F%2Fwww.OMANTELBLOCKEDSITE.COM
(where OMANTELBLOCKEDSITE.COM is the site that you wish to visit)

If you want to see a blocked page thats already in English, set translate mode from "Chinese into Enlish", you'll get it unchanged and viewed through google. You may need to select the no frame option if you don't get the whole site (see top right).

4/ Use another great utility Google offers to convert any site into mobile friendly format.
If you want, you can see Muscat Confidential this way.
Just search for your blocked site with google mobile and click on the link it provides. Once again, this will often allow you to bypass any blocks because the IP request comes from Google. The only side effect of this method is that google formats the site for a mobile device.

So, enjoy your Eid folks. This should enable you to see anything you want on the internet anyhow. Drive safe.

Thefts and car jacking.

Eid is the season of thefts, unfortunately. It seems may people get their kids bicycles, outdoor toys and even their outdoor furniture stolen at this time of year. My contacts in PDO's camp in Qurm have seen a spate of daring late night motorbike and quad bike thefts, where the theives even cut chains and carry the bikes off in a truck, including several new Harley Davidson motorbikes.

One interesting email circulating is this car jacking warning, alledgedly happening in UAE. Seems sensible, but.. its a fake.
Update - Thanks to Man in Muscat Snopes busts it as a myth/hoax. Makes sense.

But, if you've a motorbike or quad bike, especially a nice hog, do keep it behind a locked wall - they are being stolen (presumably re-exported somewhere) at an increasing rate of late.

here's the hoax email.

Heads up everyone! You walk across the parking lot, unlock your car and get inside. You start the engine and shift into Reverse.

When you look into the rearview mirror to back out of your parking space, you notice a piece of paper stuck to the middle of the rear window. So, you shift into Park unlock your doors, and jump out of your car to remove that paper (or whatever it is) that is obstructing your view. When you reach the back of your car, that is when the carjackers appear out of nowhere, jump into your car and take off. They practically mow you down as they speed off in your car.

And guess what, ? I bet your purse is still in the car.

So now the carjacker has your car, your home address, your money, and your keys. Your home and your whole identity are now compromised!

If you see a piece of paper stuck to your back window, just drive away. Remove the paper later..

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Somali Pirates really asking for it...

Following a rash of successful hijackings of commercial ships off the coast of Somalia recently, plus the recent rescue by the French Navy of a French sailing couple, I suspect these guys might regret taking this latest one, a ship containing at least 30 tanks and assorted military hardware from the Ukraine, bound for Kenya.

They are asking for $35 mln. I suspect instead they are now going to get a lot more attention from the great powers. France is already on the case along with help from the Italians and Spanish, the Americans got involved a couple of months ago in passing, but now the Russians are sending a ship too.

It reminds me of one of those movies where the hero mistakenly steals a suitcase full of money from the Mafia, and finds out the Mafia are less concerned about getting it back than blowing away whoever took it. I don't think those ship-nappers will find the Russians are into paying for what's theirs already...

And I still think Oman should be tagging along to assist with the international effort. They are the only sensible country nearby with a half decent set of warships, and its an ideal opportunity for Oman to flex a tiny bit of regional muscle, gain some live fire practice for the Navy, all while doing the world a favour.

Just a suggestion...

BBC online
Pirates 'want $35m for tank ship'

Experts say piracy has become big business in the area. Pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship off the coast of Somalia have reportedly demanded a ransom of $35m (£19m) to release the vessel and its crew. The pirates earlier warned against any attempt to rescue the crew or cargo of the MV Faina, which is carrying 33 battle tanks destined for Kenya.

Pirates have seized dozens of ships near Somalia's coast in recent months. A Russian Navy vessel is heading to the region and the US says it is monitoring developments in the area.

A spokesman for the pirates, who gave his name as Jalal Jama Ali, told a Somali website that the group were prepared to negotiate with the Kenyan government, but would not release the vessel unless the ransom was paid.

Eid Mubarak - long weekend awaits

Word is the Eid holiday will be Tuesday 30th Sept - Sunday 5th October inclusive, so back at work Monday. Nice.

One of the many benefits of Oman is the large number of public holidays. There must be around 15 working days we get off a year, depending on how generous the Government is feeling. Luckily the weather is getting good enough for wadi bashing and camping, so should be a really nice break.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Policy: Omani Government taxes safe drivers to subsidise young idiots

Ever noticed how incredibly expensive it is to insure a car in Oman? Its not because of Gonu making flood a big risk, nor is it (just) the super high rate of accidents on Oman. If you are an experienced driver over the age of 25, with no history of accidents or making claims, you are being effectively taxed to subsidise the insurance for an 18 year old male in his nice new high performance car.

Yep. In another brilliant Government sponsored initiative, this year the Oman Insurance regulator [the CMA] introduced a new policy, and a new mandatory proposal form. Car insurers in Oman are no longer allowed to ask the sort of important questions you would face if buying auto insurance in most countries, like how many accidents have you had, speeding tickets, who will be driving the car, etc. The insurers are also not allowed to restrict insurance to only drivers over a set age (regardless of the type or cost of the car), and they have been told that under no circumstances can a claim (even for damage to your own car, let alone the third party) be declined for non disclosure.

Now, the insurance companies still need to make money, even when they are forced to insure 18 yr olds who have a history of accidents and are driving nice new Dodge Chargers or Porsches.

So, what that means is the difference is coming from the rates they charge everyone else, including you, even if you are 50 years old, have never had an accident, and drive a Toyota Echo. It also means the insurers are fighting to try and skew their insured population as far as possible away from higher risk drivers, while staying within the regulations.

But, gee, thanks CMA. Like my insurance wasn't high enough already because of these young idiots risking my life and limb, now I even have to subsidise their adventures.

Monday, September 22, 2008

ROP skews road fatality statistics – what are your real chances?

How many people are killed on the roads in Oman every year? Care to guess?

Officially, according to the ROP statistics (more on that later in this post), last year Oman saw a total of 798 road accident fatalities, plus 8530 injuries. Already by end August this year, you’ll probably not be too shocked to learn we’d beaten that record with more than 800 dead, so we’re heading for a total of more than 1000 dead this year. Given the population of Oman – including expats - is around 2.5mln, that’s a rate of 40 per 100,000. On paper that looks like about 3 times the rate in the developed world. (Note, back in 1996, when Oman was already the worst in the Middle East, it was only 24 per 100,000. MENA stats). You can see crashes here.

The problem with this official number is that it’s, er, not true.


Something you won’t be told is that the official ROP number of road fatalities in Oman is only for adults who die at the scene of the accident. It does not include people who die from their injuries in hospital later, and most shockingly it does not include deaths of children. But at least that keeps the public numbers down, huh?

So, your guess is probably as good as mine as to what the real number of fatalities is. But it’s got to be a lot higher than 800 so far.

In trying to calculate what this actual number may be, it’s hard to link the ROP stats with the more accurate but hard to decipher Ministry of Health numbers, but it looks like:
1/ deaths of children under 16 total about 15% of adult road related fatalities
2/ the number of deaths of adults from road accidents who later die in hospital is around the same as the ROP figure for those by the road side (for 2006).

Combining these guestimates, I figure this year approx. 2,300 people will die in this country from car accidents. Put another way, thats about 2 in every 1000 adults in Oman.

Shocking. And thank goodness most Omanis don’t even drink alcohol, or just imagine what the numbers would be like...

And is there anything in the media about this? Not really. The ROP try, but they don’t have the budget or the skills for effective attempts at real PR campaigns. There are no Government campaigns getting people to wear seat belts, slow down, use child seats, or to stop overtaking on blind corners. It’s a national carnage that’s getting worse every year, and nothing is really being done to stop it. Too few ROP officers, and most of the time of the few we have must be spent cutting dead and dying bodies out of cars, rather than being able to even try to enforce the few road laws.

The ROP figure for injuries (probably more accurate than fatalities) is going to be over 10,000 this year. That means, dear reader, if you live in Oman you probably have a 0.5% chance of being injured or killed by a car next year.

So, take care people. Its certainly not a piece of advice you're going to get from the Government.

And perhaps those with a predeliction for giving religious based sermons could spend more time on this part of Omani behaviour, and make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of people right now...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

All too true

Too busy to do much posting today. But I liked this poster from

More ranting tomorrow...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Omani Islamic Scholar makes idiotic pronouncement on Organ transplant

The normally quite sane 'Omani religious scholar' Sh. Khalfan Al Esry came out in the press a few days ago with this stone age view on organ donation: ie that donation of organs is not allowed under Islam. See Gulf News story.

What a totally backward, superficial and counterproductive viewpoint. This is the sort of 'anti-commonsense bullshit pretending to be religion' stuff I expect to come from Saudi idiots or some guy living in a cave in Pakistan, not from Oman and especially not from someone as generally respected as Sh Khalfan.

Organ donation, especially of corneas and kidneys, is standard practice throughout the world. Yes, there remain valid ethical debates surrounding the practice, for example about whether it should be legal to trade organs, the definition of death, cloning, and how to prioritise the waiting list for those in need of organs. But the strictures Sh Khalfan uses in his superficial argument (at least as reported) would probably be just as applicable if used as an argument banning all surgery.

In a country plagued by cataracts and diabetes, and the common result of diabetes being renal failure, this opinion is in effect trying to condemn thousands of Omanis to a lifelong hell of expensive dialysis treatment and a significantly reduced life expectancy. (A recent study concluded that getting a kidney transplant doubles the life expectancy of a patient with end-stage renal disease undergoing dialysis treatment, from 10 years to 20 years.)

I can, unfortunately and rather mean spirited of me, only hope Sh. Khalfan gets to experience the horror of renal failure personally and can therefore take comfort that the only viable treatment of transplantation is not allowed for him by his god.

Omani scholar says organ donations not permissible in Islam
By Sunil K. Vaidya, Bureau Chief
Published: September 16, 2008, 23:52
Muscat: Organ donation, including eyes, is not permitted in Islam, said an Omani Islamic scholar, who sees no harm in donating blood even in Ramadan.

"There are three schools of thought on organ donations by Muslims but the majority of Islamic scholars believe that organ donation is not permissible in Islam," Shaikh Khalfan Al Esry, a member of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque's Steering Committee for Islamic Information Centre, told Gulf News in an interview.

Blood donation, he stressed, was different, as it is replenished. He said that a minority group of scholars believe organ donation was permissible while some would like to leave it to the individual to decide.

"Our body is sacred and a dead body is respected in Islam and there's no need to scavenge it for organ donations," Al Esry said.

"We handle the body with care and give privacy to it by covering it while taking it for burial. Then how can we think of removing its parts ?" he said. Removing organs for donation, he reckons, amounts to disrespecting the dead.

Al Esry also argued that an individual doesn't own his or her body. "It is a gift of the God and in Islam an individual can neither harm his or her own self physically, mentally nor spiritually."

Personally, I don’t find even this approach at all useful – eg trying to read between the lines of a 1400 year old document to interpret meaning in a contemporary scientific setting. This is how one ends up with such stupidity as calling an injection non-surgical, or that giving blood is comparable with breast feeding and thus IS allowed. It is common sense that someone who has died has no need of their kidneys or other organs, and the care taken to recover organs means the procedure is done with the utmost 'respect'. Oman is blessed in this regard with a large supply of relatively fit young men who chose to kill themselves on the roads, and thus provide a potentially significant source of kidneys and other body parts that could be used to ease the suffering of the living.

Readers who are concerned about the issue should instead read the deliberations of people perhaps much more qualified to have an opinion on such matters, and who have given the matter a lot more thought. eg

Organ Transplant Ruling:
List of the Ulama' and Scholars who participated during the consultation and then approved the statement on
Organ Transplant:

1.Dr M A Zaki Badawi Principal, The Muslim College, London Chairman, The Muslim Law (Shari'ah) Council UK.
2.Dr Jamal Sulayman, Professor of Shari'ah, The Muslim College, London.
3.Dr A A Hamid, Professor of Hadith, The Muslim College, London.
4.Dr Fazel Milani, Professor at The International College of Islamic Sciences London.
5.Dr S M A Shahristani, Principal, The International College of Islamic Sciences London.
6.Moulana Abdul Hadi Umri, General Secretary, Jamia-te-Ahl-e-Hadith (UK).
7.Moulana Qamaruzzaman Azami, Chief Imam, North Manchester Central Mosque & General Secretary, The World Islamic Mission.
8.Mufti Mohammed Yunus President, The World Islamic Mission & Imam, Woking Mosque.
9.Mufti Mohammed Muniruzzaman, Imam, Munir-ul-Islam Mosque, Rochdale.
10.Dr Abdul Halim, Senior Imam, The Islamic Cultural Centre and London Central Mosque, Regent's Park London.
11.Mufti Alauddin, Head Imam, Brick Lane Central Mosque, London.
12.Moulana Hafiz M Khalid, Head Imam, Sparkbrook Islamic Centre, Birmingham.
13.Moulana Mumtaz Ahmed, Imam of Bradford.
14.A A Bashiri Esq. Barrister-at-Law.
15.R Abdullah Esq. Barrister-at-Law.
16.Dr Safia Safwat, Barrister-at-Law.
17.Moulana M Shahid Raza, Director, Islamic Centre Leicester & Secretary, The Muslim Law (Shari'ah) Council UK.
18.Mr S G Syedain, General Secretary, Imams & Mosques Council UK.
19.Dr. Manazir Ahsan, Director of the Islamic Foundation

The last five decades have witnessed a big leap in medical science bringing great benefits and skills which were unthinkable before. It is now possible to transplant organs from one body into another, which would help the recipient to continue to live. The significance of the heart has also changed as it is no longer considered the most important organ with regard to life and death. Medical opinion now considers the brain to be the central and crucial part which controls the entire body and its functions. When it is damaged partially or totally the body will suffer either partial or total deterioration. As a consequence of the present development in medical knowledge and skills a number of questions have arisen. These are:

Is it allowed to remove an organ like the kidney from the body of a living person and transplant it into the body of a sick person whose life depends on it?
Is it permissible to remove an organ from the body of a dead person to be used to save the life of a living person?
Is a person allowed to donate his body or part of it to be used after his death in saving the life of other people?
Does Islam recognise the new definition of death that is brain stem death?
If it does is it permissible to remove from brain stem dead persons organs for transplant while there are signs of body functions like heart beat temperature and breathing?
Before answering these questions it is important to note the following principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Usul-Fiqh):
A person has the legal authority over his own body, attested by the fact that he can hire himself for work which might be difficult or exhausting. He may also volunteer for war which may expose him to death. A person is forbidden from harming himself or others (It is not legitimate in Islam to inflict harm on others or to suffer harm from them - Hadith). In case of Necessity certain prohibitions are waived as when the life of a person is threatened the prohibition on eating carrion or drinking wine is suspended.

"He has only forbidden you what has died by itself, blood and pork, and anything that has been consecrated to something besides God. Yet anyone who may be forced to do so, without craving or going too far, will have no offence held against him; for Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (2:173)

Confronted with two evils a person is permitted to choose the lesser of the two, as in the case of a starving person whose life could be saved by either eating carrion or stealing from another person's food. He would be permitted to opt for the latter. Islam made it an obligation upon the sick to seek treatment.
In the light of the above principles the Council is of the opinion that:

1. It is permissible for a living person to donate part of the body such as the kidneys to save the life of another, provided that the organ donated would not endanger the donor's life and that it might help the recipient.

The Prophet (s.A.w.) says, "Whoever helps a brother in difficulty, God will help him through his difficulties on the Day of Judgement."

2. It is permissible to remove the organ of a dead person to be used to save the life of a sick person.

3. It is permissible for a person to donate his body or parts of it to be used after death to treat those who need transplants. So it is permissible for Muslims to carry a donor card.

4. In the absence of a donor card carried by the dead person it is sufficient to obtain the consent of the next of kin.

5. The proper authorities will act in lieu of relations if they are not known.

There's a lot more if you follow the link. Perhaps Sh. Khalfan should do a little more listening to the medical experts and a little less firing from the hip.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What's the story with Bank Muscat?

I know this MSM stuff is getting a little boring for many of you. Sorry. So I'll just note how the market fell again ~3% today to less than 7900, as markets in the region and world wide continued to drop by large amounts.

But, on top of the overall doom and gloom on the markets in general, something very strange is happening to one of Oman's largest companies: Bank Muscat.
In the last 3 weeks the share price has plummeted almost 40%, now down to around 1.12 rial from a peak a few months ago over 2.13 rial. Ouch. The French bank Societe Generale were certainly right to bail out of their 15% shareholding at around 1.82. The Royal Court, as holders of ~40% of the shares after they picked up the French's share, must have lost (on paper) about US$1 billion in the past few months.

The price/earnings ratio is now about 10, assuming they can still maintain a ~100 million profit this year.

Why such a huge drop? Does anyone have a view? [Muscati??]

Is there some hidden liability to Leman Brothers or the other sub-prime meltdowns? Or is it just the implication for profits from the expected increase in loan defaults as the MSM market tanks and, along with it, the fall in the prices of Omani land and houses (also severely over-inflated)? Many people are having to sell property to cover margin calls on the falling market, or even sell out to limit the losses. And a big structural problem for Banks in Oman is the mis-match between the term of their liabilites (many short term deposits) and their assets (long term loans and other assets). Is Bank Muscat bleeding cash as the market falls?

Curious. I don't know if there's an official deposit insurance scheme for Omani banks, but there is NO WAY the Government would allow BM to fail.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Is the MSM bottoming out?

For the past 2 days, the MSM index has been trading basically flat. The pension funds try to push the index up at the start of the day, followed by selling and slow decline.

Perhaps no-one has many shares left to sell?

The index reached its lowest point ever this year of 8,069.480 yesterday during trading, and is again at a new low closing for the year of 8,181.720. My post on Sept 2nd taking of 8,000 is looking scarily prophetic. You can compare with the latest 3 yr trend.

If oil price stays OK, this market must be nearing bottom, but perhaps I'll be proved wrong and it'll keep going to 7,000 (although I can't believe the Government would allow that..). remember that even right now the index is still 23% UP on 12 months ago. If the market picks up, just don't expect 50% returns going forward... trade the bounces. And stick to big, quality companies with plenty of liquidity, like I keep saying.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

2 Murders in Oman, more Brothels busted

Shock & scandal!

Reported today were 2 murders in Oman. At least reported in the Gulf papers, naturally. See the Khaleej Times. I couldn't find anything in the Oman English papers on line. Did anyone see anything in the Arabic press??? Instead they report a series of total non-news stories, as usual.

First was an Omani man killed, suspected of being murdered by his wife. Although there are no details in the press, rumour is the wife allegedly was a bit miffed because he married a second wife. (There's a lesson for you chaps...)
MUSCAT – A woman has been arrested in Mudhaibi in Oman for allegedly murdering her husband with the help of a third person. Public Prosecution Attorney Fahd bin Masoud Al Balushi said police were investigating the case, but did not give names of the victim or the accused.

The man died after being hit on the head, and his body was later found in a nearby water well, Balushi was quoted as saying by local newspapers on Saturday. The woman was considered as the prime suspect, he added.

The second incident sounds like a real interesting one with touches of Romeo and Juliet, after the girl appealed to the court to let her marry a boy despite the objections of her family, and a crowd of guys stormed into a court and killed someone with a Khanjar. Wow. It doesn't say if the victim was the fiancee or not. But clearly a lot of passion.
14 September 2008
In another incident, in Samad Al Shan, Sharqiya region, a man was killed and 10 others injured in a dispute over a marriage proposal. The crime occurred in the local Primary Court. The man, an Omani citizen, was killed with a khanjar (dagger) and 10 others were injured in the brawl.

A police team found a firearm, bullets, sticks and daggers in the cars of the suspects. Eighteen people have been arrested. Investigations revealed that the daughter of one of the accused sought the assistance of the court in marrying a man of her choice who was not acceptable to her relatives. As the girl and her fiancé were at the court, a group of men rushed into the court and a fighting began during which one among the group was killed.

And lastly, several brothels, again run by those pesky 'Asians', were busted. Gulf News: Police smash vice ring in Muscat
Muscat: The Public Prosecutor's office, says that they have uncovered a case of runaway housemaids being lured into prostitution.

Without naming nationalities or numbers, Prosecution Attorney Ahmad Bin Talib Al Jabri said in a statement issued by the Public Prosecution Department that a case has been transferred to the Primary Court in Muscat against a group of people for allegedly running prostitution cells in the country.

"The suspects have admitted their involvement in the crimes," he added. The Public Prosecution Department raided some houses in Muscat, where men and women were found to be practising prostitution. Public Prosecution Attorney Ahmad Bin Said Al Jahwari, who interrogated the suspects, explained that the suspects encouraged housemaids to run away from their sponsors and work for the group as prostitutes. The Public Prosecution Department has urged owners of rented houses to report any such misuse of their properties.

For those interested in how utterly useless the papers are in Oman for actually finding out anything interesting, here are the local headlines from the Observer today, the output achieved by our valiant and hard working 4th Estate, following the arduous use of the copy and paste function on press releases and the wire services...

Local Stories on 14th September

Al Azhar university official received
German cargo ship heads for Oman after release by Somali pirates
TRA unit wins ISO-9001
4th Nawras Goodwill Journey kicks off
Oman Mobile signs mobile spam code
Incredible India show to be held at LuLu hypermarkets
BSM students among Edexcel’s top 10
GCC central banks meet
Unlimited SMS, voice and video calls for Nawras postpaid customers
More demand for fruits and vegetables
Information session on GUtech courses, scholarships today
Tamil album launch on Wednesday

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More on Ras Al Hamra & Burhan Heights development

Just a quick post about the development at Burhan Heights, previously mis-reported as PDO Heights by Times of Oman (among others).

Here's a sat map from google of what is now a part of the heart of the capital area. The change in housing density going from Muscat to the area of the oil company is quite clear, and you can see why the Ministry of Tourism and others would be keen to send in the bulldozers and slap down a few 1000 condominiums and a few hotels.

Satellite view of Ras Al Hamra, Muscat.

'Omani in US' had commented previously on not knowing where Marjan beach was, so I highlighted it. The actual area being redeveloped by OHI is also shown. The yellow dotted line is the boundary of the oil company area used for the refinery and staff housing. In the 70s, when it was built, it really was totally undeveloped and in the middle of know-where. Now, thanks to the success of the oil company in finding and producing oil, which pretty much paid for the development of the whole country, its one PRIME piece of land. Note that Marjan beach, and in fact most of the PDO housing area, is still public access.

Due to the low housing density, few through roads and existence of sidewalks, its a common area for joggers and cyclists who don't want to get run over, and learner drivers. Its predominantly expat community means its also a popular spot for young Omani couples who want to make out in a place where they are unlikely to be stumbled upon by Uncle Abdullah.

It will one day be redeveloped. I hope they do a good job and don't cram too much in.

I'd like to be given a large plot on the hill next to PDO Club please. Must tell my boss at annual bonus time.... Muscati - you can be my neighbour!!

Ministerial change out – the real story part II?

Rumors over the weekend swirled in the Arabic blogosphere and in the sitting rooms of the great and the good, all about what could be the reason for the apparent dismissal of Minister HE Dr Juma Al Juma. And I feel they are substantive enough to now report here for your edification.

Bottom line of the story being circulated: it seems that HE Juma owned a building adjacent to the usual landing approach path to Muscat International airport, next to the Shell station by the motorway. He had a 4th floor added, but it seems, allegedly, the permit for the extra floor was not actually legitimate but was, er, lets say 'illicit'. The height of the addition was in reality too high for FIA regulations concerning the height of things near approach paths, which was why a real permit couldn't be issued, and the additional floor is now apparently being physically removed.

I must admit, it is hard to believe that a Minister would be so silly to deliberately bend such rules for a relatively small amount of money to be gained. But that is the rumor, heard from several sources, several very, very highly placed. (I’d link you to the Arabic comments made over the weekend, but they have been removed).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Don't Panic!!! Sky not falling on PDO Camp

I've been pestered lately by some of my acquaintances who work for the big oil and gas company Petroleum Development Oman, aka PDO, about the news article on OHI, saying how they are about to go ahead with a hotel/condo/retail redevelopment at 'PDO Heights'. You would have thought the sky was falling. Even the maids are fretting.

However, they should - temporarily perhaps - be reassured. The glorious Times of Oman got it wrong, by saying the redevelopment was PDO Heights (see below), home of various run down bungalows and semis that house many of the expats and senior Omanis who work for PDO, and possibly the best piece of real estate in Oman. OHI will actually be redeveloping the small hill known as Burhan Heights, just opposite the Shell Petrol Station, demolishing the old flats, doing some major 'flattening' of the hill, and building said massive development. (Interesting how the Muscat Municipality coincidentally decided to dual the road leading to it. How convenient for OHI!).

Before it was called Burhan Heights, it was called Shanfari villas I think, and was owned by the previous Oil Minister, who subsequently sold it to OHI.

The reason the article caused such panic, of course, is that it is common knowledge that the Ministry of Tourism and others have been salivating for years over the idea of getting their hands on the large chunk of prime real estate that is PDO Camp. It contains possibly the best private beach in Oman, lots of hills, great views, and is (now) in the heart of Muscat. Talk was of 3 hotels (at least), golf course, plus the usual mass of condo and villas. Think of the rivers of cash that baby would enable. Contracts left, right and centre, and perhaps some nice plots of land for those who have been extra good. The area has even been put into the official portfolio of properties the Government holds in their redevelopment department. Although some in the Government were expecting development to begin in 2010, that doesn't look too likely IMHO. The land isn't going anywhere, the Government have their hands rather full with other projects, and neither the oil company nor the Ministry of Oil and Gas are very keen. The camp is a huge part of the reason PDO can attract the skilled expats it needs for the money the offer, and at current oil prices there is still a huge problem getting the right people to come to Oman.

But, eventually, yep, it will happen. Just not right now, despite what crack reporter Mrudu Naik of the Times says.

For the original source of the panic at PDO, thank The Times of Oman
OHI, UAE realtor ETA Star announce luxury township
by Mrudu Naik
Saturday, September 06, 2008 8:30:50 PM Oman Time
MUSCAT — Dubai-based developer ETA Star Properties and Oman’s OHI Group have signed an agreement to launch a premium luxury township in the heart of Oman on the PDO heights.

The “yet to be named” multi-purpose project with residential apartments, offices and retail spaces, blending luxurious living with high levels of convenience will be launched by the end of the year.
The cost of the project is estimated to be RO400 million. The target customers for the project are AGCC nationals. “We would be targeting middle to upper middle class income group as our clients,” said Junaid.

On being asked what the USP of the property would be, Saleh said: “The biggest attraction would be that it is right in the heart of the city unlike other projects. We expect a substantial demand because of the beautiful location. The design of the project will have a lot of Omani touch.”

Stating that the commencement of the construction would start by the end of the year, Junaid said: “It will take 30 months for the project to complete after commencement.”
Informing that the various sized 1000 residential apartments would be housed in many buildings, Saleh clarified that number of floors had not been decided yet.

“Since there is a little bit of relaxation on the number of floors which was earlier restricted to three, we will be discussing with the municipality authorities before deciding on the number of floors,” he said.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

down and down...

The MSM index was down to another record low for the year to 8210.53, a 5% fall today, and what must be record couple of weeks decline. Bank Muscat was down almost 10% on sales of 2.8mln rials in stock. Ouch.

And to give them credit for a change, Times Of Oman did actually report yesterday's drop. This will give the Government a couple of days over the banking weekend to think about what, if anything, they should do.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

MSM hits lowest point this year despite Government intervention

As predicted, despite the exhortations from the Government and the spending of Pension Funds, today the MSM hit a new record low for the year, closing at 8638.98 after falling all day. In just the past 3 months the market has fallen 28% from its record high of 12,164.54.

Will we now see the start of Phase 3 of the campaign to save face and calm the small investors?

Phase 1 was The Chairman of the Omani Chamber of Commerce Al Khonji in the press on August 17th saying all was OK, that the market was undervalued [index at ~10400], and people should take advice from their brokers (and buy).

Phase 2 was getting the Minister of Commerce HE Maqbool Bin Ali Bin Sultan to tell the Pension Fund managers to buy shares as the market plunge was not justified [index now at 8740], and (more tellingly), getting the press to inform the public that that’s what he had done before the market re-opened this week. And have the papers report the resulting ‘surge’ in the market (Good old times of Oman).

Phase 3 is now to make sure everyone knows its also happening elsewhere (but worse), and that its not the Government’s fault [index now at 8640]. Is this why we saw articles today about how the whole GCC is in the hole, that it’s the fault of the Global economy and foreigners? And this classic from the razor sharp Times of Oman News Desk, about how the Oman economy is not just booming, but (and I quote) "the reality is even bigger, better and sweeter"? (see below). Oh oh. If the Times is telling me how totally and utterly fantastic everything is for Omani Real Estate, things must be really bad.

[Readers please note, there is absolutely no connection what-so-ever between the observation that this article pumping investment in Oman real estate only happened to appear in the Times, and to the fact that the son of the paper's editor is Chairman of Blue City, a massive and hugely adventurous Real Estate speculation project thats reportedly in trouble meeting sales targets before even building phase 1. Editorial independence and hard hitting opinions are a cornerstone of The Times unquestioned editorial integrity.]

Actually, for some key stocks the market is now looking to be at a reasonable level. The last 3 months have seen some so-called Omani Bluechips dropping a long way:
Bank Muscat down 32%
National Bank of Oman down 41%
Galfar down 35%
Rennaisance down 19%

Of course they may get even cheaper over the next few weeks… But if there’s another 10% drop the market must be getting close to bottom. My pick would be Bank Muscat, if you’re willing to believe the oil price will stay high and there won’t be a credit crunch in Oman given the very high level of personal indebtedness… Hmmm.

Times of Oman (Editors Choice!): Hot property!
Times News Service
Tuesday, September 09, 2008 11:46:50 PM Oman Time
MUSCAT — While there is general talk of economic boom in Oman, the reality is even bigger, better and sweeter. Take the real estate sector for instance. With residential properties emerging as the highest income-yielding investment in the Sultanate, there are bound to be massive investments in real estate by both domestic as well as international investors.

According to a leading solution provider to real estate sector, the Omani real estate market is expected to continue its rapid growth well into the future, with analysts predicting that the value of demand will top RO8 billion by 2010.

Oman Tribune 1
Gulf stocks face more turbulence
KUWAIT CITY Stock markets in Gulf states are increasingly jittery because of global economic uncertainty and shaky investor confidence and could face a roller-coaster ride ahead, economists said on Tuesday.

Five of the region’s seven stock markets are in the red, shedding more than $120 billion since the start of 2008 despite the listing of a large number of new companies. The seven – including two in the UAE – now have a combined capitalisation of $995 billion.

“Global and domestic factors are impacting the markets, making them fluctuate sharply and become unpredictable... A slide in oil prices in recent months has compounded the impact,” Saudi economist Abdulwahab Abu Dahesh said.

“Gulf investors are less optimistic about the future despite a huge oil windfall. They are uncertain about the extent to which the troubles of the global economy will affect domestic economies,” Abu Dahesh said.

After making a remarkable comeback in 2007 from a two-year correction, the Saudi and Dubai markets have been leading the way down this year. The two markets have so far lost 25 per cent each this year, followed by Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange which has shed 8.4 per cent while Bahrain and Oman have dropped 5.1 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively.

Oman Tribune 2
Stocks fall; Russian market plunges 7.5%
LONDON European stock markets closed lower and Russia’s benchmark RTS share index plunged 7.5 per cent on Tuesday as US economic worries joined falling commodity prices and political concerns closer to home over Georgia in hammering stocks.

The RTS fell below 1,400 points for the first time since early 2006 to close at 1,395. The MICEX index shed 9.08 per cent at 1,158 points.

London’s FTSE 100 index down 0.56 per cent at 5,415.60 points. In Paris, the CAC 40 index lost 1.08 percent to 4,293.34 points and in Frankfurt the DAX shed 0.48 percent to 6,233.41 points.

Oman Ferries loosing money like crazy - take one of the most subsidised trips in the world today!

Word is the vaunted car/passenger ferries Oman purchased earlier this year - the car ferry without any jetties to load cars - are loosing money fast.

I heard that the average number of passengers on the Muscat - Kasab ferry run at the moment is 5 people. 5. Unfortunately, the ferry burns fuel like there's no tomorrow - 30,000 litres of diesel per trip. Plus the ferries were designed down in terms of weight to save money, and are therefore apparently more suitable for short, 1-2 hr type trips rather than the long 6hr+ run being used here. This means the maintainence programme is greater than anticipated, plus they are pretty high tech, so the work has to be done by expensive mechanics from Australia. So not only is the money being poured down its throat, the bills to keep it running are huge too.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's no doubt these are beautiful, world class, state of the art boats. The second ferry Hormuz just successfully broke the world speed record of its sister Shinas in July. However, as anyone who owns a boat knows, big engines and high speeds on water take 1 thing: lots and lots of hydrocarbons.

The organisational and business capability to ensure the boats are used efficiently and economically here in Oman has been a total unmitigated cock-up. Despite ordering the ferries 3 years ago, no jetties were built, nor Omani crew pre-trained. The demand for the service is obviously not great (especially as they can't put cars on them), plus there has been precious little marketing of the service either. The pricing structure is also a disaster - too expensive to come close to filling the boat or compete with going by air, but not enough to actually pay even the running costs, let alone getting capital and interest payments back. As a result, the things are just burning through the cash at a rate of knots, if you'll excuse the pun. I don't know who is responsible for the project, but he's damn lucky he's not working for me or investing my money.

I'd recommend taking a 3 day trip to Kasab as soon as possible, while you can. It'll be like having your own private multi-million dollar boat cruise. (although pack a nice lunch - food is apparently pretty spartan, and there isn't a bar either, so think about taking some magic masafi). The boats are beautiful, the trip is great, and the Ministry of National economy is paying most of your bill, so go for it!

Austal Ferry - Hormuz
Second Oman Ferry Betters Sister's Speed Record

The second of Austal’s two 65 metre vehicle-passenger ferries built for the Sultanate of Oman has become the first diesel-powered vehicle ferry to reach a speed of 56 knots. “Hormuz” recorded a maximum speed of 56 knots (103.7km/h) and a service speed of 52 knots during sea trials held near Henderson in Western Australia yesterday.

The feat makes it the fastest diesel-powered vehicle passenger ferry in the world – a title previously held by its sister vessel “Shinas”, which recorded a maximum speed of 55.9 knots last year.

The vessel is scheduled for delivery to Oman next month, where it will join “Shinas” in providing a new tourism service to Oman’s spectacular Musandam Peninsular as flagships of the Sultanate’s expanded marine transport network.

The unrivalled performance of the two 65 metre vehicle-passenger catamaran ferries showcases the world-class ability of the Austal design team, who successfully developed a new, customised, high efficiency hull design capable of delivering record-breaking performance, while Austal’s construction team managed to meet demanding weight targets.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Satire - you gotta laugh. Bill Maher roasts Republican VP choice

Here's a spoof ad satirising the new Republican VP candidate, Sarah Pallin from Alaska... Its so funny, I had to share. Its from an HBO comedian called Bill Maher.
[Background: You have to know that John McCain has selected Sarah Pallin as his running mate, an unknown religious right-wing mother of 5 from a small town in Alaska where she's the Governor, who's very pro-life/anti-abortion, has a young baby + 4 other kids, and whose 17 year old daughter is 5 months pregnant to her 18yr old boyfriend.]

Go USA freedom of speech. If there's one thing the Middle East needs, its more (OK, a lot more, or even a couple to start with) satirical comedians. The possibilities are endless...

Monday, September 8, 2008

MSM drops yet again - surprise surprise

Yes folks. There are limits to power it seems. As this gentleman of yore successfully proved, holding back the tide can be a difficult trick.

King Canute

Yesterday, the Minister of Commerce and Industry, HE , commanded the pension funds to support the market, which they dutifully did, helping boost the market to a 2% gain as everyone sold around them(or as the always predictable Times of Oman put it, finally daring to talk about the market "MSM-30 surges 1.92pc to close at 9002 points").

Today, the MSM returned to its recent form and dropped back to 8834.78, just about where it ended on Thursday before the pension fund managers got their talking to, although if you ask me it looked like they were active in the later part of the session to minimise the loss and keep it above a record low for 2008, which is where it was from 11-12pm. There was also no pause whatsoever as the index sailed past the previous low, another worry for those who want a return to the good old days.

I'm curious to see who comes out next to try their hand at holding up the market...
Those who tried yesterday morning probably ended up with a 3-5% net trading loss (at least on paper) in less than 36 hours.

Watch this space. Oh, and look at how the papers respond too. Expect more stories on the impressive drops in other regional markets [ie: it's not just us, it's happening everywhere], and calls for controls on foreigners selling out [ie: there's nothing wrong with the Omani companies, it's the fault of these speculating foreigners]...

Just a normal network upgrade for Omantel? Big Brother gets even smarter

One of the many great things I like about Oman is the sophistication and pragmatic efficiency of our Internal Security & the ROP. (In fact, I think the ROP are the most polite and truly friendly police force I have ever met in my many travels)

It's one of the reasons why, to be frank, I feel far, far safer in Oman than in London or New York (or Dubai). Myself and many of my friends already assume that all electronic and phone communications are monitored by the authorities for the purposes of assuring high risk criminal activity (such as terrorism) can be nipped in the bud. I consider myself ‘one of the good guys’ and therefore feel that such surveillance is for my own protection. It's also for that reason I am at pains to ensure my blogging is within the law of the Sultanate, and more importantly within the spirit of the law. (However, I must admit the law is so vague and ill-defined in some places that its difficult to know exactly where the line is.)

I’ve also assumed for years that the American NSA computers have been reading every single email on the planet, including mine. I'll admit that several people have said they think I’m a bit paranoid. But have you seen Enemy of the State…?!?

I guess the following may put all this into context.

New Scientist reported this month that Siemens, the German telecoms conglomerate, have developed a comprehensive surveillance system for computer guided linked eavesdropping across telephone calls, email and internet activity, bank transactions and insurance records. And also that the company had sold the system to over 90 countries and companies. And, of course, Oman does a lot of telecoms business with Siemens…

What’s perhaps more worrying is that companies and non-security professionals are starting to be able to use this stuff. I don’t mind the professionals at Internal Security having access to this stuff, but I hope it is extremely well controlled so it can’t be used by insufficiently authorised and controlled people….
Snoop software makes surveillance a cinch
09:00 23 August 2008 news service
Laura Margottini
“THIS data allows investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time."

So said the UK Home Office last week as it announced plans to give law-enforcement agencies, local councils and other public bodies access to the details of people's text messages, emails and internet activity. The move followed its announcement in May that it was considering creating a massive central database to store all this data, as a tool to help the security services tackle crime and terrorism.

Meanwhile in the US the FISA Amendments Act, which became law in July, allows the security services to intercept anyone's international phone calls and emails without a warrant for up to seven days. Governments around the world are developing increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance methods in a bid to identify terrorist cells or spot criminal activity.

German electronics company Siemens has gone a step further, developing a complete "surveillance in a box" system called the Intelligence Platform, designed for security services in Europe and Asia. It has already sold the system to 60 countries.

According to a document obtained by New Scientist, the system integrates tasks typically done by separate surveillance teams or machines, pooling data from sources such as telephone calls, email and internet activity, bank transactions and insurance records. It then sorts through this mountain of information using software that Siemens dubs "intelligence modules".

This software is trained on a large number of sample documents to pick out items such as names, phone numbers and places from generic text. This means it can spot names or numbers that crop up alongside anyone already of interest to the authorities, and then catalogue any documents that contain such associates.

Once a person is being monitored, pattern-recognition software first identifies their typical behaviour, such as repeated calls to certain numbers over a period of a few months. The software can then identify any deviations from the norm and flag up unusual activities, such as transactions with a foreign bank, or contact with someone who is also under surveillance, so that analysts can take a closer look.

Included within the package is a phone call "monitoring centre", developed by the joint-venture company Nokia Siemens Networks.

Nokia Siemens says 90 of the systems are already being used around the world, although it hasn't specified which countries are using it. A spokesman for the company said, "We implement stringent safeguards to prevent misuse of such systems for unauthorised purposes. In all countries where we operate we do business strictly according to the Nokia Siemens Networks standard code of conduct and UN and EU export regulations."

Samdup argues that such systems should fall under government controls that are imposed on "dual-use" goods - systems that could be used both for civil and military purposes. Security technologies usually escape these controls. For example, the EU regulation on the export and transfer of dual-use technology does not include surveillance and intelligence technologies on the list of items that must be checked and authorised before they are exported to certain countries.

Interesting then, isn’t it, that earlier this year, Omantel announced a seemingly innocuous systems upgrade deal with Nokia Siemens Networks… And if you were running security in Oman, wouldn’t you want the latest and greatest systems? And I’m sure Siemens would sell it to Oman no problemo. So, make sure you're polite on the blog comments please!
AME Info
Oman Mobile strengthens partnership with Nokia Siemens Networks
Oman: Monday, April 28 - 2008 at 12:29 PRESS RELEASE
Oman Mobile Telecommunications, the country's leading mobile operator has appointed Nokia Siemens Networks to consolidate and improve its network quality and coverage, while launching new services such as EDGE in the rural areas.

And Stefan Sieber, Country Director Oman, Nokia Siemens Networks adds: 'This project shows Nokia Siemens Networks' continued commitment to the partnership with Oman Mobile. We are providing support for the business of Oman Mobile by bringing in more efficiency into the network and allowing new revenue streams, e.g. via mobile internet in the rural areas.'

Of the two licensed mobile providers operating in the country, Oman Mobile with almost 1.6 million subscribers has the larger 60% share of the market. Nokia Siemens Networks began its association with the leading GSM Operator as early as 1996 by supplying Core, Radio, Intelligent Network and Value-Added-Services products.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

King Canute analogies, anyone?

As predicted, this morning the MSM index responded to the massed forces of Oman's Pension funds, rallied to the cause following the personal intervention of the Minister of Commerce and Industry yesterday, when he basically instructed them to forget about making profits for a while, stop selling, and instead underpin the market to restore confidence and prevent a blood bath.

But the bump didn't last long, nor was it very convincing, although it did naturally arrest what had been an accelerating decline in the market.
However, after opening higher, the market then fell away as shareholders gladly sold into the waiting cheque books of the pension funds, and prices fell over the course of day (although generally still up on Thursday's close). The index climbed 5% in the first 20 minutes to 9272 before falling back to close at 9002 for a 2% rise on the day, still well below the value at the start of 2008.

I guess its hard to write cheques with one arm twisted up behind your back!

Lets see how it continues this week.

Change out at Ministry of Manpower, Muscat Municipality

Ah yes, a mini-reshuffle of ministers!
OK, so what’s the scoop?

Minister of Manpower replaced
Out: HE Dr. Juma bin Ali bin Juma
In: HE Abdullah bin Nasser al Bakri

The Minister of Manpower has been replaced by up and coming young technocrat Abdullah bin Nasser al Bakri, previously Under-Secretary of Water Resources Affairs at the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources, with the old Minister effectively sacked. (The undersecretary must have made a good impression on His Highness Sayyid Shihab bin Tareq al Said, Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan, at a recent water resource exposition in Spain they attended together.)
Despite earlier comments made to this blog, the replacement is probably unrelated to recent student protests (I think that would be more directly placed at the door of the MOE, whose Minister was instructed by His Majesty to sort that out a couple of weeks ago). No, my sources tell me the change is because essentially the old MOM, HE Dr. Juma bin Ali bin Juma, was increasingly preoccupied with his own very successful trucking business, getting a Doctorate, and in addition was not making any friends with the tone of his pronouncements.

Chairman of Muscat Municipality replaced
Out: HE Eng. Abdullah Bin Abbas Bin Ahmed
In: HE Eng. Sultan Bin Hamdoun Bin Saif Al Harthy

The existing chairman of Muscat Municipality, man about town HE Eng. Abdullah Bin Abbas Bin Ahmed, has been gently moved to a position as one of the many Secretary-Generals at the Diwan of the Royal Court, effectively a nice cushy semi-retirement on full pay. Not that he needs the money too much these days after a long period as head of the big spending municipality and local businessman!
[For example, I’m reliably informed that in one of his most recent projects he successfully built a large office building oat a prime location near the Hyatt in Shatti – which thanks to excellent project management skills was built in record time and never experienced any shortages of cement or labour – and ... (post press correction: rented out, not sold to SinoHydro. Thanks Muscati!)] He also has varied other business interests, many of them highly successful, including being Chairman of the board of directors at The Wave, Muscat.

He is replaced by HE Eng. Sultan Bin Hamdoun Bin Saif Al Harthy, who my sources tell me is ex-Oman Military and used to head one of the critical Military Intelligence Sections. This position is a reward for his many years of excellent work in the service of His Majesty and the country. I’m sure being responsible for all of greater Muscat’s civil infrastructure and lots of other mundane tasks is a pretty hard job, (albeit one that is commonly seen to have lots of fringe benefits).

I certainly wish HE Al Harthy success, as meeting the challenge of building on the achievements of HE Abdullah Bin Abbas Bin Ahmed will not be an easy task in such a high profile role.

Royal Decree appoints Abdullah Al Bakri as Minister of Manpower
MUSCAT His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said has issued three Royal Decrees as follows:

Royal Decree No.-103/2008 appoints Minister of Manpower.
Article I appoints HE Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasir Bin Abdullah Al Bakri as Minister of Manpower.
Article II says the decree comes into force from date of its issue.

Royal Decree No.-104/2008 appoints a secretary-general at the Diwan of the Royal Court.
Article I appoints HE Eng. Abdullah Bin Abbas Bin Ahmed as Secretary-General at the Diwan of the Royal Court with his grade and financial allocations.
Article II says the decree comes into force from the date of its issue.

Royal Decree No.-105/2008 appoints Chairman of Muscat Municipality.
Article I appoints HE Eng. Sultan Bin Hamdoun Bin Saif Al Harthy as Chairman of Muscat Municipality with a grade of undersecretary.
Article II says the decree comes into force from the date of its issue.

Oman News Agency

Expect a quick bounce in MSM today - Government waves the big stick

Soon the MSM will open (in about 20 min as I type), and I'm expecting the Government to move to bounce the market away from its record low for the year reached on Thursday of less than 8,800. The cavalry is on its way...

As reported in The Tribune today (and on Muscat Confidential yesterday), the Minister of C&I Maqbool Bin Ali Bin Sultan 'held talks' with Oman Pension funds (which are anyhow mostly Government controlled) and telling them the drop in the market was ' not justified' and was hurting small investors, so they'd better sort it out - ie BUY, BUY, BUY. (Aside: The Minister probably had to get involved as clearly the exortations of the Chairman of the Omani Chamber of Commerce to not sell didn't really work a couple of weeks ago...)

Of course, a big driver behind the drop has been the recent 10%+ growth in the strength of the dollar, to which the Omani rials is fixed. And the significant drop in Omani oil price. This has emboldened overseas investors (and perhaps some Omani big boys too...) to get money out of the MSM and into pounds or Euros.

But, as the Government controls who runs the Pension funds, I expect the boys will do what their paymaster has instructed them to do with gusto today, or perhaps they won't be running a pension fund for much longer. And perhaps then the papers here will report on the MSM's 'record rise' and how everythings obviously totally OK... LOL.
Maqbool holds talks with pension funds
MUSCAT HE Maqbool Bin Ali Bin Sultan, Minister of Commerce and Industry and chairman of the Capital Markets Authority, on Saturday held talks with pension funds to find out the reasons behind the Muscat Securities Market slump and the steps need to regain investors’ confidence.

Profits of listed companies in the first half of 2008 has been 54 per cent higher compared to the same period last year. Hence the minister felt the market plunge was not justified. He also pointed to the stability of the economic conditions in the Sultanate. High oil prices during the first half of the year also saw the implementation of a number of projects across the country, he added.

Maqbool urged pension funds to manage their investments in a manner that while enhancing their profits boosted small investors’ confidence.
CMA CEO HE Yahya Bin Said Al Jabri said the main reason behind the slump was that investors sold shares in some companies to buy shares in other Omani companies, a pointer to their trust in the local economy.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

No more Happy Birthdays in The Kingdom?

Yes, more wackiness from the country that banned the sale of red roses on the 14th of February. Saudi and the Islamic establishment are now wasting their time debating whether or not it is haram to celebrate little kids’ birthdays with a party.

Rather than addressing real issues, such as perhaps Palestine, the damaging schism between Sunni and Shia, the equitable treatment of women, how to more effectively combine rule by theology with political representation, etc etc etc, it seems of late that re-arranging the intellectual deck chairs is the main preoccupation of senior clerics in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia debates birthday parties
September 05, 2008
Riyadh: When Hala Al Masa'ad invited her girlfriends over to celebrate her 18th birthday with cake and juice, little did the high school student know that she was stepping into an unusual public debate. Is celebrating birthdays un-Islamic?

Saudi Arabia's most senior Muslim cleric recently denounced birthday parties as an unwanted foreign influence, but another prominent cleric declared they were OK.

That has left Al Masa'ad with mixed feelings about her low-key celebration last month. She says she loves birthday parties because they make her feel that she has "moved from one stage in life to another."

"But I sometimes feel I'm doing something 'haram' [banned]," she said sheepishly.

The Saudi ban on birthdays is in line with the strict interpretation of Islam followed by the conservative Wahhabi sect adhered to in the Kingdom. All Christian and even most Muslim feasts are also prohibited because they are considered alien customs that the Saudi clerics do not approve.

The latest controversy started when a prominent Saudi Arabian cleric, Salman Al Audah, said on a popular satellite TV programme last month that it was OK to mark birthdays and wedding anniversaries with parties as long as the Arabic word "eid", meaning feast, is not used to describe the events.

That prompted a quick denunciation by Saudi Arabia's grand mufti and top religious authority, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, who said such celebrations have no place in Islam and produced a list of foreign customs that he suggested were unacceptable.

Thank goodness Oman is above such silliness. This country really lucked out to have been the cradle that saved the Ibadhi Muslim sect. I only wish it would slowly replace the Wahhabi/Sunni/Shia versions globally as soon as possible. The key differences with Ibadhi is, as I am led to understand, Ibadhi not only have a more democratic vision for who the Imam should be, but also are allowed to “follow a method of allegorical interpretation of anthropomorphistic expressions in the Qu'ran.” IE Apply some common sense. Common sense seems to be something totally lacking in Saudi Arabia’s religious discussions.

For a more detailed and, IMHO, very reasonable description of Ibadhism and Omani religious history, I'd recommend interested readers check out this commentary by Valerie J. Hoffman, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Illinois. [It may also be a more appropriate read than the links on one of my previous posts recently on a subject perhaps somewhat Haraam given that this is the Holy Month of Ramadan! Sorry about that BlueChi.]

Friday, September 5, 2008

MSM continues to fly like a frozen chicken

The MSM, as predicted, has continued to plummet, dropping over 2% and 3% respectively on the last 2 days. The index reached 8,800 yesterday, down almost 10% from the dead cat bounce 2 weeks ago.

What's most peculiar however is the almost complete absence of any reports or comments in the papers. I mean, the market is now down more than 25% from its peak earlier this year, and the drops this past week are huge, but the business sections of the papers are quiet. Spooky.

The hard hitting and fearless Times of Oman had a few lines stating the facts on Wednesday, but nothing on Thursday. Tribune: Nothing. Observer: Nothing.

And the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce remains tight lipped, after having urged people not to sell at 9,400... Expect more blood, another bounce, and blaming it on pesky foreigners...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

How to have sex in Muscat!

You know, I get a lot of hits from guys (I'm assuming here) in Oman searching for Filipino girls, Muscat girls, how to get girls in muscat, muscat sex, sex omani girls, prostitutes muscat, gay sex muscat, etc etc etc. Sex is clearly, like the rest of the world, on the mind of a lot of people in Muscat. Oh yes.

And from what many of my Omani friends tell me, there is also a LOT of premarital sex going on here. Despite what the uptight, religious morals, no-sex-until-you're-married types on the Sablas might want to think. They'll meet each other in the malls, or supermarkets, or at Shatti, exchange numbers, and hook up. But only if he's got a decent car, apparently. The girls will cover for each other with their respective parents, pretending they are out together, when they actually meet up with the boyfriend.

So, as sex education is not a part of the Omani school curriculum, and access to appropriate literature is also out, I bet there's unfortunately a lot of really bad pre-marital sex happening (and maybe some bad married sex too). So, kids, here is an excellent guide to sex, and how to do it properly. Grab a look before Omantel reset the filter [yes, I'm afraid I also get regular visits from Omantel. Hi there!].
WARNING: Following this link my be illegal in your country.
Ensure that viewing of sexually explicit is legal where you are and that you are old enough to view such material before following this link.

Instructables: How to have sex

Another good source of sensible down to earth advice on sexual behaviour, the sort of adult advice that the straights won't like at all, is Savage Love: great reading for all, and especially those who are not vanilla heterosexuals.

And while I'm at it, another great site I'd recommend is the female porn reviewer Violet Blue. You'll have to skirt the filters to see her site, but then you all know how to do that already, right?

Enjoy the weekend! (oh, And please protect yourselves from unwanted side-effects of sexual activity - STDs, pregnancy - and use condoms.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Did you already buy your land in Duqm?

Nice piece yesterday in The National about how Oman is asking for a tender for an International Airport in Duqm, a place on the coast roughly halfway between Muscat and Salalah, and previously nowhere's ville.

The Government has big, big development plans for the area - a refinery, port, dry dock, coal fired power station, etc etc etc... So, those who bought lands there recently are looking good. Funnily enough, it seems many people in the Government had been buying land down there for quite a while. How lucky are they that it later happened to be a site for massive Government investment!

If you're into speculation and have the local contacts it may not be too late even now, especially if you're willing to wait a decade or so. [Big Hint: You might also think about buying some nice beach lands around Al Ashkharah, further up the coast, Get it now kids while you can...].

Duqm is also close to the recently moved and resized Oryx Reserve, and is close to the Huqf, a generally uninhabited area of considerable natural beauty.

With all this extra cash flowing in, the whole region seems to be like a giant version of Sim City.

Oman invites bids for Duqm airport
Ivan Gale
September 02. 2008 11:00PM UAE
Oman’s efforts to diversify its economy took another step forward yesterday when it invited bids to build an international airport at the coastal city of Duqm, 600km south of Muscat, which will support a host of tourism and industrial projects in the remote coastal area.

The airport, which will be the country’s third international hub after Muscat and Salalah, has an estimated project cost of $200 million (Dh734m).

“It’s difficult to say how much the airport would cost but the government has set aside a budget of around $100 to $200 million for this project,” a tender board official said yesterday.

An earlier construction phase of the airport project, covering the initial earthworks, was put out this summer and has already received 10 bids from construction firms from Oman, India, South Korea, Greece, Iran and Turkey. The lowest bid for this phase came in at $70 million from a local contractor, according to MEED Magazine.

The Government of Oman plans to inject vast sums of money into the Duqm region. The travel and tourism sector will be boosted by new hotels, resorts and public beaches along this coastal area. Last year, the Sultanate received 650,000 tourists throughout the country, including many on chartered tours from Europe, and it has outlined broad goals to increase that number dramatically over the coming years.

Under the development plans of Oman’s Supreme Committee for Town Planning, private developers are also set to build residential projects along Duqm’s coast.

The region will also one day be home to a large industrial and free trade zone in a bid to stimulate Oman’s trade and industrial sector. A total of 21,000 hectares has been allocated for industrial development at Duqm, including a refinery, petrochemical complex and fisheries facilities. The adjoining free trade zone is envisaged as taking up more than 1,000 hectares, according to local news reports.

At Ras Duqm, located seven kilometres from the town of Duqm, a new port will connect the region’s refineries and industrial plans.

Under the plans, the port complex will cover an area of 1.2 million square metres and handle bulk cargo ships of up to 100,000 tonnes. Repair facilities such as dry docks and floating repair docks are also planned to service the oil and gas tankers that regularly ply the Oman coast en route to the Strait of Hormuz and on to the Arabian Gulf.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Danger Will Robinson, Danger! MSM continues downtrend

Sorry for the lack of posts this week: ah, work.

But here's a couple of nice plots that seem to confirm the earlier warning posts I made after the big drop in the Muscat Stock Market over the past couple of months.

It does seem that the gains posted by the market after the big drop last month are consistent with dead cat bounce. Those gains have now evaporated, and the market is back at or near its new low for 2008. It fell another 2% today.

Its easy to see why the market has dropped when you look at the long term performance. The gain in the market over the past 2 years have, until lately, showed all the characteristics of a speculative, liquidity driven, bubble. (Unless you believe the market was fundamentally undervalued until mid 2006.)

The red 'trend line' I've drawn on the MSM index chart is approximately what the index should be if you assume a 20% year-on-year growth from mid 2006. Even that impressive growth would only suggest a value of 8000 for the MSM. The recent climb to 12,000 represented a 50% pa growth, and was always going to be unsustainable in an economy growing at ~15% based on huge oil price increases and infrastructure investments. Given the continued drops in regional markets, the troubles in the European and USA economies, and the drop in oil price, its hard to imagine the bear market won't continue down. And that will cause problems for many speculative investors.

A big problem is the internal-dependency of the index value itself: as it drops, the losses accelerate, as so much 'profit' is actually based on cross-holdings in other shares. This works fine on the way up, but deepens the impact of the drop on the way down. Expect more exhortions from the Chamber of Commerce soon.

As I said before, if you're in the market, look at the drops as buying opportunities for quality stocks based on trading profits, strong management and solid business models. If you're going to trade, have the strength of discipline to sell on the bounces that will occur on the way down...

And beware looking at P/E ratios and profit reports. They are subject to manipulation.

Example, Oman Fisheries posted a 1.5 million rial profit in 2007-2008, up from a loss of over 450,000 in 2006-2007. Thats good isn't it? But that profit actually came from cashing in investments. They lost 458,000 rials in their core business of, er, trading in fish, and made the money buying and selling shares on ....the MSM! Yet the 8 Directors of Oman Fisheries still felt OK awarding themselves 26,000 rials in payments, on top of the 14,000 they were paid in fees to go to meetings. Hmmm. Nice work if you can get it I guess.

Caveat Emptor...