Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blue City: An update.

The problems at Blue City continue.

Even the rather distant Bank of New York Mellon, custodians of the purse strings, seem to be fully aware that the money they are responsible for doling out on behalf of the bond holders is being pissed away on high salaries and pocket-lining for the gilded few at the top of BCC1. As a result they have turned off the taps as much as they can. Richard Russell has been flying so often to the big apple, cap in hand, he must be past platinum class on his frequent flier miles.

As Samir Pandiri, Managing Director at Bank of New York Mellon put it, in this hilarious excellent piece on the extensive financing controls for Blue City:
Welcome to Blue City, the landmark development in Oman that is a case study for the rapidly evolving world of project finance and expanding role of trustees. In this Global Corporate Trust Innovation Series edition, Samir Pandiri discusses the financial complexities of building Blue City and the future of project finance it represents.

On this landmark tourism development project, The Bank of New York Mellon was selected by Blue City Investments 1 Limited to provide multiple corporate trust services, including acting as trustee, registrar, agent, cash manager, account bank, lookback calculation agent, and Irish paying agent.

What makes this deal different is that the trustee is involved in every part of the transaction, well beyond the trustee’s normal project finance role. The Blue City project required a hybrid approach, with structured finance, credit enhancement, real estate financing, and project finance rolled up into one seamless package. Phase 1 groundbreaking, for example, was delayed by architectural revisions. As trustee, The Bank of New York Mellon was required to review certain consent requests and acknowledge that the resulting consent to delay would not jeopardize bondholder rights or result in rating downgrades.

The ownership structure, securitization, and international cash flows also make this project different. For example, the notes are protected by reserve accounts backing payment of principal and interest on certain series, a credit insurance policy backing payment of principal on certain series, real estate collateral, cash flows resulting from sale of the residential properties, and operating cash flows from the nonresidential assets once operational.

The successful sale of residential properties will ultimately determine whether the project can move forward. As trustee, The Bank of New York Mellon is charged with making that determination on the part of the investors by applying a capital expenditures test and a residential sales test. The Bank’s global analytics group will perform the tests, monitoring and performing calculations based on raw data provided by various parties....

Ahem. Yes.

So, as the coffers are almost empty, salaries for the elite have not been paid so far this year, at least not by BCC1. I'm reliably informed the last salary cheques had to be funded by parent company ASIT. Meanwhile, 15 senior expat staff at BCC1 were given notice a couple of week's ago and will have to vacate their positions. More expats are due to be culled soon, including, rumour has it, even Saleh Miri, CEO of parent ASIT. I already reported the jettisoning of project management contractor ACE and the storm clouds over the future involvement of the (pretty good) main developer AECO, who also haven't been paid for months.

Interestingly, I'm told the indescribably valuable services of Ms. Margarita Filipotti, award-winning Marketing Director of Al Madina A’Zarqa, are deemed by the controlling Al Zedjali brothers to be well worth retaining, even at a surprisingly pricey salary of 7,000 rials a month. She must be a top performer indeed, and of course there is so much marketing to be done!

Yes, 7k a month. Hey, the whole senior management team have long been on similarly large and larger wads. (7k RO is about US$220,000 a year tax-free kids, plus the expat perks too. Sweet deal for an almost bankrupt company isn't it? Amazing how easy it is to spend borrowed money when someone else is doing the borrowing...)

Paranoia is also building, with BCC1 even trying to use text comparison analysis to find who is leaking the info on the project. Someone there has been watching a little too much CSI Las Vegas lately (fear not chaps - I am NOT a BCC1 employee. Even you guys don't pay enough...)

The Bahrain ex-partners, AAJ Holdings, who got the original deal off the ground and who helped to get the $925 million in junk bonds sold via ever-so-slightly-dodgy Oppenheimer Investments AG**, are amazingly still battling it out in the courts. They - surprise surprise - lost the most recent court case but are re-appealing the decision. By the time they win, if they do, there will be precious little left worth winning.

Photo: Early days. Did anyone realise at the time that the billion dollars was just for the model?

The real power is in the ownership of the bonds, and the key role to be played by trustee BoNYM, IMHO.

Doing the rounds - crazy as it sounds - is the rumour that the real strategy post-real estate meltdown* is to effectively bankrupt the BCC1 holding company, and thus activate the default on the bonds (which are secured against the full 32km2 of beautiful land that was presumably provided free to enable the glorious development and at the same time provide the equity stake of Cyclone LLC)... With bankruptcy, AAJH would be left with 70% of a dead company (if he wins the appeal - which is likely) and even end up potentially liable for the multitude of subsequent claims; the main contractors AECO would have no-one to claim the early termination fees from (a hefty 10%, I'm told); and who-ever picked up those Blue City junk bonds last year for 60 or so cents in the dollar could then claim all the land, plus whatever's left in the escrow funds from sales deposits already made, resurrect the development (with new local contractors), finish the scaled down ITD development, and make a huge profit from those redesigned villas that have (perhaps) already been sold! Wow.

But of course that would be totally insane. Imagine the incredible damage to Oman's reputation if the most important project in Oman's history went bust and defaulted on its obligations; the squandering of the land that was meant for 'A new city of 200,000 people'; the lost goodwill of contractors and financiers across the world; and the waste of all that Government paid-for infrastructure (including power supply, roads, the mega-fast-fibre optic cable links to India, etc). Simply to enrich those few who would stand to gain from such a dastardly scheme? It's the most preposterously unbelievable and untrue rumour I've heard in a long time. Afterall, the 'conspirators' would have to both control ASIT and BCC1 and the bonds and be in a position to control the spin on the bankruptcy through the media and handle the ramifications within the highest reaches of the Government and be able to influence the Government to still deliver the infrastructure support. Like I said, this is so obviously impossible it must be simply untrue.

So that's alright then.

*scapegoat of the year, BTW. We can keep blaming the USA and Jewish financiers!
**No connection what-so-ever to the famous Oppenheimer family, as law suits in New York attest. Shady. And they charged $25 million. Sweet.

Photo: ASIT Chairman, Anees Al Zedjali, tells it like it is.

As real estate developer par excellence and part-time newspaper editor, respected ASIT Chairman Anees Al Zadjali said so eloquently:

"The Blue City is one of the most important developments in Oman. It is much more than just a real estate development. We are creating a city which will take Oman into the next century, providing not just homes, but new jobs, new industries and a legacy for the future," he added.

"As the cornerstone of the new city, the first phase of the development will set the tone and style for what is to follow and will offer wider opportunities beyond freehold property."


In totally unrelated news, Muscat Daily confirmed yesterday the report last week of the largest ever fraud in Oman history, with a ponzi scheme that ripped off some 3,200 people of over $220 million dollars.

Hmmm. Perhaps that should have read largest ever to-date?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Is NATO going to pull out of Oman for their AWACs base? I doubt it.

Is Oman about to loose the 'temporary' base NATO have here for their AWACs [Airborne early Warning And Control system] air support operations in Afganistan and the Gulf?

Photo: NATO AWAC support for AFPAK is currently based in Oman. Are they going to make it permanent? Or leave?

BRUSSELS, Jan 28 (NNN-KUNA) — The chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, has said here that the Alliance is in discussion with a Gulf state to deploy AWACS planes for reconnaissance mission over Afghanistan in support of its ISAF mission and also for anti-piracy off Somalia.
“The Alliance is close to closing the basic issue with one of the Gulf country,” he said in reply to a question during a press conference Wednesday following a two-day meeting of NATO’S military chiefs. Di Pialo did not mention the name of the country.
“We are looking forward to be in a position to follow on the temporary deployment that we have today in Oman with a more permanent long-term deployment,” he said.

Oman is by far the most logical place for such a base - stable, safe, close to the action in Afganistan and Pakistan, good logistics, plus close to the piracy zones in the Gulf of Aden. Oman has a huge coast-line adjacent to the Gulf of Oman, and already hosts large US and UK military bases, forward war materiel storage and deployment bases, and military airports at Thumrait and Masirah Island. Why would NATO want to consider a move?

Photo: US Military Jets in Thumrait, Oman. The US and UK military have long had airbases in the country.

Contrast the reality of these massive foreign military deployments here in the Sultanate with Oman's Foreign Minter's recent statement criticising the major "trans-regional powers" [read USA] for placing their warships in the Arabian Persian gulf.

I don't know if he really used the phrase Persian Gulf or if that's just how the Iranian press transliterated it. (The descriptive term for the patch of ocean between the UAE and Iran has always been a political football)


TEHRAN, Jan 14 (NNN-FNA) Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdallah has criticized trans-regional powers for deploying their troops and naval fleets in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman as such measures run counter to international rules.
“We believe that the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman should be free seas for international navigation and no change should take place there and they should not turn these places ruled by parading fleets of warships,” bin Alawi said in a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki here on Wednesday.
He stressed that his country does not accept the presence of foreign military forces in these secure regions as he views such a move as a violation of the international rules and regulations.

It was not reported if he had his fingers crossed while making the statement. But loosing the NATO base for the AWACs would be a bit of an economic and political blow. All those troups and planes need quite a lot of costly support, almost all of it spent in Oman.

If NATO does move to the UAE or Qatar, it would be a bit of a slap to Oman.

Conversely, if the base is retained here with a long term agreement, it's hard to square that with the Foreign Minister's statement that seems to oppose such foreign deployments. Oman, not surprisingly, wants it both ways: increased trade, bi-lateral investment and military cooperation with Iran; but continued friendly and cooperative relations with the USA, including military equipment, intel and hosting those expensive bases.

With bat-shit crazy Ahmadinejad and his lethally violent repressive regime continually upping the stakes, it's increasingly difficult for Oman to square this circle. Yet Sultan Qaboos has successfully led the way in progressive regional politics and diplomacy for decades, establishing the GCC, and consistently following a pragmatic and non-reactionary policy of respectful engagement with all parties, something well summarised in the Rand corporation analysis of 1995, an analysis which holds true to this day:

To understand Oman's current foreign policy is to understand how skilled diplomacy works--how balancing interests, tolerance toward differences, and a determined search for mutual benefits can open international doors and keep them open, even during conflict. While other nations in the Middle East have been driven by ideology and short-term gains, the Sultanate of Oman has pursued its own course, holding to the belief that peaceful negotiation is essential to the overall, long-term goals of Omani security and prosperity.

It's regretable that following his Majesty's brave visit to Iran following the violent 're-election' of Ahmedinejad, things have gotten worse there, with the recent resignation of Iran's Ambassador to Norway and his urging of other ambassadors to follow suit in a telling public repudation of the legetimacy of the regime:

It was the Iranian authorities' treatment of demonstrators around Christmas which made me realise that my conscience would not allow me to continue in my job.
(it seems at least 8 protesters were shot during the protests.)

Retaining the NATO base while Oman continues to strengthen relations with Iran would be a great endorsement of Oman's pragmatic foreign policy. Given the absence of any other Western friendly regimes in the region in strategically critical geographic locations, and the pressing need for deeper bilateral cooperation between US and Oman as the civil war in Yemen goes from bad to worse, NATO would be wise to extend the arrangement for those AWACs.

I'm sure that's what will happen.

Meanwhile Oman is holding its nose and continuing to engage with Iran's despotic leadership. We must really want that gas...

Oman chopper pilots in lucky escape from crash in Australia

2 Omani ROP helicopter pilots had a lucky escape from almost certain death when their helicopter crash-landed on the edge of a 550m vertical cliff.

Photo: The crashed helicopter perched on the narrow ledge.

The trainee pilots were reportedly doing mountain flying training in New South Wales, Australia. The cause of the crash is unknown, but these really are 3 lucky pilots!

Three safe as chopper crashes on cliff

Greg Stolz From: Herald Sun January 29, 2010 12:00AM

THREE men have miraculously walked away from a dramatic mountain-top crash-landing in a helicopter owned by former champion ironman Grant Kenny.

The Curry Kenny Aviation chopper, with an instructor and two student pilots on board, crashed onto a narrow ridge in the Mt Barney National Park in northern NSW just after 1pm on Thursday.

Rescuers said the Robinson 44 helicopter would have plunged down a 550m cliff had the pilot not managed to put the aircraft down where he did.

"They are very, very lucky," said Westpac rescue pilot Martin Hanna. "The pilot probably saw that little bit of rock and knew that if they didn't land there, they were in trouble. A few more metres to the north and they'd have gone about 1800ft straight down a vertical cliff."

Mr Hanna said the helicopter crashed on to the ridge on its right side.

"Fortunately, they had a mobile phone on board and were able to call in where they were straight away," he said.

The rescue helicopter lowered a doctor and paramedic on to the ridge and then winched the three, in their 30s and 40s, to safety.

"It looked quite spectacular but was a fairly straightforward rescue," Mr Hanna said.

The student pilots were believed to be from the Royal Oman Police Force and were training with Curry Kenny Aviation subsidiary Chopperline, based at Caloundra. They and the instructor were not injured and were taken to Woodenbong, near Kyogle, to speak to police. A spokesman for Mr Kenny said the three men were on a mountain training drill when the accident happened.

"They were practising on top of the cliff and may have been hovering only about a metre above it," he said. "Fortunately, no one was hurt."

The spokesman said Mr Kenny would not comment on what may have caused the crash, because it was being investigated by authorities. It's believed there were storms in the area. The slightly damaged helicopter was being winched off its crash pad by a larger chopper, the spokesman said.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review of Oman Higher Education. Plus, an update on Muscat University.

Education in Oman is perhaps the biggest issue facing the country, what with half the population under 18, and expanding the economy away from hydrocarbons while replacing expats with locals of utmost importance to the medium and long term sustainability of this country. And even with the crappy standards we have now, I want to state for the record that I'm talking about the HE system in aggregate: there are many excellent graduates of local colleges, but they are excellent despite the system, not because of it. It's their own upbringing, intrinsic intelligence, hard work and personality type that rescued them.

I don't pretend its easy to fix this situation, but lets at least start by having some fact-based open discussions (itself a rarity in the region). A good start seems to be a recent academic paper on the very subject presented at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society.

"Private higher education in Oman: The dilemma of quality"

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 53rd Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society, Francis Marion Hotel, Charleston, South Carolina, Mar 22, 2009

by David Chapman, Thuwayba Al Barwani and Hana Ameen.

While Oman is an oil-dependent economy, oil production is on the decline and reserves could be largely depleted within the next 10-15 years. Anticipating that an alternative economy will require an educated citizenry, the government has invested heavily in expanding its higher education system, largely by aggressively promoting and subsidizing private higher education as a way to reduce the enrollment pressure on public institutions and alleviate the associated fiscal pressures on government. However Omani colleges already produce more college graduates annually than there are jobs available in the country, an oversupply projected to worsen as college participation rates increase.

The expectation is that graduates will find work outside Oman. Yet there is widespread concern that the quality of private higher education is low and graduates may not be competitive for jobs abroad. Grounded in Kingdon’s (2003) multiple streams model of the policy formulation process, this study investigated the extent college educators and government leaders share an understanding of the problems now facing private higher education in Oman and agree on appropriate strategy for addressing these problems. Findings are based on a mixed-methods study of 252 college instructors and 56 government officials and private sector employers.
[emphasis by UD]

Seems pretty optimistic to me. Most of graduates don't even cut it in local businesses.

I also know the recent (now removed) interview and some of the comments to that post were printed out, scanned, and emailed to all the members of the Government's heavy-hitting Oman Accreditation Council. So they can't say they weren't aware of the problem.

Who are those officially responsible for the clearly sub-standard state of our Higher Education? Why the Board of the Oman Accreditation Council! They are:
Photo: Chairman of the Oman Accrediation Council.
Dr Hamed Al-Dhahab, Chairman, OAC

HE Dr Rawya Saud Al-Busaidia, Minister of Higher Education.
Dr Muneer Al-Muskary, Modern College of Business and Science.
Dr Abdullah Al-Lamki, Deputy Managing Director and Technical Director, P.D.O.
Eng Ali Al-Mahrouqi, Executive Director, National Office of Engineering.
Dr Amer Al-Rawas, Managing Director, Oman Mobile Telecommunications Company LLC.
Prof Ala’aldin Al-Hussaini, Professor, Faculty of Medicine, SQU.
Dr Hilal Al-Nabhani, Assistant Professor, College of Education, SQU.
Dr Sana Al-Buloshi, Director, Technical Office for Research & Development, Ministry of Education.
Dr Adil AbdulAziz Al-Kindy, Managing Director, Oman Refinery Company LLC.
Dr. Talib Issa Al Salmi (Board Secretary), DG Private Universities and Colleges, MoHE.

I must point out that these men and women are very well respected and honorable people, and the OAC seems to have all its procedures, policies, guidelines and external reviewers in order. It all looks great.

But clearly, this isn't working. Without compliance to all these good intentions, it's a waste of time. Perhaps worse than being a sham, it conceals the underlying malaise. When it seems common knowledge that in many cases lecturers write the very papers they grade for their students, tell them the answers to examination questions, or that students are passed through fraudulent means, by definition there is something fundamentally wrong with what these people claim to be doing. It's results that count, not procedures and good intentions.

I also enjoyed the recent comment that highlighted the really, really terrible English on the official home page of the Ministry of Higher Education. Perhaps someone is just taking the piss...

The Ministry of Higher Education has been trying for the last 4 or 5 years to establish a "Muscat University". At the begining they tried to create this university by merging 4 local colleges: Modern College, Mazoon College, Oman Medical College and Caledonian College. The carrot that was shown to these colleges was RO 17 million in grant money, ++. Though all of them have very poor standards, and a diverse shareholding, they were encouraged to come together to get that 17 million.

However, Galfar wanted the largest share of the dosh as they have 2 of the colleges (Oman Medical College and Caledonian). The others then realised that if 65% went to Galfar and also management control, they would be left with peanuts and the discussion collapsed, and with it Plan A for Muscat University.

But wait. 17 million rials you say?

Now, two groups have come togther to see if they can establish a "Muscat University" from scratch and grab that soft money: Bahwan and The Oman Chamber of Commerce (oh, there are rumours that mega-influential Zawawi Trading or Omzest would also plunge in too). Apparently the Chamber of Commerce is conducting a feasibility study right now. But I'm told the Director of General of the Chamber of Commerce wanted to bring in a partner university that could deliver nice pre-cooked but, most importantly, piss easy courses which Omanis could actually do despite a poor high school education, and therefore make sure of big pass rates, so the coalition have spurned the advances of higher quality university partners.

Once again, we will get another third class tertiary institution which will be no different from most of the existing ones. After all, business is business. And the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce is a good businessman.

Why bother producing decent graduates AND having to fail people (uncomfortable, after all, and in the short term v. bad for business), plus deal with having to pay more for high quality staff and courses, at the expense of profits, when the Government will force businesses to hire anyone you give a useless degree to anyway? (and give you the 17 million either way).

And what student would want to suffer by paying to work hard with the risk of failing?

Makes sense. After all, the big businessmen can afford to send their kids to proper Universities overseas; and the big boys and girls in the Ministries get their kids scholarships paid for by the Government. Perhaps the members of the OAC should be made to send their own children to the Universities and Colleges they are accountable for?

Lets finish this depressing tale with a joke (as borrowed from this weeks' Economist):

"What do you say to a recent graduate of SQU*?"

"A double cream decafe frappachino please."

(* Note: SQU can be replaced with any Omani University of your choice)

The True State of Higher Education in Oman? "Very Poor"... An Exclusive Interview

This post [3rd Jan 2010] on higher education in Oman has been removed at the request of the interviewee.

While he stands by his comments, they have lead to him being personally attacked in several Omani forums and websites, and his frank observations have prompted a coalition of the ignorant and the guilty to deliberately obfuscate his statements and subject him to ad hominem attacks that, in my opinion, not only slander his character but help demonstrate the fundamental truth of his description of the pathetic state of Oman's higher education system and many of those within it.

This - perhaps predictable - reaction has highlighted that, not only is Oman not ready to tolerate a true free speech of opinion, Oman is not even ready to accept a discussion of obvious and demonstrable truth.

I thank him for his candor, and wish him well.

To the troglodytes his interview attracted - I hope you suffer painfully from the careless, incompetent and unprofessional graduates you have helped create.

Undercover Dragon
28th Jan 2010

Monday, January 25, 2010

Oman Air dodges a bullet. new oil discoveries in Oman

Welcome to another mid-week, a busy day for the news today.

Promising Oman newspaper Muscat Daily reported that we are running out of electricity generating capacity because the Government has systematically under-invested in new generating capacity while giving away what power we do generate at heavily subsidised rates of the phenomenal growth in the country's economy. Perhaps a pricing strategy re-assessment is what's called for, as well as asking the power companies to squeeze more from existing facilities? Meanwhile, expect more power cuts and brown-outs over the next few years folks.

The Majlis Al Shura also finally questioned the sanity of the Oman Government's cunning plan of importing filthy coal for the long proposed Duqm power plant. HE The Undersecretary of the MOG responded by saying that it wasn't committed to it being a coal fired plant at all. Well done chaps! Don't give up. Muscat Confidential has long rolled its eyes at this crazy scheme to get nice fat consulting payments for the boys to spend our hard earned foreign currency on dirty coal while we export LNG gas to Korea, when we should instead be forging ahead with massive solar power plants.

Oman Air dropped lemon just in time?
It seems Oman Air dodged a bullet today, as the Ethiopian Airlines' Boeing 737 plane that exploded on take off in Lebanon was an ex-Oman Air rental. Oman Air leased the relatively new plane in 2008 and only got rid of it last year. Whew!

The plane involved in today's incident, a 737-8BK, was comparatively new, according to one report. Built in 2002, it went into service in June 2007 with Flyglobespan, was leased to Oman Air between May 31 2008 and May 8 2009, before being delivered to Ethiopian Airlines in September. It passed its latest maintenance test on December 25 with no technical problems.

Good news for the Oman oil business too.
Tethys Oil reported that a test on their well Farha South 3 flowed over a 1000 barrels a day of oil after they put a pump in the hole. That should be a nice little earner for cash strapped operator Consolidated Contractors Energy Development (Oman) Ltd.

I'm also told that our majority-Government-owned giant oil company Petroleum Development Oman, aka PDO, discovered a really big field called Al Ghubar South last year, although it won't be officially announced 'till HM gives the OK according to my MOG friends who confirmed the leak. According to my reliable source in PDO:
Al Ghubar South. The oil is heavy and although seen for the first time in 1964 it was then deemed immovable and almost forgotten while easier opportunities were pursued, We drilled 4 appraisal wells this year and managed to flow some oil under steam stimulation (steam in an exploration well is actually a first in Oman if not in the world). It will probably be amongst the 10 biggest fields in Oman but will take a lot of effort and money to develop (using massive steam injection to lower the oil viscosity)

Excellent news! Well done PDO.

One for the boat-spotters
Meanwhile, famously huge cruise ship The Queen Mary II due to dock late on Tuesday morning at Port Sultan Qaboos.

Photo: Queen Mary II: A really big boat.

Should be a nice spectacle. Avoid the Souk on Tuesday and Wednesday I guess is the best advice!

Omani Tourist Dies in Thailand
In breaking news, an unfortunate Omani tourist in Pattaya, a 36 year old Mr. Hamid Said Al Abri, was found dead in his hotel room, apparently no foul play was involved according to Pattaya People news. Cops are investigating and the Omani Authorities have been informed. Condolences to his family and those who knew him.

Oh, and the infamously huge scam that is the 'Oman web awards' were awarded to whoever paid some dodgy company to make up an award for them in return for cash and a slap-up dinner. Excellent.

Coming this week: More news on Blue City and the return of AAJH! Watch this space Blue City fans...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Charges dropped against reporter A’sem Al-Sheedi on ROP corruption article

In my post-New Year party haze I missed this story, but expat blogger Lord of the Fiord just pointed out that on Jan. 2nd 2010 the Oman Authorities dropped charges against the Omani reporter A'Sem Al Sheedi for slandering the reputation of the ROP, after he refused to name his source for an article accusing ROP officers of corruption and falsifying traffic fines. The story of his arrest was fortunately picked up by international human rights NGO Frontline Defenders.

The original report was unusual as it was published in the Omani Government controlled newspaper, and (deliberately?) leaked documents showed the head of the ROP had instructed the office of public prosecutions to investigate the claim, punish any ROP found to have been acting improperly or, if found to be untrue, to arrest the reporter.

The investigation claimed to have found no evidence of such corrupt practice in the ROP, and thus - surprise surprise - arrested the reporter.

So its a good news/bad news story.

Good news that the original article was published in the first place, and that the ROP felt moved to respond in public. Good news for Al Sheedi that he's had the charges dropped (probably after promising not to do it again).

Bad news that the story was not confirmed as true, as combined with the subsequent charges against a reporter it will serve as yet another disincentive against such investigative stories.

But congratulations A'sem. Don't give up on the reporting. And thanks Lord of the Fiord for spotting it.

I can't help but hope the attention of such international NGOs is acting as a disincentive for the Government to pursue such petty prosecutions. Which bodes well for all of us...

Photo: Charges have been dropped against Omani reporter Asem Al Sheedi, [pic from Frontline Defenders].

Oman: UPDATE - Charges against writer Mr A’sem Al-Sheedi have been dropped.

Front Line welcomes the news that the Oman Police has halted its judicial prosecution of journalist Mr A’sem Al-Sheedi who had been accused of denouncing the police in an article published in an Oman newspaper on 7 December 2009. The article included information on police corruption.

On 2 January 2010, the Oman Police published a statement in local newspapers reporting that they had received a reply from the Attorney General Office (AGO) based on which they consider the case to be closed. The AGO's detailed reply, which was also published with the police statement, concluded that the investigation committee formed by the AGO had not found any evidence of fraud in the traffic police apparatus as claimed by the writer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Are you one of the magic 34? UAE official 'clarifies' the huge screw up that is the UAE visa law.


Everyone FREAKED out in the UAE when it seemed the ol' 'visa run' from the UAE was ended, after a rather unhelpful PR piece by the UAE Government Visa guy just confused everyone.

"no re-entry??? But I fly in and out every day!. WTF??"

Ah. Exactly. The UAE Visa guys clarified: It only ever applied to those unfortunate people who have to pre-apply for a visa to visit the UAE in the first place! Naturally!

If you normally wouldn't even think about having to first get a visa to transit via the UAE, you are probably UNEFFECTED. You can come on down to Muscat, or go on up to Khasab, because you are a citizen of the....

Magic 34.

Photo: If this is home, you can exit and re-enter the UAE freely.

If you are a passport bearing citizen of one of the 34 countries on the UAE's list, no worries. You are officially a member of the civilised world. Presumably also known as 'Places where the likelihood of you wanting to overstay in the UAE rather than going back home' is low. Rich countries. Nice countries. Countries where UAE people buy houses and go on holiday.

YOU can come and go as you please, Mr. GCC/American/Australian/UK/EU/etc,

You're OK. YOU can go to Oman from the UAE on a visit. As often as you want.


you other people. No way. Get back in line.

Photo: The sort of people who's families can't visit Oman for a day or two when visiting the UAE.

So, all clear now then! Thanks for that. Whew! For a while people thought the UAE would treat THEM like Indians/Pakistani/Afghani/...

Photo: Spot the difference kids!

Photo: The guys who really deserve the credit for the Burj Dubai Khalifa.

I will always have been blessed by having that wonderful passport I was born with.

In case you were curious, and don't want to read the whole article, these are the UAE's 34 magic countries. Kids: ask your parents _ Do YOU have a passport from places on this list?

[Note: GCC Countries - like Oman - are not on this list because GCC citizens are a class above; able generally to pass across borders freely and own land in other GCC countries, have right of abode if you own said land, be able to be a business principal, easier work visas, etc. Thank goodness Oman is different!]

Hong Kong
Netherlands (Holland)
New Zealand
San Marino
South Korea
United Kingdom
United States
Vatican City

Hmmm. I predict a flood of dirt poor illegal Icelanders....

By the way, Here's the story from Gulf News:

Citizens of 34 nations exempt from UAE visit visa waiting period
Other visitors have to wait one month before applying again.

Dubai: Citizens of 34 countries do not have to wait one month before applying for a visit visa after leaving the UAE, a senior Interior Ministry official said.
Currently visitors who leave the UAE even after a day's stay have to wait for a month before they can apply for a visit visa again.
"Citizens of nations who need to obtain an entry permit into the country through any one of the residency departments will not be able to apply for another visa immediately after they leave the country," Major General Nasser Al Awadi Al Menhali, acting Assistant Undersecretary at the Ministry of Interior for Naturalisation, Residency and Borders, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
"Even if they stay here for two days and leave the country, they can come back after one month," he said. There is no multiple entry visit visa, Maj. Gen. Al Menhali stressed.
"If a visitor comes here, then goes on vacation to a nearby country and wants to come back, he should wait for one month before returning here," he said.
Maj. Gen. Al Menhali said these rules apply to people who need to apply for a visa prior entering the UAE.
"There are citizens of 34 countries who do not need a visa in advance. These citizens can get a visa upon arrival in the UAE," he said.
He said since the visa is issued upon arrival, these citizens can come back here any time they like.
"Citizens of these 34 countries need to show their passport to the immigration officer at any of the country's borders and they will have a new visa stamped. They can come and go as much as they want and at any time they want," he said.
Rules not new
"These rules are not new. But some people believe that they can come to the country and stay a couple of days and leave. They want to come back gain on the same visa believing that the visa has not expired yet, but they cannot. They have to wait for one month," he said.
Maj. Gen. Al Menhali said if a person stays for a day and leaves, the visa will be deemed expired even if the expiration date is later.
He said the one month waiting period is counted from the day the person leaves the country and not from the date of the visa expiration.
Multiple entry
Businessmen who need to enter and leave the country several times can apply for a multiple entry visa which is valid for six months, a senior Interior Ministry official said.
Major General Nasser Al Awadi Al Menhali, acting Assistant Undersecretary at the Ministry of Interior for Naturalisation, Residency and Borders, said once this multiple entry visa expires, businessmen have to wait for a month before applying for another visa.
This waiting period does not apply to citizens of 34 countries.
Maj. Gen. Al Menhali said the residency department deals with issuing visas on a case-by-case basis.
"We study each visa application and if it needs to be issued before the end of the one-month period, we can do it but it will depend on the circumstances of the visa applicant," the interior ministry official said.
The citizens of these 34 countries also do not have to wait a month before applying for a visit visa.
List of 34 countries
Hong Kong
Netherlands (Holland)
New Zealand
San Marino
South Korea
United Kingdom
United States
Vatican City

Monday, January 18, 2010

UAE blocks tourists from visiting Oman; Reliance gives up on their first Omani offshore exploration oil well

The UAE have helpfully pointed out that tourists and visitors to the Emirates on a pre-apply-required visit or tourist visacannot go on a short trip to Oman and expect to be able to come back.

This might actually boost Omani tourism, as people could choose to come here as a base instead and take the smaller side trip to Dubai. But it will hurt the little day trips to Khasab or overnighters to Muscat. Oman should try to stop this clear anti-Oman decision from the UAE.

(UAE) Visit visas: New entry permits only a month after exit
A visitor needs to get a new entry permit to re-enter the country once he or she leaves the country for any destination. The new entry permit will be issued only after one month from the date the visitor leaves the UAE

A new visa will be issued only after a gap of at least one month. Major General Mohammad Ahmad Al Merri, Director-General of the Dubai General Department for Residency and Foreigners Affairs, told Gulf News: "A visitor needs to get a new entry permit to re-enter the country once he or she leaves the country for any destination. The new entry permit will be issued only after one month from the date the visitor leaves the UAE."

Major General Al Merri was responding to a question about visitors who face difficulties in returning to the UAE after a short sightseeing trip to Oman or after leaving in a hurry for a meeting in Bahrain.

They cannot re-enter the UAE immediately since a new visa will be issued only after a gap of at least one month.


The rule applies even if the visitors leave the country before the expiry of their entry permits, he said. "They have to wait for one month before applying for another entry permit."

Major General Al Merri said this happens to some people who arrive on tourist or visit visas to see family or friends or visit the country as tourists.

"They stay here for few days and then decide to go to Oman, Bahrain or any nearby country. These people believe they can return to the UAE using the same entry permit as they stayed here only for a few days.

"They think the entry permit is still valid since they did not use it till the expiry date," he said.

Meanwhile, Oman is getting an event on the Tour De France world circuit next month.

Oman to launch version of Tour de France
Oman has revealed it is to join the ranks of France, Italy, India and Japan with the launch of its first national cycling tour next month.

The race, the Arab sultanate’s answer to the Tour de France, will see 128 riders on 16 teams cover 687km over a period of six days.

The race will take in Oman’s famed mountain ranges, potentially including the country’s highest peak, Jebel Akhdar, which stands nearly 3,000m high.

A new event has been introduced especially for Oman, a nation with a long and proud bicyclistic tradition: the bausher sand dune crossing stage! Plus in an added twist, the organising committee announced the mountain climb stage up Jebal Akhdar will be against oncoming traffic.

"When on the open road stages, citizens are encouraged to take part in the fun, and entrants will be scored on how closely they can cut past a tour de france cyclist whenever the relative speed between the bike and car is over 100kmh. Style points will be awarded for creative use of the car's horn, or leaning out of the window yelling something vaguely obscene and non-sequitous. The committee warned entrants that the traditional Omani technique of simply running bicyclists off the road did not meet the latest international biking rules, however."

Photo: Those Frenchies might struggle with how we handle bikes in Oman!

Oh, and Indian Oil and Gas company Reliance have pulled the plug the the first offshore oil exploration well drilled for a long time in Oman due to technical difficulties, unfortunately.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Breaking News: Shit finally hits fan at Blue City: Redesign allows contractors to get the boot (maybe)

Ah, Blue City.

Or as the BCC1 PR chaps prefer, the post-AAJH name of 'Al Madina A'Zarqa'

Photo: Blue City's aspiration before the global real estate crash.

We've had a history here at Muscat Confidential. You can check the back posts if you're new. But good news for Blue City investors and bond holders.

It's rumoured BCC1 has actually met its sales targets via bulk sales to Qatari/Kuwaiti/Saudi/Iranian money. A miracle indeed. [Though Dubai collapsing, the fact Blue City is in safe Oman AND the prices were - to be honest - a relatively good deal in this regional market.]

That was the good news.

Photo: The old bait and switch.

The bad news is that the clients want villas, not fancy Euro-style flats. So a reshuffle of the design - finish flats sold & started, plus the hotels and golf course, make the rest phased villas and town homes - means the existing contract with ACO is waaaaay too pricey. Negotiations to agree a new much reduced % for AECO broke down a while ago, and now BCC1 is (quite legally) using the clauses in the contract to dump the old contractors (well, maybe... a negotiation is seldom over in Oman) as they can get a number of local lads to slap up some villas and don't really nice some pricey foreigners so much.

Photo: Negotiation, Oman style.

Still, cash seems tight. I'm told the main Project Engineers ACE, the chaps who actually supervise the contractor AECO, have been kicked off the job* and staff will be repatriated asap. Thats around 70 guys. If AECO really do go (and they haven't yet) that'll be about 2000 workers off the job and sent home this month plus another 2000 next month, along with the people organising them.

Reports that the staff at BCC1 themselves are not getting their salaries on time lately. Money's too tight to mention.

So, good news for Oman! is how it can be spun: the scaled down ITD we all knew Blue City would be looks like it will come to pass. And the local boys will get a bit more work. And the (newly 'regionalised' from the original Japanese, at a discount) bond holders get paid, and masses of free Government infrastructure will get built. The brilliant jeweled city will come... er... later, for sure.

Nice play.

Hey Dragon! So what if a few totally legal contractual clauses get executed ... and (mainly foreign) contractors take a bit of a haircut? Its a recession! you might ask.


Fair enough. And if Richard can snatch salvation from the jaws of bankruptcy, well, I'm sympathetic. 'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, give me results, thats why you get the big bucks, Omelettes and eggs', etc.

Although, I'd just note that when a business starts to play the 'hard ball contract game', it usually gets expensive in the longer run. People in future don't want to work with you so much, lots of inefficiencies occur, and as a result you (and sometimes the wider industry or country) end up paying a higher 'risk premium'.

And those contractor expats will return to their home countries and slag off Oman, seeing as how some of them have just paid deposits for rent.. Making it that bit harder to recruit for everyone. And to attract tourists.

So thanks Richard. Glad those Qataris like the villas. You're doing a good job for your shareholders. Time for a press release soon?

[*several reports say for 'non compliance']

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How much is the living cost in Muscat & Salalah? A FAQ

Dearest readers, I need help.

I get a lot of emails from people who for some reason think I offer a private employment and immigration advice service. I don't.

The questions usually include "what's the cost of living in Oman?"

Now the answer to that is as long as a piece of string. To live like I do you would need a prodigiously ridiculous amount of money. I'd guess that just my monthly booze bill - 180 RO? 250 RO? - is more than 3 times what an Omani's housemaid would earn, Note: I'm counting eating out drinks.

Some expats survive for all their expenses on say a couple of hundred rials a month, if they are willing to share accomodation, take biaza buses, and eat cheap.

Meanwhile a comfortable Western Expat life (if you're child free) could probably be had for 2000 rials a month... (?) And a drop dead decent salary would be anything over 4k I'd guess.

At all levels the key is the allowances you can get. Housing? What type? Utilities? Car? Flights? Medical? Schooling??? (that's a big one)

Moving in allowance, signing bonus, minimum payment on termination, 13th month/ pension contribution? End of service benefit (statutory minimum 1 month per year based on base salary, usually paid per annum), repatriation deal, visa assistance, liquor licence fee,...

So, readers. Please add some info and data to all this. What are the current rents? What do you think the various costs of living are? What are typical salary levels? Any advice for these wanna-be expats?

Photo: A lot of potential expats are curious about what it costs to live in Oman

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The state of mental health in the UAE

Breaking news: Good old Sheikh Issa, who had previously admitted that he had been filmed beating, raping and horrifically torturing a grain dealer in 2004, was found not guilty by the court today, after his defense of being under the influence of drugs was - surprise surprise - accepted by the judge.

Photo: Scene from the video nasty of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan torturing someone in 2004. He was only doing this due to the influence of drugs, obviously.

'Beyond reasonable doubt' is clearly a philosophy that does not apply to UAE trials, especially when you happen to be the brother of the ruler of the UAE and a son of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's founding father.

A forensic medicine expert told the court in the previous hearing the medication Sheikh Issa was on “can cause anger, suicide, violence, depression and loss of memory”.

Funny how 'torturing the hell out of someone' was not actually one of the reported side effects...

Meanwhile, in totally unrelated news today, the Emirati man who had admitted raping and murdering a 4 year old boy in a mosque was declared sane by the expert Psychiatric Evaluation Board appointed by the courts. His valiant lawyer had entered the request as pretty much the only way to get his client off the death penalty, seeing as he'd already confessed several times, including in court.

In summary:
1/ Psychopathic homocidal paedophile who in the process of the horrible crime defiles a holy mosque in a crazed opportunistic frenzy, (a place where you're almost certain to get caught too) AND who confesses the crime despite there being a death penalty - sane.

2/ Commit Psychopathically Premeditated torture, get filmed in the act of anal rape (with a cattle prod) and committing grievous bodily harm, aided and abbetted by others (presumably not on psychotropic drugs), in revenge for being short changed on some grain while apparently on some medication that could, possibly, have side effects - innocent due to temporary insanity.

So all's well with the UAE Mental Health evaluation system then. One flew over the cuckoo's nest indeed...

I think both are excellent decisions.

A psychopathic nutcase will hopefully be executed very quickly for raping and murdering a 4 yr old.

While another psychopathic nutcase will demonstrate to the rest of the world the real fundamental principals of the UAE legal system when you are very important and related to the ruler of the country.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Some light relief - The new Google Phone.

After the heavy discussions on the piss-poor state of Oman's Higher Education system, perhaps this will bring a smile to your face.

Found this on Violet Blue's blog, and its hilarious - the Google "Fuck you iPhone" phone.

I love Google...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Feature: Ask an Omani! This week, Foreigners...

In our semi-regular feature here at Muscat Confidential, "Ask an Omani", courtesy of blogger Omani Dreamer. This week's question:

"What do Omanis find most annoying about foreigners?"

Now, I would love to say that you guys are just perfect expats in Oman for the sake of looking good, but that would be a lie. Nevertheless, it took me a while to think of the most annoying thing Omanis, in general, find in foreigners.

So, when it came down to it, I had to think hard.

I mean, yes, to many of us it is annoying to see foreigners half naked in the beaches, or foreigners showing a lot of affection to their significant others in public. Even those with tattoos (crosses, satanic tattoos, or just tattoos) showing on their arms and backs are many times annoying. Some Omani women become annoyed when they see their Omani guys hanging out with gorgeous female foreigners. Yes, annoyed though some are jealous too.

But many don't care about any of the above.. We are all glad that you guys are here and spending money!

So, when do you see all Omanis agree and grunt at all foreigners? It is when foreigners are earning more money than their equal Omani co-workers solely based on them being foreigners. I remember someone was telling me about his experience. This Omani guy had 20 years of experience in some field; he had a PhD from one of the best Universities in the world. He knew more people and visited so many places in his field that you would lose counting. He was hired by the government, a good job nevertheless and with huge responsibilities. However, this government agency hired a couple of foreigners with inferior experiences and qualifications, but offered them three times more income!

So, foreigners are annoying in Oman when the country and companies make them seem better than the hard working Omani.

Photo: Omani money is a big draw for expats, and they usually earn more than an equally skilled Omani

Thanks Dreamer. I know it must seem unfair when expats earn more. Partially that can be explained by several factors I think. There may not be enough Omani with suitable experience and qualifications, and the extra expats (especially Western Expats) will need more money to come here and work than an Omani. Plus they are generally expected to work a little harder (no funerals/weddings/eid part-time, etc), and they may leaven the local staff by bringing some outside experience very few Omanis have, for example. Plus, remember expats here tend to get less money than in, say, the UAE or Kuwait, Qatar etc because Oman is seen as being a nicer place to live.

And of course, the blue suited foreigners get a lot less than an equivalently skilled Omani worker...

But a good honest answer.

Please email any burning questions to undercover(dot)dragon(at)gmail(dot)com !!