Sunday, August 22, 2010

Oman prosecutes Muscat Municipality Official for corruption - embezzled more than US$3 million. Plus: Is Oman Air fueled by ethanol?

OK. I'm back. Pretty busy, but lets start off with a great story in Times of Oman (yes, really). Finally the well known story of the Muscat Municipality Finance guy who was busted forging cheques to himself has hit the papers.

I find it still a bit strange that Omani custom and defamation law means its not allowed to publicly name people after they have been found guilty of a crime (or in this case, admitted it). "It would bring shame on the family". Well, maybe it should? Perhaps if people knew that their father would be scorned at the mosque on Friday they would be less inclined to defraud the people of US$3.35 million? Or of committing any crime?

Still, progress.

Oman firm on battling corruption
Times of Oman
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

... recent development in the Muscat Municipality embezzlement case, which revealed that an official embezzled funds in the municipality through forgery.

The latest details of the case reveals that as per Internal Audit Unit of the Muscat Municipality discovered embezzled funds amounting to more than RO1,300,000.


The accused, aged 37 years, has been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to three times of money he embezzled from the municipality.

This case has stressed the importance of internal control of public funds in government institutions.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Sports Affairs is conducting an internal investigation into one of its staff who took advantage of his position to bring to the Sultanate a number of Asian workers.

The employee took advantage of visas which were meant for participating teams in one of the tournament that was hosted by the Sultanate recently.


I think this is the tip of the iceberg. Internal Audit caught this guy because he was doing forgery and fraud. What is harder to catch are all the tender board shenanigans, side projects done for officials houses by big contractors on a project with the same Ministry, or the massive abuse of the imported labour visa power of the Ministry of Manpower.

Oman Air A330 Pilot taken off plane
Not published in the papers was the rumoured case last month of the Oman Air Senior A330 Pilot who was busted for being rat-arsed on duty at Muscat Airport. The Captain was I'm told taken off the Muscat to Columbo flight for being suspected of being drunk in charge of an aircraft. The good men of the ROP came and did a breath test - with the measured 'Ethyl Alcohol' result being off the scale - and (probably very unreliable) sources tell me he could hardly walk to get off the flight.

It is not true that Oman Air's famously awesome and complimentary beverage service includes the flight deck, people. Ignore those vicious rumours!

However, because the breathalyzer had not been calibrated properly [Duh], and is thus not usable as evidence, this happy flying imbiber responsible trained senior flight crew member will apparently get to walk scot-free as he was obviously not drunk at all if there is no evidence, which there wasn't. So that's alright then. In addition, on a famous flight deck forum Oman Air insider Obi Wan Kirk recently stated:
90% of expat pilots in Omanair are looking to move. The other 10% are either bonded on A330, very near retirement or bonded for Command upgrade. There are also a few still living in fairy land...

If you fly a lot I wouldn't recommend the PPrune site readers, as its contents, especially those that relate to Middle Eastern Airlines - Oman Air included - will scare the shit out of you. And as Oman's ATC system upgrade troubles continue to be unresolved, the words 'accident waiting to happen' come to mind. I always kiss the tarmac, just like the Pope.

Meanwhile, up and coming local Expat blogger and active Twitterer Mr Sythe, author of Muscat Mutterings (see the excellent post recently busting the infamous touchy/feelly/rapist taxi driver tendency in the Sultanate) published a short interview with Undercover Dragon yesterday.

I do like the growth of the English language bloggers we've seen in Oman over the past couple of years, both Expat and Omani (even if sometimes we loose a few good ones too). Mr Sythe is one of the good ones. Give him a taste, if you haven't already!

OK. Off to sort out payments of treasure after my leave. As foreshadowed in the interview, big news coming soon readers, promise.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Omani Training Institute NHI driven to half-year loss by failure of Ministry of Manpower to pay its bills or train Omanis

This is a sort of 'good news/bad news' story.

Recently His Highness Sayyid Tarik bin Shabib bin Taimur Al Said, Chairman of NHI - the National Hospitality Institute SAOG - released the company's 2010 first half year results.

You might recall my previous post on 1st May in praise of HH Tarik Al Said, after he publicly pointed out how useless the Ministry of Manpower were acting, with respect to their treatment of NHI, a private hospitality industry training institute.

Photo: NTI Chairman and Renaissance Director His Highness Tarik Al Said (from Renaissance website)

Back then HH Tarik Al Said was quoted in Muscat Daily as saying:
"NHI is...requesting the following solutions:

- [Omani Government to] pay NHI all outstanding debt immediately, for all work successfully completed;
- remove the conflict of interest [MoM also run Oman Tourism College, a competitor];
- change the chronic processes for trainee allocation and payment; and
- quantify and confirm the scale of the [training] opportunity."

You can still read his full statement from Q1 2010 Chairman's Report, detailing the specific problems NHI has had with the Government's Ministry of Manpower here, on the NHI website. Probably only an HH would be able to get away with such a forceful and frank public statement criticising the Government.

So, what's new? First the bad news.

NHI made a loss of 125,000 rials [US$320k] in the first half of 2010, on revenue of 286k RO, compared to a profit of 47,000 rials on revenues of 531k RO in the same period last year. Trainees sent from the Ministry of Manpower were also pitifully low, despite huge demand from employers. Remember, this is in an environment where most Omani hotels are staffed by non-Omanis, despite in many cases being owned by the Omani Government, and in a country with a massive (and growing) youth unemployment problem.

Hell, the whole argument underpinning Oman's move to mortgage its natural beauty by building massive 5 star integrated tourist developments was to provide employment to Omanis!

In the latest Q2 report, the NHI Chairman states (highlights are mine):


With this same agenda, in my capacity as Chairman, I have visited every concerned Ministry to outline the plight and status of our company. Without exception, I have been extended every courtesy and been given a fair hearing by their Excellencies the Ministers and the senior officials involved in the process of payment and trainee allocations. In all cases, I have been assured that nhi shall be given full support to secure urgent payment of all dues.

We have reconfirmed that the supply and demand ratio for meaningful Omani employment in the industry is far greater than full capacity of existing training facilities. We have been assured that every effort shall be made to make full and continuous capacity trainee allocation to nhi so long as nhi’s recognised standards are maintained and supply of trainees and demand of vacant jobs are sustained. As a result of meetings with decision makers, some changes to the process has been agreed, which if adhered to should reduce payment delays.


On payment, at the start of the year Rials 822 thousand of overdue debt [UD: owed by the Government] and unbilled income was outstanding, due to the approval processes for completed training. In Q1 this figure increased to Rials 845 thousand. In Q2, this figure reduced to Rials 780 thousand.

On trainee allocation, in the first half of the year 80 trainees have been allocated to nhi (37 in Q1 and 43 in Q2). This is well below demand from employers requisitioning training from nhi for 350 identified jobs [UD: and well below NHI's capacity of 500 trainees].


On supply and demand, using government data concerning the industry, it is clear that 2,600 new trainees need to be trained every year to meet the growth of the sector. While we are grateful for the assurances we have been given and we appreciate some progress todate, which will show in our 3rd quarter report, there is room for urgent further progress in getting nhi fully paid up to date and getting nhi training capacity filled. We shall follow up these matters with urgency with the concerned authorities and hope to report that all these matters are fully resolved by the end of this current 3rd quarter.

As the nation celebrates the 40th year of the glorious reign of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, we can justly look back at the achievements of nhi and the contribution it has made to getting Omanis into meaningful jobs in the hospitality sector. Looking ahead, nhi must work closely with the authorities empowered to implement the nation’s Omanisation objectives to ensure that together we rise to the challenge so clearly laid out before us through His Majesty’s leadership.

So despite this huge demand from both hotels and youth, the useless high-performing civil servants at the Ministry of Manpower, nice and safe in their highly paid part-time Government desk jobs, could only send 80 trainees, even though NTI has capacity to train 500.


So, NHI's parent company Renaissance Services continues to have to support the NHI training institute with loans. Meanwhile the Omani Government, flush with cash after higher than budgeted oil prices, seems unable to pay its outstanding bills. They owe NHI almost US$2 million.

Unfortunately this tendency of the Omani Government to be exceptionally tardy in paying what it owes people is not unusual. Almost every businessman I know who deals with the Government is owed money by the Government, and it is always a problem getting them to pay in semi-reasonable time. In fact, Geological time seems to be how the clocks run in the Ministry invoicing departments. Basic invoices are often unpaid for more than a year or even two years. Doing business with and getting paid by the Government is a constant headache I hear everywhere.

This may be OK for the large and deep-pocketed oligarch's; the Bahwans, Zubairs, Zawawis, Khimjis, et al. These guys can easily finance their businesses at good rates, and often through having control of their own banks! But for small businesses, this poor payment policy can be a crippling problem, as it means these smaller outfits struggle to have enough cashflow to actually run their business. Small businesses, especially in their early years, are typically under-capitalised and dependent on just a few contracts.

Of course, SMEs are widely recognised - even by the Ministry of Silly Walks - as perhaps the only hope Oman has of generating a robust, less oil and gas dependent economy that actually employs Omanis. As the Government still dominates the economy, their choice to not pay their bills on time is a huge drag on the private sector, and effectively a deliberate protectionist behaviour in favour of the big corporations. It even forces SMEs to borrow working capital from the same banks owned by the Oligarchs and the Government!

And in this specific case, the Ministry of Manpower are also failing to get Omani trainees trained in perhaps the one industry that in the short-term could adsorb significant numbers of hard-working, enthusiastic, but perhaps poorly educated youth.

Is this becuase they are deliberately favoring their own Hospitality Training Institute The Oman Tourism College? Or they are simply too incompetent to address such a fundamental problem even after it has been identified, communicated, accepted, and implementable remedies identified? This from the very Ministry that is supposed to being increasing Omani employment in the Private Sector. What a joke.

I think we all know who could be added to the ranks of the unemployed rather than letting them continue to add to those without work through inaction. Perhaps the Minister could have a chat to the Undersecretary of Technical Training and Vocational Training about the performance of his department and his staff?

Oh, you're probably wondering what the good news was.

Well, if someone as influential and well connected as HH Tarik Al Said can't get paid what he is owed by the Ministry of Manpower, after both privately and publicly trying to sort it out, maybe Oman is truly becoming less dominated by Wasta...

Once again, Muscat Confidential has to congratulate HH Tariq Al Said for standing up to the problem.

PostScript: He would get even more compliments if he helped Renaissance hire more Omani within its vast catering and cleaning businesses though, maybe by paying more and offering terms and conditions that Omanis would find acceptable.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Muscat Confidential reaches 1000 Facebook fans! Plus, UAE and Saudi blackmail Blackberry: Let us read people's emails or else!

I was pleased, flattered, and somewhat amazed to see that the Facebook fan page for Muscat Confidential has already hit the 1000+ members total.

While I don't have anything to do with the page directly, I'd like to thank Mohammed Al-Tamami (Omani Social Media Consultant; Founder & CEO of his company Tamami Networks LLC) and his helpers for taking the initiative and hosting/administering the Muscat Confidential fan page. Not only has it encouraged readers and allowed them to more easily share MC with their friends, it also enabled people to keep in touch with the blog on the couple of times I was blocked by the infamous Omani telecom internet censorship filters...

And a big 'Thank You' to the fans of Muscat Confidential. You can probably see some of their avatars on the right of this post. It certainly helps me to blog knowing there are least a few people who mostly like what goes out. Oman, and especially Muscat, is a pretty small niche in the global scheme of things, online particularly. But the virtual community in Oman is growing fast, and has already made a change in the way the mainstream media act and are allowed to act.

I hope you keep following the blog. And more importantly, please feel free to send me emails [email: undercover (dot) dragon (at), by the way!] if you have a story idea or come across something you thing others should be aware of. I usually reply to most emails when I get time. And as we are not Wikileaks, I can't promise to print everything...


UAE and Saudi attempt to force RIM to provide access to their Blackberry users' encrypted emails

The UAE has basically confirmed that because blackberry encrypt their emails, they will no longer allow the service to be supported within the UAE (same for Saudi). Yes, big brother is watching. Or not, I guess, if you had a blackberry.

While the UAE and Saudi are playing the 'security card', this seems to me to be pretty bogus. Sophisticated nasty terrorist organisations have access to military grade email encryption for years, which started more than a decade ago with a programme called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). The real crazies don't even have mobiles or use email, but use physical couriers and old fashioned 'walks in the park', such is their fear of the omnipresent American NSA and it's talents (thank goodness).

Perhaps more likely is that the Saudi and UAE authorities are trying to control the petty 'crime' of social networking and singles flirting. More interesting will be the response of both RIM and the UAE/Saudi public to their 'request'.

DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) - More than a million BlackBerry users may have key services in Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut off after authorities stepped up demands on smartphone maker Research In Motion for access to encrypted messages sent over the device.

BlackBerry's Messenger application has spread rapidly in the Gulf Arab region but because the data is encrypted and sent to offshore servers, it cannot be tracked locally.

"Certain BlackBerry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns," the United Arab Emirates' Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said in a statement.

The UAE said it would suspend BlackBerry Messenger, email and Web browser services from October 11 until a fix was found, while industry sources said Saudi Arabia had ordered local telecom companies to freeze Messenger this month.

Sunday's moves cap wrangling with regulators over the issue, which first surfaced in 2007.

India raised similar security concerns last week, and Bahrain in April warned against using BlackBerry Messenger to distribute local news. As far back as 2007, France cautioned officials about using the services.

Indian security officials were concerned that BlackBerry's encrypted data could be used to coordinate acts against the state. They have clamped down on mobile phone operators in the wake of 2008 attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai.

The UAE, home to Gulf financial hub Dubai, said it would halt BlackBerry services until an "acceptable solution" was developed and applied.

Users of the device said that could mean disruptions for companies and individuals who rely on the services, including almost 700,000 in Saudi Arabia and some 500,000 in the UAE.

"It's a final decision but we are continuing discussions with them," Mohammed Al Ghanem, director general of the UAE's TRA, told Reuters.


I personally don't mind the NSA knowing everything I email, and have operated on that basis for decades too. But somehow I don't trust the Saudi and UAE chaps as much. These are the people who lied to the UAE users of Blackberry's last year when they tried to slip their own secret spywear onto the devices.

Just over a year ago, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion criticized a directive by the UAE's state-owned mobile operator Etisalat that told the company's more than 145,000 BlackBerry users to install software described as an "upgrade . . . required for service enhancements." RIM said tests showed that the update was actually spy software that could allow outsiders to access private information on the phones. It strongly distanced itself from Etisalat's decision and provided instructions for users to remove the software.

No word yet from Omani Authorities if they will join the ban.

The paranoid may find this article on hi-tech surveillance interesting...

Saudi teens - and anyone else - who want to communicate securely despite snooping UAE policemen should perhaps check out PGP Mobile. It lets you install top level encryption on your smart phone:

How does PGP Mobile protect email and email attachments?

Email is the essential business tool that enables rapid exchange of business critical information and when unsecured, it provides a significant threat to potential loss or theft of the contents. Sending an email is like sending a postcard through the mail. It’s sent in clear text which makes it easy for anyone with simple tools to read an email while it’s in transit, which can be especially dangerous if unauthorized parties are using tools to look for specific keywords or content (like new product code words or social security numbers).

PGP Mobile 9.10 provides email and email attachment encryption for smartphones running Windows Mobile 6.0 or 6.1 Professional Edition. This policy-based email encryption occurs automatically with few changes to the user experience. Encryption happens on the smartphone itself (vs. at a gateway) so it provides powerful protection by enabling true end-to-end encryption. It leverages PGP Universal™ Server for deployment, management, and consistently applied email policies while integrating into the existing enterprise infrastructure.

Like I said, perhaps best to just assume someone is listening. And live in a country with a strong constitution...

I'd like to add that Oman's Internal Security Service [ISS] do an outstanding job. Perhaps the reason the Omanis haven't followed their neighbours' threat against Blackberries is that they aren't as lazy as their UAE colleagues and already have a handle on things...