Friday, February 29, 2008

More on Muscat Municipality Corruption

I know many of my visitors don't read the comments. So I've reposted this comment from Muscati on corruption at Muscat Municipality. It makes interesting reading. I guess most worrying is how easy it would be for the powers that be to bust this sort of thing, and yet it doesn't happen. Many thanks Muscati.

I've seen how it works when a high ranking Muscat Municipality official built a massive house next to the one I was renting in MQ a few years ago.

Typically, the official would design a house and start construction with some third or forth grade contractor and a small time consultant. Then you notice that Muscat Municipalities come to the site to supervise the construction, sometimes every day. Then you notice that sometimes the construction workers aren't from the same company whose name is on the board. Sometimes they blatantly come in a bus with the name of the big time construction company that they actually work for (these days there's a house being built for a big time government official in Ghobra (not Muscat Municipality) which is being built by Galfar construction workers even though the name on the board is of an known third grade company). As the project progresses you notice the different subcontractors are all companies that are either working on Muscat Municipality projects at the same time, or those who have recently completed a project for them. Some would contribute in-kind. Like for example the company that supplies the interlock tiles for a road project will also bring some for the house as well. The company that's paving a road for the municipality will also come pave in front of the house, and so on. Sometimes it's a really slow process, you build whenever you get a contractor who is willing to put some workers in your house. But you're getting a house more or less for free.

It's so blatant it's not even funny.

I guess, its especially not funny when the land was bought cheap (or even gifted to you) and then magically power and roads appear. And the materials are paid for under a MM contract...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Youtube brought down by Incompetent Pakistanis

I'm sure you've read how Pakistan, supposedly to stop access to the Girt Wilders clips, ended up bringing down access to Youtube for billions for a few hours. Access was restored, even in Pakistan, after apparently youtube removed the videas. I don't know which videos they mean, because the ones I linked to down below are still working... ?

See the recent article in FT article

Interestingly, a Pakistan Gov official said they had to do that, because at present they don't have the technology in place to censor the internet properly, but can only block the whole site.
Abdullah Riar, Pakistan's information technology minister, yesterday said ... the government was working to refine its ability to censor the internet. It will acquire new equipment for its internet exchanges within weeks "to selectively block [more specific addresses] if those are found offensive".

"Now," he said, "we have to block the whole website because we don't have the technology to selectively block URLs."

Maybe that's the advantage Omantel brings to WorldCall!!! Oman is becoming a world leader in internet censorship. Oh dear...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Corruption in Muscat Municipality

I’ve already blogged about many of the ways business works here – quite legally – in favour of the already rich and well connected in Oman. But what about the shadier ways? My friends have been telling me about one of the ways, in Muscat Municipality. They pointed out how many of the Directors – despite only earning an official salary of circa 1400 rials/month (around $4200 net) – have multiple houses (and I mean like 6), all valued at more than $1 million, with no mortgages. And really nice cars. How? Well, because they say they are totally bent.

Now, contract tenders are usually well regulated by State Audit, with public opening of tenders, lowest tender accepted, etc. (tho' more on how to beat that system later). But, when the Municipality buys all the materials they need to build stuff, and it's a lot of construction material, ie cement, concrete blocks etc, apparently inventory control is pretty loose. And so some of the materials are diverted to build other things, not exactly in line with Municipality business, like houses. Another way is that roads and mains power access will be built coincidentally to land owned by Directors, increasing the value substantially.

This is perhaps one of the biggest problems with Oman not having an income tax on personal income. In the west it is a key method of law inforcement, as untaxed income is illegal, and can usually be easily proved. That's how they caught Al Capone. Not for murder, but tax evasion. A significant benefit to Oman of income tax would be the ability to audit such income and to verify its legality.
'So, Mr undersecretary, you earn X right?' 'Right...' 'So this Porsche Cayenne, and the 3 houses, where did you get the money for that?' 'Oh, ummmm ummmm..'

But of course my friends can't be correct, can they. Corruption at the highest levels of Muscat Municipality? I have no evidence what-so-ever. So it can't be true, no matter what the rumours say.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oman running out of fish?

There have been many reports lately about the large price rises and unavailability of fish in Oman. Oman used to have one of the world's best fisheries, with lots of coast line (3200km), nutrient rich waters, and the large expanse of the Indian Ocean beyond. Omani have fished for millenia.

But now, Oman is having to import fish from India in order to supply local demand. See todays report in the
Times of Oman .

Oman importing fish. This is crazy. And is another example of cheap talk and market intervention from the responsible ministry in an attempt to be seen to do something rather than actually fixing the root causes. Which is a pity, because Dr Hamad bin Said Al Oufi, the Undersecretary, actually has a PhD in Marine Biology and knows a lot about fish. There are laws in place on many fish species, rules banning dumping of by-catch or finning of sharks, seasons on abalone & lobster, observers on Foreign industrial vessels, etc. But enforcment is weak. What a surprise. And the Foreign companies are protected by powerful local sponsors who take their cut and make sure the Ministry of Fisheries is controlled by people sympathetic to increasing the quotas for the big industrial fish vacuum cleaners. Thats probably why Dr. Al Oufi is not the Minister...

Landings of Tuna, Kingfish, shark, lobster, etc etc are all significantly down in recent years, as over-fishing and reduction in mangroves take their toll.

So what should be done?
Oman should get rid of the Foreign industrial fishing vessels. Officially they catch over 20% of the total tonnage harvest reported. But the incentive to catch more than their quota and offload in international waters while the observer is 'sleeping' must be huge. Their interest is to catch as much as possible, and they have little interest in the long term sustainability of Oman's fisheries. At present they only pay 12% tax. Could their be something fishy in the Ministry of Fisheries?

Also there should be controls on local near-shore fishing, principally by having some zero-fishing marine reserves to preserve the hatcheries. And educate the local fishermen on how to more sustainable catch fish, enforcing minimum net mesh sizes, cleaning up lost nets. And do more to encourage fish farming. We could use the current, mostly wasted, shark catch to feed them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I'm not Dutch!

It may soon be a rather bad time to be Dutch - or even blond and Dutch looking - in the Middle East. This has been going around the 'net for a while, (almost 2 weeks) but the response will probably make the Danish Cartoon issue seem trivial by comparison.

Geert Wilders, the Dutch leader of the PVV (a rather right wing) party, is supposedly about to publish a short video on the Quraan and Islaam, which he claims represents a fascist ideology, is not a tolerent or peaceful religion and that the Quraan 'should be banned'. Part of his purpose is to provoke the kind of violent reaction from Muslims to explicitly demonstrate his point that the underlying beliefs and their practice are fundamentally incompatable with Western (and especially Dutch) secular culture, freedom of sppech, and the principal of seperation of Church and State. He's already got 24/7 protection against all sort of death threats, so it won't make a big change to his lifestyle. But if you're Dutch and in a Muslim country, it may change yours!

In the case of Oman, any Dutch readers may wish to purchase key Dutch products they are particularly attracted to now, as it may be some time before they are back on the shelves! Also, if you need to visit the Dutch embassy, do it quick. The Dutch embassies around the world have already been put on alert.

Below is Geert telling his side on Fox News. One indication of his stance is that even Fox seems to find it pretty extreme. And that's saying something!

He essentially touches on issues that have been commented on in many blogs (including this one) about the implications of free speech, secularism and its problem with extremist Islam, political correctness, and what seems to be a firm commitment to religiously motivated violence on the part of many, including people who seem otherwise intelligent, peace loving and kind (but yet are firm belivers that 'mere' insults should be met with assassination).

You can read some right wing Euro-paper comment on his video here
Here's the link from Youtube with the interview with Geert. Caution: just watching this interview may be considered illegal in some countries. Follow the link at your own risk. If you are Muslim, you will find even this interview highly insulting. Don't blame me if you get offended.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

More Pay for some, Its OK to Deconvert in Egypt and other news

Sometimes I hate reading the papers here - it almost always creates the intense desire to blog about stuff. Unfortunately I also have to do many other things, like work & look after my family, which can hence lead to frustration!

So, on we go...

1/ More money for Public Employees: or HM forced to hand out food to the people.

His Majesty came out and weighed heavily into the ongoing debate in the Omani Zeitgeist on rising prices, rents, and the lack of anything being done. Just a week or so after HE Mackie - head of the all powerful Ministry of National Economy - briefly became one of the most cursed men in Oman by saying the public employees shouldn't get a pay rise because it would make inflation worse. Oops. Didn't see any quotes from him in the paper today, but HM has ordered big pay rises, especially for the lower ranks, and demanded a drop in flour prices. And told the council to provide some actual worked up proposals on controlling rents pretty damn quick.

In many senses, good on HM for actually having the political sense and humanitarian spirit to at lest partially ease the plight of many. His Ministers have had months and months to do something, and have just dithered. Did we take the opportunity to revalue the rial last year? No. Did a system of controlled pay rises related to inflation get put in pace? No. Instead the Council issued a counterproductive directive on rents that only succeeded in getting lots of people kicked out of their houses and rents rising even faster. Oh, and they made the banks buy more Government stock and hold more cash to reduce liquidity, something they can do for free. And they watched as their friends in pay of the foreign fishing fleets stripped ever more fish from Omani waters leaving local markets high and dry.

However, this timely and generous act of HM will only be a temporary band aid. And it will do little to ease the lot of many of the poorest in Oman - the Indians and Pakistanis and Indonesian and Filipino workers. Do you think the senior Gov people have given their foreign staff a pay rise lately? Or the swathes of blue suited manual laborers working for the Galfars and the Renaissance Services et al? Unless the Government use this time to actually get off their butts and apply some real thinking and action, things will get worse. Unfortunately, going the way of price controls, Government supply of staples, and forced cuts in commodity prices will just - in the long term - reduce supply and make the Government even more responsible for more people, spending (and hence wasting) lots more money. It is a very very inefficient way to fix these problems.

The papers are of course all reprinting the Government great and good singing HM's praises. But in fact, when His Majesty is forced to come out and almost personally provide handouts to swathes of Omani society for bread and other basic foodstuffs, its a bit of an indictment of the performance of his Government isn't it? I mean, HM just shouldn't have to do that.

Some ideas for the Government to consider. The Government needs to revalue the rial, raise the minimum wage, put a system of inflation raises in place for all employees, raise interest rates, put a stamp duty on loans, subsidise the poor, and tax the rich. Get more Omanis doing more real work for a living wage, ie making things, growing things, building their own damn houses. Enforce long term rental contracts. Build public housing. Stop encouraging people (and GCC residents) to speculate in Omani land and yet leave the plots barren. And kick out the damn Asian fishing fleets. In some ways, HE Mackie was absolutely right last week - just raising public wages won't fix the problem. Now's his chance to drive through the big reform programme that's needed to do the job properly.
[any assistance from Per Your Request accepted gratefully]

2/ Its OK to reconvert in Egypt
Egyptian courts made the news by ruling it's now OK to reconvert to Christianity after previously converting to Islam. The Government will now have to acknowledge the conversion, as well as publishing the name and address of the person in local papers, so the nearest angry mob can leave their mosque and stone the poor apostate to death without missing dinner.

3/ Obama.

Has he actually got the momentum to beat the special interests and the Political smart money? Can Americans arise from the deep, dark pit GW Bush and the neo-con fascists have cast them into and elect Obama, and in turn rediscover the great spirit of endeavor and vision that made America great?? For the sake of them, and all of us, I sure hope so. If you've got relatives in USA, please urge them to register and, this November, vote for a new chance. For a change. For the son of an African immigrant. For a true American. I'd send him money if it wasn't illegal...

OK. Gotta dash.

The Dragon

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sexual Adventures in Oman

Muscat is generally a tough spot if you’re a single guy expat. Especially compared to Dubai, say. You could go for the prostitutes of course. Or as its called in Oman, a 'Russian Massage', wink wink. Or a Chinese takeaway. But prostitutes in Oman are hardly the sort you could take to a work dinner party, or likely to offer conversation and actual sophisticated female company.

The competition for the few single Western women is pretty steep, especially with a lot of the real party girls dating mega-rich members of the extended Omani royal family. Guys, as you probably have found out, a dreary job in an office or in the desert, driving a Prado or a Jeep Wrangler won’t cut it against a Ferrari, a big bowl of Andean happy powder and a house the size of a small hotel. But fear not guys. Muscat Confidential can give all you single guys a huge hint.

I have a friend who I found out is dating Omani women. Yep. Omani ladies. I was amazed at his daring. And even more amazed when he elaborated further to explain these were married women! Wow. That’s taking risks that borders on the insane. What if he gets caught, I asked? What if a scorned lover rats him out to the ROP, or even worse, to her brothers?

Ah, no problem, he explained. You do of course have to be very very discreet, but they are even more afraid of being found out than he is!

The trick? These are not ordinary married women, but unfortunate ladies who have had the misfortune to enter into an arranged marriage with a husband that turns out to be homosexual. He of course can’t say to his family when the arrangements are made ''Oh, no, I don’t want to get married Mum, Dad, because you see I’m actually gay. Sorry!'' He basically goes through with it. After an initial consummation, presumably doggy style, he’s off all the time with the underground gay scene and Filipino hairdressers, safely married, satisfying his Mum and ignoring his wife. After a while, she figures whats OK for him is OK for her, and so it goes.

The advantage of having an affair with an expat is 1/ he’s as scared of getting caught as you. 2/ he’s unlikely to know your family. 3/ he’ll have a nice secluded bachelor pad surrounded by other expats. 4/ in a few years he’ll be off anyhow.

I was intrigued. Why hadn’t I thought of that when I was single? And how does he meet them?

Apparently the supermarket is the place. Eye contact? Good. Phone number? You’re in.

He must have balls of steel. I’d always be looking over my shoulder for the 5 brothers to burst in brandishing a red hot poker. But he seems very satisfied. And he assures me that they are too.
His only lament is that there are too many. So, there you go guys. Go shopping!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Plenty of drugs in Oman

Well, from the comments on an earlier post questioning the ROP's recent claim to have reduced drug smuggling into Oman by 90%, and a couple of confidential emails I got sent too (thanks mystery informants!), it seems pretty conclusive that there has by no means been an effective halt to the importation of drugs into Oman.
Prices for Hash and Heroin are stable, and there is plenty of both available.
Heroin is around 7.5 rials per dose. Hash, around 1.5 rial per joint. Despite there being plenty of Heroin, morphine is increasingly popular because it's purer and carries less of a stigma.

As with all countries, the problem can only be addressed on the demand side, not the supply side. With Oman's huge coastline and proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan, combined with the historical and ongoing smuggling trade across the straight of Hormuz between Oman and Iran, its always going to be impossible to stop it. Where there is demand, the market will seek to supply. Even if the ROP were successful in blocking imports, the resulting rise in price would automatically encourage more supply. But even that isn't happening. Prices are very low and stable.
It up to more education in the schools, more rehab centers, and demand side policing. Certainly the solution is not self serving reports in the press that pretend there isn't a problem, or having draconian sentencing for the unlucky few users that get caught. There is a problem, and its getting worse. With so much unemployment and underemployment amongst the youth, its natural that Heroin will make inroads.
The problem will the current approach (here and in most countries) is that it creates a distribution system for all drugs, and thus the dealer who can supply hashish can also supply heroin. Given the non-addictiveness of hash, it's in the dealer's interest to encourage a switch to heroin. More profit and a hooked customer.
Dragon is a big fan of the Dutch approach. Make soft drugs effectively legal and concentrate on building a wall between the supply systems for soft and hard drugs.
But that won't happen, unfortunately, so its likely Oman's drug problem, and the strong drug culture building in Oman's youth, will grow.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Oman to start importing gas in July

Breaking news. Oman will start importing Gas this year.

A couple of my colleagues in another Ministry - the Ministry of Oil and Gas - told me that Oman will finally start importing Gas from Qatar, via the UAE pipeline, around July this year. The gas pipeline to the UAE was built a few years ago to enable Oman to supply gas to a power station in Dubai while they waited for the gas to arrive from Qatar. It also enabled the pipe to be laid ostensibly to export gas from Oman, even though everyone knew it would be the source of imports eventually (and a careful reading of official releases makes that clear).

Imports will be around 5.2 million m3/d, equivalent to some 8% of Oman's current gas demand. What they wouldn't tell me is the price. I'll dig into that and report soon. What will be interesting is to compare the price for the imported gas with the prices given to the Sohar and Salalah Gas based industries. It will certainly be a lot less than the Government gets from the LNG plants at Sur. But it will emphasise the true subsidy the new industries are receiving.

How is Oman getting the gas at all, and why? A ha! Both good questions reader. I'll explain that once I sort out the price thing. It's a long story. And not all bad news for Oman.

Also to come this week, the strange story of the Methanol plant in Salalah and how the Government seems ready to subsidise it's gas even more than they are already!

The Dragon

Sunday, February 3, 2008

News Update

A few interesting articles in the papers these past few days.

1/ First the collapse of a building in Al Khuwair.
The ROP is conducting interrogations to find out the reasons for the collapse of the building and the extent of damage, a source at the ROP said.

Looking at many of the buildings going up around town, the amazing thing I find is that this is not happening very often! Oman's building style is old fashioned reinforced concrete columns, solid concrete floors, and the gaps filled in the cinder blocks. Its cheap because cement is cheap and it can be built by essentially unskilled NRIs and Pakistani labourers with no safety standards. But the columns always look way too skinny to my unprofessional eye. One big quake in Musandam and I'd be pretty afraid of being in many Omani buildings at all. They look great once all rendered and painted white, but the amount of structural steel and load-bearing cement seems as low as you could possibly make it! Anyone out there studing civil engineering that can make an informed comment?
In the Tribune
Two people have been rescued so far, the ROP added, and said that they were working in collaboration with other civic authorities. “Investigations are also going on to ascertain the reason behind the collapse and the authorities are yet to determine causalities and material damages caused.”
The building is owned by a commercial establishment. In the wake of the incident, the ROP has urged all building owners to take the necessary steps to ensure their building’s safety.
Hmmm. Lets see if we ever hear anything ever again in terms of an actual result from the investigation. Don't hold your breath. My worry is that 30 years ago the buildings were generally built a lot better than now. Of course, if Oman had a decent system of qualified building inspectors enforcing a strict modern building code, we could all feel secure that this was just a freak accident in a 30yr old building where someone was storing solid lead on a cracked mezzanine floor. But somehow I'm not confident that building inspections are all that rigorous even when they occur... As a result, the ever helpful authorities simply urge owners to check their buildings, so if another one falls down it'll be your fault, and certainly not the fault of the authorities actually responsible for setting and enforcing standards. Its the 'Cover Your Ass' system of Government Accountability.

2/ The ROP said the other day that 'drugs smuggling into Oman is 90% less than in the year 2000', thanks to the ROP doing a great job and enforcing strict penalties. I'm not sure how this 'fact' is worked out, as of course it wasn't explained and the crack reportage in Oman failed to ask for any actual data or evidence. Muppets. So, does it actually mean that the ROP - despite increased efforts - are only catching 1/10th of the smugglers they used too? Or is an alternate explanation that they are just no longer busting 90% of the drugs?

A far better measure of the demonstrable success of such efforts is the street price of drugs available in Oman. Now, if they gave me that info, and showed how successfully restricting supply had made prices skyrocket, I'd be more convinced. Similar studies in the US have shown that even while the US customs were busting ever increasing quantities of cocaine, the street price was falling as smugglers just moved a lot more product without getting caught.

Any info on trends in drug prices in Oman gratefully received, totally anonomously. I'll compile the answers and do some graphs for you.

Friday, February 1, 2008

More Business Ideas for Oman

Part 2 of a series of ideas from Dragon Consulting for new business opportunities in Oman. My consultation fees will be reasonable...

1/ A Temping Agency, or Temporary Workers Supply
A successful model for looking for new ideas is of course to find businesses that have been successful elsewhere and just start them up here. Such a business is supply of temporary office workers. Esp receptionists, secretaries, salesmen, PAs, PROs, etc, but it can grow to include welders, nurses, Doctors, quantity surveyors and oil field workers.

A big problem for businesses in Oman is the fundamental unreliability of full time workers. So many family commitments! (this is not to be seen as a criticism, it just seems to be a fact of life here). And of course add to that people going on holidays, sick leave, short-notice attrition, etc etc. If you could call up a decent temping agency, problem solved! Of course, they cost a lot more than full-time workers, but then you only need them for a short period, maybe only a couple of days even. But as long as the people you supply are competent and reliable, demand should build. You would take a cut of the wages, plus get a fee if the company steals the worker for a full time job. Its great for the many Mums who don't want the commitment of fulltime work but have great experience and skills, and could extend to the often highly qualified spouses of expat workers.

2/ 'In driveway' car servicing
I know, some of the famous Ruwi / Wadi Khabir guys will actually already pick up and deliver your car. But generally who wants to traul around WK for a small item or service? And who has time to wait several hours at an Oman Oil station? Have the guys in a well equipped van, and they should be able to do an oil change, new plugs, check fluids, rotate the tires, and lube the suspension in less than an hour, IN YOUR DRIVE.

3/ Resume Service
A resume service staffed by people who actually speak English and Arabic, and have some experience crafting a resume or CV with an eye to what businesses want to read. I have seen so many bad resumes by people in the country, misspelt, vague, poorly laid out, 8 pages long and just, well, bad. And this is from reasonably well educated people with lots of good things to put in a resume.

4/ Hardware store
It may be ahead of its time, but perhaps one day Omanis will get the DIY bug. Maybe? Huge in Europe and North America, home improvement mega-warehouses sell everything. You do your own tiling, home repairs, ... Hmmmm. OK, you're right, waaaay ahead of its time here. For now, I'd settle for a half decent hardware store that doesn't require various trips to hole in the wall shops scattered to the 4 winds to get a few basic tools and household fix-up supplies.

5/ Basic Copy Editing
Most of the medium size ads in the papers here are really bad. Even some of the big company ones. Quaint often, but a 15 mins read through from almost any native English speaker would solve the problems of mangled and non-grammatical language. Charge 5 rials per ad.

6/ Outsourcing Human Resource capability
Many companies in Oman are now growing to the stage where they need professional HR departments, realising that just leaving the job to their Uncle's second cousin who failed his Marketing degree and is at a loose end isn't good enough any more. But it would be far more efficient if they could contract this out to an Omani company with really good IT systems and skilled HR professionals (I mean real ones, who have actually studied and practiced it in a real company). Link up with one of the International outfits to get all the procedures and software, and provide good HR services at a much lower cost than them doing it internally.

and lastly,

7/ Band Management / Celebrity Management
Where are the Omani Boy bands? Or Girl bands? Where are the famous B list celebrities in Oman, with stories of marriages, parties, babies and affairs? Kids, the reason is that while there must be a load of raw musical and acting talent out there, there is obviously a severe lack of that upper level cadre of movers and deal makers. The managers. The people who organise the talent (because they are really really bad at organising themselves), who arrange the photographers and the PR, book the studio time, get them on radio, at events, in the newspapers. arrange the gigs, and make sure the cheques get collected. And naturally take a heafty cut (from the gross, naturally) all along the way. Don't knock it. It was the way Richard Branson started. And the market seems wide open. Plus a pro-football league is coming, and that means sports agents. $$$ Go watch Jerry McGuire (A movie).

OK. That's it for today. My favorite is the last one. Low capital start-up costs, self financing and big potential. And a really wild life style. Nice.