Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rain in Oman, and work restarts in Bar Al Jissa

Bar Al Jissa Update
Real estate investors will be pleased to know construction work has recommenced in Bar Al Jissa's cliff-top villas and apartments. My sources tell me Sheikh Zubair got involved and ... no surprise, everything got sorted out. Ah, the joys of wasta.

The expat architect, construction and project managers - who had previously ignored several instructions to stop work, until they had their passports confiscated - have had their passports returned. And so the blue smurfs are now slaving away again.

Weather - we've finally got some
Isn't the rain beautiful? Just when it normally starts getting really hot as summer starts to arrive, we've instead had several days of cloudy, cooler weather, and today and tomorrow we're expecting lots of rain, lightening and even perhaps some hail! But it is NOT a cyclone. Here's the latest sat pic, and you can see there's nothing of note around Oman. Its just a standard low pressure front.

The Government has closed the schools in Muscat, and given Government employees 2 days off. Yes folks, rain is a cause for celebration in Oman. It does seem the authorities have learned some lessons from Cyclone Gonu, (except that the press are still reporting that only 49 deaths occured, when we all know the real death toll was well over 500, possibly even up to 2000).

You may want to try and protect your car over the next 2 days. The hail may be big enough to cause nasty dents...

Schools in Oman closed on Tuesday following hailstorm warning
Published: March 30, 2009, 16:48

Muscat: Oman is bracing for a hailstorm and rains as hospitals are put on stand by and educational institutions given a day off on Tuesday.
"It is not a serious matter, but looking at our country's topography we are taking precautions," Lt Col Azhar Al Kindy, a member of the National Committee for Civil Defence (NCCD), told Gulf News on Monday. He said the bad weather that hit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE is heading towards Oman.

Due to its mountainous region, Oman's wadis (valleys) overflow even with slightly moderate rain, therefore the authorities are not taking any chances.

"We have been advised by the Education Ministry to close our educational institutions," Abraham Mathews, Advisor to the Indian Schools Board, told Gulf News on Monday. Barring the school in Salalah, all other 14 Indian schools have declared Tuesday as a holiday.

Lt Col Al Kindy said the decision to declare school holidays was taken by the Education Ministry as a precaution.

Oman had suffered extensive damage and 49 people had died when tropical cyclone Gonu stuck its eastern coast and Muscat in June 2007. At that time, precautionary measures taken by the NCCD had controlled the damage, but flooding from the mountain had caused much damage and loss of lives.

This time there is no storm coming, but hails and rains could again cause havoc by flooding wadis and low-lying areas thus authorities are on guard. Explaining the cause for the expected hailstorm and rains, Abdullah Rashid of Meteorological Office IN Muscat said: "North westerly disturbance and low pressure over Arabian Peninsula will bring rains as well as possible hailstorm." He forecast moderate rainfall, but accompanied by hailstorm for Tuesday as well as Wednesday.

It probably won't be as spectacular as the lightening show in Dubai a couple of days ago.

'Course, we don't have a half kilometer high lightening attractor in Muscat!

Monday, March 30, 2009

CEO of Omatel quits 'for personal reasons'

More to come on this story, but breaking news today, CEO Reuters is reporting that Omanhell Omantel CEO Mohammed al-Wohaibi has quit.

That Pakistani deal's share price collapse probably didn't help.

Omantel CEO resigns as challenges mount
Sun Mar 29, 2009 4:56am EDT

* Omantel CEO quits in surprise move, cites personal reasons
* Chief operating officer, Amer al-Rawas, named acting CEO
MUSCAT, March 29 (Reuters) - Oman Telecommunications Co OTL.OM (Omantel) Chief Executive Mohammed al-Wohaibi said on Sunday he had resigned from the country's largest telecoms for personal reasons.

The surprise resignation at Omantel comes after the government postponed plans to sell part of its controlling stake in the company in December and as Omantel faces increasing challenges over its investments in Pakistan.

"I have resigned for personal reasons," Wohaibi told Reuters, declining to elaborate. The company had earlier announced his resignation but did not provide any further details.

Shares in Omantel had eased 1.1 percent by 0845 GMT as the country's leading index .MSI slipped 1 percent.

Omantel's chief operating officer, Amer al-Rawas, is now acting chief executive, a company official told Reuters.

One analyst said he believed Wohaibi had been frustrated with the government's reluctance to sell a stake to private investors and the cautious approach of the company's expansion policies.

"He was unhappy when the government decided to pull out from selling the 25 percent share. He felt Omantel should be privatized at a much faster rate to compete better and increase efficiency," said Hilal al-Harthy, analyst at Jabreen Telecommunications Consultancy.

Omantel bought 488.8 million shares of Pakistan's Worldcall Telecom Ltd (WCTL.KA), equivalent to 65 percent of the company, in February 2008. The $193 million deal marks its biggest foreign investment so far.

But Worldcall's shares have fallen sharply since, with the company last valued at $29 million, according to Reuters data.

"The challenge for Omantel will be to make its Pakistan investment work ... Due to the legal, regulatory and the other issues in Pakistan, the company has not taken effective control of WTL," said Sunil Dhall, vice-president at Muscat-based Gulf Baader Capital Markets.

Omantel'S net profit fell 66.9 percent in the fourth quarter to about 9.744 million rials ($25.31 million) due to losses related to Worldcall.

The Omani government, which owns 70 percent of Omantel, said in 2008 that it could sell up to 30 percent of the firm. (Reporting by Saleh al-Shaibany; Writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Thomas Atkins)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Free Speech?

Well, it had to happen. Being busier than promised this week I've been a bit of an absentee landlord here at Muscat Confidential, and meanwhile the comments section on the previous post wandered tangentially into some pretty pathetic name calling idiocy. Further than usual.

The sort of intellectual debate seen most often in schools for small children.

The question is: Given I am a strong supporter - within the law - of free speech, but at the same time can't stand listening to/reading such patently stupid crap, should I allow such behaviour on what is, after all, my blog?

Yes and no. So:
- I've turned off 'lazy' anonymous commenting,
- I continue to reserve the right to delete comments I think are against the law (see Muscati's recent blog)

Readers should try to think a bit before posting. The children should stop turning almost every issue into some mindless, boring 'expat vs Omani' argument centered on insults, stereotypes, non sequiturs, purposely offensive statements that don't relate to the argument at hand, and downright incorrect horseshit.

Some of the commentators seem to think Oman would be better served if the only expats here were totally obsequious, and that the so-called Omani culture (as defined by them by inference ad hoc ) is 'by definition' correct.

Economic and cultural luddites. Such xenophobic nationalistic nonsense would turn Oman rapidly into a cultural and economic North Korea of the middle east, IMHO. Oman would be wholly dependent on limited oil and gas, and obeying more powerful neighboring states. While it's state of education and business would wither, replaced by imported cheap managers from the subcontinent.

And the rest of you could try to resist baiting them.

The argument is seldom some black and white cartoon version of Expat vs Omani. It is customers and suppliers, Government and residents, business and stakeholders. Comparing the actions and achievements of the powerful against their stated objectives (or even just vs common sense).

As for free speech, I'm a big fan of the US on this one. The benefit of the doubt must always go to free speech and the right to express ideas. (Plus see earlier posts.)

I think the 'West' has got it a bit wrong in their attempts to promulgate democracy. The idea of democracy seems to have been dumbed down to the simple idea that it involves a vote and the 'winners'(by simple majority) get to do what they want.

Er, no.

To me, democracy rests not on the concept of a majority, but on how it defends the intrinsic rights of the minority, the opposition. The majority operates in a straight jacket in the Western Democracies - sewn from the constitution and the rule of law.

A free press and a right to voice and debate ideas in a public forum enables the common man or woman to influence things. A vote without information is useless. I highly recommend wiki for those who want to learn about free speech from a whole load of really smart people who have thought about it and debated it for centuries.

Freedom of speech and truth
First page of the 1644 edition of Areopagitica

One of the earliest Western defences of freedom of expression is Areopagitica (1644) by the English poet and political writer John Milton. Milton wrote in reaction to an attempt by the English republican parliament to prevent "seditious, unreliable, unreasonable and unlicensed pamphlets". Milton advanced a number of arguments in defence of freedom of speech: a nation's unity is created through blending individual differences rather than imposing homogeneity from above; that the ability to explore the fullest range of ideas on a given issue was essential to any learning process and truth cannot be arrived upon unless all points of view are first considered; and that by considering free thought, censorship acts to the detriment of material progress.

Milton also argued that if the facts are laid bare, truth will defeat falsehood in open competition, but this cannot be left for a single individual to determine. According to Milton, it is up to each individual to uncover their own truth; no one is wise enough to act as a censor for all individuals.[8]

Noam Chomsky states that: "If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise."[9] An often cited quote that describes the principle of freedom of speech comes from Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often mis-attributed to Voltaire) "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," as an illustration of Voltaire's beliefs.[10] Professor Lee Bollinger argues that "the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters." The free speech principle is left with the concern of nothing less than helping to shape "the intellectual character of the society". According to Bollinger tolerance is a desirable, if not essential, value and protecting unpopular speech is itself an act of tolerance. Such tolerance serves as a model that encourages more tolerance throughout society. However, critics argue that society need not be tolerant of the intolerance of others, such as those who advocate great harm, such as genocide. Preventing such harms is claimed to be much more important than being tolerant of those who argue for them.[11]

There are other important rights too. A judiciary as independent as possible from the short-term influence of the Politicians, for example.

Free speech is a precious thing. But by it's nature this means a lot of bad ideas get voiced. Incorrect ideas. They must be found out and dragged into the daylight of reason and dealt with. Sometimes someone finds an idea offensive. I say tough luck, because otherwise no-one can say anything, as there will always be someone offended by anything. Hell, 46% of voting Americans still voted for Sarah Palin. And in some countries you have to be careful what you name stuffed toys.

To those who criticise the West, and especially the US, because of its foreign policy, or for melting down the whole global economy, or a multitude of other fucks ups (especially in the last 8 years), I say this: when I want to read and hear a critical intellectual analysis of what the US is doing wrong, I can usually get a damn good analysis from ... an American, via the free global media system they created.

When your country allows leaders, comedians and the media to freely criticise your Government like the West do theirs, you can start bitching. Yes, criticise the Americans, or anyone else, but treasure having the power and freedom to do so, and do stop whining. And start addressing and fixing your own problems like grown-ups perhaps.

Think too about what the world would be like if American was run by someone like Kim Il Yung, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, or Mugabe.

I do find a lot of ungrateful selfish ignorant whining offensive. But if some idiot wants to speak out and thereby demonstrate his or her idiocy, its dangerous to stop it. I'd rather we know such people and ideas are out there and perhaps we can better address them.

Free speech also makes for much better comedy.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Problems at Barr Al Jissah Resort Company. Work at villa development stopped by Muscat Municipality.


A few years ago, the Oman Government developed a remote little rocky bay in Bar Al Jissah with 3 beautiful new hotels –

The mega-hotel development that many at the time thought was a reach too far was accomplished with amazing success. \\

here's the 6 star private beachy bit

The Shangri La is accessed by a coastal road that first winds past a planned extension complex of freehold apartments, villas, and a marina.

Photo: The beautiful Bar Al Jissa site, before major construction of the villas got underway. (Hotels shown above are off screen to the bottom)

While the hotel development was a great success, with occupancy rates almost immediately ranking near the top of Shangri La properties world wide.

But the later villa development part seems to be in more than a bit of trouble (run by local giant the Zubair Corporation).

A few weeks ago all work on the site has been stopped by Muscat Municipality. Developers have told purchasers the villas will be completed June 2009 (albeit a year later than originally suggested).

MM are claiming that the buildings don’t have proper building permits and are damaging the 'look' of the place as well. So, they stopped all the construction work. The architects should expect a fine. [The new head of Muscat Municipality is obviously starting to get to grips with the way things used to be done under the previous leadership, and is toughening up.]


It gets more interesting.

A Muscat Confidential reader from the UAE who purchased one of those Bar Al Jissah villas off-plan some time ago, tells me he has been trying for several months – unsuccessfully – to get the developer to give him some pretty basic details: eg

1. Pre-Settlement Building Inspection [UD: who does the inspection and what are their terms of reference]
2. Defect Rectification [UD: like repairing any non-specification items to contractual specification]
3. Rental Management Agreement – Shangri-la [process, contract, fees, guarantees, liabilities, etc]
4. Furniture Packages [you know, those pre-selected options for purchasers to have the buildings furnished for them for a price...)
5. Body Corporate Fees? [how much will the owners be charged to run the complex, rubbish collection charges, rights to use the hotel facilities, etc etc]
6. Handover and Settlement Process [well, duh]
7. Residency Visa [well funnily enough, apparently still a big problem, and I’ve heard it is only a residency visa, and will not be a visa valid for employment]

All reasonable questions to have in writing, I agree. Speaking personally, required BEFORE I would get into paying loads of money and signing a Sales and Purchase agreement, but then these were the days when real estate was a sure winner.

As our reader tells it, the developer has barely even acknowledged his letters/emails [see the correspondence he's sent below], and they haven't supplied answers.

He is one unimpressed international real estate investor, I can tell you! As a result, he’s shared his letters with us here Muscat Confidential.

His problems are symptomatic of similar problems across the industry in Oman. Even people who have taken possession of their villas in The Wave [the first really successful Muscat real estate development] are reported to still be on tourist visas, because the whole issue of these 'freehold residence visas' remains unresolved. These visa were promised whenever a non-Omani/Non-GCC resident bought [and paid for] a house in one of the "designated freehold developments".

In fact, our expat correspondent from the UAE goes on to say:

Big issue for Oman - Open up to FDI in the form of property, cater to high-end buyers, then treat them like imbeciles & expect that they will accept it. Real Estate globally is getting punished and one would expect that Oman would be doing all it could to assure investors in the country. Also highlights that there is no body within Oman to regulate/referee/monitor the activities on behalf of investors of all these so called "developers"…

So what? you might [rightly] ask? Well, he’s pulling together a "Purchasers Group" to get some traction on reality with his developers. Probably his only option.

a similar group "Purchasers Group" were totally responsible for getting the Muscat Hills development going after the developer tried to force off-plan purchasers to pay significantly more than the agreed contract OR ELSE. [Rumour has it that His Majesty stepped in and picked up the rest of the tab to rescue the Muscat Hills situation, after it looked like the Government and the developers were about to get embarrassingly sued in the UK over the issue.

So, bottom line seems to be that there is quite a bit of ‘sorting out’ to be done, on all of the Omani mega-real estate developments, to inject some basic professionalism. The least I’d expect when you consider the prices people have paid for these properties, and the vast amounts of Government infrastructure spending and free prime beach land that was provided [via Omran, for a piece].

Certainly, the Oman Government should realize that the sort of foreign investors who can buy these types of high-end properties are not idiots. Nor are they the sort of people to accept poor performance (like potential breaches of contracts, non-specification delivery, or ‘inshallah’ answers to key questions) without taking serious action themselves.

Whoever in the Government is in charge of this, or whoever should be, get a grip and sort these developers out.

here is our reader's letter to the Bar Al Jissah developers. How pissed off is he? See for yourself.

Dear Mr. Lakshminarayan,
I am writing to you as the official representative under the terms of the SPA with BAJRC to seek some clarification on project questions that I have been asking the Marketing Agent (PRD) to clarify on your behalf for many months.

To date I have yet to receive any information regarding the following items:
1. Pre-Settlement Building Inspection
2. Defect Rectification
3. Rental Management Agreement – Shangri-la
4. Furniture Packages
5. Body Corporate Fees
6. Handover and Settlement Process
7. Residency Visa

As the property developer responsible for delivering this project and provisioning of these services I am looking to you to advise on what is proposed.

Considering this property is due to be handed over in less than 60 days, as per your latest advice, I would expect that the above items have been resolved/agreed and are now being implemented.

Frankly I am fed up with hearing the response “the developer is working on this” from PRD after numerous requests for information on how this property is to operate.

I think we, the purchasers, have been patient enough until now for solutions to be presented - after all you have been in the process of delivering this project for over 2 years.

As you are aware we have all invested a substantial amount of money with BAJRC based on contractual obligations and representations as to the product and services that are expected to be delivered.

The above items have a very large impact on capital expenditure requirements (furniture packages), ongoing costs (body corporate), quality (defect rectification), and proposed income (rentals) and we will be incurring interest cost whilst these items are unresolved. Not to mention the additional logistics of being available for settlements, handovers, residency applications and moving house when required.

This is something that your purchasers, owners or investors, NEED to prepare for and make the appropriate arrangements to action – we are not able to drop everything at a moment’s notice for BAJRC once you finally get you act together.

I trust that you understand my concerns, concerns that are shared amongst many other purchasers, and I would appreciate a formal response from you by the 12th of January 2009.

After no response, this was followed by


Dear Mr. Lakshminarayan,

Today is the 15th of February and as I have not received a response from you or your company, despite having confirmation of receipt of my request.

BAJRC seems to believe that it is either exempt from treating it’s customers with some basic common courtesy or is too incompetent to do so.

I have requested clearly and politely for the information on this investment without success – now I am going to introduce you to some high-level, sustained NEGATIVE PUBLICITY in the hope that it motivates you into addressing these concerns.

As a result of your non-reply, listed below is the course of action that I, and others, are now going to take.

A list of outstanding requirements from BAJRC to advise purchasers in the Barr al Jissah Residences and a copy of this email detailing BAJRCs failings to communicate to date has been compiled.

This correspondence will be sent to the following recipients as of Wednesday the 17th of February 2009 as a first step.

Request for Assistance to resolve my concerns from the following parties


2. B.A.J.R.C - Khaled Mohammed Al Zubair

3. Zubair Corporation - Mohammad Al Zubair

4. Omran - Mr. Wael Al Lawati

5. Department of Tourism - Dr. Rajiha Abdul Ameer Ali

6. The Shangri-La Hotel – Arbind K Shrestha

7. The Shangri-La Hotel – Head Office - Shangri-La International Hotel Management Ltd, Hong Kong
If a response is still not achieved, the next steps will be to forward my complaint to the following parties:

Other investors to commence a Purchaser Action Group

1. Media Groups
2. Local Newspapers, Magazines & Blogs [UD: that's me]
3. Regional Papers – Gulf News, The National, 7 Days, Arabian Business,
4. International Press – Specifically UK Newspapers & Travel publications
5. Local Banks – HSBC, NBO, OAB, Bank Muscat
6. Real Estate Developers & Agents

a. The Wave
b. The Blue City
c. Muryia Developments
d. Cluttons
e. Hamptons
f. Gulf Property World

Please do not misunderstand the above as an idle threat.

I am putting BAJRC on notice that, as your customer in a very significant property investment, you have a duty of care to inform me of matters affecting my investment.

If you continue to treat me, your customer, with such ignorance and disregard as to not even bother responding to my real and clear concerns then I am determined to introduce you to the concept of a Purchaser Action Group and the affect that it can have on your businesses credibility.

Friday, March 20, 2009

American ship collision spills 90,000 L of diesel near Musandam

Photo: Harder to drive than you'd think, apparently...

In the news today: the US Navy and Oman Insurance Co.:

First, breaking news- the Americans have managed to run a nuclear sub into a surface ship in the Strait of Hormuz, spilling 90,000 L of diesel and generally drawing attention to themselves. Cue Iranians fuming about how 'this is what happens when US Ships are around' and 'what if the reactor had been damaged? ' etc etc. Which is so-of... true. The Americans must be rather embarrassed.

Plus, anyone know if the slick will hit the beaches in Mussandam?

A thousand tonnes of diesel must spread out pretty thin... but it should evaporate fast.

US navy vessels collide in Strait of Hormuz
Fri, 20 Mar 2009 13:48:17 GMT
A nuclear-powered US Navy submarine and a US amphibious vessel have collided in the Strait of Hormuz, south of Iran, the US Navy says.

The collision between the submarine, USS Hartford (SSN 768), and USS New Orleans (LPD 18) "occurred at approximately 1:00 am local time (5:00 pm EDT, March 19)," the US Fifth Fleet said in a press release on Friday.

The submarine's nuclear propulsion plant was not damaged.

Nuclear consultant John Large told Press TV that judging from the damage report, the incident must to have been "quite serious".

"Not only fifteen sailors (aboard the submarine) were injured, also one of the diesel tanks on the other craft, the surface ship, the Los Angeles (class), was ruptured," Large said.

The fuel tank rupture on the New Orleans has resulted in an oil spill of approximately 25,000 gallons (90,000 liters) of diesel fuel marine.

The Navy said the incident is "currently under investigation".

The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between Iran and Oman, connects the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. The US Fifth Fleet, responsible for US naval forces in the Persian Gulf, is stationed in Bahrain.

Second, Oman Insurance Co. has been put on negative ratings watch by Standard & Poor's due to their UAE parent company Mashreqbank being seen as at risk, but only slightly, as reported by Middle East North Africa - Financial Network.

In some ways that's good news - a slight drop in credit rating is not a bad result these days, when even the Swiss are printing money, never mind the Brits and the USA.

S&P: Oman Insurance Co. A- ratings placed on CreditWatch negative
MENAFN Press -19/03/2009

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services said today it placed its 'A-' long-term counterparty credit and insurer financial strength ratings on United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based composite insurer Oman Insurance Co. (PSC) on CreditWatch with negative implications.

The CreditWatch placement follows the placement of the long-term counterparty credit rating on Oman Insurance's parent, UAE-based Mashreqbank (A/Watch Neg/A-1), on CreditWatch with negative implications on March 17, 2009 (see "Four Dubai-Based Banks Long-Term Ratings Placed On Creditwatch Negative On Deteriorating Operating Environment").

Under our criteria, the rating action on Oman Insurance should have occurred simultaneously with that on Mashreqbank, and this article both notes that fact and places Oman Insurance at the appropriate rating.

We expect to resolve the CreditWatch status in the coming six weeks. We do not anticipate to lower the ratings on Mashreqbank by more than one notch, based on our current expectations. As a strategically important subsidiary of Mashreqbank, the ratings on Oman Insurance benefit from group support and we therefore do not expect to lower them by more than one notch.

This is not a good sign for the long term value of the rial or the economies. A rash of attempts at competitive devaluations, a-la 1930s, this will only result in inflation and delay the rightful long term devaluation of the US dollar needed to get their debts paid off.

As the oil price picks up this year, expect the rial (pegged to the US$) to move down, possibly very quickly when it happens. Better get all those bonuses overseas fast... Don't say you weren't warned...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More Real Estate, Blue City and Bank Muscat

Busy as all hell this week. But at least the bottom seems to be near for global equities.

Bank Muscat was strongly tipped as due for a bit of a bounce on rumours that preceded the official announcement they will take profit on the bank investment in India (although one might have expected it's book value to already be in shareprice...). The market seems to be correct vs the tipsters however, as the shares resumed their slump back toward the recent record lows. After loosing close to 80% of their value (in rial/US$) the Government is probably establishing a floor around 0.500 rial. (Hope your savings plan wasn't too heavy on BKMB shares Muscati!)

But something's going on, even if its not reflected yet in the price - look at that turnover! Gee, I wonder if there has been a little bit of insider trading going on? Or perhaps an attempted 'pump & dump'?


News of immanent meltdown everywhere is tapering off, but its still good to be here in Muscat and to be sheltered from that massive storm that's raging in most other parts of the world.

Even Dubai is perking up and trying lamely to reinvigorate it's old swagger, having picked up a nice loan from big brother Abu Dhabi. Dubai is now reminding everyone it actually has a real, core, value generating economy as an entrépot trading port, etc. Well, maybe so, but I won't be rushing to buy real estate chaps just yet.

Meanwhile Muscat small and medium scale real estate construction is ticking along nicely, but the news has gone rather quiet from the big developments. Rumour has it that HM himself gave Sh. Maktoum a call and asked (very politely I'm sure) what the *%^&*^% is going on with Dubai Holdings and their stalled Yeti project, and that he'd perhaps better 'use it or loose it'. Anybody want to buy a really cheap breakwater and some damp sand?

Blue City's BCC1 CEO Mr Richard Russell is allegedly getting a bit paranoid too, sending letters a while back to various contractors and staff reminding them about their contractual duty to secrecy, and that they'd better not be leaking info to the press and blogs (I guess he means info like wild and crazy stories of sales to the Abu Dhabi Pension Fund, or the state of renegotiations with twitchy bondholders).

I'd reproduce the letter... but... if I was RR I'd have put little hidden variations in the text to uniquely ID each one. ;-)

More news soon. Work crises have been fortunately averted through personal intervention, so having earned my money for a while will try and be a bit more 'bloguctive' this week, inshallah.

[Unless thwarted by Essa's so-far unsuccessful Global Zionist conspiracy to occupy peaceful upstanding Sudan and take its 'vast resources' by arresting their genocidally accused Field Marshall President. Vs China's successful conspiracy to get a strategic holding in blood-soaked Sudan.

More on that tomorrow. Was this YOUR day in the office? Or perhaps YOU work at the Times of Oman?


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Omani State Reserve Fund, the secret partner, and the Balkan Investments - part 2

Who is The Omani State General Reserve Fund's mystery partner?

When Oman's State General Reserve Fund snapped up control of Equest Investments Balkans Ltd, their UK listed partner in a 600 million euro Bulgarian Ski resort deal (see previous post), while conveniently outside the reach of the UK's Code of Takeovers & Mergers (which would oblige disclosure of owners I bet),

The Board notes that State Street (Nominees) Limited, as nominee for SGRF, currently holds 5,894,834 ordinary shares of no par value in the Company ("ordinary shares") (representing 32.27% of the issued share capital of the Company) and funds managed by Kairos own 3,743,866 ordinary shares in the Company (representing 20.50% of the issued share capital of the Company). SGRF and Kairos together control 52.77% of the issued share capital of the Company.

The Company is incorporated, and has its registered office, in the British Virgin Islands and has its ordinary shares only admitted to trading on the AIM Market of the London Stock Exchange. Accordingly, the Directors do not believe that the Company is subject to the provisions of The City Code of Takeovers and Mergers.

it still meant that according to the AIM stockmarket rules, the new Directors had to list their other Directorships and post a very short bio, which makes interesting reading (see end of post).

Before we dive into those detailed directors interests filings, to me it does look like Oman got a very interesting company in the firesale of the crisis, and as their partner in the ski deal, it probably had to be rescued anyway. After all, whats 20 mln euro against a 600 mln deal, for the SGRF? Bargain!!!

Here's a synopsis of EIB ( in their own words):
Equest Investments Balkans Limited (EIB) currently has ten companies – in Financial Services, Retail, Waste Management and Land and Property Development, predominantly with majority equity holdings. Its principal focus is on Bulgaria and Romania, but considers appropriate investments in the rest of the Balkan region.

Unfortunately, their super-cunning investment strategy was to leverage everything like crazy.
As part of our investment strategy, Equest borrows from commercial lenders as we anticipate that higher returns are achievable through investments than the cost of debt financing.


Still, a cheapish punt on Eastern Europe if you're looking for one. But I digress.

Here's the AIM stock exchange filing entry describing the new, non-exec director of Equest Investments Balkans Ltd (and majority shareholder representative) Mr Al Kharusi, head of SGRF:

Mr Al-Kharusi, a resident of Oman, joined the SGRF in 1985 as the Director General and is now the Chief Executive Officer of the SGRF. He holds a Diploma in Business Administration.
Mr Al-Kharusi (aged 55) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:

Current Directorships / Partnerships:
Eagle Properties (L.P.) No.3
Eagle Properties (L.P.) No.4
Eagle Properties (L.P.) No.6
The European Acquisition Company S.a.r.l.
The European Acquisition Company 2 S.a.r.l.
Bulgarian Acquisition Company VI S.a.r.l.
Wopac No.1 Limited
Palm Properties
Sprint (GP) Limited
Normandy (GP) Limited
SEE Capital Sarl
Eagle Properties 7
Spartak Tours AD
Vietnam Oman Investment Company
Advent International
National Investment Funds Company
Grand Angle Holding France SAS
Le Trema France Property S.A.R.L.
Bulco Acquisition AD

Past Directorships / Partnerships:

A very nice list of all the companies SGRF have obviously been investing in! This is not something you find in the business section of the incisive and hard hitting Times of Oman, or even on Google very easily.

Even though many of them are holding companies, I think you'll find some reward for random googling and cross-referencing of the companies above. Let us know what you find.

(There are also cloak and dagger reports of the SGRF trying to take part in a highly secret multi-billion leveraged hostile buy-out of Dow chemical, if you're interested in such things. Dodged a bullet when that one fell through, eh guys? You'd have been down a few billion there already!). And Bulgaria is apparently being looked at for further investment by Oman Oil Company in a huge fertaliser company investment.

Should young Omani's be busy learning Bulgarian, German and Serbo Croat?

Plus you can take a look at the partners bio too:

The newly re-appointed Exec Director, Mr Krumov, owns 3.17% of the company, and is a well connected Bulgarian businessman, who as it happens is also an equity partner with the Omani SGRF in another real estate business in Bulgaria:

SEE Capital Management SARL, which is owned as to 40% by Mr Krumov and 60% by SGRF, is involved, through its Bulgarian subsidiary, in providing management, consultancy and development services in relation to property projects in Bulgaria.

That must all get complicated, eh? Plus there are a slew of other companies, like Equest Capital Management Limited and Equest Property Management Limited, also involved in the development property market.

Its also curious how both of the 2 representatives on the board from the mysterious Kairos Investment fund, (representing a co-owner of 20.50% of Equest Investments Balkans Ltd and clearly takeover partners of the company along with Oman) are also directors of unusually named 'Foundations', probably for Corporate Charity work:

Mr Brera (aged 39) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:
Current Directorships / Partnerships:

Kairos investment Management SpA
Kairos investment Management Limited
Oliver Twist Foundation

Past Directorships / Partnerships:

Mr Azizjoined Kairos in January 2006 ...Previously Mr Aziz has specialised in Telecoms research and he held a number of senior research positions at securities houses in London and Karachi...
Mr Aziz (aged 43) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:

Current Directorships / Partnerships:
Little Lord Fauntleroy Foundation

Past Directorships / Partnerships:

Does anyone else not find that curious? What's going on with that?
Ahh, here... via the Italian site. Nice.

And who owns the 20%??? Remember these guys just represent "funds managed by Kairos"... In fact:

Kairos Asset Management is a boutique investment firm focusing on customized investment solutions for institutional and affluent investors.

The Kairos Vision
Kairos Asset Management, LLC was formed to provide individual and institutional clients with access to customized and unique investment solutions without the inherent conflicts of interest at traditional Wall Street firms and Commercial Banks.

At Kairos Asset Management, we maintain an independent perspective. We have invested in state of the art technology and research to enhance our client offering. Having spent several years managing one of the most successful teams at a global wirehouse firm, we believe there is a better way to serve clients and we seek to offer that solution.

Still, I wonder who the secret investor is?

The extra boring bit...
RNS Number : 8573N
Equest Investments Balkans Ltd
25 February 2009

Equest Investment Balkans Limited
(the "Company")
Appointment of Directors

Further to the announcement on 4 February 2009 that the Company's two largest shareholders, namely the State General Reserve Fund of the Sultanate of Oman ("SGRF") and Kairos Investment Management Limited ("Kairos"), had requested the appointment of representatives of SGRF and Kairos as directors of the Company, the board announces that today:
• Mr Warith Mubarik Al-Kharusi;
• Mr Faisal Amur Mohamed Al-Riyami;
• Mr Guido Maria Brera; and
• Mr Kalim Aziz
have each been appointed a Non-Executive Director of the Company and that:
• Mr Georgi Krumov
has been re-appointed an Executive Director of the Company.
SGRF currently holds 5,894,834 ordinary shares of no par value in the Company ("ordinary shares") (representing 32.27% of the issued share capital of the Company) and funds managed by Kairos own 3,743,866 ordinary shares in the Company (representing 20.50% of the issued share capital of the Company). SGRF and Kairos together control 52.77% of the issued share capital of the Company.

Equest Investments Balkans Limited
Tel: + 44 20 7240 7600
Petri Karjalainen
Naomi Kora
Financial Dynamics
Tel: + 44 20 7831 3113
Nick Henderson
David Cranmer
Collins Stewart Europe Limited (Nomad)
Tel: +44 20 7523 8350
Hugh Field KBC Peel Hunt Limited (Broker)
Tel: + 44 20 7418 8900
Capel Irwin
Disclosures under AIM Rules

Mr Al Kharusi
Mr Al-Kharusi, a resident of Oman, joined the SGRF in 1985 as the Director General and is now the Chief Executive Officer of the SGRF. He holds a Diploma in Business Administration.
Mr Al-Kharusi (aged 55) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:
Current Directorships / Partnerships:

Eagle Properties (L.P.) No.3
Eagle Properties (L.P.) No.4
Eagle Properties (L.P.) No.6
The European Acquisition Company S.a.r.l.
The European Acquisition Company 2 S.a.r.l.
Bulgarian Acquisition Company VI S.a.r.l.
Wopac No.1 Limited
Palm Properties
Sprint (GP) Limited
Normandy (GP) Limited
SEE Capital Sarl
Eagle Properties 7
Spartak Tours AD
Vietnam Oman Investment Company
Advent International
National Investment Funds Company
Grand Angle Holding France SAS
Le Trema France Property S.A.R.L.
Bulco Acquisition AD

Past Directorships / Partnerships:

Mr Al-Riyami
Mr Al-Riyami, a resident of Oman, joined the SGRF in June 2007 as the Section Head of Direct Investments of the SGRF.
Mr Al-Riyami was previously the Finance Director of Railtech Solutions Limited ("Railtech Solutions") (see further below), a company located in Portsmouth in the UK specializing in IT software for principally road and rail networks in the transportation sector (2005 to 2007), Financial Controller of Nawras Telecom (2004 to 2005) and an Internal Auditor at Bank Muscat (1999 to 2004).
Mr Al-Riyami holds an MBA (Finance) from the University of Leicester and is a member of the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute and the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association.
Mr Al-Riyami is a director of Borovets Invest EAD, which is a joint venture between a subsidiary of the Company and the SGRF.
As noted above, Mr Al-Riyami was appointed the Finance Director of Railtech Solutions (a company incorporated in England & Wales with registered number 03973036) on 1 November 2005. At the time of his appointment, Railtech Solutions was in financial difficulties and Mr Al-Riyami joined in that knowledge and with the express intent of trying to restructure and turn around Railtech Solutions. He resigned as a director of Railtech Solutions on 6 March 2007. On 29 March 2007 joint administrators were appointed to Railtech Solutions, under the floating charge, under Paragraph 49 of Schedule B1 to the Insolvency Act 1986. The winding up of Railtech Solutions commenced in June 2008 and Railtech Solutions was dissolved in January 2009. The secured creditor was paid in full and the shortfall for unsecured creditors was approximately £1 million.

Mr Al-Riyami (aged 32) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:

Current Directorships / Partnerships:
SEE Capital Management Sarl
Spartak Tours AD
Borovets Invest EAD

Past Directorships / Partnerships:
Railtech Solutions Limited

Mr Brera
Mr Brera, who is Italian, is a co-founder of Kairos. He graduated from Universita La Sapienza, Rome and qualified as a Dottore Commercialista (the equivalent of a chartered accountant) in 1993. In 1994, he joined Fineco SIM, concentrating on relative value trades, calendar spreads, stock index futures arbitrages and the establishment of structured products for institutional clients. In 1996, he joined Cisalpina Gestioni as manager of the Cisalpina Bilanciato and Cisalpina Indice funds. In 1997, he joined Giubergia Warburg as director, Head of Proprietary Trading, leaving to establish Kairos in early 1999. Mr Brera has been co-manager of Kairos Fund Limited since its inception in June 1999.
Mr Brera (aged 39) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:
Current Directorships / Partnerships:

Kairos investment Management SpA
Kairos investment Management Limited
Oliver Twist Foundation

Past Directorships / Partnerships:

Mr Aziz
Mr Aziz joined Kairos in January 2006 and is the co-fund manager of the Kairos Eurasian Fund with Guido Brera and is the primary analyst at Kairos for stocks in the Eurasian markets. Before joining Kairos, he was Head of Equity research for the EMEA Region at UniCredit Banca Mobiliare in London (2004 to December 2005). Previously Mr Aziz has specialised in Telecoms research and he held a number of senior research positions at securities houses in London and Karachi. Mr Aziz holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Karachi.
Mr Aziz (aged 43) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:
Current Directorships / Partnerships:
Little Lord Fauntleroy Foundation

Past Directorships / Partnerships:

Mr Krumov
Mr Krumov was previously appointed an executive director of the Company on 23 June 2008 and resigned on 7 November 2008.
Mr. Krumov has more than thirteen years of experience in executive positions in multinational companies operating in Bulgaria and the region such as Cable & Wireless (UK), Burmah Castrol (UK) and British Petroleum (UK). Mr. Krumov is an owner of a diversified group of companies operating in Bulgaria, one of which is Electron Progress AD, one of the country's largest suppliers in the defence communication sector.
Mr. Krumov, together with Mr. Kari Haataja and Mr. Petri Karjalainen (who are also directors of the Company) are the owners of Equest Capital Management Limited. Prior to the reorganisation of the management structure of the Company earlier in 2009, the Company had delegated the day-to-day management of its investment portfolio to Equest Capital Management Limited, which acted as the Investment Manager to the Company.
Mr. Krumov previously owned an indirect interest in 20 per cent. of the issued share capital of Avto Union AD (which is a subsidiary of the Company).
Mr Krumov (aged 46) holds or has held the following directorships, and is or was a member of the following partnerships during the past five years:
Current Directorships / Partnerships:

Avanti Capital EAD
Avto Union AD
Axes Europe OOD
Boyana Residence OOD
Burma Oil TP
Companies Management International Centre AD
Equest Capital Management Limited
Equest Property Management Limited
Gransport Auto EOOD
IQuest EAD
Mejdunaroden Tzentar Po Firmeno Upravlenie AD
National Board of Tourism Association
Novera AD
Rila-Samokov 2004 AD
SEE Capital Management AD
SEE Capital Management Sarl
Spartak Turs AD
Uniqa Health Insurance AD
UNIQA Insurance Company AD
Nigo 62 SD
VIP International Services OOD

Past Directorships / Partnerships:
Atia Holidays EAD
Banya Holiday AD
Bellevue Property Management EAD
Borovets Investments EAD
Castrol Italiana
Cherno more- Belvue OOD
Equest EAD
Electron Progress AD
EPM Holding EAD
Equest Investment Balkans Limited
Equest Partners Limited
Hastings EOOD
Insurance Company Vitosha AD
Lexington EAD
Star Motors EOOD
Strategicle defencive systems AD
Union Properties EAD

Mr. Krumov has a beneficial interest in 579,517 ordinary shares in the Company (representing 3.17% of the issued share capital) and 188,308 warrants in the Company.
SEE Capital Management SARL, which is owned as to 40% by Mr Krumov and 60% by SGRF, is involved, through its Bulgarian subsidiary, in providing management, consultancy and development services in relation to property projects in Bulgaria.
There are no further disclosures required under paragraph (g) of Schedule Two of the AIM Rules for Companies in respect of Mr Al-Kharusi, Mr Al-Riyami, Mr Brera, Mr Aziz and Mr Krumov.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Oman State General Reserve Fund in Bulgarian rubbish stand-off

From Mad Dogs and Englishmen in the noon sun to classic trash journalism!

A little, itty bitty article in the Bulgarian news - about the rubbish piling up in their streets - revealed part of the investment strategy of the somewhat secretive Omani State General Reserve Fund today.

At News.bg you will find the latest articles, news, interviews and comments from today's Bulgarian press, and this tale caught my avatar's attention

(well, in addition to the story about the Bulgarian Playboy model who's also in the press and little else):

Photo: Julia Lazarova

As quoted from the popular Trug newspaper, HM gets a mention:

The Trud daily

"Sofia terminated the concession for waste collection", "Trud" writes in its main feature "the Topic". Sofia municipal council decided yesterday to terminate unilaterally and prematurely the contract with the firm "Novera" for the cleaning of 19 regions of the city beginning April 1 2009. The motive is criminal non-performance on the part of the concessioner. The offer by mayor Boyko Borissov was unanimously supported by the advisors of all political groups at an emergency session of the municipal council. In its front material "Trud" points out that the sultan of Oman Qaboos ibn Sa'id controls the Sofia waste, because in January the owner of "Novera" (the British fund "Inquest Investment Balkans") changed its owner. Now the major investor in it is the sultan of Oman.

Its true folks!

Well, sort of true. Its a bit of a shaggy dog tale this one...

The publicly listed British Company Equest Investments Balkans Limited, was floated a while ago to invest in the Balkans, and especially Bulgaria and other east European areas. It was tipped by some investment Einstein - at the peak of market exuberance last year - to be heading for a doubling of its share price to more than 25 pounds , according broker KBC Peel Hunt who valued the shares at a whopping 2628p – significantly above the then current price of 1032.5p (floated at 300p).

It seems the Omani State General Reserve Fund [aka the SGRF] were then already partners with Equest in a massive ski development scheme called Borovets. Check it out.

Borovets - a 600 million Euro Ski village development in the Bulgarian mountains.

The SGRF also recently bought a big piece of a Bulgarian Commercial Bank, coincidentally.

Meanwhile, in a venture I believe unconnected at the time to their relationship with Oman's SGRF, Equest Investments Balkans Limited went off and bought up the 3 main rubbish collection agencies in Sophia (the capital of Bulgaria), and under the company name Novera won a concession to get the contract for collecting the trash.

That magic EIB "growth stock" tanked in October as their leveraged real estate and Balkan-growth dependent investment strategy went down the gurgler. It went down more than 80%, from 1071p to under just 210p. What a stock tip!

BUT! In late December last year, probably in exchange for around 20 million euro, Oman's SGRF stepped in after the plunge in stock price and became the majority shareholder, with over 30% [32.27% actually] of the company. They placed Mr Warith Mubarik Al-Kharusi (head of the SGRF) and Mr Faisal Amur Mohamed Al-Riyami (young UK trained beancounter) on the board in January.

Just at the time the Omani fund moved in, funnily enough, a couple of likely lads from the Kairos Eurasian Fund (co-founder of the fund Mr Guido Maria Brera and a Mr Kalim Aziz) also jumped in and bought 20.50% (and possibly at a good price too it would seem, from the timing in the company filings and the shareprice graph). The Kairos Eurasian Fund, together with SGRF, thus control the company, and with the Exec Director they reinstated (a Mr. Krumov), have a majority of positions on the board (5/9).

So, it was by this round-about route that 'His Majesty' was tagged by the Bulgarian 4th Estate as now personally owning Sophia's rubbish, as the Omani State General Reserve Fund (with their partners) now control EIB, who happen to own Novera the trash company, who a couple of days ago stopped collecting the rubbish in Sophia (claiming non-payment by the city). As the trash piled up and started to stink, the Major said they'd been paid, that he wouldn't be blackmailed, and called a special meeting of the council to cancel the concession, effective in April. As Novera own all the trucks and employ all the workers, it'll be interesting to see how that goes. I can sense a phone call to Bulgaria's Ambassador proving useful.

And don't forget it's quite common for the press to link His Majesty to investments actually made by the Omani Sovereign Investment fund as if HM owned them personally, something which I don't believe is true at all (although HM obviously ultimately controls the SGRF 100%). But I guess it sells more papers and is far more interesting to report that way.

(This post is getting a bit long. In Part 2... what this actually means for the SGRF, and why this story is really interesting, soon)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Muscat Municipality introduces blanket bans on dogs, other animals in public areas

In a rather strange announcement earlier this year, Muscat Municipality banned all accompanied animals from being in public places, except between the hours of 10am - 3pm!

Yes, yet another idiotic attempt to solve a small problem with a ill-considered blanket ban rule that punishes everyone needlessly and fails to actually solve the problem. I wonder which civil servant half-wit thought this one up?

The ruling, published in mid-January, had escaped my notice - probably because I don't have a dog. But it would seem to put an end to evening strolls with your dog. Early morning horseback-rides (or camel rides?) on the beach must now be considered to be illegal too.

Now, there was a couple of real problems that arguably did need addressing - selfish and inconsiderate dog owners who would let their animals run around off the leash on public beaches (especially problematic at Intercon beach), and dog owners who leave their dog shit all over the place instead of picking it up.

Many people (me included) don't like strange dogs running around uncontrolled in public places, and most Muslims certainly do not like touching dogs as they are considered unclean*. And no-one of course likes seeing dog shit everywhere, especially on beaches or in parks.

But this stupid law doesn't address at all those real problems (uncontrolled dogs, dog shit). What is does do is:
- stop decent dog owners who do keep their dog on a leash from exercising them in the morning or evening,
- bans all animals from all public spaces except 10-3, thus banning morning horse rides on the beach (probably inadvertently)
- fail to address the issue of dog shit.
- fail to address the issue of keeping dogs controlled in public.

Leash/clean-up laws, especially on beaches, are common practice throughout the world. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the best way to deal with unleashed dogs and dog-shit:

Does anyone with a brain in Muscat Municipality actually think about their by-laws, how they would work, effectiveness, etc etc? This one is up there with the sign banning football on Intercon beach (really), and the sign warning people not to swim after a few youngsters (who couldn't swim) drowned on the beach near Crown Plaza.

The Oman Women's Guild are actually putting together a petition to have the walkies restriction law changed. Good luck ladies. These are the sort of laws that just make things worse, by creating a law that will be ignored.

February 28th 2009

We all feel very frustrated and disappointed at the new ruling enforcing all animal owners to only be allowed to walk their animals between the hours of 10am and 3pm. It is a breach of personal choice and freedom and an infringement on human and animal rights.

We cannot be expected to walk our animals at these hours because of 3 fundamental reasons:
1) It is far too hot to walk during these hours, with or without a pet, particularly in the summer
2) People should have the freedom to walk their animals whenever they wish to
3) The majority of people with animals work, so people are in the office during these hours

However, if a rule needs to be imposed, then make a rule that animals must be on a lead whilst being walked, and owners must clean up after their animals.

Signed by:....

If you want to put your name on the petition, the places to go are here:

Please read the attachment Pet Notice for the back ground to the following request

We want to collect as many signatures as possible on a petition to be handed to the authorities on Tuesday 10th March. WG members will be at various points on Saturday and Sunday as follows, please go along and add your signature to the Petition. The more we have the better; you don't have to be a pet owner to sign.

There is some urgency to this matter as the notice was first published on 17th January 2009. By Law we have a 2 month period to make an appeal, and we have only till 17th March to voice our concerns. Time is running out . . .

Signature collection points:
Starbucks Coffee
Jawharat Al Shatti
7th March
Saturday morning
10am – 11.30am

Costa Coffee
8th March
Sunday morning
10am – 12noon

Costa Coffee
City centre (Seeb)
8th March
Sunday afternoon
4pm – 5pm

Starbucks Coffee
8th March
Sunday Afternoon
4pm – 6pm

* Muslims and dogs
I'm no expert on this, but it's generally accepted that in Islam dogs are unclean animals, and special washing rituals are required after a Muslim has come in contact with a dog. However, I know several muslim Omani who happily own dogs. Some muslim dog-fanciers also say that while a strange dog is unclean, once you have 'cleansed' your own dog it's then OK to touch it without special worries.

It would seem the main injunction is to wash before praying after coming in contact with a dog's saliva or moisture - see for example Islamic Concern: dogs, and Islam Online.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reports that Indian Intelligence performed 'Special Rendition' of terrorist suspect from Muscat

Breaking News: It's being reported today that the Indian equivilent of the CIA, the Research and Analysis Wing [RAW], performed an extraordinary rendition from Muscat of a suspect behind the Bangalore bombings. [thanks for the tip-off, 'People of India']

Rediff.com news
RAW nabs Bangalore blasts suspect in top-secret mission

Vicky Nanjappa in Bangalore | March 04, 2009 00:25 IST

In a top secret mission, a team of the Research and Analysis Wing tracked down an absconding accused in the Bangalore serial blasts case in Muscat, and sneaked him out of Oman, since India doesn't have an extradition treaty with that country.

Sarfaraz Nawaz, 32, who allegedly played a major role in financing the Bangalore blasts, had sought refuge in Muscat.

Investigating officials told rediff.com that a RAW team managed to track down Nawaz in Muscat. They added that Nawaz was 'smuggled into' Bangalore on a chartered aircraft.

The entire operation was so secretive that even the Air Traffic Control was taken aback when they received a message to help the chartered aircraft land at the Bengaluru [Images] International Airport.

After landing at the airport, officials of the RAW and the Intelligence Bureau called top Central Industrial Security Force officials and directed them to escort the passengers in the aircraft.

The officials handed over Nawaz to the Bangalore police, who are currently questioning him.

Abdul Sattar, the prime accused in the case, had revealed Nawaz's role in the serial blasts during his interrogation.

Nawaz was reportedly close to Riyaz Bhatkal, a key Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative, who later took over the charge of the Indian Mujahideen.

With Nawaz's arrest, the Bangalore police are hopeful of tracking down the remaining suspects, who might have fled the country after the Bangalore blasts.

Naturally, such a mission would involve cooperation from Oman's Internal Security and Military Intelligence.

Well done team! Mr. Nawaz will now be 'assisting with inquiries'.

Background on RAW.
Wikipedia: Research and Analysis Wing
Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW)[1] is India's external intelligence agency. Formed in September 1968 after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, its primary function is collection of external intelligence, counter-terrorism and covert operations. In addition, it is also responsible for obtaining and analyzing information about foreign governments, corporations, and persons in order to advise Indian foreign policymakers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Maids in Oman - whats the deal?

Recent comments have discussed the plight of housemaids in Oman. What do you pay your maid and for what hours?

The Dragon has several staff, but my main housemaid (who is from the subcontinent) works about 45 hrs a week. I gave her a 7% payrise this year, and she now earns 160 rials (about US$400) a month, plus free accomodation in her own room (with ensuite and independent access), holds her own passport, gets 4 weeks leave and flights home every year. If she works extra I will pay her overtime too. She got a Christmas bonus of have a month's salary.

This, I admit, is generous by Omani standards. I believe minimum wage for an Indian housemaid is supposed to be 75 rials/month (Indian because its based on a recent MOU between the Omani and Indian Governments), and possibly this could be further discounted to account for accomodation and food costs. Statutory minimum leave is 1 month every 2 years plus flights, and they should have 24hrs off every week.

From what I hear, it does seem that many maids working for Omani or Indian families work very long hours (6am - 10pm), 7 days a week, for about 60 rials a month. Many of the young Indonesian girls seem very sad and look tired bone-weary. These girls often sent by their families to send money home and are in debt to the parasitic agents who charge around $2000 to get them the job out here. They probably didn't expect to work 80+ hours a week.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure many Omani - especially what I'd describe as 'middle class' Omanis - treat their maids and houseboys very well and pay more than 60 rials for more usual hours. But many 'working class' Omani seem to often be more exploitative, with the hearsay reports of low pay, long hours, passports kept, and occasional abusive treatment.

Is having a maid exploitative? Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, there are vast numbers of unskilled, unemployed people in East Asia and the sub-continent, and conditions and wages for those employed in manual labour are really low. Its non-sensical to suggest that it would be better to not employ them at all here and thus sentence them to scrape a living in abject poverty.

The average wage in Sri Lanka for a textile worker, for example, is around $50 a month, although that is assuming they can find such work, as that is apparently seen as high compared to the $25/month in competing rag-trade countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia.

By employing my maid I indirectly support a whole extended family back in her home country, and provide enough money for her to save for a retirement in relative comfort. Kids get education and food. She is able to own a house and land.

Plus it means I can live a much better life, spending time doing nicer things than domestic chores. Being able to afford a maid is one of the reasons many expats like it here.

It's unfortunate too that European minimum wage and other restrictive laws means that few europeans have domestic staff (even though they would love to have one), and lots of workers who would willingly work as a maid can't do so.

So, what are readers paying their maids and for how many hours? (Facts please - lets try and minimise the expat/Oman baiting, shall we?)

And if anyone from the embassies can shed light on numbers of maids employed vs those who ascond, cases of abuse, etc etc, it would be great.

Oman makes their first human trafficking arrest?

Reports from the Gulf News today that Oman has made its first arrest for Human Trafficking. Nothing in the Omani papers I could see, which is not at all surprising.

Anyone know any details of the arrest?

Photo: ROP Coastguard vessel on the lookout for people smugglers

It will certainly help to get Oman back onto Tier 2 proper in the US State Dept. report on human trafficking due later this year. One of the main criticisms of the report last year was the way Oman's efforts against trafficking were all talk and no action.

Note the way the Gulf News put words in his mouth: "Without referring to recent criticism on Omani Blogs about ROP not making public news about crime, he said that the police in Oman does publish news about cases where accused have been convicted.

Despite those assurances however, there is almost no reporting of crime in Oman. This is not really the fault of the ROP, it's the fault of the newspapers. The Times of Oman could easily send a reporter to cover the cases in the criminal courts (which are open to the public) and print anything newsworthy. Even the Gulf News regularly prints details of arrests and trials.

Plus, I'd like to see publication of details of those convicted of traffic offences!

First human trafficking case in Oman: police chief
Gulf News, Staff Report
Published: March 02, 2009, 13:03

Muscat: The police chief in Oman has announced that the first case of human trafficking has been referred to the courts and assured that the guilty will be punished.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony of the 4th batch of Public Prosecution Department attorneys, Lt-Gen. Malik Bin Suleiman Al Maamari, Inspector-General of Police and Customs stressed that Oman does not hide anything and was keen on maintaining its good record based on the rule of law and justice, according to a report by the Oman News Agency (ONA).

However, the top police officer neither elaborated nor announced any further details of the human trafficking case that is to be heard by the courts here.
He reiterated that Oman was keen to maintain transparency in all its dealings. “We also monitor international law violations and time to time notify Interpol about them,” he said.

Without referring to recent criticism on Omani Blogs about ROP not making public news about crime, he said that the police in Oman does publish news about cases where accused have been convicted.

He stressed that there was no organised crime in Oman but said that police had recently arrested people involved in cyber-crimes. “Those held will be tried for these cyber crimes,” he added.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

2008 Human Rights Report and Oman decides it needs expat

Yes, yes, I've been busy. So sue me for a refund.
(And the ever deepening global depression is just too depressing to comment on right now).

Stories today: US State Dept issues its latest report on global Human Rights, and the Ministry of Labour has un-banned new expat visas for several professions just a few months after banning them for expats in the first place. Surprises!

Here's Oman's 2008 Human Rights report card as written by Essa's favorite the US Dept. of State. I think it's pretty accurate, if a bit generic and overly generalised.

(There's a highly edited version of the reports interesting highlights at the end. The internet freedom part is left in full, FYI.)

Good news: (as far as the US State know, which is a lot), in 2008 there were:
- no reports that the [Omani] government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
- no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
- the law prohibits (Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), and there were no reports that government officials employed them.
- no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
- [although] the law does not require police to obtain search warrants before entering homes, the police often obtained warrants to do so anyhow.

Plus, it passed a comprehensive law to combat trafficking in persons.
and established an independent human rights commission with membership from both the public and private sectors. And is keeping a firm watch on the immams.

On the downside:
- The government monitored private communications, including mobile phones, e-mail, and Internet chat room exchanges. [UD: OH, MY, GOD!]
- The authorities tolerated a limited degree of criticism of policies, government officials, and agencies, particularly via the Internet; however, such criticism rarely appeared in traditional mass media. [UD: OH, MY, GOD, AGAIN!]

Perhaps that's the self censorship. But a striking thing is the extent to which self censorship is evident in many spheres, not just publishing. Sometimes for the good, undoubtedly, but the overall image the report portrays of intellectual sterility, at least in public, should be of worry (ie: no books published, academics forced by threat to keep quiet (thats one of the good ones, unfortunately), critical reporters not published, media censorship, etc. (Its a good job the overall quality of public debate is apparently not considered an affront to some sort of inalienable human need, or we would suffer somewhat, including some of my occasional comments' readers of late).

Meanwhile, its heartening to know the Omani Government can change its mind, and do it in public too. Reported today in the always insightful and hard-hitting Times of Oman, its now OK (again) to hire new expat mechanics to repair cars (which I can understand), and to sell retail clothes (which I can't).


Ban on eight professions for expatriates lifted
Times News Service
Sunday, March 01, 2009

MUSCAT — The Ministry of Manpower has lifted the restrictions in place on a number of professions effective from this month. Sayyid Hamad bin Hilal Al Busaidi, undersecretary for labour affairs in the ministry, said the government, after intensive studies, had decided to grant permission for the recruitment of expatriates in eight professions out of the 15 banned last year.
The eight professions covered by the lifting of ban comprise car repair and affiliated works, hair-dressing and beautification, sale of carpets and furniture, sale of readymade garments and textiles, gents and ladies tailoring, carpentry workshops, smithy and aluminium works.

The ban will continue on the other seven professions, including import, export and commercial representation; cleaning works, barbershops, laundry, sale and repair of electronics and sale and repair of mobile phones, and health clubs,
said Sayyid Hamad, adding that the revision of earlier decision conforms to the actual needs of the community, particularly in the densely populated areas.

What??? But, but, what about all those 1000s of new Omani carpenters trained over the past few years, at great Government expense? And what's with a reversal on 'beautification or readymade garments'???

Ahhh, I know, all the Omani carpenters must all be off fixing mobile phones and working out in the gym as fitness instructors.

Photo: A newly re-designated critical skill in Oman: retail. Its a brutal world folks, and another 40000 female high school graduates have been saved from a life of occasional till ringing and mobile phone talking.

Here's the Human Rights report.
2008 Human Rights Report: Oman
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2009

The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy with a population of approximately 3.3 million, including approximately 900,000 nonnationals, ruled by Sultan Qaboos Al Bu Sa'id since 1970. Only the sultan can amend the country's laws through royal decree. The 84-member Majlis as-Shura (Consultative Council) is a representative advisory institution that can review legislation. In October 2007 approximately 245,000 registered voters participated in generally free and fair elections for all of the council's seats. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

Citizens did not have the right to change their government. The government restricted freedoms of privacy, speech, press, assembly, association, and religion. Discrimination and domestic violence persisted for women. There was a lack of sufficient legal protection and enforcement to secure the rights of migrant workers. There were reports that expatriate laborers, particularly domestic workers, were placed in situations amounting to forced labor and that some suffered abuse.

On November 16, the government established an independent human rights commission with membership from both the public and private sectors. On November 24, it also passed a comprehensive law to combat trafficking in persons.

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. The law prohibits (Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), and there were no reports that government officials employed them.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
The law does not require police to obtain search warrants before entering homes, although the police often obtained warrants from the public prosecutor's office. The government monitored private communications, including mobile phones, e-mail, and Internet chat room exchanges.
Various media companies reportedly refused to publish articles by journalists who previously criticized the government; however, unlike in 2007, there were no reports that the government maintained an alleged blacklist of journalists and writers whose work is not to be published in the country. The authorities tolerated a limited degree of criticism of policies, government officials, and agencies, particularly via the Internet; however, such criticism rarely appeared in traditional mass media.

The government continued to use libel laws and concerns for national security as grounds to suppress criticism of government figures and politically objectionable views.

There were no major publishing houses in the country and very little publication of books. The government restricted the importation, distribution, and publication of books as it restricted other media.

Internet Freedom
The law restricted free speech via the Internet, and the government enforced the restrictions. The government's national telecommunications company made Internet access available for a fee to citizens and foreign residents. Despite infrastructure increases, less than 5 percent of the population had subscription Internet access during the year; however, Internet access was widely available via Internet cafes in urban areas.

The government's telecommunications company restricted access to numerous Web sites considered pornographic, culturally or politically sensitive, or competitive with local telecommunications services. The criteria for blocking Internet sites were not transparent. The government placed warnings on other Web sites that criticism of the sultan or personal criticism of government officials would be censored and could lead to police questioning, which increased self-censorship. The government also monitored Internet communications and reportedly questioned some chat room contributors who were critical of government officials or policies, or whose postings precipitated criticism, after tracking the contributors through their Internet service provider addresses.

The country's former most popular chat room site, al-Sablah al-Omania, remained closed at year's end. In January 2007 police arrested the site's founder and 10 of his associates for publishing comments critical of government officials. After a four-month trial, a court of first instance acquitted the founder and three codefendants on charges of slander but fined the six other defendants and sentenced one defendant to one month in jail. Although several sites served as replacements for al-Sablah, all were rigorously cautious concerning content, and moderators reportedly quickly deleted potentially offensive material.


The government restricted academic freedom, particularly publishing or discussing controversial matters such as domestic politics, through the threat of dismissal. As a result, academics generally practiced self-censorship. There were no reported cases during the year in which the government dismissed an academic on these grounds.
The government restricted NGO activity. There were no registered domestic human rights NGOs or fully autonomous human rights groups in the country. On November 16, the government established a human rights commission to protect and report on human rights via the State Council to the sultan.
The government allowed several international organizations to work in the country without interference, including the UN Children's Fund, the World Health Organization, and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
According to a 2006 report by the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation (FGM) occurred in rural areas to a limited extent. There is no law prohibiting FGM, but the Ministry of Health prohibited doctors from performing the procedure in hospitals. The problem remained sensitive and was not discussed publicly. Planners at the Ministry of Health have not taken action to eliminate FGM.
There were no public reports of violence against children; however, FGM allegedly was performed on some girls ages one to nine.
There were no reports of discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.
Child labor did not exist in any formal industry.
The minimum wage for citizens of 140 rials (approximately $364) per month did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. ...There is no minimum wage for foreign workers. There were reports that migrant laborers in some firms and households worked more than 12-hour days for as little as 30 rials ($78) per month. The MOM effectively enforced the minimum wage for citizens.
The penal code criminalizes homosexuality, with a jail term of six months to three years; however, there were no reports of prosecutions for homosexual conduct during the year.


Observant readers will pleased to note that frequent commentator Mr T was apparently not successfully prosecuted last year...

This view on things seemed appropriate...