Muscat: Oman has had to take tough decisions to overcome the challenges of developing the country’s non-oil future for the benefit of everyone, according to the Sultanate’s Minister of Commerce and Industry Dr Ali bin Masoud Al Sunaidy.
Speaking at the conference of the Union of Arab Chambers, Al Sunaidy said, “Changing the relationship between Omani petrol and global prices increased demand for M91 petrol by 40 per cent and decreased the demand for M95 petrol by 20 per cent. Putting a strain on people’s pockets changed their behaviour. It increased the number of passengers on Mwasalat buses to six million passengers per year, up from 200,000-300,000 passengers per year.”
“People have started using cars less, and they use fewer six-cylinder cars,” he added, “Why did people start taking buses? Why did they use ferries? Why is the national transportation company successful now? Because of the change in the ratio between the price of local fuel and the price of global fuel.”
“These decisions would not have worked well, if not for the private sector shouldering these pains, and the consumers understanding and cooperating and dealing with these tough decisions,” said Al Sunaidy.
“If not for the consumers’ cooperation in dealing with these difficult decisions, which we had little choice in, we would not have succeeded.”
Al Sunaidy also touched upon the plans under the Tanfeedh programme for economic diversification, which looked to increase revenue from non-oil sources of income such as tourism, agriculture and fisheries, manufacturing, and transport and logistics. Energy is another sector under Tanfeeedh, and was used as an example by the minister to stress on better public-private partnerships.
“I think the private sector will need to wrestle with this model as a reality, since it is an irreversible decision,” he admitted. “We were able to see factories that now work in the evenings and using that energy that wouldn’t be tapped into normally. This led to an expansion into solar energy, which will only become a viable substitute if we look at rates reflected on the product. We have privatised electricity to a great extent.”
“Today, if we wanted to finance a US$400 million electricity plant, the government pays nothing, but rather places the project for the private sector to compete with each other in terms of the best price divided by the energy cost,” added Al Sunaidy.
“After this step, we went further with rates reflected on the product, which is a necessary evil because it raises the cost of production but allows us to avoid inefficient power.”
“Factory owners are not happy with our decision but it leads to buying the energy for the correct cost of a kilowatt/hour of power at that time of the day,” he revealed. “If you have a substitute for power at that time, you are welcome to use it. This is the most unified solution for us to use resources more efficiently.”
Al Sunaidy added that future generations of jobseekers across Oman and the rest of the GCC countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – would need to learn how to use their skills to the best of their capabilities, in order to enhance their talents. He also stressed that although the government was doing a lot to help young nationals, true teaching began at home, with parents teaching their young ones the life lessons they would need to succeed in the future.
“In Oman, we have formed a team with the World Economic Forum and four countries that are a part of it, and we call on other countries here to seriously consider being a part of this project,” he said.
“We are currently thinking about the skills that people need in the future market, skills that we thought would be taught in universities and training centres. However, it has become clear that these skills begin two years after a child is born, and remain with him or her until after retirement, and so it isn’t about universities. If the institutions, factories, and companies don’t acknowledge publicly and on a governmental level the value of re-training workers to bring them to new jobs, then all of those people will go to the private sector, which will be forced to take them although there is no work for them, leading to masked unemployment, or they will go to the government sector, which will start imposing taxes in order to be able to hire them for the sake of avoiding leaving these people without jobs.”
“These people will only be able to be retained if there are agreements between the public sector and the private sector, which is the first beneficiary of such laws,” added Al Sunaidy. “If I am the government, then I place the responsibility on the private company by saying, ‘you have 500 workers, you cannot fire any of them’. If I am the other side, I say ‘this is your responsibility, since we have hired them for specific jobs that have now closed’. This method of dealing with the issue can lead to challenges, and so we must start with a shared responsibility.”
Shashwar Al Balushi, the head of the Tanfeedh Labour Labs, added that locals needed to be more flexible and open minded towards modifying their jobs to suit the needs of the workforce, because that would lead to long-term sustainability and success in their careers.
“Expats have an advantage because they are more open to multi-tasking or shifting to new tasks,” he explained. “For example, if I have a construction company with five workers who do plastering and I automate the process, I will need only two workers for plastering but will also be able to expand into another aspect with the three remaining employees. It is then dependent on the company to be able to retrain its employees, and expats are more likely to accept the new position and change their work.”
“But Omanis are more likely to say no because they are used to one specific job and don’t want to be retrained in a new area, even if they need it to do their old work better than earlier.”