Openness to, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Oman actively seeks foreign investment and is in the process of improving the framework to encourage such investments. Oman promotes higher education, manufacturing, healthcare, aquaculture, renewable energy, ICT, and tourism as areas for investment. Investors transferring technology, developing management expertise, and providing training for Omanis are particularly welcome. The Public Authority for Investment Promotion and Export Development (PAIPED, formerly OCIPED) is tasked with attracting foreign investors and smoothing the path for business formation and private sector development. PAIPED also provides prospective foreign investors with information on government regulations, which are not always transparent and sometimes inconsistent. Although the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) has established a ‘One-Stop Shop’ for government clearances, the approval process for establishing a business can be slow, particularly with respect to labor requirements for expatriate labor. In 2011, Oman experienced nationwide protests associated with the “Arab Spring,” which many observers attributed to youth demands for greater economic opportunity and transparency. With more than 50 percent of the 2.9m population under 20, there is a national imperative to address the disparity between limited employment opportunities and the demographic “youth bulge”. The Government of Oman (GoO) responded swiftly, decreeing the creation of 50,000 new jobs annually, the majority in the public defense and security sector, and raising the private sector minimum wage to RO 200 (US$520) per month. The minimum wage does not apply to third country nationals, and there were reports of companies switching to contract employment of foreigners to avoid mandates associated with Omani citizens. According to the Public Authority for Social Insurance, at the end of October 2012 percent83 percent of the private sector workforce earned less than RO 400 (US$ 1040) per month, and 40 percent earned below the minimum wage. By the end of 2011, there was approximately a2 percent drop in the private sector workforce as Omani citizens opted for the newly created positions in the public sector, which are perceived as being more secure and comfortable and offer higher average wages. (In 2010, for example, the average private sector worker grossed US$4,692 while the public sector counterpart earned US$19,812.)
Advantages of investing in Oman include:
In response to protester demands, the GoO also managed to finance significant increases in social subsidies (scholarships, wage supports, housing allowances,) thanks to prevailing high oil prices, averaging US$102 per barrel in 2011, and still enjoy a budget surplus of US$2.2bn at the end of 2011. In 2012, the GoO announced a US$26bn budget (a 9percent increase in spending) with robust increases in education, health, public employment, and social spending. The 2013 budget follows this trend, with a 16 percent increase in social security and welfare payments, paired with a 16 percent increase for education, 32 percent increase for health, and 45 percent increase for housing. The budgeted oil reference price in 2011 was US$75 (up from the previous US$58 reference price), increased again to US$85 for the 2013 budget, but if current global trends continue to keep oil close to US$100 per barrel the GoO should have no problem paying for the new benefits and maintaining a budget surplus.
With the implementation of the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on January 1, 2009, U.S. firms may establish and fully own a business in Oman without a local partner. U.S.-Oman FTA commitments have increased opportunities for U.S. financial service providers, as well as cross-border service providers in the areas of communications, express delivery, computer-related technologies, health care, and distribution, among others. Other (i.e., non-U.S.) majority foreign-owned entrants are barred from most professional service areas, including engineering, architecture, law, and accountancy. There are some exceptions for international consultancies, though requirements are strict. For example, engineering consultancies must be 35 percent owned by an Omani who is currently practicing in the specialized field with a relevant degree and the foreign partner is required to possess a minimum of ten years’ experience in the field before MOCI will approve a license. Although U.S. investors are provided national treatment in most sectors, Oman has an exception in the FTA for legal services, limiting U.S.-ownership in a legal services firm to no more than 70 percent. In addition, Oman has limited foreign lawyers to practicing in appeals courts, with the goal of phasing them out entirely in the court system; many expatriates continue to work as corporate lawyers and advisors however, and arbitration is widely used. In 2011, Oman also began to enforce a new directive limiting customs clearing and forwarding activities to Omani and GCC citizens. Oman has not historically had a provision in its commercial legal framework for the establishment of a foreign-owned branch except for the purpose of responding to a government tender; discussions on how to register American branches outside of the widely used LLC format are ongoing.
The Foreign Capital Investment Law (Royal Decree No. 102/94) provides the legal framework for non-U.S. and non-GCC foreign investors. Oman amended this law in 2000 as part of its WTO accession and in 2009 to implement the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement. For most investments (apart from those covered by the FTA) the law requires that there be at least 35percent Omani ownership. There are exceptions; notably wholly foreign-owned branches of foreign banks are allowed to enter the market. Non-American investors may also obtain approval by the Ministerial Cabinet to allow a 100 percent foreign-owned business entity if the investment is in the national interest.
Aside from ensuring that the investor satisfies the legal requirements for entry into the market, Oman does not screen foreign investment. If a concern were raised regarding a particular investor’s entry into the market, the MOCI would be the government body tasked with reviewing the proposed investor. Investments are not screened for competition considerations, and Oman does not have an active competition commission.
Oman has privatized some parastatal corporations and is in the process of privatizing others, but maintains government dominance in several sectors. In 2011 the government amended legislation to allow for public-private partnerships in government hospitals and clinics, paving the way for significant private investment in planned “medical cities” in Salalah and Muscat. Foreign investors are allowed to participate fully in privatization programs, even in drafting public-private partnership frameworks. The most successful privatization program to-date has been the electricity and desalination privatization program. The telecommunications sector has also been increasingly privatized.
Industrial establishments must be licensed by MOCI. In addition, a foreign firm interested in establishing a company in Oman must obtain relevant approvals from other ministries, such as the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs and organizations such as the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Foreign workers must obtain work permits and residency permits from the Ministry of Manpower and the Royal Oman Police-Immigration. To speed the approval process, MOCI created a “One-Stop-Shop” where representatives from relevant ministries are present to receive inquiries, forms, and applications. However the authentication of foreign registration documents (Certificate of Incorporation, Articles of Association, Board resolution to participate in the new company, and Power of Attorney appointing one or more individuals to sign the constitutive contract) is a time-consuming process which has frustrated many investors.
Oman has a flat tax of 12 percent for all businesses; the first US$78,000 in profits is tax exempt. (This differs for oil and gas investors, whose taxes are negotiated in individual mining concession agreements.) Duty and tax exemptions are granted for renewable five year periods for investments in manufacturing, mining, agriculture, aquaculture, tourism, locally manufactured exports, education and healthcare. There are no taxes on personal income, capital gains, or inheritance. There are a few minor municipality taxes on lease agreements, hotel and leisure facilities etc. Foreign airlines and shipping companies are completely exempt from taxation based upon reciprocal treatment by foreign governments. Higher education institutes, private sector schools, training institutes, and private hospitals are also tax exempt. The free zones in Duqm, Salalah and Sohar offer renewable five year tax holidays. In 2012, the Secretariat General for Taxation at the Ministry of Finance established a Large Taxpayer Unit to increase focus on large taxpayers while improving their service.
Commercial law in Oman is continually evolving. Although the judicial process is slow, business contracts are generally enforced. According to the 2013 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Report, it takes an average of 598 days to enforce a business contract. However, the cost of enforcement is a smaller percentage of the claim, at 13.5 percent, lower than even OECD countries, which average 20 percent. Insolvency laws are nascent, at this time allowing only for complete dissolution rather than restructuring, and many businesses opt to simply shut their doors rather than go through the insolvency process, which can take up to four years. The U.S. Department of Commerce has provided comments to draft updates of Oman’s Commercial Companies Law and Capital Markets Law encouraging modernized bankruptcy legislation to allow for appropriate reorganization. Omani law currently provides for arrest and imprisonment in many bankruptcy cases. Oman recently adopted an e-Commerce law although it has yet to be tested in the court system. In 2012 the Public Authority for Consumer Protection and the Public Authority for Stores and Food Reserves implemented price controls on staple foods and consumer products to counter inflation, causing many companies to suffer losses.
The current process for registering a business in Oman is laid out in the Foreign Investment Law (promulgated by Royal Decree No. 102/94) as per below. In late 2011 PAIPED requested U.S. government assistance to begin revising and updating the law. The current requirements include:
1. Submit an application duly signed by at least three founders in case of Joint Stock Companies, and by at least two members in case of other types of Companies.
2. Submit a certificate from the Commercial Registration stating that no other Company is registered in Oman under the same proposed commercial name.
3. Prepare the Articles of Association/Incorporation of the proposed Company, according to its legal type.
4. If a proposed partner is a juristic person (corporate entity with legal standing), it must submit its Articles of Association and Certificate of Registration and Power of Attorney to its authorized Managers. In case of a non-Omani juristic person, also a brochure of the Company’s major projects and last balance sheet (if any) are preferred to be submitted as well, duly attested (as well as the former) by the concerned authorities in the country where the head office of the Company is located and from the Embassy of Oman there.
5. Capital of the proposed Company should not be less than RO 150,000 (US$390,000). (Note: US Companies subject to local requirement of RO 20,000 as per FTA national treatment provision.)
6. Omani proportion in the Capital and share of profit should not be less than 35percent. (Note: US Companies exempted under FTA.)
7. Activities and objects of the proposed Company should be limited within one specific field. No foreign participation is allowed in General Trade and Service ventures.
8. The non-Omani partner other than citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States in the proposed Company must be a Juristic Person having an experience of not less than 5 years in the same field of the activity required.
9. Written approvals must be obtained from the appropriate government departments concerned with the proposed activities.
10. When the establishment of the Company is approved, the necessary financial recommendations are to be forwarded and steps for registering with the Commercial Registry are to be taken.
Oman’s International Rankings
2011 Transparency International Perceptions of Corruption Index: 4.8/10*
2011 Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom: 69.8/100**
2012 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Indicator: 49th/183 countries
*0: “Highly Corrupt”-10: “Very Clean”
**100: “Maximum Economic Freedom”
In its ‘Doing Business 2013’ report, released on October 23, the World Bank assessed a total of 185 economies, with Oman maintaining its rank at 47th, placing well above the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) average of 98, and fifth among all Arab states. The annual survey sets out 10 separate criteria for the world’s economies: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, obtaining credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency. Oman posted improvements in four categories, no change in one and slight falls in the remaining five.
In terms of starting a business, Oman regressed six places, though this has more to do with the fact that other countries have implemented reforms, making it easier to launch an enterprise, rather than the Sultanate making it more difficult. Indeed, over the past six years, Oman has reduced the number of steps necessary to start a business from 10 to 5, while the number of days required to complete the necessary procedures has fallen from 35 to 8.
One area where Oman recorded a solid advance was in the ease of obtaining credit, climbing 14 rungs on the ladder to 83rd. This is a reflection of strong capitalization of local banks and low interest rates set by the Central Bank of Oman. The reserve’s policy of keeping rates around 1percent has encouraged commercial banks to ease their own lending criteria, which in turn has had a positive flow into the private sector.
Oman also maintained its position as the 32nd most competitive country in the 2012/13 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a measure of the economies of 144 countries. This ranking places Oman in the top 25 percentile of the world’s economies and ranks it above economic powerhouses including India, South Africa, Italy and Turkey.
Conversion and Transfer Policies
Oman does not have restrictions or reporting requirements on private capital movements into or out of the country. There are no plans to change remittance policies. Oman does not restrict the remittance abroad of equity or debt capital, interest, dividends, branch profits, royalties, management and service fees, and personal savings. The Omani Rial is pegged at a rate of RO 0.3849 to the U.S. dollar, and there is no difficulty in obtaining exchange. The government has consistently, firmly, and publicly stated that it is committed to maintaining the current peg. The GoO has stated firmly it will not join the proposed GCC common currency. There is no delay in remitting investment returns or limitation on the inflow or outflow of funds for remittances of profits, debt service, capital, capital gains returns on intellectual property, or imported inputs. Investors can remit through legal parallel markets utilizing convertible, negotiable instruments. There are no surrender requirements for profits earned overseas.
The Central Bank of Oman (CBO) regulates local banks on all lending practices to individuals and corporations inside the Sultanate. In May 2011, Oman approved the introduction of Islamic banking to the Sultanate. Regulations governing the new sector will be issued by CBO in early 2012. Omani financial institutions, controlled by a strong and effective regulatory system, are well-capitalized, have low non-performing loan ratios, and tend to report attractive profits. Individuals have to be resident in Oman or have an investor visa to open a bank account and transfer funds. For foreign bank transfers, Omani banks require complete documentation of the source of funds before approving the transaction.
Expropriation and Compensation
Oman's interest in increased foreign investment and technology transfer make expropriation or nationalization unlikely, although there have been sporadic reports of these in the past several years. In the event that a property must be nationalized, e.g., for a public building, Article 11 of the Basic Law of the State stipulates that the Government of Oman must provide prompt and fair compensation. There are no recent examples of expropriations, although on December 8, 2011 the first trade dispute under the U.S.-Oman FTA was submitted to formal arbitration at the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes. The complainant filed an initial intent to arbitrate on April 4, 2011, claiming expropriation of his multi-million dollar investment in a mining operation by the Oman Mining Company after he was arrested for allegedly mining without necessary permits. The matter is ongoing. (Under the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement, Oman must follow international standards for expropriation and compensation cases, including access to international arbitration.) In practice, Oman compensates for any expropriations it makes, although at times the compensation can be incrementally paid. There are no laws forcing local ownership in any sector, though land ownership is limited to Omani and GCC nationals outside of special Integrated Tourism Complexes set aside for foreign residency. (The U.S.-Oman FTA excludes land ownership.)
Oman is a party to the International Convention for the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of other States (ICSID) and the UN New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. Oman’s legal framework provides for the enforcement of international arbitration awards and most foreign companies elect for dispute resolution by arbitration. Arbitration is generally cheaper, quicker and easier than settling commercial disputes in the normal court system, where judges often lack expertise on technical commercial issues. Business disputes within Oman are resolved through the Commercial Court. The Commercial Court has jurisdiction over most tax and labor cases, and can issue orders of enforcement of decisions. The Commercial Court can also accept cases against governmental bodies; however, the Court can only issue, and not enforce, rulings against the government. If the value of the case is less than US$26,000, the Commercial Court’s decision is final. If the value exceeds US$26,000, the case is taken up by a Court of Appeal. Parties may appeal their case to the Supreme Court. Cases can only be reopened after judgment if new documents are discovered or irregularities (e.g., forgery, perjury) are found. There is no provision for the publication of decisions, apart from arbitrations carried out under the U.S.-Oman FTA, and the decisions do not carry precedent. U.S. firms should note that the Commercial Court is relatively new, replacing the Authority for Settlement of Commercial Disputes, and many practical details regarding the new Court have yet to be finalized.
Oman has written and consistently applied commercial and bankruptcy laws, though the U.S. Department of Commerce is providing expertise to help the GoO update them. According to the World Bank, it takes on average four years to resolve bankruptcy and investors can expect to recover 36.6 cents on their dollar. However, the expense of resolving bankruptcy is significantly lower in Oman than the region. Would-be investors should note that Omani law (Royal Decree 55/1990) provides for civil arrest and imprisonment in many bankruptcy cases.
Oman maintains other judicial bodies to adjudicate various disputes. The Labor Welfare Board under the Ministry of Manpower hears disputes regarding severance pay, wages, benefits, etc. The Real Estate Committee hears tenant-landlord disputes, the Police Committee deals with traffic matters, and the Magistrate Court handles misdemeanors and criminal matters. All litigation and hearings are conducted in Arabic. Binding international arbitration of investment disputes between foreign investors and the Omani government is recognized. Omani courts recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards, and international arbitration is accepted as a means to settle investment disputes between private parties.
The Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry has an arbitration committee to which parties to a dispute may refer their case when the amounts in question are small. Local authorities, including 'walis' (district governors appointed by the central government), also handle minor disputes. Although Oman is a member of the GCC Arbitration Center, located in Bahrain, the Center is not yet firmly established and is not widely used. The Bahrain Center for Dispute Resolution, a member of the American Arbitration Association (AAA) in New York, is very active in the region.
In 2011, a U.S. investor brought the first investment dispute case against the GoO for arbitration under the FTA and proceedings are ongoing.
Performance Requirements and Incentives
Oman is subject to trade related investment measures (TRIMs) obligations. At this time, there are no allegations that Oman maintains any measures that violate the WTO TRIM text.
Oman offers several incentives to attract foreign investors. These include:
Firms involved in agriculture and fishing, industry, education and training, healthcare, mining, export manufacturing, tourism, and public utilities are eligible for the renewable 5-year tax holiday and exemption from duties on capital goods and raw materials. Under the Industry Organization and Encouragement Law of 1978, incentives are available to licensed industrial installations on the recommendation of the Industrial Development Committee. “Industrial installations” include not only those for the conversion of raw materials and semi-finished parts into manufactured products, but also mechanized assembly and packaging operations.
Omani and American-owned commercial enterprises, and foreign industrial producers in joint venture with local firms that produce goods locally, need to meet standard quality specifications. The government offers subsidies to offset the cost of feasibility and other studies if the proposed project is considered sufficiently important to the national economy. Only in the most general sense of business plan objectives does proprietary information have to be provided to qualify for incentives.
Foreign investors do not need to purchase from local sources or export a certain percentage of output. Foreign investors have access to local and foreign exchange for export finance. Offsets on civilian government procurements are rare, and are generally limited to procurements by the Ministry of Defense, Royal Oman Police, or Ministry of the Royal Office. U.S. and foreign firms are able to participate in government financed/subsidized research programs on a national treatment basis, and are at times solicited. Foreign firms operating in Oman, including U.S. companies, must meet “Omanization” requirements, which require businesses to employ a percentage of Omani citizens as determined by the Ministry of Manpower.
On November 15, 2011, the U.S. Department of Commerce initiated antidumping (AD) and countervailing duty (CVD) investigations of circular welded carbon-quality steel pipe (steel pipe) imported from Oman. On December 9, 2011, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) preliminarily determined that there is a reasonable indication that a U.S. industry is materially injured by reason of imports of steel pipe from Oman that are allegedly sold in the United States at less than fair value and subsidized by the Government of Oman. Commerce eventually found on November 14, 2012 that injury to domestic industry was not sufficient to warrant continuing the case. In 2010, imports of steel pipe from Oman were valued at an estimated US$24.2 million.
A full list of incentives is laid out in the Foreign Investment Law as follows:
Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Oman's commercial companies law requires that all actions by private entities to establish, acquire, and dispose of interests in business enterprises be announced in the commercial register, and are subject to the approval of MOCI. Foreign and domestic firms can engage in most commercial activities after obtaining a business license from the MOCI.
Protection of Property Rights
Securitized interests in property, both moveable and real, are recognized and enforced in Oman. Foreign nationals are able to obtain mortgages on land in designated Integrated Tourism Complexes. Individuals record their interest in property with the Land Registry at the Ministry of Housing. The legal system, in general, facilitates the acquisition and disposition of property rights.
Oman is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and is registered as a signatory to the Madrid, Paris and Berne conventions on trademarks and intellectual property protection. Oman has also signed the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. Oman is also a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. Trademark laws in Oman are Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) compliant. Trademarks are valid for ten years while patents are generally protected for twenty years. As “literary works”, software and audiovisual content is protected for fifty years.
Transparency of Regulatory System
Because commercial registration and licensing decisions often require the approval of multiple ministries, the government decision-making process can be tedious and may be perceived as non-transparent. Obtaining licenses for some business activities, particularly labor certifications, can be time consuming and complicated for foreign companies, as the various ministries from which licensure is required do not widely disseminate their policies, quotas, and regulations. In 2011 and 2012 U.S. investors complained about delays in receiving approvals for new mining exploration licenses. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) extended a moratorium on new licenses; the freeze had been imposed due to speculation of mining plots. Investors complain the MOCI should separate permitting for simple quarrying activities, the majority of applications, from large scale mineral concessions involving millions of dollars of capital expenditure. They claim bureaucracy in the licensing and environmental permitting process is deterring investment at a time of high commodity prices.
Oman's labor laws, which require minimum quotas of Omani employees depending on the type of work, form another potential impediment to foreign investment. The government's Omanization effort has been the subject of criticism in the Omani private sector, which sees it as harmful to productivity and restrictive of firms’ hiring and firing policies. U.S. companies are not exempt from Omanization requirements under the FTA. Omanization requirements increased after protests in February, March, and April of 2011, and included an obligation to provide a minimum wage and more training programs for Omani employees.
The government occasionally publishes proposed laws and regulations for public comment, particularly laws that may affect the private sector. However, the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry complained that new mandates in the revised labor law were imposed with no consultation or grace period in late 2011. There has been a move in recent years towards greater transparency in telecommunications, securities, and corporate governance of publicly traded companies. The Telecom industry is regulated by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). The TRA oversees the process of liberalization and privatization of the telecommunications sector. In order to meet Oman’s FTA commitments, the TRA has issued new procedures for businesses to qualify for Class I licenses and has submitted for public comment its proposal to issue Class II licenses.
Oman has also improved the transparency of its securities markets and publicly traded companies largely through the work of the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), the regulatory body for such areas. The CMA requires all public companies to comply with a set of standards for disclosure. Under the requirements, holding companies must publish the accounts of their subsidiaries with the parent companies' accounts. Companies must fully disclose their investment portfolios, including details of the purchase cost and current market prices for investment holdings. The new initiatives also require publication of these financial statements in the local press. At the same time, the Central Bank has introduced new rules to limit the level of "related party transactions" (financial transactions involving families or subsidiary companies belonging to major shareholders or board members) in Oman's commercial banks. The new rules will help increase transparency in financial transactions in local banks and the Muscat Securities Market (MSM), and will help clarify the activities of publicly-traded companies. The CMA has also moved to shorten the time period companies have to file their financial statements after the close of the fiscal year from three months to two, shorten the time period in which companies have to hold their annual meeting after the close of the fiscal year from four months to three, and require that an internal audit be completed for joint stock companies with capital of over five million RO (US$ 13 million).
Efficient Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
There are no restrictions in Oman on the flow of capital and the repatriation of profits. Foreigners may invest in the Muscat Securities Market (MSM) so long as they do so through an authorized broker. Access to Oman's limited commercial credit resources is open to Omani firms with some foreign participation. At this time, there is not sufficient liquidity in the market to allow for the entry and exit of sizeable amounts of capital. Joint stock companies with capital in excess of US$5.2 million must be listed on the MSM. According to the recently amended Commercial Companies Law, companies must have been in existence for at least two years before being floated for public trading. Private, publicly traded firms in Oman are still a relatively new phenomenon. (The Muscat Securities Market was founded in 1988.) Publicly traded firms remain a minority of businesses, the majority remaining family enterprises. The banking system is sound and well-capitalized with low levels of non-performing loans and generally high profits. Banks’ portfolios are dominated by personal loans, perceived as safe as they are typically drawn directly from borrowers’ government salaries. The government finances most infrastructure projects. As a surplus nation enjoying high prices on oil exports, the GoO issues few bonds and private investment and pension funds typically invest in real estate, manufacturing, and limited projects outside the country.
Typical security provided is as follows:
Competition from State-Owned Enterprises
Oman has been a regional leader in the privatization of utilities, especially power, water and waste management. In general, private enterprises are allowed to compete with public enterprises under the same terms and conditions with access to markets, and other business operations, such as licenses and supplies. Public enterprises, however, have comparatively better access to credit. State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are active in a variety of fields, namely utilities, telecommunications, the national airline, and food production. Board membership of SOEs is composed of various government officials, with a senior official, usually cabinet-level, and serving as chairperson.
Oman has two sovereign wealth funds; the General Reserve Fund of the Sultanate of Oman, and the Oman Investment Fund. The majority of the Funds’ assets are invested abroad, although their dealings are opaque. Omani sovereign wealth funds are not required by law to publish an annual report or submit their books for an independent audit.
Corporate Social Responsibility
There is a general awareness of corporate social responsibility (CSR) among businesses in Oman. Several companies routinely host competitions in elementary and secondary schools for academic performance and artistic skill; many sponsor charitable, academic and social events. The larger Omani firms have CSR policies; however, most of Oman’s smaller enterprises do not knowingly follow CSR principles such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Foreign companies operating in Oman, however, are generally OECD compliant. Firms that pursue CSR are viewed favorably.
Politically motivated violence is rare in Oman. Some incidents of violence were associated with demonstrations in February, March, and April 2011, although most protests were peaceful. The government allows peaceful demonstrations to occur, but any public protest event is rare.
Ministers are not allowed to hold offices in public shareholding companies or serve as chairperson of a closely held company. However, many influential figures in government maintain private business interests and some are also involved in private-public projects. These activities either create or have the potential to create conflicts of interest. In 2011, the Tender Law was updated to preclude Tender Board officials from adjudicating projects involving interested relatives to “the second degree of kinship”. In 2012, 30 cases involving financial irregularities and misuse of influence in awarding of government contracts were referred to the Public Prosecutor by the State Financial and Administrative Audit Institution.
Most major contracts are awarded through a slow and rigorous tender process governed by Oman’s Tender Board. Pursuant to the U.S.-Oman FTA, Oman advertises most tenders in the local press, international periodicals, and on the Tender Board's website, although a few sensitive projects are not publicized and not subject to FTA obligations. Also, bidders are now requested to be present at the opening of bids, and interested parties may view the process on the Tender Board's website. Disputes arising from the tendering process are reviewed domestically.
Sultan Qaboos has dismissed several ministers and senior government officials for corruption during his reign. In one of Oman's biggest corruption scandals in several years, over 30 government and private sector employees, including the Under Secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Electricity, and Water, were convicted in October 2005 on counts of bribery and forgery, among others. There was also a major reshuffle after the protests in early 2011 and the State Audit Institution, renamed the “State Financial and Administrative Audit Institution” was granted expanded powers under Royal Decree 27/2011.
The institution’s mandates now encompass the following:
In 2012, the Government announced that public sector employees would be subject to financial disclosure requirements. Oman has not yet signed the UN Convention against Corruption, though it is an observer and the government has set up a committee to consider and prepare for membership.
Bilateral Investment Agreements
Oman is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is in the process of finalizing Free Trade Agreements with the European Union, Malaysia, and Singapore. While enjoying a Free Trade Agreement, Oman does not have a bilateral taxation treaty with the U.S., however, in 2012, the Government of Oman formally requested to begin treaty negotiations. Omani tax authorities may allow relief for foreign taxes paid, limited to the Omani 12percent tax rate. Oman has signed double taxation treaties with many countries including: Algeria, Belarus, Belgium, Brunei, Canada, China, Croatia, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Italy, Mauritius, Morocco, Moldova, Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen.
OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs
Oman is eligible for Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) financing as well as Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance coverage. Unusual for a Gulf country, Oman provides export credit insurance against commercial and political risk, through the Oman Development Bank, as well as the independent Export Credit Guarantee Agency of Oman, a closed stock company which has helped facilitate the dramatic rise in non-oil exports to over 100 countries over the last 20 years through extending credit insurance, guarantees and financial support to Omani exporters. The U.S. Embassy in Muscat purchases local currency at the fixed rate of 1 Omani Rial to US$ 2.60. Due to the likelihood of continuing high oil prices, there is very little risk of devaluation or depreciation of the Omani rial in the next year.
Oman's 2003 Labor Law governs employee/employer relations in the private sector, and enumerates the protections afforded all legally resident workers. The law sets the minimum working age at 15, provides clear guidelines on working hours, and specifies the penalties for noncompliance with its provisions. Work rules must be approved by the Ministry of Manpower and posted conspicuously in the work place. The labor law and subsequent regulations also detail requirements for occupational safety and access to medical treatment. Working conditions in Oman for many blue-collar expatriate workers are difficult, due to low wages, hot weather conditions, long hours, and social isolation. Expatriates, mainly from Western countries, fill many managerial positions. In large part to qualify for eligibility for the FTA, Oman in 2006 made significant amendments to the 2003 Labor Law. The amendments and associated Ministerial Decisions allow for more than one union per firm, require employers to engage in collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employment, and specify guidelines for conducting strikes. The amendments also prohibit employers from firing or otherwise penalizing workers for engaging in union activity, and increase the penalties for hiring underage workers or engaging in forced labor. As a result, about 100 unions were registered, covering both Omanis and expatriates.
While unions appear to be making strides in their advocacy efforts for workers, management in the major industrial free zones in Sohar and Salalah remains frustrated with ambiguity in the labor law. For example, business leaders in Salalah noted that the labor code was written for traditional retail and office jobs. The industrial jobs that dominate in Salalah require different (and technically illegal) hours and schedules, leaving these workers in a legal limbo, without clear coverage by the law. In any case, unions report that workers are satisfied and have even sent away Ministry of Manpower inspectors. Management also noted that workers ask for concessions and privileges given to the public sector (housing allowances, free loans, and generous pensions, for example). (Note: Oman’s labor law provides for unions only in the private sector.) Management in Sohar and Salalah expressed additional concerns about the labor law’s lack of clarity on a number of issues. The labor law was first published in 1973 and updated only intermittently, without explanation or clarifications. For example, there is no specificity in the law regarding what an employer must pay to an employee who is injured in a workplace accident that is his own fault. Management believes that they should not be held responsible for such accidents, while the law seems to hold that in any accident, no matter how negligent the employee who causes it, the employer is to blame. Another contentious example surrounds bonuses; the law suggests that bonuses must be paid every year, regardless of the company’s profit margins. Management argues that companies without a profit should not be forced to pay bonuses.
On October 26, 2011, Sultan Qaboos issued Royal Decree No 113/2011 amending provisions in the Labor Law to provide increased protections and rights to the private sector workforce including shorter workweeks, fully paid maternity leave, and increases in overtime pay. The business sector has expressed concern about the increased costs of implementing many of these changes. The changes are expected to primarily affect only Omani citizen workers; expatriate workers are often hesitant to assert their rights out of concern that their employment contracts might be allowed to lapse, requiring them to leave Oman.
The most important changes to the Labor Law include:
The minimum wage for Omani citizens working in the private sector, including salary and benefits, was increased by Royal Decree in February 2011 from RO 120 (US$312) to RO 200 (US$520) per month. Omani employees must also receive a monthly RO10 (US$26) accommodation allowance and a RO10 transportation allowance. There is no minimum wage for non-Omanis. On January 30, 2012, the government of Oman issued Ministerial Decision 32/2012 requiring a yearly minimum increment of 3 percent for all employees with satisfactory performance who have been employed more than six months. This was in order to ensure wages keep up with inflation, but has been met with resistance to implementation among many companies. In its annual compensation and benefits report for Oman, Hay Group noted that the average salary increase in 2012 was 3.9 per cent, down from the 2011 figure of 6.2 percent. The rise in salaries has predominantly taken the form of an increment on basic salary which rose 5.7 per cent, on average, rather than adding to allowances such as housing, transport and education. According to the report, Oman's oil and gas sector had the highest pay rises of seven percent, on average, this year.
Participation in the Public Authority for Social Insurance (PASI) scheme is mandatory for all employers employing Omanis. Employees are covered for old age, disability, occupational and non-occupational injuries and death. The employer and employee are required to contribute 9.5 percent and 6.5 percent respectively of the basic salary to the fund every month and every employer must pay a further 1 percent as security against occupational injuries and diseases. For foreign employees who are not beneficiaries of PASI, End of Service Benefits (EOSB) are calculated per the Labor Law. EOSB is computed as being equal to 15 days basic wages for each year in the first three years of service, and one month for each of the following years. The EOSB is calculated on the basis of the final basic salary. No EOSB is payable if the period of service is less than one year or the employee was dismissed without notice, e.g., for serious cause in accordance with the Labor Law. The Labor Law provides for, but does not require, a three month probationary period, in which either party may terminate the contract with seven days notice. For indefinite contracts, employment may be terminated by either party with 30 days notice (waived if compensation equal to the salary for the notice period is paid instead).
The government’s Omanization initiative, a quota system mandating hiring of specified percentages of Omani citizens, is a high priority for the government. Approximately 50,000 young Omanis enter the workforce each year. Most of these new entries seek government employment, and Omanis make up 84 percent of the public sector’s labor force. Only 18 percent of the private workforce is Omani. Organizations with more than 50 employees are expected to set aside the following “Omanized” positions for citizens: HR Manager, Security Officers, Secretarial / Administrative Clerks, Public Relations Officers, and Drivers.
Current Omanization rates for selected sectors are as follows:
As part of a package of incentives for foreign investors, Oman’s Free Zones allow for lower Omanization rates. Pressure to meet Omanization goals significantly increased as a result of protests in early 2011. The Ministry of Manpower will not issue a labor clearance for companies that fail to hire qualified Omanis to meet the labor targets. If qualified Omanis are not available, the Ministry may issue labor clearances pending future availability of qualified Omanis to fill such positions. The Ministry also assists companies in training Omanis for high-demand positions if the companies agree to hire them once trained. Under the U.S.-Oman FTA, the Omani government may set Omanization targets of up to 80 percent for U.S. companies in the Sultanate, excluding managers, board members, and specialty personnel. Private companies have expressed concerns about the work ethic of Omanis compared with expatriate staff, as well as absenteeism of local workers who are harder to dismiss because of the protections they enjoy under local employment laws. However the Ministry of Manpower is authorized to impose fines for companies that don’t achieve targets. These fines can reach up to 50 percent of the average of total non-Omani salaries making up the difference between target and actual Omanization rates, though they are rarely enforced if the company is making good faith efforts to recruit Omanis. In addition, harsh penalties are applicable for transferring employment visa sponsorship from one individual to another or working under tourist visa status.
In a 2011 International Labor Organization (ILO) survey, 66 percent of survey respondents felt that current labor legislation is a constraint on enterprise growth. Only 13 percent of respondents believed that the local workforce has the necessary skills demanded by business, while only 9 per cent believed that Oman’s tertiary and vocational education system generally meets the needs of the business community.
Oman is a member of the ILO. Oman has ratified four of the eight core ILO standards, including those on forced labor, abolition of forced labor, minimum working age, and the worst forms of child labor. Oman has not ratified conventions related to freedom of association or collective bargaining, or the conventions related to the elimination of discrimination with respect to employment and occupation.
Foreign-Trade Zones/Free Ports
The government has established free-trade zones to complement its port development projects investing heavily in the Duqm, Salalah, and Sohar Free Zones. These areas include strategically located ports and are well connected with modern infrastructure. An incentive package for investors includes a tax holidays, duty-free treatment of all imports and exports, and tax-free repatriation of profits. Additional benefits include streamlined business registration, processing of labor and immigration permits, and lower Omanization requirements.
Foreign Direct Investment Statistics
Systematic information on foreign direct investment is limited. According to PAIPED, FDI reached US$16bn at the end of 2011, and inflows were approximately US$2 billion during the year, double the preceding year’s volume. In 2010, the most recent year for which a breakdown is available, data shows that the UK was the top source of investment at 33 percent (US$5bn), with the U.S. second at 20 percent (US$2.3bn) and the UAE third with 15 percent (US$2bn).
As per Capital Market Authority statistics from December 2009, foreign participation, including that from GCC nationals, equaled 23 percent in terms of shares held in the Muscat Securities Market. Foreign capital constituted 24 percent of the shares held in finance, 21 percent in manufacturing, and 23 percent in insurance and services. FDI has jumped over the course of the decade, from only RO 929 million, or US$2.4 billion, in 2003.
The largest foreign investor is Royal Dutch Shell Oil, which holds 34 percent of Petroleum Development Oman, the state oil company, and 30 percent of Oman Liquid Natural Gas. Other companies, such as Occidental Petroleum, BP Amoco, Novus Petroleum, Hunt, British Gas, and Nimr, have also invested in Oman's petroleum and gas sectors. U.S. firms, including Dover (oil drilling rods), VFT Global (controlled environment agriculture), Gorman Rupp (water pumps) and FMC (wellhead equipment), have entered into joint ventures with Omani partners. Since 1999, Oman has witnessed increased foreign direct investment through the privatization process. Major foreign investors that have entered the Omani market recently include Suez-Tractabel (France), Alcan (Canada), LG (Korea), Veolia (France), SinoHydro (China), and National Power (UK).
According to the latest statistics available from the National Center for Statistics & Information, in 2010 manufacturing received the lion’s share of FDI, at 30.7 percent, with oil and gas exploration a close second at 28.1 percent, and financial intermediation at 23.6 percent. Most American FDI has been directed at oil and gas exploration (90 percent), with about 7 percent invested in manufacturing.
Ministry of Commerce and Industry
Public Authority for Investment Promotion and Export Development (PAIPED)
Public Establishment for Industrial Estates
Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Muscat American Business Council