Expats working in Oman who catch a glimpse of the subsistence-level agriculture in some rural parts might be surprised to learn more about the country’s economic history. Oman used to be an influential power player regarding trade in the Middle East and off the East African coast.
Around the mid-19th century, Britain asserted her own commercial interests in the area and implemented new abolitionist policies (quite a few merchants in Oman and Zanzibar were associated with the slave trade). The sultanate experienced an economic decline, with the majority of the population working in Oman’s small agricultural sector, fishing, or artisanal occupations that created traditional handicrafts.
In 1964, large petroleum resources were discovered in Oman. Although the country is not an OPEC member, it has now become an important oil-producing nation. These days, there are a considerable number of people working in Oman’s petrochemical industry, producing 930,000 barrels of oil per day. Due to geological difficulties in extracting oil from Oman’s soil, this amount might increase further in the future.
However, this does not mean that the oil reserves — estimated at 5.5 billion barrels — are unlimited. The Omani government, having succeeded in rapidly modernizing the nation, is now trying to diversify the national economy and to bring about the “Omanization” of the workforce.
Currently, there are 1,809,000 people working in Oman. In 2014, around 85% of them were foreign residents, though. Since more and more young Omanis graduate from high school and college nowadays, they take over skilled labor, clerical jobs, and middle management.
This “Omanization” policy, proscribed by the government and practiced by most employers, means that most foreign-born employees working in Oman do not have a graduate degree or have not even completed secondary education. Such migrant workers come to Oman as unskilled labor. On the other end of the scale, some executive positions or highly specialized jobs go to well-qualified expatriates.
Unsurprisingly for an often inhospitable desert country, agriculture is of little importance for both locals and foreign residents working in Oman. Apart from fishing and camel-breeding, the agricultural sector — raising cattle or growing dates, limes, coconuts, and bananas — is confined to the Al Batinah coastal plain in the northeast and the fertile province of Dhofar in the south. All in all, agriculture contributes a mere 1.3% to Oman’s GDP.
Amounting to 55% of the country’s GDP, the secondary sector is of far greater importance than agriculture to the labor force. While the light industries are rather modest, the petrochemical industry, copper mining, aluminum smelting, and cement production are going strong.
The Omani government also wants to encourage specialists to exploit the nation’s natural gas reserves, an estimated 850 billion cubic meters. Nonetheless, it’s hardly surprising that Petroleum Development Oman (owned partly by the government, partly by multi-national oil giant Shell) is among the country’s biggest employers, including a large staff of expats working in Oman.
As far as the service sector is concerned, the government promotes both tourism and international trade. There are large container ports, industrial areas, and free zones at Sohar and Salalah, and further infrastructure projects, such as a special economic zone at the oil town of Duqm, are well underway. Furthermore, the so-called Knowledge Oasis Muscat is supposed to offer incentives to foreign investment, as well as to people working in Oman’s IT and CT industries.
Last but not least, medical services and education require an ever greater number of staff to cope with the demands of a growing population. However, as many young Omanis complete teacher training or a medical education today, these fields may not be particularly interesting for expatriates working in Oman.
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