Oman is a land of opportunity for UK firms

Oman presents a wealth of opportunities providing British companies stay patient, find the right business partners and do not price themselves out of the market.

That is the advice of Omani British Friendship Association (OBFA) secretary general Shawqi Sultan speaking exclusively to Oman-GB News from Muscat. Mr Sultan had recently returned from Britain where he helped organise a financial services roundtable summit at London’s Mansion House. Mr Sultan said the event had been born from a visit to Oman by Lord Mayor of the City of London Alan Yarrow in January, part of a biennial tradition.

“The mayor, along with delegates, joined OBFA members and officials for dinner and we talked widely about the areas for co-operation,” he said. “It was clear that areas like Islamic banking, business angels and public private partnerships were themes of common interest. The mayor suggested staging an event at the Mansion House and inviting expert speakers to meet an Omani delegation and that is where the ideas started flowing for the July summit we staged.”

Mr Sultan said many in the Omani delegation, which included representatives from the Central Bank of Oman, Bank Muscat, State General Reserve Fund, Muscat Security Market, Dhofar Insurance, Oman Arab Bank and other financial Institutions, were impressed to learn of Britain’s experience in Islamic banking.

“Oman is just starting to adopt Islamic banking and we really were surprised to hear that Britain has more experience of Islamic banking than any other country in the world,” he said. “It is a complex esoteric area of expertise and the delegation was able to learn a lot and make good contacts.”

Another area of progress at the summit involved business angels, who Mr Sultan said are hugely valuable to Omani entrepreneurs.

“Oman lacks people with experience of running small to medium sized firms so the idea of business angels is very interesting,” he said. “We saw a brilliant presentation by Jenny Tooth of the UK Business Angels Association and are now looking to partner with British business angels who can support Omani small firms and then critically sit on the board and offer years of advice and guidance. That ability to mentor is really missing and is what we need in Oman.”

Mr Sultan said experience of public private partnerships was another key theme of the summit.

“Britain has many years of experience of PPPs and has learnt from mistakes,” he said. “In Oman we are very keen to share this knowledge and work out how we can roll more of these projects out efficiently and effectively. We were one of the first countries in the Gulf to pioneer a PPP project when we constructed a power plant 17 years ago. We want to build on experiences like that but involve British companies who have lots of expertise to offer.”

British companies presenting and attending the event included Coutts & Co, HSBC, Gatehouse Bank, Buckingham Finance, Babcock Oman, Oman Air UK, Oxford Business Group, Carillion and Visit England.

Mr Sultan was made secretary general of OBFA in 1991 after HM Sultan Qaboos issued a decree stating its establishment. He draws on a great love and affection for Britain having studied to become the first quantity surveyor in Oman “and possibly the entire Gulf!” in the late 1960s at the former Regent Street Polytechnic - later Polytechnic of Central London and now Westminster University. He then joined an old international firm of quantity surveyors called Widnell & Trollope (est 1852) working initially in London and then Oman before becoming a partner in 1974. He eventually bought the Omani arm of the company when the Widnell & Trollope Group was sold in 2000.

Today he runs his own engineering company Majan Engineering Consultants which he founded in 1981 as a mechanical and electrical engineering company but has now expanded into one of Oman’s most respected quantity surveyors. Majan has worked on the new Opera House and Houses of Parliament building for which Mr Sultan says he brought in British expertise.

“OBFA exists to promote bilateral trade between Oman and the UK,” he said. “No-one is more passionate about it than OBFA members and there is no doubt there is demand for expertise – but unless the UK sharpens its act that expertise could come from elsewhere. Education is definitely one sector British universities and colleges can support and benefit from. However, it is fairly well documented that British institutions priced themselves out of the market and became too bureaucratic and mired in officialdom. Omani students voted with their feet and went to Australia and New Zealand where it was easier and better value.”

Mr Sultan pointed to fisheries and precision manufacturing as two sectors ripe for bilateral trade between Britain and Oman.

“We have cheap power which enables us to expand into sectors like precision engineering for example making small spare parts for Britain’s automotive sector,” he said. “Tourism is another rapidly expanding industry but no British owned hotel chain operates here. Opportunities exist in Oman to support our economy and there is a big drive to encourage entrepreneurs but Britain has to act and invest in building relationships and understanding Omani culture.”