At the beginning of January 2016, Sultani Decree 1/2016 was issued approving the Ninth Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), i.e., the last of the Five-Year Plans included in the Government policy named Vision for Oman’s Economy (Oman 2020), which, in due course, will be followed by Vision Oman 2040.
Due to the economic and financial challenges caused by oil price volatility, the National Program for Enhancing Economic Diversification (“Tanfeedh”) was announced as one of the fundamental elements in the Ninth Five-Year Plan. Tanfeedh is an Arabic word that can be translated into English as “execution” (referring to execution of a project or of a plan). The aim of the programme is to accelerate diversification and reduce dependence on the oil and gas sector, both by developing a series of projects in five crucial business sectors and by reforming some aspects of the local legal framework in order to facilitate the establishment and operation of businesses in the private sector.
The five business sectors the Sultanate elected to focus on are manufacturing, transportation and logistics, tourism, fisheries and mining. The two parallel “community and sustainability enablers,” aimed at improving the ease of doing business, relate to finance and the labour market. The Tanfeedh initiatives will initially focus on three of the five business sectors, namely manufacturing, transportation and logistics and tourism, with fisheries and mining projects to be developed at a later stage due also to the need of suitable logistics and transport facilities, particularly in connection with large mining projects.
A comprehensive list of the main projects proposed in the three initial business sectors is available in the official Tanfeedh website at the following link: http://tanfeedh.gov.om/en/overview.php. This article will not focus on the specific projects being implemented but on the proposed changes in the legal framework which should enable the implementation of these and other projects and generally encourage private-sector initiative and foreign investments. The information utilised derives from the documentation outlining the outcome of the Tanfeedh labs, discussion ‘labs’ which formed part of the Tanfeedh process and were attended by approximately two hundred decision-makers from the public and private sectors. The Tanfeedh labs represented the second of the eight steps of the process and were followed by open days, during which the general public was invited to express its opinion on the Tanfeedh proposals.
The two main issues addressed by the research relating to the finance sector were: (a) the need to increase the participation of the private sector in funding large projects; and (b) the best way to improve the business environment and attract investors. In 2016, the Sultanate ranked 70th overall in the Ease of Doing Business Index (The World Bank – Doing Business Report 2016) and such ranking must improve in order to attract foreign investors. The initiatives envisaged in this respect include new legislation on foreign investments, the integration of all Government entities in the ‘Invest Easy Platform’ and the unification of the national investment promotion efforts.
In particular, the new Foreign Capital Investment Law, which, in accordance with the Tanfeedh recommendations, should be issued during the course of 2017, should allow for 100% foreign ownership of companies in Oman, subject to the power of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to restrict certain business sectors by reasons of national interest. This, once implemented, will represent a radical change in the Omani business environment. Other measures include the establishment of a Credit Bureau and the integration of all Government entities in one tendering platform, which will allow a full overview of all aspects of public procurement, the latter to be coupled with more incisive intervention in order to increase accountability and transparency. In this respect, it has been proposed that all Government-owned companies will be subject to the Code of Corporate Governance (the “Code”) issued in 2016. The Code, for the time being, applies only to publicly listed companies. Finally, Tanfeedh proposes that a number of Government-owned enterprises be privatised and listed on the stock market.
With reference to the labour market and generally to employment, Tanfeedh includes various strategies to create employment opportunities in the private sector and, in particular, the manufacturing, logistics and tourism sectors. The Tanfeedh reports quote restrictive labour regulations and low productivity of the labour force as two key areas that require improvement. The keyword appears to be flexibility: part-time work, temporary work and flexible movement of employees (in particular between companies belonging to the same group) are some of the proposed new initiatives.
From an educational point of view, the Government wishes to form a closer relationship between the business environment and the education providers and to improve the quality of the training programmes proposed to the Omani youth. At the same time, measures shall be taken to attract young Omanis to seek employment in the private sector and to encourage the establishment and operation of small and medium enterprises.
The following has been proposed to assist entrepreneurs and employees alike and to encourage employers, inter alia, to invest on the local workforce:
- The creation of a specialised and dedicated Labour Court, which should assist in reducing the duration of lengthy and expensive court proceedings.
- One-window process for obtaining Labour clearances, i.e., the permission to employ a foreign employee in a specified position. This bureaucratic process involves different Government authorities and can be extremely time-consuming; the proposed new process is aimed at reducing the total time required to five working days.
- Dedicated Labour Solution Packages for specific sectors such as the construction sector.