Monday, August 13, 2018

The Liability of Managers in Limited Liability Companies in Oman

1. The general overview 

The starting point for ascertaining the general powers and obligations of a manager in a limited liability company (“LLC”) is to look at the provisions of the constitutive documents of the company.
There are, however, express provisions under Omani law that impose penalties and liabilities on managers and authorised signatories of LLCs in certain circumstances.

2. Liabilities of managers under the Commercial Companies Law No. 4 of 1974 and its amendments (“CCL”)

In case of managers of an LLC, the CCL imposes penalties and liabilities where managers have failed to discharge their statutory obligations, where obligations have been discharged negligently, or powers have been misused contrary to law.

Article 155 of the CCL provides that the managers of an LLC may be liable towards the company, the shareholders, and other parties should they act outside the scope of the authority conferred upon them.  Specifically, the managers of an LLC may be held liable to the company and third parties (a) for damages resulting from their acts in contravention of the law; (b) for their acts which exceed the limits of their authority; (c) for any fraud or negligence committed by them in the performance of their duties; and (d) for failing to act prudently in the given circumstances.

If liability attaches to more than one manager, pursuant to Article 155 of the CCL, the Primary Court of Oman shall be entitled to make any of the managers liable for all or part of the damage as the Court may deem fit and proper in view of the circumstances of the case.  Such manager may be held personally liable for damages arising from any of the offences referred to above.
If any of the managers commits any of the offences referred to in Article 155, then either the shareholders or the affected third party may have a claim against the manager.  Such third party or the shareholders may have the right to sue the manager, as opposed to the shareholder who may have nominated such manager, as the manager’s liability under Article 155 is personal and may not be attributed to the shareholders who have recommended or appointed such manager.

As is clear from the relevant law set out above, any manager registered as such with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry is obliged to act, at all times, within the scope of his authority.  Therefore, the authorised signatories/managers of the Company will only be personally liable (and such liability will be civil and/or criminal) for actions or debts incurred where they have acted in contravention of the law, outside of their authority, committed fraud or negligence, or failed to act prudently in the given circumstances.

3. Liabilities of managers under Sultani Decree No. 55 of 1999 promulgating the Commercial Law (the “Commercial Law”)

Article 695 of the Commercial Law provides that where it is evident, after the company is declared bankrupt, that it has insufficient assets to pay at least 20% of its debts, the Omani Courts may, at the request of the trustee in bankruptcy, order all managers of the company, or some of them jointly or severally, to pay all or some of the debts of the company save where it is established that they have exercised the necessary care in organising the affairs of the company.
Managers of the company may be held liable criminally for any misrepresentation made by them in the preparation of the company’s accounts or towards third parties who are expected to place reliance upon their representations.

4. Liabilities of employees under Sultani Decree No. 7 of 1974 promulgating the Penal Code (the “Penal Code”) 

Article 155 of the Penal Code provides that any employee (including a manager) who receives a bribe, for himself or for others, be it money, gift, promise or any other benefit, in order to perform, stop or delay a task originating from his job responsibilities shall be sentenced to imprisonment from three months to three years, a fine, at least equal to what has been given or promised to be given to him, and dismissal from work.  Similarly, if the manager or a senior employee accepts or demands a bribe for performing a task contrary to the duties of the job, he shall be sentenced to imprisonment for up to ten years and a fine equal, at least, to the amount of the bribe and dismissal from work.
Article 160 of the Penal Code also provides that, if an employee misuses his job by merely benefiting or harming others, or refuses to carry out his job duties in pursuing a person who has committed a crime, the investigation of which or arresting the actor of which lies within the limits of his responsibilities, the employee shall be sentenced to imprisonment of three months to three years and to a fine of OMR 20 to OMR 100.
Article 162 of the Penal Code further provides that any employee who intentionally neglects to perform the duties of his job shall be fined from OMR 5 to OMR 100.  If the negligence results in harming the interests of the State, the actor shall be jailed from one month to one year.

5. Liabilities of managers under Sultani Decree No. 28 of 2009 promulgating the Income Tax Law and its amendments (the “Income Tax Law”)

Under the Income Tax Law, managers of LLCs may face certain penalties, fines and/or imprisonment if they fail to discharge compliance or reporting obligations.  Managers may face such punishments in various cases, including failure to submit information requested by the relevant authority such as returns, financial statements, statements of income and any other documents requested.  Other instances where penalties may be imposed include failure to answer questions and attend meetings in relation to the tax returns of the company, interference with the authorities’ work and failure to obtain the relevant tax files needed for the company.
The relevant provisions for the penalties mentioned above are stated in Articles 179 to 185 of the Income Tax Law, and include heavy fines of up to OMR 50,000 and jail sentences that could reach up to three years.  Generally, the tax authority endeavours to provide adequate notice to companies to comply with such regulations.  However, the Law allows them to levy heavy penalties in case of non-compliance.

6. Other liability provisions

In the event that a judgment has been enforced against a company, the enforcing party may pursue all measures available to it under the law.  This includes travel ban and arrest warrants against certain individuals, primarily the authorised signatories and managers of the company.
Criminal actions in this jurisdiction can be brought only against individuals and not against companies.  Therefore, any detention penalties arising (e.g., from the Consumer Protection Law or certain provisions under the Omani Labour Law) can only be imposed on the authorised signatories and managers of the company.  This, however, may vary on a case-by-case basis.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Extending the Statutes of Limitations or Time Bars in Common Law Jurisdictions and Under Omani Law

Statutes of limitations are laws passed to set the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated.  Often times this is when parties know or should have known damage was suffered.  Statutes of limitations are in place to protect persons against claims made after disputes have become old, evidence has been lost, memories have faded, or witnesses have disappeared.  Once the time limit to bring a claim has passed, the claim is “time barred.”

Various claims and civil actions have different statutes of limitations.  By way of example, under New York law various statutes of limitations periods are outlined in the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules.  In England, the statute of limitations for civil claims is governed the Limitations Act 1980.

There are generally a very limited number of circumstances in which a statute of limitations may be extended.  For example, under New York law, a statute of limitations can be tolled if a person is outside of the state or living under a false name; if the person is a minor or insane (capacity); due to war; or, in some circumstances, the agreement of the parties.  English law follows a similar approach. It should be noted that under both New York and English law, limitation periods (typically in construction contracts) may be shortened.

If a statute of limitations is tolled, the practical effect is that a party may commence a claim when they otherwise would be time barred.  If a statute of limitations period is shortened, which generally takes place in construction contracts where a defects liability period is applicable, a party may have a considerably shorter time to file a claim.

In Oman, time bars take the form of statutory rules that restrict the period of time within which a legal action can be brought successfully, and therefore restrict the rights of the disputing parties to bring legal proceedings to recover losses or obtain compensation.  There are various time bar rules set out in Omani legislation, and they vary depending on the subject matter of the dispute.
While there is no provision under Omani law for the extension of time bars, a legal claim that is brought by a plaintiff past the limitation period does not automatically fail.  The existence of a time bar to the claim (generally, where the claim is brought outside the set limitation period) must be raised by the defendant as a legal, or procedural, defence.  If the defence is successful, the plaintiff’s claim will not be heard in the courts.

When representing a client in a commercial dispute, it is fundamental to consider first whether there is any applicable time bar.  Before a plaintiff makes a decision on whether or not to bring a legal action in the courts, he should be informed by his lawyer whether the claim is time barred.  Conversely, the defendant’s attorney should consider whether or not the claim is time barred and raise this as a legal defence in the court before addressing the subject matter of the case.  Thus, ascertaining the existence of a time bar to a legal claim can potentially shorten the legal proceedings and help the parties to the dispute save time and legal costs.

Determining the existence of a time bar at the beginning of the legal dispute is also of strategic importance.  As a matter of procedure, the time bar must be raised as a legal defence at the beginning of the proceedings at the Court of First Instance.  If a defendant fails to invoke this defence in the Court of First Instance, he will not be able to do so in proceedings at the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court.

Overall, there are a number of different time bars in Omani legislation and the relevant time bar provisions should be considered by each party to a commercial dispute at the beginning of the dispute and, if relevant, raised as a defence at the beginning of the legal proceedings.  If this is done then it will provide a good defence against the action.  However, if the defendant’s lawyer does not do so at the appropriate time, the court will nevertheless hear the case, even though it is outside the time limits.


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Monday, July 30, 2018

Omani Arbitration Law: Time for a Change?

Domestic and international arbitrations conducted in Oman are governed by the Law of Arbitration in Civil and Commercial Disputes, Sultani Decree 47/1997 as amended (the “Oman Arbitration Law”).  While the Oman Arbitration Law incorporates some aspects of the Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration adopted by UNCITRAL (the “UNCITRAL Model Law”), overall it is not harmonised with the UNCITRAL Model Law or with other arbitration laws in the region.  Given recent developments in other GCC countries, specifically the UAE, it may be beneficial for Oman to consider commensurate reforms to its arbitration regime.

In May 2018, the President of the UAE issued a new arbitration law expected to be published imminently as Federal Law No. 6 of 2018 on Arbitration (the “UAE Arbitration Law”).  The UAE Arbitration Law repeals Articles 203 to 218 of the UAE Civil Procedure Code (Federal Law No. 11 of 1992) previously applicable to arbitration, and any other provisions contrary to the UAE Arbitration Law.  This new law is noteworthy because it is a direct adaptation of the UNCITRAL Model Law, thereby modernising the regulatory framework governing UAE arbitrations.  Because the UNCITRAL Model Law is intended to assist states in reforming and modernising their laws in a uniform matter that takes into account the features of international commercial arbitration, states that adopt or adapt the UNCITRAL Model Law make themselves more attractive to investors.

On the whole, the UAE Arbitration Law brings the country in line with international commercial arbitration norms.  For example, the new law enumerates limited grounds to annul an arbitral award, and provides for the authority of an arbitral tribunal to rule on its own jurisdiction.  While Article 22 of the Oman Arbitration Law does permit an arbitrator to rule on the question of his or her own jurisdiction, currently in Oman the courts have broad and unspecified powers to nullify an award if it conflicts with an earlier decision passed by the Omani courts or if the award contains terms which contravene public policy, among other grounds.

Another welcome change brought by the UAE Arbitration Law is its flexibility regarding the formalities of an agreement to arbitrate.  While it does preserve the requirements under the previous law for an arbitration agreement to be in writing and to be entered into by a duly authorised representative of each party, the UAE Arbitration Law is not as prescriptive in respect of these two conditions.  For example, the new law permits the incorporation by reference in any commercial contract of any document containing an arbitration clause (e.g., general terms and conditions) as sufficient to constitute an arbitration agreement.  In contrast, Articles 2 5 of the Oman Arbitration Law prescribe quite specific requirements which must be met before there is considered to be an agreement to arbitrate.  Specifically, the arbitration agreement (which must also be in writing and entered into by duly authorised representatives) must be specific to the dispute between the parties and must identify the venue, procedural rules, and applicable law in order to be valid.  This may ultimately result in fewer agreements to arbitrate being honored under the Oman Arbitration Law than may be intended by the parties.

Perhaps the most significant reform under the UAE Arbitration Law relates to the enforceability of UAE arbitration awards.  Under the new law, the procedure to enforce an arbitration award in the UAE has been simplified and shortened.  Enforcement proceedings commence directly at the appellate level, rather than at the first instance level.  In Oman, as per Article 47 of the Oman Arbitration Law, parties seeking to enforce an award file an application at the enforcement department of the primary court, and the application is subject to obstacles and delays at several levels of court examination.  One potential obstacle includes the nullification of an arbitral award as per Article 53 of the Oman Arbitration Law, which contains several grounds upon which a challenging party may rely.  Separately, under Article 363 of the Civil and Commercial Procedures Law (Sultani Decree 29/2002), a challenging party may also seek an Istishkal, or a temporary action that any party to a court judgment or arbitral award can seek, with the result of further delaying payment of the award amount.  An Istishkal also results in a delay of enforcement, as the enforcement process may only commence or resume once a final decision is rendered on the Istishkal.

One change introduced by the UAE Arbitration Law has already been partially adopted in Oman.  The UAE Arbitration Law permits both arbitral tribunals and courts to issue preliminary orders and interim measures relating to potential or ongoing arbitrations, and Article 14 of the Oman Arbitration Law permits the Omani courts to grant preliminary or interim relief in proceedings subject to arbitration.

Despite this and other positive features of the Oman Arbitration Law, there remain some uncertain provisions which may discourage parties from choosing Oman as an arbitration forum.  For example, Article 27 prescribes twelve months as the standard period for completion of the arbitration or rendering the arbitral award.  This time period starts on the day that a defendant received notice that a dispute exists and that it must be resolved by arbitration.  Although there is scope for the parties to agree to a longer period, this is a little-known provision which leaves uncertainty as to whether an arbitration lasting longer than twelve months is vulnerable to nullification.  This may be devastating to parties involved in complex arbitrations involving expert evidence, such as construction disputes, that often take much longer than twelve months to complete.

Overall, the changes introduced by the UAE Arbitration Law are designed to promote the efficiency, expediency, and ease of arbitration in the UAE, which will likely encourage business parties, both local and foreign, to arbitrate their disputes within the UAE.  Oman would be well served to reconsider its own arbitration law, and perhaps reform it according to some or many features of the UNCITRAL Model Law.  Parties doing business in Oman and seeking to resolve disputes by arbitration would take comfort availing themselves of an arbitration regime that is harmonised with others in the GCC and throughout the world.


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Monday, July 16, 2018

Requests to Stay the Implementation of Administrative Decisions

1. Introduction

The Administrative Judicature Court is the body charged with judicial oversight of the work of administrative bodies in the Sultanate of Oman.  One of its most important responsibilities is its competence to rule as invalid administrative decisions that are unlawful.

Although this oversight provides individuals with the protection they seek, such rulings are issued only after specific judicial procedures have been followed, and after the expiry of specified dates within which the ruling may be appealed, which extends the duration of the dispute.

If a decision is implemented before the issue of the ruling, such implementation in some cases may result in irreversible consequences, and proceeding with the case after that in order to obtain a ruling of invalidity will be useless.

Accordingly, various pieces of legislation, including the Omani Law Regulating the Requesting and Staying of the Implementation of Administrative Decisions, have attempted to balance the public interest, which requires the implementation of administrative decisions immediately after their issuance for the proper functioning of public utilities, and private interests, which require the provision of urgent judicial protection for individual rights if it is apparent from the case documents that the challenged decision is likely to be unlawful and that its implementation will cause irrevocable harm to these individuals.

2. The concept behind a request

The purpose of an emergency request is to give the claimant urgent judicial protection of his right to avoid negative consequences that may result from the implementation of an administrative decision.  This request must be submitted in a petition challenging the validity of the decision, or in a subsequent application submitted at the end of the first hearing.

3. Legal basis of the request

The legal basis for requesting the stay of an administrative decision is Article (19) of the Administrative Judicature Court  Law, which stipulates:

“The filing of the case with the court shall not lead to a stay of the decision against which the appeal is made.

However, the concerned party may seek the suspension of the execution of this decision in a plaint or by a subsequent application submitted on a date before the termination of the first pleading session.  The department to which the case is referred shall decide on such application within fifteen days from the date of reference or from the date of submission of application during the case proceedings as the case may be.  The department shall not rule on the suspension of the execution of the decision unless it believes on the basis of the papers that the case is based on serious grounds and that the results of such execution might be difficult to undo.”


The Administrative Judicature Court applies the provisions of this article when considering a request for suspension of execution, supported - if necessary - by the rules of expedited judicial procedures provided for in the Civil and Commercial Procedures Law issued by Royal Decree 29/2002, on condition that it does not contradict the nature of the administrative dispute in applying the provisions of Article (105) of the Administrative Judicature Court Law.

4. Appeal against the judgment issued in the application to stop implementation

The judgment issued in the application to stop implementation is characterised by being a final judgment, as other final judicial judgments.  The decision issued is considered final once issued and must be executed immediately.  Concerned parties may appeal against it before the Court of Appeal without waiting for the judgment to be rendered on the subject, because the court has already decided on the suspension application, so it is not permissible for it to reverse the ruling, even if the judgment does not restrict it when considering the invalidity of the contested decision.  Appeals must be filed within fifteen days from the day following the issuance of the judgment, according to Article (17) of the Administrative Judicature Court Law, which stipulates:

“The deadline for filing appeal shall be thirty days from the day after the date of issuance of judgment.

The period shall be fifteen days in respect of the judgment issued on an application for the suspension of the judgment.”

5. Practical applications of requesting that the implementation of a decision should be stayed by a court ruling

A number of recent cases have, in applying Article (19) of the Administrative Judicature Court Law, affirmed the principle that appealing an administrative decision does not in itself have the effect of staying its implementation.  In other words, simply challenging the decision and demanding its cancellation does not stop the implementation of the contested decision.  The purpose of this principle is not to allow individuals to obstruct the administrative work and paralyse the movement of administrative bodies that seek to achieve public interests through appeals against administrative decisions.

There are, however, exceptions to the principle, where stays of administrative decisions have been granted by the courts in order to protect the interests of individuals and to ensure that the administrative body in question is not being arbitrary in the implementation of its decisions.  In Judgment on Appeal No. (1) for the Judicial Year (4) dated 17 January 2004 the court ruled:

“It is established that administrative decisions are enforceable, except if their implementation entails irreversible results, whereupon the court may depart from this principle and order a stay of the implementation of the decision in following a request from the concerned party.  Ruling in such a matter of urgency requires the proceedings to be swift and simplified, and the job of the court at that time is to check the existence of two pillars concerning the request for a stay of implementation in order for it to issue a judgment:

First pillar:  The pillar of seriousness is an objective pillar which is present when it is established that the appeal against the appealed decision - according to what is stipulated in the documents - is based on serious reasons.


Second pillar:  The pillar of urgency which is present if the results of the implementation of the decision are irreversible should the decision not be taken to stay its implementation.”


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Monday, July 2, 2018

Arbitration in the GCC: An Overview of the Choices

When parties arbitrate in Oman, the most popular arbitral framework is ad hoc arbitration, usually using the Gulf Cooperation Council (“GCC”) arbitration rules or the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (“UNCITRAL”) rules.  In other cases, parties agree to have arbitration in Oman that is administered by an outside arbitration centre; while there is no arbitration centre in Oman, there are quite a few arbitration centres throughout the GCC.  This article will provide an overview of some of the most popular arbitration centres in the region.

ICC

The International Chamber of Commerce (“ICC”) is the most established arbitration centre in the world.  The ICC is headquartered in Paris and has a number of branch offices throughout the world.  The ICC recently opened a representative office in Abu Dhabi for the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”) region.  Prior to opening the new office in MENA, ICC arbitration had been long established in Oman.  The ICC secretariat is considerably sophisticated, and the ICC arbitration rules are highly regarded, widely used and considered a truly international set of arbitration rules.

DIFC-LCIA

The DIFC-LCIA was established in 2008.  It can be considered a joint venture between the Dubai International Financial Centre (“DIFC”) and the London Court of International Arbitration (“LCIA”) which is one of the most established arbitration centres in the world.  The DIFC-LCIA rules are modeled on the LCIA rules.  There are a number of notable features contained in the DIFC-LCIA; of particular importance is the fee structure.  In comparison to the other rules that are outlined in this article, the centre’s and arbitrator’s fees for a DIFC-LCIA administered arbitration are calculated on an hourly rate system rather than an ad valorum scale (fixed fee based on the amount in dispute).

DIAC

The Dubai International Arbitration Centre (“DIAC”) was first established in 1994 as the Centre for Commercial Conciliation and Arbitration.  DIAC, a popular arbitration centre in Dubai, uses rules that came into effect in 2007; however, notably, the DIAC has drafted a new set of rules that are waiting for Royal Decree in order to come into force.  The new rules contain a number of notable features, namely that the default seat of arbitration under the rules will be the DIFC, which is governed by common law rather than civil law.  The new rules are also anticipated to include provisions relating to the governing of third-party funding.  It is expected that the new DIAC rules will come into effect in 2018.  The new rules will significantly update the 2007 rules and will be the topic of a later blog post (once they come into effect).

ADCCAC

The Abu Dhabi Commercial Conciliation & Arbitration Centre (“ADCCAC”) is a local arbitration centre that mainly deals with domestic arbitrations.  Its arbitration clause is contained mainly in contracts that are entered into with United Arab Emirates (“UAE”) public entities.  The ADCCAC rules came into effect in 2013 and contain various modern provisions.  ADCCAC provides hearing facilities free of charge to parties conducting arbitrations on their premises.

BCDR-AAA

The Bahrain Chamber for Dispute Resolution (“BCDR”) was established by Legislative Decree No. 30 of 2009.  It operates in partnership with the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”).  The AAA is an international arbitration centre with various offices throughout the world.  In addition to administering arbitrations and appointing arbitrators, it administers mediations and runs various training services.  The BCDR-AAA has a modern set of arbitration rules that came into effect in 2017.

GCC Arbitration Centre

The GCC Commercial Arbitration Centre (“GCCCAC”) was established in March 1995 by the GCC Supreme Council and is based in Bahrain.  The centre is considered a regional arbitration authority which is independent from the six GCC member states, including the host state.  It has an independent legal entity and enjoys administrative, financial and technical independence.  Simultaneously, it is considered one of the GCC organs.  The GCCCAC rules came into effect in 1994 and were amended in 1999.  The GCCCAC administers arbitrations and its rules are commonly used in ad hoc arbitrations in Oman.

Cairo Regional Centre for Arbitration

The Cairo Regional Centre for International Commercial Arbitration (“CRCICA”) was established in 1979 by an international agreement signed between the Egyptian government and the Asian African Legal Consultative Organization (“AALCO”) making it the oldest centre in Africa and the Middle East.  The latest CRCICA rules came into force in 2011, and are based on the UNCITRAL rules with some minor amendments emanating mainly from the centre’s role as an arbitral institution and an appointing authority.  In addition to administering commercial arbitrations, CRCICA arbitration is provided for in a number of bilateral investment treaties, many of which do not involve Egypt as a party.

Conclusion

As noted, there are various arbitration centres in the region, many of which have experience administering arbitrations in Oman.  The fact that there is no arbitration centre in Oman is a particularly peculiar one which leads to the regional centres administering disputes related to Oman taking place both inside and outside of the country.  It should also be mentioned that all the centres noted above, including the ICC which is a representative office, have space to hold hearings.  The fact that there is no hearing centre in Oman is a disadvantage; when parties hold their hearings in Oman, this takes place in hotels or in law offices.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Know your Business Partners - Part II: Basic Due Diligence Tips

In the first part of this article, we reviewed how a foreign company considering doing business in Oman can (and should) gather basic information on proposed clients, agents and business partners. This second part provides a brief outline of basic searches an Omani company should undertake when doing business with a foreign company.

Most countries have online commercial registry records that can be accessed and allow documents to be downloaded either for free or for a small fee. The first step is to identify the official website of the registry as opposed to private companies providing the same service at a premium. By way of example, if you are looking for information on an English company, Companies House (the beta service can be found at https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/) publishes an overview, the full filing history and details of the officers of each company.

The documents filed, which include annual returns, can be viewed or downloaded for free and will provide useful background information on the company. Also, you will be able to confirm whether the company representative with which you are interacting is officially authorised to act on behalf of the company.

A similar system is available in Australia and Italy. Access to the documents is subject to a fee payable online starting at as little as €4 and subject to (free) registration on the website. Wikipedia publishes and updates from time to time a list of the existing registries (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_company_registers) and is a useful starting point to identify the relevant registry. If the target company is registered in the United States of America, please note that you will need to consult a state-specific registry or, alternatively, for public companies you may utilise the search options provided by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (https://www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/companysearch.html). The website includes a guide and a tutorial on how to perform efficient searches. Generally and in most jurisdictions, listed companies are subject to disclosure requirements and there is a wealth of information available. Often useful documents can be found on the official website of the company in the “Investors’ Information” section.

Whenever the potential foreign partner does business in a regulated sector such as finance, banking or legal services, it likely will have to be registered with a regulator. It is often possible to consult the regulator’s registry to confirm that the proposed partner is duly registered and in good standing. Examples of such regulators include professional associations and financial conduct authorities.

Check the press: in many countries it is customary to disclose names in connection with court proceedings. The local press in the country/area of operations of your proposed business partner may have reported on the company or its officials. Any online translation tool will allow you to understand the general sense of a newspaper article regardless of its original language. In the past year, on three separate occasions, a simple internet search showed that a foreign individual who approached an Omani business person/company to propose a joint project or an investment had previous convictions for fraud or financial crimes in his home country or elsewhere. In one specific instance, the fraud that led to conviction in the home country had a structure identical to the business proposition presented to the Omani business man. Always remember that “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is” or, in other words, be wary of people or situations that offer a large benefit for very little in return.

Check the proposed partner’s website, use scam alert and similar websites to search company names and persons’ names and to verify who owns the website/domain and for how long it has been registered.

Finally, when you are reasonably satisfied that the foreign company/individual you reviewed appears to satisfy the requirements for being a reliable business partner, ensure that you acquaint yourself with the basic rules applicable to foreigners doing business in Oman.

For instance, if you are planning to set up a limited liability company, the foreign corporate partner must be registered in the country of origin for at least three years (ten years if the project involves the establishment of a consultancy company). In foreign participated companies, requirements apply also to the Omani partner, in particular with reference to the financial status. Verify whether you, as local partner, and the prospective business partner, as foreign partner, actually qualify with respect to the requirements of the specific activity you are considering.

Evaluate whether you wish to be involved directly as an individual partner or through a corporate entity you may establish and, if the latter appears preferable, review the financial and compliance requirements applicable to the corporate vehicle.

Finally, consider the level of involvement you are planning to have in the business and the degree of liability and financial commitment that you are willing to take on.

Click here to read Know your Business Partners - Part I: Basic Due Diligence Tips

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Arresting a Vessel in Oman

Introduction

Oman has five ports: Al-Duqm Port, Sohar Port, Sultan Qaboos Port, Khasab Port and Salalah Port, all of which have been receiving an increase in traffic in the last several years.  Given the numerous ports and Oman’s strategic position in the Gulf, there are a considerable amount of vessels that pass through Oman’s ports every year.  In light of the number of vessels that visit Oman’s ports, it is worthwhile to consider the procedures involved in arresting a vessel.

The process


In order to arrest a vessel (also termed obtaining an attachment order), the vessel must physically be in an Oman port (1),  and not ready to sail from the Omani port.

Often, it is beneficial to approach a court to obtain the arrest order on an ex parte basis (where notice is not given to the ship owner/ charterer) just prior to the vessel arriving in Oman.  If the vessel owner or charterer is aware that there is a precautionary attachment issued against the vessel in Oman, the vessel will likely avoid calling to port in Oman.  In Oman, it is possible to approach a court to obtain the arrest order without having first issued a proceeding against the vessel owner, provided a proceeding (with formal pleadings) is issued within 10 days of the arrest order being granted.

Security/bond

There are several key points to note that relate to security and the arrest of a ship.  The first is that prior to a court issuing an arrest order the court will request security or bond from the party applying for the arrest.  The amount of security required can vary and is determined by the court at its discretion.  The second point in relation to security is that after the arrest of the vessel, if a bank guarantee or other form of security is provided by the ship owner, the court is obliged to release the ship (2).   Finally, if the arrest of a ship is found to have been without legal basis, the party that had the ship arrested may be ordered to pay compensation to the ship owner (3).

The right to arrest

Under Omani law an application for the arrest of a vessel must be made to a relevant circuit judge of the Primary Court.  The relevant court is the court at the port where the ship is berthed.
An application for arrest will be filed in accordance with Articles 190 and 191 of the Civil and Commercial Procedures Law, which provides that a court is competent to give provisional relief in the form of an injunction.  Further, Article 187 of the Maritime Law provides that a precautionary attachment may be imposed on vessels by marine mortgage creditors.
In order to establish that a party is a marine mortgage creditor, that party needs to establish that the marine debt is a claim of right arising out of one of the following:

1. Damage caused by the vessel following a collision or other reason.
2. Loss of lives or physical injuries caused by the vessel, or which originated from her utilisation.
3. Aid and rescue.
4. Contracts for utilising or chartering the vessel under a charter party or other contract.
5. Contracts for the carriage of goods under a charter party, bill of lading or other.
6. Complete loss or damage of goods and luggage carried by the vessel.
7. General average (i.e., the apportionment of financial liability for the loss arising from the jettisoning of cargo by dividing the costs among all those whose property (ship or cargo) was preserved by the action).
8. Towage of vessel.
9. Pilotage of vessels.
10. Supply of equipment and tools which are necessary for the vessel’s utilization or maintenance.
11. Building, repairing and equipping of the vessel as well as the expenses incurred therein while in docks.
12. Wages of masters, officers and seamen and others who work on the vessel under articles of agreement.
13. Sums expended by the master, shippers, charterers or agents for the vessel’s account.
14. Dispute over the ownership of a vessel or dispute over single ownership.
15. The rights in the profits resulting from her utilisation.
16. Marine mortgage, especially every mortgage the origin of which enables the applying of limitation of liability of the owner or her husband (an agent on land representing the owner of a ship, who attends to the ship’s provisioning, repairing, and general management).
The above is considerably expansive and permits various parties to apply for the arrest of a ship in Oman.

Sister ship arrest

If the ship that a party wishes to arrest does not frequently call port in Oman, an alternative remedy to arresting the ship is the arrest of a sister ship.  Article 189 of the Maritime Law provides that a vessel to which the debt relates may be arrested, and any other vessel on account of the same debt provided the other vessel was also “owned” by the same owner as the first vessel at the time the debt arose.
Article 190 of the Maritime Law provides that, if the vessel has been chartered out to a charterer who was given the right of navigational management and was solely responsible for a marine debt relating to the vessel, the creditor may impose attachment on this vessel or on any other vessel owned by the charterer himself.  In the case of a charterer being solely responsible for the ship, attachment may not be imposed on any other vessel owned by the owner of the ship in accordance with Article 189 above, only other vessels owned by the charterer.

Concluding remarks

In light of Oman’s geographic position in the Middle East and the number of ports in Oman, as well as amenable laws relating to arresting vessels, parties should evaluate Oman as a viable option as a jurisdiction in which to take action when they are considering arresting a vessel.

Footnotes:
(1) Article 191 of the Maritime Law.
(2) Article 192 of the Maritime Law.
(3) Article 377 of the Civil and Commercial Procedures Law.


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Monday, May 21, 2018

Subcontracting under Omani Law

Subcontracting is common in the modern construction industry. It would almost certainly be unmanageable for one contractor to deliver a construction project, especially if the project involves a certain level of complexity, without contracting third parties having various expertise and capabilities to carry out specific portions of the works. On the other hand, from the project owner’s perspective, it does seem more desirable to engage one main contractor who remains responsible for all the subcontractors. That being said, it is not surprising that the main players in most construction projects are the project owner (client/employer), the main contractor and subcontractor(s). This interactive chain naturally gives rise to a number of contractual and legal issues.

There are no provisions in Omani law prohibiting the main contractor from subcontracting the whole or part of the works to a third party without the need to obtain a permission from the employer, unless otherwise stipulated in the contract, or if the performance of the works depends on the personal competence of the contractor.

However, in practice, employers tend to have an element of control over the main contractor in subcontracting the works and the selection of subcontractors. The degree of such control varies. The contract may restrict the scope of subcontracting by way of prohibiting subcontracting the whole of the works. This provision is quite common in standard forms of contract: for example, Clause 4.4 of the FIDIC Red Book 1999 states that “[t]he Contractor shall not subcontract the whole of the Works.” The contract may further require the main contractor to obtain the prior consent of the employer or the engineer to engage a proposed subcontractor if that subcontractor is not nominated by the employer. In this respect, it may be advisable in some instances to ensure that the contract contains a provision that “… [s]uch consent shall not be unreasonably delayed or withheld….”

The subcontractor may be nominated by the employer (nominated subcontractor) or selected by the main contractor (domestic subcontractor). In both cases, the subcontract agreement is to be concluded between the main contractor and the subcontractor. Hence, there is no direct contractual relationship between the employer and the subcontractor. As a result: i) the subcontractor is not contractually liable towards the employer for delayed delivery or defective works; and ii) the employer is not contractually liable towards the subcontractor for the payment of its entitlements under the subcontract agreement. These two issues will be dealt with in turn.

Subcontractor’s liability to the employer 

Privity of contract is a well-established doctrine under Omani law. The subcontractor, not being a party to a contract with the employer, it is not under any contractual obligation towards the employer or the subsequent owners under normal circumstances. The construction agreement between the employer and the main contractor may not impose an obligation on the subcontractor unless such obligation is accepted by the latter.

Accordingly, the main contractor remains liable to the employer for the subcontractor’s performance. Even in the case of a nominated subcontractor, the general rule is that the main contractor’s liability remains in place.

To minimise its scope of liability, the main contractor – especially if the contract does not provide for a right to object to nomination – may require the inclusion of an indemnity clause in the main contract whereby the employer indemnifies the main contractor against any damages that may occur as a consequence of the nomination.

Employer’s liability to the subcontractor 

As illustrated above, there is no direct contractual relationship between the employer and the subcontractor. Consequently, the employer is under no obligation whatsoever to the subcontractor.

The subcontractor therefore has no option but to seek the payment of its dues from the main contractor. Practical problems occur when the subcontract agreement contains a “pay-when-paid” clause, which is commonly imposed by main contractors. Pay-when-paid clauses are enforceable under Omani law. The effect of a pay-when-paid clause is that the subcontractor is not able to claim its dues from the main contractor until the latter has been paid by the employer. If the subcontractor brings legal proceedings against the main contractor before the latter has been paid, the court may dismiss the case on the ground of premature filing of the claim.

To reduce the harshness of “pay-when-paid” clauses, the subcontractor may attempt to obtain a direct payment obligation from the employer when negotiating the contract. However, in practice, this is rarely acceptable to employers.

In some cases the subcontractor may argue that the non-payment by the employer is solely attributable to the main contractor’s fault – for example, if the main contractor fails to provide the performance bond as required under the main contract. In other circumstances, the subcontractor may argue that the main contractor is in breach because of its failure to pursue its claim against the employer. In this connection, it may be advisable that the subcontractor tries to agree a contractual clause whereby the main contractor will be under an obligation to pursue its claims against the employer to the greatest possible extent.

Conclusions 

Subcontracting is permissible under Omani law and is prevalent in practice. Standard forms commonly provide for mechanisms restricting the scope of subcontracting. Under Omani law, subcontracting does not create a direct relationship between the employer and the subcontractor. Thus, the main contractor generally remains liable for the timely completion and quality of the subcontracted works. The main contractor may have grounds to defend itself against the liability for nominated subcontractors in particular circumstances. The subcontractor may not claim payments from the employer unless a direct payment obligation exists. Pay-when-paid clauses are commonly used in Oman. However, there are means to limit the effect of such clauses in particular cases.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

United States Withdraws from Iran Nuclear Deal and Reinstates Iranian Sanctions

On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”)1 and impose sweeping sanctions against Iran.  Forthcoming regulations will reinstate the sanctions in existence prior to the implementation of the JCPOA.   These sanctions will become effective on August 7 or November 5, 2018, depending on the type of activity involved.

Background
While the United States has levied sanctions against Iran for decades, it greatly increased its sanctions pressure during the Obama administration.  Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (“CISADA”), the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 (“IFCA”), and the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (“ITSR”).  The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (“NDAA”) added additional sanctions to the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 (“ISA”).  President Obama signed nine separate executive orders implementing Iran sanctions between 2010 and 2013.2
 
These sanctions placed substantial economic pressure on Iran.3   As a result, Iran negotiated with the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany (the “P5+1 Group”).4   On July 14, 2015, the parties finalized the agreement that became the JCPOA.5   Under the JCPOA, the P5+1 Group agreed to lift or waive numerous sanctions against Iran.  In exchange, Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program.6   The International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) was tasked with confirming that Iran was in compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA.  On January 16, 2016, the IAEA verified Iran’s compliance, and the JCPOA was implemented.7

The JCPOA does not include a clear framework for any party to exit the agreement.8   Yet, given that the JCPOA was not signed by any party, was not ratified by the U.S. Senate, and consists of a series of voluntary commitments, the United States has held that the JCPOA is a non-binding “political commitment.”9 

Operation of Prior U.S. Sanctions 

Prior to the implementation of the JCPOA, the U.S. utilized both primary and secondary sanctions to target Iran.  As a general matter, primary sanctions apply to any “U.S. person,” which is defined in regulations promulgated by the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) as “any United States citizen, permanent resident alien, entity organized under the laws of the United States (including foreign branches), or any person in the United States.”10   The Iran primary sanctions created a sweeping embargo that prohibited U.S. persons from engaging in transactions or dealings directly or indirectly with Iran or its government.11
 
Secondary sanctions apply worldwide, even to persons and entities not subject to U.S. jurisdiction.  Secondary sanctions render every person and entity anywhere in the world subject to U.S. sanctions for engaging in certain activities or transactions with (or for the benefit of) specified individuals or entities, or with (or through) specified countries or regions.  The mechanism by which the U.S. government enforces secondary sanctions is by restricting or excluding a violator’s access to the U.S. economic system.

A principal sanctions tool used by the U.S. government is designation of a targeted individual or entity as a Specially Designated National (“SDN”).  U.S. persons are prohibited from transacting with or for the benefit of any SDN, and must block any property or interest in property in their possession or under their control in which an SDN has an interest.  Prior to the implementation of the JCPOA, the United States had designated hundreds of Iranian individuals and entities as SDNs.

Separately, the United States targeted multiple sectors of the Iranian economy with secondary sanctions, including the financial, energy, insurance, shipping, automotive, precious metals, and industrial metals sectors.  These secondary sanctions evolved over a number of years.  While a detailed discussion of these multifaceted sanctions is beyond the scope of this alert, the following examples from the energy sector illustrate some of the secondary sanctions levied against sectors of the Iranian economy.

The IFCA allowed the United States to “block” — meaning freeze — the assets that are in the United States or in the possession or control of a U.S. person of anyone who “knowingly provides significant financial, material, technological, or other support to, or goods or services in support of any activity or transaction on behalf of or for the benefit of” a “person determined . . . to” (i) “be a part of the energy, shipping, or shipbuilding sectors of Iran” or to “operate a port in Iran.”12   The IFCA also required the President to impose various types of exclusionary and blocking sanctions on any person found to have provided goods or services “used in connection with” the energy sector of Iran.13 

As another example, under Executive Order 13590, non-U.S. persons were subject to various types of exclusionary and blocking sanctions for engaging in transactions with a fair market value of greater than $5,000,000 in a single year “that could significantly contribute to the maintenance or enhancement of Iran’s ability to develop petroleum resources in Iran.”14   The same applied to individuals who engaged in transactions with a fair market value of over $1,000,000 “that could directly and significantly contribute to the maintenance or expansion of Iran’s domestic production of petrochemical products.”15 

Sanctions Lifted Under the JCPOA

On January 16, 2016, the U.S. government began implementing its commitments under the JCPOA.  Those commitments were chiefly focused on easing most secondary sanctions.16   The United States eased these sanctions by taking actions with respect to each of the underlying statutes and orders.  Many of the Obama-era executive orders were revoked.17   The U.S. government waived sanctions under certain programs and committed not to exercise its discretion to impose sanctions under others.18

The primary sanctions were left in place for the most part, but the United States committed to licensing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. entities to do business in Iran.19   OFAC accomplished this through the issuance of General License H (“GL H”).  With certain exceptions, GL H authorized foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to transact with Iranian entities, including the Iranian government.20

Finally, the United States agreed to remove numerous specified individuals and entities from the SDN List21,  as well as from other lists of wrongdoers maintained by the U.S. government, namely the list of Foreign Sanctions Evaders (“FSEs”) and the Non-SDN Iran Sanctions Act List.22

Actions Taken on May 8

On May 8, President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the JCPOA,  and stated that the United States will implement the “highest level of economic sanctions” against Iran.23   All sanctions in place prior to January 16, 2016 will be reinstated.24   In conjunction with the President’s announcement, OFAC has published Frequently Asked Questions that explain in more detail how and when the sanctions will be reinstated.25 

President Trump did not issue any executive orders on May 8 that would “snap back” the sanctions at once.  To ease the burden of transitioning out of existing engagements with Iran, the U.S. government has provided for a wind-down period of either 90 or 180 days, depending on the type of transaction or sector involved.  The wind-down periods allow activities needed to exit existing relationships and contracts.

Although nothing announced on May 8 would appear, on its face, to prohibit entry into new short-term contracts to be completed within the wind-down period, such actions should be avoided based on strong signals from the U.S. government.  In his May 8 press conference, National Security Advisor John Bolton stated that “the decision that the President signed today puts sanctions back in place that existed at the time of the deal; it puts them in place immediately.  Now, what that means is that within the zone of economics covered by the sanctions, no new contracts are permitted.”26   Moreover, OFAC stated in its FAQs that entry into contracts after May 8, 2018 will be taken into account in any future sanctions determinations.27   While the legal status of this issue is therefore somewhat muddled, the reasonable take-away is that, regardless of whether it is technically prohibited to enter into such contracts, it is ill-advised because, at a minimum, it will be taken into account in any future sanctions determinations.

OFAC has advised that payments for pre-existing debts can be collected by non-U.S., non-Iranian persons after the end of the applicable wind-period, but only for contracts entered into prior to May 8, 2018.  So long as the agreement under which the debt arises existed prior to that date, if moneys are owed for goods or services provided before the end of the wind-down period, non-U.S., non-Iranian persons will be permitted to receive payment after the wind-down period according to the terms of the agreement.28   The same applies for payments related to loans extended prior to the end of the wind-down period under financing agreements entered into prior to May 8.29   These allowances will also be extended to U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign entities under a new general license, which will be issued in the near future.30

Applicable Wind-Down Periods

OFAC has stated that sanctions related to the following activities will be subject to a 180-day wind-down period, ending on November 4, 2018:

  • Sanctions on Iran’s port operators, and shipping and shipbuilding sectors, including on the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), South Shipping Line Iran, or their affiliates;
  • Sanctions on petroleum-related transactions with, among others, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO), and National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), including the purchase of petroleum, petroleum products, or petrochemical products from Iran;
  • Sanctions on transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions under Section 1245 of the [NDAA];
  • Sanctions on the provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and Iranian financial institutions described in Section 104(c)(2)(E)(ii) of [CISADA];
  • Sanctions on the provision of underwriting services, insurance, or reinsurance; and
  • Sanctions on Iran’s energy sector.31  

OFAC also announced that it will take two additional steps in November 2018.  First, it will re-designate all those removed from the SDN List and FSE list “no later than November 5, 2018.”32   Second, “OFAC intends to revoke GL H,” and therefore any operations under this general license “must be completed by November 4, 2018.”33

The following activities will be subject to a 90-day wind-down period, ending on August 6, 2018, after which secondary sanctions will be reinstated:

  1. Sanctions on the purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollar banknotes by the Government of Iran;
  2. Sanctions on Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals;
  3. Sanctions on the direct or indirect sale, supply, or transfer to or from Iran of graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes;
  4. Sanctions on significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranian rials, or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory of Iran denominated in the Iranian rial;
  5. Sanctions on the purchase, subscription to, or facilitation of the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt; and
  6. Sanctions on Iran’s automotive sector.34 

Finally, the following primary sanctions will also be reinstated as of August 7:

  1. The importation into the United States of Iranian-origin carpets and foodstuffs and certain related financial transactions pursuant to general licenses under the [ITSR];
  2. Activities undertaken pursuant to specific licenses issued in connection with the Statement of Licensing Policy for Activities Related to the Export or Re-export to Iran of Commercial Passenger Aircraft and Related Parts and Services (JCPOA SLP); and
  3. Activities undertaken pursuant to General License I relating to contingent contracts for activities eligible for authorization under the JCPOA SLP.35 

What Non-U.S. Companies Must Start Doing Immediately 

Given the relatively short authorized wind-down periods, non-U.S. companies engaged in transactional or investment activities in, through, or for the benefit of Iran or an Iranian company must immediately assess whether those activities are now, or will soon be, prohibited.  In some cases, the answer will be manifest, while in other cases the answer may require careful analysis of the complex secondary sanctions laws that pre-date the JCPOA.

If an investment or the continued performance of a contract will be prohibited at the end of the applicable wind-down period, the non-Iranian party will need to determine the least costly means of withdrawing from the investment or terminating the contract, whether by exercising a put option, invoking a force majeure clause, or by other means.

The U.S. government is not likely to be sympathetic to anyone who refuses to comply with the sanctions on the grounds that compliance would be too costly or economically detrimental.  Being sanctioned by the U.S. government for non-compliance is likely to be far more costly and detrimental, and could result in complete exclusion from the U.S. economic system.

Individuals and entities should also ensure that they are not engaging in business with any of the entities listed on the SDN or other sanctions lists.  The U.S. government has already started restoring persons and entities to the SDN List, and is expected to continue to do so on an ongoing basis.  It is therefore critical to regularly monitor the SDN and other OFAC lists.  Depending on the specifics, impacted parties may need to block the assets of re-designated individuals and entities.  This requirement will also extend to entities at least 50% owned by designated individuals and entities.36

About Curtis

Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP is a leading international law firm.  Headquartered in New York, Curtis has 17 offices in the United States, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  Curtis represents a wide range of clients, including multinational corporations and financial institutions, governments and state-owned companies, money managers, sovereign wealth funds, family-owned businesses, individuals and entrepreneurs.

For more information about Curtis, please visit www.curtis.com.

Attorney advertising.  The material contained in this Client Alert is only a general review of the subjects covered and does not constitute legal advice.  No legal or business decision should be based on its contents.

Please feel free to contact any of the persons listed below if you have any questions on this important development:

Jacques Semmelman, Partner
jsemmelman@curtis.com
New York: +1 212 696 6067

Daniel R. Lenihan, Partner
dlenihan@curtis.com
New York: +1 212 696 6949

Hyuna Yong, Associate
hyong@curtis.com
New York: +1 212 696 6123

Benjamin Woodruff, Associate
bwoodruff@curtis.com
New York: +1 212 696 6034

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Witholding Tax Update

The law relating to withholding tax in Oman was amended in February 2017, extending its applicability to specific categories of income realised in Oman, as explained in an article in the June 2017 edition of the Client Alert (Oman Introduces Withholding Tax for Foreign Investors).

Following the introduction of the new tax law, the tax authorities published a clarification on their website to the effect that withholding tax on services would apply only to services wholly or partly rendered in Oman, and not to services fully rendered from outside Oman.

In March 2018, however, the Oman tax authorities issued a further clarification modifying the original position. The latest clarification stipulates that withholding tax will now apply to income realised in Oman by foreign persons for the provision of services irrespective of where those services were performed.

Accordingly, payments to foreign service providers will be subject to tax deduction at a rate of 10% of the gross amounts due, wherever the services were rendered.

Potential taxpayers should check Oman’s tax treaty network to determine if a more favourable withholding tax position can be adopted. They are also advised to seek appropriate professional advice on the applicability of the withholding tax.

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