- Oman's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a success, with relatively few cases reported.
- The country's plans for a diverse and sustainable future economy have been put to the test by the crisis.
- But thanks to its robust society and entrepreneurial spirit, Oman has passed this test with flying colours.
Early, decisive and clear action taken by the Omani government to combat COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on containing and slowing the spread of the virus nationwide. Clear and regular communication with the general public in multiple languages, with the Oman vs COVID-19 initiative as its linchpin. This sharing of information played an important part in the implementation of a successful "stay home" and social distancing campaign and did so even even before the first death from the virus was recorded in the sultanate on 1 April.
As of 17 June 2020, Oman had reported 26,818 cases of infection and 119 deaths.
As the pandemic causes global oil prices to plummet – DME Oman oil is priced at $41.85 at time of writing, a drop of more than $20 year-on-year – what are the implications for this Gulf nation? What are the impacts on Oman’s plans for a sustainable economic future?
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The sultanate has been preparing for a post-hydrocarbon economy since 1995 when its first diversification strategy, Vision 2020, identified 10 sectors as pillars of economic sustainability. Five of these – manufacturing, logistics, fisheries, mining and tourism – have now been prioritized. Building on Vision 2020 and consolidating the gains of the last 25 years, Vision 2040 takes into account globalization and ongoing developments in technology. Both strategies have had a strong focus on investment in infrastructure, telecommunications and the creation of a digitally literate, entrepreneurial society.
Half a century ago Oman had 10 kilometres of paved roads, one hospital and no secondary schools. Today, the sultanate has national highways ranked as some of the best in the world. It has four international airports and three major sea ports. Nearly 90% of Oman’s population has access to mobile broadband and a burgeoning system of government cloud services. This country of 4.6 million is also home to over 55 universities, colleges and training institutes.
As the pandemic takes its toll, the strength of Oman’s infrastructure investment – physical and social – is being put to the test.
While the airports have lain quiet apart from cargo traffic and occasional repatriation flights since their closure on 29 March, Oman’s three principal sea gateways in Sohar, Duqm and Salalah have been operating normally with 200 ships calling per week and cargo continuing to flow to 86 ports in 40 countries. Highways have continued to transport the ongoing outputs of the country’s manufacturers – from dairy products and pharmaceuticals to car batteries and fibre optic cables – nationwide and regionally.
The sultanate’s telecommunications infrastructure is supporting surges in demand following March’s ‘Work from Home’ initiative, along with the switch to online learning through the Ministry of Education’s digital learning platform. Also educating online is Sultan Qaboos University’s U Project’ for students at its college of medicine.
Oman’s long-standing investment in, promotion of and support for entrepreneurship and its focus on creating a tech-savvy society looks to be paying dividends during the pandemic as Oman’s entrepreneurs generate and put into action ideas to combat the virus and support the economy.
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In February, Oman’s Industrial Innovation Centre rallied innovative tech start-ups and SMEs to form a team which produced ventilators and used 3D printing to manufacture facemasks – all now deployed across the country. And young talent at Oman Maker’s Centre, based in Innovation Park Muscat, has developed a digital artificial respiration device that simulates a commonly used ventilation system. Tested and subject to quality checks, the device has already been approved for use in hospitals nationwide. Serial entrepreneur Raif Al Harthy’s digital platform Wareed provides a home delivery service for prescribed medicine to patients, especially elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions. “Doing whatever we were going to do in two years, we have to do in two months or two weeks now. A great opportunity but also a huge responsibility,” says Raif.
In March 2020, The Research Council Oman set up a COVID-19 research programme with a clinical and public health scope covering areas including telemedicine, therapeutics and diagnostics, as well as environmental impacts of the virus. All funded projects are planned to be executed over the next three to 12 months, aiming to produce applied and practical results. To-date, the programme has received 442 research proposals, 103 in the clinical category and 339 non-clinical.
And in this land where shopping in souks – traditional markets in the Arab world – is a living tradition, the online marketplace has been embraced with gusto as companies such as MarkeetEx, Azooz and Talabat have stepped up their services, taken on more staff and now provide on-demand delivery of food and home goods to ‘stay home’ consumers. “Here at MarkeetEx we saw demand grow by 300-500% every seven days during the first six weeks of the pandemic in Oman,” says Sharifa Al Barami, the company’s co-founder.
Oman Technology Fund (OTF) has allocated $2.6 million to support start-ups develop ideas for short and long-term pandemic-related projects. One such start-up is Behar. Based in the coastal town of Barka, this young company has created behar.market to help local fishermen overcome the challenge of closed markets and connect with customers. Working with OTF to support the growth of the country’s digital community and its technology entrepreneurs is Ithraa, Oman’s Inward Investment and Export Development Agency, who will help promote OTF-funded start-ups and their products and services domestically and internationally. Ithraa is providing access to these Omani companies and others through its recently launched Invest In Oman portal.
While various types of government support have been put in place for businesses struggling with the impacts of the virus, grassroots initiatives have also sprung up – initiatives like @COVID-19preneurs, created by Muscat-based film company Booma. Indeed, entrepreneurs in South Africa and Jordan have been inspired by the platform and worked with Booma to launch it in their own countries.
The pandemic has tested the resilience of Oman’s diversification plans and investment in development but it has also highlighted the robustness of its society and the strength of what is perhaps the country’s most important asset – its entrepreneurial and innovative young talent.