How is life in Oman for foreigners

The overview - Journal for ecumenical encounters and international cooperation

Oman: Locals should replace migrants

But urgently needed migrant workers cannot be replaced in the long run

The Sultanate of Oman employs eight times more foreigners than locals. Officially. What is not recorded is the number of illegal migrant workers, without whom the booming construction and tourism industries would not function. In the future, these jobs are to be filled by the overqualified Omanis. Social conflicts are inevitable.

by Christoph Burgmer

in the Oman Observer - one of two English-language daily newspapers in the Sultanate of Oman - can be found in the middle of page five between the half-yearly balance sheet statement of Pepsi Cola and a report on the release of Pakistani Taliban fighters in Lahore, a wanted ad. The Indian Silvester Gilbert Miranda, who is an advertising specialist by profession, is wanted and brought to Oman by the trading company National Tea Co. LLC. Next to it is the picture of a man in his late twenties with a mustache, his passport number and the note that he has not been found for five days. As a footnote, it is noted that no employer may hire the said Miranda and that if this has already happened, you have 15 days to report it to the employment office.

Such search advertisements can often be found in Oman's daily newspapers. Most of the people wanted are migrant workers from Asia whose contract has ended or has not been renewed for any other reason. According to Omani regulations, foreigners have to leave the country immediately after the end of their employment contract with their "sponsor", as the company that hires them and registers them with the authorities is called.

Many migrants still stay in the country. Even without the work card, the Sultanate's Green Card, which is required for all official occasions, from bank transfers to using the Internet café. You are looking for a job on the illegal labor market in the capital region. It is precisely this rapidly growing urban landscape, which stretches 60 kilometers from Muscat in the east over various small towns such as Mutrah, Ruwi, Hamriyah and Wadi Kabir, as well as the recently established places Qurum, Al Khuwair and Medinat al-Sultan Qaboos, offers for the illegal Labor market ideal conditions. The region is booming and in recent years has grown together to form the largest urban settlement area in Oman. 650,000 of the approximately 2.3 million people in the Sultanate live here. A large part of the profits from oil - they make up around 75 percent of the sultanate's export revenues - are invested in infrastructure measures. This included road construction, administrative buildings, schools and hospitals as well as private housing.

The construction industry in particular is one of the largest growth markets. The recently published official statistics in this sector calculated an increase in the number of employees subject to compulsory insurance of 2.1 percent compared to the previous year. Here, just as in the area of ​​house staff - from cleaners to gardeners to housemaids from the Philippines - the illegally employed are largely outside the strict state control.

The opening of the country to mass tourism since the beginning of this year has created an additional job market. Hotels and restaurants officially record the largest increase in employees at 5.3 percent. Not least thanks to the hotel infrastructure that has been created in the meantime and easier entry, there are job opportunities here, traditionally for Indians and Pakistanis. These will tend to increase in the future, as the Sultanate of Oman is focusing in particular on the expansion of American and European tourism in the five-year plan to procure foreign currency. The aim is to reduce the country's dependence on revenues from oil exports. Because compared to the other countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman only has small oil reserves.

However, tourism is a labor-intensive sector. Attempts by the authorities to expel thousands of illegal immigrants, as happened last year, are therefore neither deterrent nor particularly successful. In addition, the networks for legal and illegal immigration to Oman, especially from India, work well. In contrast, entry for Pakistani nationals is currently impossible. Visiting family members is also prohibited. The sultanate fears the entry of al-Qaida fighters and an unnecessary burden on traditionally good relations with the USA.

John Jonson has been working in the Sultanate for eight months. He is from Hyderabat in India. He found a job as a cleaner in a small hotel, even without papers. He is 25 years old and worked in India as an office clerk for a regional daily newspaper. An agency got him the entry papers for 80,000 rupees, that's around 1500 euros. "The problem is that many are under the illusion that they can make a lot of money quickly in Oman. In return, people who can neither read nor write sign every contract. They take out a loan. Then they find that their monthly salary is in Oman only about 40 rials, a little more than 100 euros. " However, that is hardly enough to transfer money to the family who stayed behind. The loan taken out in India cannot be repaid either. Some leave the employer with whom they have been placed and offer their work on the illegal market. There you can earn 5 rials a day, i.e. between 120 and 150 rials per month, the equivalent of between 240 and 300 euros. Since many of the migrant workers are male, young and independent, they take the risk of illegality and social hardship at the cost of higher earnings.

They are caught in their own Community. It consists of a community of emigrants, mostly from the same region of origin. The community organizes the accommodation, for a corresponding rent, of course: In John Jonson's case, five people live close together in a 15-square-meter room. The community also acts as a job agency. For example, several employees from the same region in India work in a hotel. Last but not least, the emigrant community serves as an information center for matters that need to be settled in the region of origin. Political or trade union organizations are banned in Oman. Social clubs are reserved for higher income groups such as doctors or engineers. So in order not to attract the attention of the authorities, the migrant workers from lower income groups adapt to the public life of the cities and mainly meet in private.

The Omani authorities themselves have not initiated any activities to integrate migrant workers. There are no integration programs. Oman practices an immigration policy based on the British model. Not surprisingly, there are still numerous political advisors from Great Britain working in Oman, although their number has decreased somewhat in recent years. As in Great Britain, immigrants to Oman have a relatively large amount of freedom to organize themselves. Individual districts in the metropolitan area of ​​the capital Muscat are more reminiscent of the Indian subcontinent than an Arab city. This is especially true for the city of Ruwi, eight kilometers from Muscat. In addition to Omanis from lower income groups who have come to the capital region from rural areas, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Bangladeshis live here. The market that Souq, is the main place for recruitment. Early in the morning and in the evening, after the unbearable heat of the summer day, the day laborers wait here for work.

Schareen is married and has two children. He comes from the southern Indian state of Kerala, where he worked in the reception of a hotel for 50 euros a month. "If you want your children to have a good education, this income is not enough." Schareen borrowed 65,000 rupees and paid an intermediary who got him a tourist visa and a flight to Oman. "I was promised that work in Oman would not be a problem. In the beginning everything worked. I was picked up and got a small job in a hotel. But when my visa expired, the Indian who brought me into the country disappeared." Schareen went into hiding in the illegal labor market in Ruwi. His situation is hopeless. It is true that washing his car in the morning brings him so much money that he can survive. But a return is out of the question. "Then I have to pay a fine of 250 rials and a plane ticket. I can't earn this money. And I wouldn't have any prospects in India either." All attempts by the 26-year-old to find permanent employment have so far failed.

The Omani government is currently in the process of electronically registering migrant workers and introducing forgery-proof work cards. It is likely that the Sultanate government will take the opportunity to thoroughly review all employment relationships of foreign workers. Because even in the Gulf States it is noticeable how little controllable labor migration has become. Despite all official attempts to counteract this.

When evaluating immigration policy, however, the particular characteristics of the economic and social conditions in the Gulf States must be taken into account. The situation of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates, especially in the Emirate of Dubai, is much worse than in the Sultanate of Oman, because automation is more advanced there. But in Oman, too, decades after the start of the oil boom, the consequences of investments in infrastructure are becoming apparent, albeit more moderately. Until 1970, Oman was one of the least developed countries on earth. Omanis themselves often worked in the then already prosperous Gulf states, primarily in Saudi Arabia and the various emirates. Oil discoveries and the change in political leadership gave the country the opportunity to develop its infrastructure. Managers and engineers came from the West, teachers and skilled workers from Egypt, workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Up until now, a double strategy in Oman has meant being able to permanently control the problem of the lack of labor and the necessary labor migration. Only individuals can immigrate. The work permit is coordinated by the company, which in turn is responsible for the employee and has to submit an application for an extension of the work permit annually. So far, this model has also been attractive for companies, regardless of whether they are local or foreign companies. The procedure enables them to react to the respective market situation quickly and without bureaucratic blockades. If the demand for labor falls during a recession, the workers are simply sent back to their countries of origin. There is no resistance or protest due to the ban on political parties or trade unions.

In addition, it is extremely difficult to acquire Omani citizenship. The prerequisite for this is that you have lived in the country for 15 years and passed an Arabic language test. However, since Omanis and migrant workers are equally proficient in English, there is no reason for many to learn Arabic. There were no further training opportunities for foreigners outside the company. For Omani citizens, however, Sultan Qaboos, absolute ruler of the Sultanate of Oman, pursued an ambitious and successful educational program. Countless schools and universities have sprung up over the past 30 years. Education and training are designed to ensure that Omanis find jobs in modern society.

The Omanization of the world of work is one of the official state goals. In practice, this means that every company is obliged to employ Omanis if they have the same qualifications. A quota of 50 percent is specified. If a company does not achieve this mark, it has to justify it. Omanization policy has largely been completed, especially in professional groups with medium and high qualifications, although there are exceptions here, such as in the health sector or among the top workers in the education system. In some fields of work, such as taxi drivers, there is even a work ban for foreigners. They are reserved for Omanis only. You have to consider that officially only 62,704 Omanis are currently employed subject to compulsory insurance. There are 539,139 foreign employees. However, more than half of the Omani population is under 15 years old. Officially, the aim is to use the policy of Omanization to train the next generation in such a way that they can take on a large part of the jobs that are still held by foreigners today - especially positions in the lower income bracket. However, it is questionable whether such plans can actually become a reality. It is difficult to imagine that Omanis would want to take on these activities. Hairdressers, for example, often come from Pakistan. Although the government wanted to replace them with Omani, no interested parties were found. Even highly qualified workers with years of experience are not easy to replace.

The emirate of Dubai has already reacted to such new developments. For the first time since the beginning of this year, foreign workers have been authorized to purchase condominiums in Dubai. Linked to this is the unlimited right of residence. The dependency on the employer is thus eliminated, at least for foreign employees with higher incomes. Such reforms are not yet conceivable in the Sultanate of Oman. The question is whether the royalist patrimonial system will be able to satisfy the growing youth with their demands for care and work, while at the same time the modernization of the world of work is progressing rapidly. And will the imminent change in Oman’s society, when the educated youth presses onto the labor market, also affect the form of political rule?

In any case, the form of labor migration that has been practiced for 30 years will not continue, even if there are currently no signs of change. For the future development of the absolutist, but tolerant and cosmopolitan Omani society, the development of the labor market will be decisive. Unemployment for academics will no longer be a foreign word here in the future either. Half of all students in the sultanate took Islamic studies last year alone. The question will be whether a corresponding number of jobs can be created for the high number of academics. Otherwise, the well-educated Omanis will force their way into the labor market dominated by foreign labor migrants. This would jeopardize the still stable social peace.

A new study of the Arab Labor Organization sees growing unemployment as one of the key challenges. The reasons given are population growth, declining investment, better education for local youth and increasing employment of women. "The golden years from 1980 to 1995 are over for us too," says an analyst in Dubai. In the smaller states of the Gulf region, fear is growing that, given slower economic growth and increasing global economic interdependence, they will have less and less political room for maneuver. At the same time, there are increasing voices calling for a more aggressive policy in terms of job creation for Arabs - at the expense of migrant workers. They are afraid of being expelled even after years of residence in the Gulf region. As in 1996, the United Arab Emirates are preparing an amnesty for illegal immigrants subject to the condition that they leave the country. It is very likely that migrant workers in the Gulf States will be among the first victims of the tougher market conditions and the global recession, especially since they have no political rights and are not allowed to form trade unions or political organizations.

from: the overview 03/2002, page 43


Christoph Burgmer:

Christoph Burgmer is an Islamic scholar and Iranist; he works as a journalist and author for ARD.