Tucked away on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman is the most welcoming monarchy of the Middle East. In a time where the other nations in the region are going through political, economic and civic crises, this developing oasis has managed to steer clear of all the mayhem. While it may not be as modernized as the United Arab Emirates, this country is a lot more progressive than many of its neighbors. Potential expats looking for new and unique educational, professional or entrepreneurial opportunities in the Gulf are therefore looking at Oman as the place to be.More than 25% of the country’s residents are citizens of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many westerners are mesmerized by the landscaped highways, sunny coastline, dramatic mountains and distinct architecture they see in the capital city, Muscat, which is home to the majority of the expat population.
Of course, like in the case of any other place, life in Oman has a number of ups and downs. Professionals planning to move to this destination should only do so if they have a definite offer from a reputed firm. This may be a challenge, thanks to the ministry’s Omanisation drive.
What is Omanisation?
In 1988, Oman’s government enacted a policy which was aimed at replacing expatriate workers with local personnel. They set quotas for each industry, where a certain percentage of the employees had to be Omani and no more than a specific percentage of the workforce could be from overseas. To maximize the effectiveness of their mandate, the government has funded a number of universities to help increase the number of skilled locals. A higher quality and quantity of Omani graduates are driving a hiring boom all over the nation.
The organizations that meet the required goals receive a “green card”, which means some amount of attention from the press, as well as preferential treatment in their dealings with the municipal authorities. Recently, one of the officials was quite candid when saying that those organizations that don’t meet the set target “will not find a friend in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry”.
This move is bound to have an adverse impact on the recruitment of expats from all over the world. According to reports published by some of the leading manpower agencies in the country, more than 80% of all the existing job postings are only open to Omani nationals. In fact, data show that for the last two years, skilled and qualified locals have been chased by headhunters, as the companies are trying to meet the targets concerning the local workforce.
The Minister of Commerce and Industry, Dr. Ali Bin Mas’oud Al Sunaidi, recently stated that an Omanisation rate of 35% was expected in most organizations and warned them about the consequences if they failed to adhere to the target. Most of the businesses in the private sector seem to have heeded the message, as an upsurge of jobs for Omanis can be observed. The Ministries have already reached 100% Omanization, which means that foreigners cannot be hired for government jobs. However, there is a freeze on jobs in the public sector, which is why the locals are seeking opportunities in the private sector.
In the private sector, the areas that have met the required percentages are:
• Communication, Transport and Storage: 60%
• Finance, Insurance and Real Estate: 45%
• Industrial: 35%
• Hospitality (Hotels) and Food & Beverage (Restaurants): 30%
• Trading (Wholesale or Retail): 20%
• Contracting: 15%
Employers should keep in mind that the targets don’t just apply to the overall organization, as per the industry, but also to the people working in specific categories. For example, the quota for the engineering field is 50%, with the highest being 80% for skilled workers and 70% for technicians. Similarly, accounting firms have a target of 29% for managers, 55% for specialists and 66% for technicians; 100% of the people hired in administrative and clerical positions have to be local. In the oil and gas sector, the level is 90% for the production and operation companies and 82% for firms that are in direct service.
While the government organizations as well as the oil and gas sectors have registered up to 90% Omanisation, some industries, like construction, are still lagging way behind, with their numbers in single digits. Things may get worse for those who have not met the quota, as the authorities are planning an upward revision of the targets.
Is Omanisation responsible for fewer expat vacancies?
Up until 3 years ago, about 50% of the job vacancies across the country were open to foreigners. However things have changed drastically since then, as the number of openings for Omanis has increased by a huge margin. What is surprising is that not everyone is in agreement about the reason for the boost in demand for Omanis.
One of the top managers in the nation’s leading recruitment agency has attributed this change to the fact that in the last few years, the citizens of this country have fared extremely well at college as well as in vocational studies; many of them have degrees from well reputed institutes overseas. More companies are now willing to hire them, instead of outsiders. Another expert in manpower hiring trends clarified that the dramatic increase in the demand for local employees was only partly due to Omanisation. He added that the quality of graduates also played a major role in this shift. Some believe that the tightening of visa requirements for expats has also helped increase the preference for locals. Others are of the opinion that an economic slowdown has made firms more aware of the Omanisation percentage as they shy away from spending high amounts on expat packages, which often include visa expenses, accommodation, healthcare, education (in case of children), conveyance, and domestic services.
On the other hand, a majority of recruitment gurus claim that the strict Omanisation quota that companies need to adhere to is the primary reason for the rise in opportunities for the country’s talent.
This doesn’t mean that outsiders can’t get good jobs in Oman. Dr. Al Sunaidy reiterated this fact during his speech at the Oman Industry Day event. He started off by highlighting the role expats play in the economy of the nation. At the same time, he made it clear that companies failing to meet and maintain the minimum Omanisation percentage were not fulfilling their social responsibilities. In his opinion, many of the foreign companies with offices in Oman have been quite successful in attained the Omanisation rates but the local firms were struggling to do so. He urged the top management to take complete ownership of this drive.
The Minister of Commerce and Industry stated “I’m aware of the contributions made by the expat doctors and engineers to develop the country. We know that we need them. However, when we talk about jobs that can be done by Omanis but are instead given to expats, it is a problem. Why can’t we give the job to an Omani who has the expertise to do it well?” He added that organizations achieving and exceeding the set percentages should be appreciated through special incentives. The decision makers were called upon to discuss this further with the Ministry.
Getting hired by local firms or multinational companies in this country isn’t as easy as it used to be, even for those who have special skills. In order to get an offer of employment and obtain a work permit for Oman, an expat should have a minimum of 8 to 10 years’ experience in the same relevant field. It is rare to come across vacancies for foreigners with under 3 to 4 years of work experience, no matter how qualified they may be.
Expats are asked to read up on the lifestyle in Oman and connect with other foreigners living in the region before accepting any job offer, no matter how tempting it may be. Bear in mind also that the living and working culture will probably be quite different from what you are used to.
Other challenges of working in Oman
Changing jobs is one of the main issues that expats working in this country face. A company that hires a foreigner on a fixed-term contract has to invest a lot of time, money and effort into getting them an employment visa, flying them in and helping them settle down. If any of them decide to quit the job before their agreement expires, they are required to leave Oman for a minimum of two years before they can return and take up another position. This means that it is compulsory for expats to complete their contracts, even if the work conditions are less than favorable. Failure to do so will have them banned from working in the country for two years, unless they manage to obtain a No Objection Clearance (NOC) from their employers. However, even after getting the NOC and a new job offer, they have to leave the country for a while and can only return after they get a fresh work visa that has been sponsored by their new employers.
When it comes to decision making, the final authority rests with the locals in the top positions, who may have a slightly conservative approach to business matters. Foreigners in upper management roles are given a lot of duties and responsibilities, but almost no power to make crucial decisions.
It is also important for outsiders to familiarize themselves with the work culture of the Arabs in order to have positive interactions with their clients and stakeholders. Values like respect, honestly, loyalty and humility are highly appreciated and will give you an edge in terms of fostering cordial relationships with everyone. Avoid disagreeing with someone openly and never put a colleague down, even in jest, or you may offend people around you.
Islam is prevalent in every aspect of Omani life, even at the workplace; prayer times and other religious practices like fasting during Ramadan are often given more importance than meetings or calls. Do keep this in mind during all your interactions with the locals.
While English is widely used and understood, colleagues usually converse with each other in Arabic, even during important meetings. Similarly, English may be the main language for office communication but most of the government documents are printed only in Arabic. It is therefore best to learn the language as soon as possible or hire a good interpreter.
Working hours in Oman can be long. Depending on the policies of the industry and the specific company, the employees work anywhere between 40 and 48 hours a week. This may be higher during the month of Ramadan, as the working hours for Muslim employees are cut down to under 6 hours a day, to accommodate their fasting schedules. Also bear in mind that gulf nations observe Thursday and Friday as their weekend, not Saturday and Sunday; many businesses stay shut only on one day of the week.
Even though women constitute a significant portion of the Omani workforce, at times female expats encounter resistance. In some cases, a person may insist on interacting with a male representative instead of a female, regardless of how qualified and able she is. Fortunately, these instances are not very common.
To conclude, the Omanisation drive may prevent you from finding a good job opportunity in the Middle Eastern Sultanate, unless you are a highly qualified, skilled and experienced professional, more suitable for a role in upper management. Even if you do manage to get an offer that suits you, make sure you weigh all the pros and cons carefully before signing the dotted line.
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