Sunday Beat: Oman’s economic growth outlook favours expats

Vendors engage in trade at the Mawaleh market in Muscat, Oman. Photo - Times of Oman

The economic growth in the last five years has been consistent with the job market but the good times mainly benefitted the expatriate workers, with Omani job-seekers ending up assuming a secondary role of plugging the random holes of vacancies.

According to the Finance Ministry's statistics, the Omani economy has been growing at an average annual rate of four per cent since 2010, and the trend is forecast to continue this year. There were 1.1 million expatriates working in 2010 in the private sector, compared to 128,000 Omanis. By February this year, the national statistical department recorded 1.53 million expatriates in the private sector, compared to about 185,000 Omanis.

From January 2010 to February this year, about 435,000 expatriate workers were added to the private sector, compared to only 56,485 new jobs created for Omanis in the same period. The expatriate to Omani employment ratio in the private sector is nine to one.  For the benefit of people, lest they are gullible, for every one Omani working in the private sector, there are nine expatriate workers. This surprisingly means there is a robust expansion in employment but without benefitting Omani job-seekers.

The economic growth has been keeping pace with job opportunities. The economy grew at an annual average rate of 4.4 per cent since 2010 till date. However, we know the scale is tipping heavily to the other side. It is the wrong side of the Omanisation's drive which started in the 1980s. The question that needs to be asked is this: what did the economic and policy planners have in mind when they started off in 1985 at a time when job nationalisation efforts were being hammered into place?

Someone would say that the original planners are now all retired and are seeing their efforts being derailed and going off the track. I would say that those currently in charge of creating jobs for Omanis are generally indifferent. One reason could be that the responsibility is just too big for them and they have no clue how to tackle the problem. There is no reliable figure for the number of people still looking for jobs. However, the estimated number of those who applied for jobs and are still waiting is some 35,000. There are  also no statistics of how many graduates and school leavers look for jobs every year but estimates from educational institutions put this number at around 30,000.

Digging deep
Most of the graduates are absorbed by the civil ministries and security forces. Not only the private sector needs to dig deep to find jobs for Omanis who have been in the unemployment doldrums for more than a year but also the fresh graduates. It is never enough to just put a freeze on employing expatriates in the technical and administrative jobs in the private sector. 

The Manpower Ministry also needs to look deep at how to terminate the contracts and then replace the expatriates with Omanis in jobs. It is no longer an excuse for the bosses of private companies to say that Oman does not have enough skilled people in its local workforce to replace expatriates.

The Minister of Manpower, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Bakri, said recently that his ministry is training 5,000 Omanis in different specialisations every year to target job replacement in the private sector. 

However, that effort needs to be met with a serious commitment because so far, not enough of these graduates have been able to secure jobs. Some OMR40 million will be spent in 2014 for this purpose and naturally, we want to see the result of this substantial expense. The economic growth must translate into thousands of jobs every year for nationals while the international oil price is high, or, for that matter, while Oman is still producing enough oil to drive the economy.

If the current economic good times do not translate into job security on a large scale, then the employment situation will continue to cause significant hardships to many families and will demoralise many youths. The unemployment situation will not get any better and the job market will not recover on its own. The private sector bosses will not give up without a fight just because we are making the right noises. Something has to happen to force them to change their minds. The government needs to crack the whip since it is not enough to just dangle a carrot before them.

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