Where do current trade levels between the UK and Oman stand?

BOWDEN: They are looking pretty healthy. UK exports to Oman in 2011 were 390m GBP worth of goods. Oman exported to the United Kingdom 148m GBP worth of goods. On top of the visible exports, the UK also exported to Oman 195m GBP worth of services last year.

Within which industries/sectors are British companies most active within Oman?

BOWDEN: If one looks at the visible exports, it is mainly industrial machinery, vehicles, power generating equipment, electrical plans, chemicals, and defence equipment. In services, which obviously are another critical sector for us, education is important, not just in terms of the British presence here in Oman and the number of British higher education institutions that have relationships with Oman institutions, but also in that there are around 2,000 Omanis studying in the UK at the moment. If you look at the other services here, construction is a major one. Civil engineering, law, accountancy and financial services, including banking are the main services here.

Who are the biggest British companies active in the Omani market today? Which infrastructure development projects are British firms involved in?

BOWDEN: The UK is by far the largest foreign investor in Oman. Last year about 36% of the entire FDI here in Oman was British. That is way ahead of the next country. The big investors here, like Shell, one of the international partners of PDO (Petroleum Development of Oman), have a decades-long relationship with PDO. BP has been exploring the gas field for the past years, has already invested hugely in that, and it is in negotiations with the Omani government, which we hope will lead to the project going ahead. When that is concluded, BP will be investing between $15-20bn here, which will make it the biggest project anywhere in the world. We also increased Oman’s gas production by about 30%, and a very significant difference was made to the Omani economy. The other big company here is HSBC, who earlier this year merged with the Oman International Bank. We have Standard Chartered here as well, and BAS, the former British Aerospace, who have long standing presence here in Oman.

Starting with the infrastructure development project that we all see the most, which is the airport, there are two British companies that have major contracts at the airport, one is Carillion, the construction firm. They are building the control tower. Carillion have a long standing presence here and are responsible for many of the iconic buildings around Muscat. They built the Royal Opera House, the National Museum in Muscat, and the new National Assembly in Bustan. They are a very prominent company around here. The other is Ultra, a British firm doing the system integration for the airport project, not just for the airport in Muscat, but also at the airport in Salalah. Other than that, we are very interested in the railway project and the possibilities that offers. Two British engineering firms, Mott MacDonald and Atkins, are in different consortia and bidding for work on the design of the project. We are also very interested in the port expansions in Salalah and Duqm and we hope to see British companies involved there.

Where do you see further opportunities for British companies in Oman and Omani companies in the UK?

BOWDEN: There is a great diversity here. We have Oman 2020, their long term economic strategy, which laid out the areas that they want to develop in the ways that they want to diversify their economy. I have to say the one area that we are looking at very closely is Duqm and the development down there. There will be a major conference on the 4th of December at the Mansion House in the city of London, organized by the Omani government. The conference will look at developments in Duqm and other ports such as Salalah and Sohar. Otherwise, we are looking at opportunities in education, healthcare, tourism, and logistics as a consequence of the new ports being developed. There are some long established industries here that still have fresh opportunities. Hydrocarbons and infrastructure will remain key in the coming years. The UK has a long tradition in exporting services, particularly in financial services and law. I think that there will be opportunities there for a long time. One area I am particularly interested in is Islamic finance because it is a new concept for the local market. London is the clear centre for Islamic finance in the western world. It is the only place where you have great depth in Islamic financial expertise with a wider expertise that London brings to every single area of financial activity. As we have seen in some of the other countries in the Gulf, I hope to see a significant British consultancy presence in Islamic finance in Oman.

The opportunities for Omani companies are really the opportunities for any foreign companies interested in going into the UK. It is one of the most open economies in the world with various points of attraction. You have a huge diversity of economic activity there, a great pool of creativity of world class caliber in every area of innovation. The UK has a long history as a trading nation and obviously it is a very cosmopolitan country, one that strives to have a great diversity of cultures. Finally, the UK has the advantage of being the gateway to Europe.

Are there specific challenges inhibiting trade and cooperation between the UK and Oman?

BOWDEN: We’re looking at them not so much as challenges, but as factors that we always stress to British companies looking to come and set up in Oman. The first is that, if you are serious about doing business here, you have to be here. You cannot jet in and jet out; you need a presence on the ground. Having established this presence, the work you do here has to be done from here and not from some remote office elsewhere. They have to recognize that Oman is a very much independent, individual market, not just part of the GCC, and the market has to be approached on that basis. We stressed that long term relationships between British businesses and Omani businesses or Omani clients are absolutely essential to successfully doing business here. The other thing that is very important, and again we stress this to any British company, is that they need to offer more than simply their product if they are going to be successful here. They have to have something to deliver to the wider Omani economy. One thing in particular is jobs for Omanis; improving the overall skill levels in the Omani workforce and diversifying the economy and in whatever way possible generating in-country value from their work here. There are some obvious attractions to investing in Oman. It is a very stable environment and one can see that looking into the future. It is in fantastic location, very close to the growing market of India, on the route to South East Asia, with Europe and North America in the other direction.

This is a very competitive region in terms of attracting foreign investment. I think that a lot of British potential investors, when they are looking for opportunities, they are looking across the region and not just at Oman. Thus, it is very important that Oman’s offer is the one that, to a foreign investor, is going to look very attractive to those of other GCC countries. This is a hard race to win, but it has to be seen as a race. The only other observation I have made, that I do hear from British companies, one that I have also heard from people in the Omani government, is the bureaucracy around here could be a bit faster, a bit sleeker. But otherwise, we certainly hope to see more British companies here.

How would you describe bilateral relations between Oman and the UK?

BOWDEN: They are quite remarkable. Probably, this is one of our closest bilateral relationships in the world. There are a number of reasons for this and a lot of it has to do with history. It is a very old relationship, way over 2 centuries old. It is a very personal relationship at every level, including the close friendship His Majesty the Sultan has with Her Majesty the Queen. There are Omanis who studied in the UK, worked in the UK, holidayed in the UK, and vice versa. A lot of British people have been to Oman to work here and to holiday here. You have a very extensive network of personal relationships at every level. Another key area is the close business relationship. I think on a political level, this is not an area with political challenges and we and the Omanis work very closely together and see things in the same way. It has been an extraordinary privilege for the UK that over the past 42 years we have been so tightly incorporated into the renaissance and with this extraordinary development that we have seen in Oman. In the last 4 decades, Oman has developed more than any other country in the world and it is great that we were able to be involved in some of that, working alongside the Omanis during this extraordinary transformation. In general, British people feel very welcomed in Oman. I hope that Omanis feel in the same way when they go to the United Kingdom.