A DATE WITH A FISH

Oman 2015 | AGRICULTURE & FISHERIES | REVIEW: AGRICULTURE

Oman is one of the few GCC countries that does not rely extensively on imports to feed its citizens. Now, the government is pushing to attract more foreign investment to become an exporter of local produce.

When someone thinks of Oman, agriculture might not be the first thing that comes to mind; however, the government has been making a concerted effort over the past decade to boost locally produced food in an effort to create better food security. While Oman's fisheries are able to meet local demand and leave some left over for export, the fact that 81% of the Sultanate is desert, 18% is mountainous, and 3% is coastal means that there is only a small amount of viable land left for agriculture. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 75,977 hectares of land is cultivated; however, the sector still manages to employ 27.56% of the labor force. The main products grown in Oman are dates and other fruits, vegetables, and field crops, as well as poultry, sheep, goats, and cattle. The majority of farm holdings are between 1.26 and 12.6 hectares (65%), while 23.8% are over 12.6 hectares, and 11% are less than 1.26 hectares. The government has been investing more in its agricultural products in an effort to increase the value-added as well as possibly turn Oman into a food basket for certain items in the GCC region. One product that has particularly been focused on is dates. In 2013, Oman pushed past the 300,000-ton mark for production with an increase of 27,000 tons on the year before. Of the 308,000 tons produced, however, only 7,000 tons were exported with Oman's 2.16 million people eating on average 60 kilograms each per year. The average consumption rate for expatriates was somewhat lower at 20 kilograms per year. Date palms are the main crop of Oman and account for 54% of agricultural land and 85% of land cultivated for fruit. North Batinah produces the most dates with it sending over 86,400 tons to market, which accounted for 28.02% of total production. This was followed by Dakhiliyah, which produced 63,200 tons in 2013. Over the last decade, date production has increased by over 30%; however, the death of more than 500,000 date palms in recent years has alarmed some in the sector. In 2006, there were 8.5 million date palms, but this figure had fallen to 8 million by 2013. The reason for the deaths was put down to environmental problems, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is looking to rectify the situation by handing out over 1 million sapling date palm trees to farmers to boost numbers again. After dates, the second most produced crop is vegetables, with the Sultanate growing 147,000 tons in 2012. Oman is also a significant producer of milk, especially goats' milk. In 2012, the country produced 101,200 tons of goats' and 72,000 tons of cows' milk. After milk, the fifth most produced product in Oman is bananas at 63,000 tons, tomatoes at 55,000 tons, and then sorghum at 40,000 tons according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. In terms of exports, the top three countries are the UAE ($249 million), Saudi Arabia ($209 million), and Iran ($106 million).

Another major part of the agriculture sector is its aquaculture and fisheries. Currently, the sector produces 206,000 tons of fish products annually, while the sector employees 45,000 Omanis. The Sultanate plans to take full advantage of its 2,092-kilometer coastline by almost doubling its production by 2030. At the moment, Oman is self-sufficient when it comes to fish demand, which represents about half of the current production, while the remainder is exported. The government plans to boost this export number to 200,000 tons by 2030. To do this, the Sultanate aims to open up new export markets in the GCC as well as further afield, such as in Europe and Central Asia. The government is hoping to emulate the success stories of other coastal countries, such as Norway, Chile, Turkey, and Scotland. The success behind those countries was in their ability to draw in foreign investment to develop their fisheries. Since early 2013, the government has been extensively promoting its fishing industry abroad in an effort to attract investors. So far, it has received 30 applications for business and has permitted 19, with a total value of OMR130 million. These investments have come from as far as Asia, South Africa, and Australia. The aquaculture sector is still in its infancy, but it has demonstrated its potential through its ability to attract numerous foreign investors.

THE TREE OF LIFE

According to the Muslim tradition, God created the date palm from dust left over after Adam was shaped; consequently, it is often referred to as the “Tree of Life," an appropriate name given its multiplicity of uses. The date palm is considered the first crop of Oman, and it plays a crucial role in the cultural identity of the Sultanate. Nowadays even, there are still Omanis that plant the shoot of a date palm to commemorate the birth of a son. According to tradition, the date palm, having the lifespan of a man, grows with the newborn, providing a guarantee against starvation. Dates were also one of the main components of the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Omani interior, providing a complete nutrition that perfectly suited the Bedouin lifestyle; their high sugar content, ranging from 40% to 80%, protects the fruit against bacterial contamination, making them extremely durable. If the fruit is dried properly, it can last for years. Thanks to dates, Omani seamen were protected from the scourge of European sailors, scurvy, which was endemic due to vitamin deficiency. Not only in Oman, but in all Islamic countries, Muslims still traditionally break their Ramadan fast each night by eating a date, said to be the manner in which the Prophet Muhammad himself broke his fast. The Sultanate currently hosts more than 250 species of date, some of them internationally known. The yearly yield of a tree may reach 270 kilograms, with each cluster weighing up to 12 kilograms. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, there are about 8 million date palms in Oman as of 2013. Date palms occupy an estimated 85% of the total area under fruit cultivation, and about 50% of total agricultural land. Local human consumption of dates is estimated to be 132,000 tons a year, while as animal feed it is about 53,000 tons. India currently represents a key market for Oman's date exports. In 2013, according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry's date committee, Omani farmers exported 300 tons of dates directly to Indian traders, and this number is expected to rise in the coming years.

FIT FOR A KING

The frankincense trade has been one of the most lucrative businesses in the history of human kind: the resin of the Botswellia sacra, demanded by the theocentric powers in the Mediterranean, China, and India, has been traded for thousands of years, between different cultures around the world. Nowadays, the Governorate of Dhofar, in Oman, produces some of the highest quality frankincense in the world. The month of April ushers in the harvest of the precious resin, which has been extracted in the same way for 4,000 years. The average production of one tree is between seven and 10 kilograms; the country's total production is 7,000 tons per year and the annual revenue from the trade is around $78 million. The color reveals the purity of the frankincense; the highest quality frankincense is characterized by a silver color, sometimes enriched with a green tinge. The best quality produced in the Governorate of Dhofar is Houjari, followed by Najdi, Sharsri, and Shaabi. On average, the price of frankincense ranges from between OMR3 and OMR30. Today, frankincense is still used in the perfume, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries. The Ministry of Agriculture is currently trying to boost the production and the size of frankincense planted areas, distributing seedlings in the area. Moreover, the Office of His Majesty the Sultan's Adviser for Cultural Affairs has recently announced an experiment to produce frankincense at Wadi Doka Sanctuary, increasing the number of trees in the area to more than 10,000.