IN IT TOGETHER

Oman 2016 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: NEW PUBLIC TRANSPORT

There is a dearth of public transport throughout Oman, and in Muscat particularly. The time for this to change is now.

Public transport is noticeably limited in the Sultanate of Oman. Muscat lacks solutions to increasing levels of congestion, while public transport is all but non-existent in the rest of the country. According to research funded by The Research Council, only 14% of the population use public transportation on a daily basis in Oman. Although road infrastructure has developed well, the Sultanate has not been successful in creating the necessary facilities for public transport to develop. Over the course of 2016, a change in this area is a must. Fortunately, Oman National Transport Company (ONTC) has begun to make improvements.

Public transport is not something that comes naturally to Omanis, according to Dr. Rakesh Belwal, a professor in the Faculty of Business at Sohar University. Speaking to Times of Oman in July 2015, he said that both a “decent public transport infrastructure and a sharing culture in which people would ride buses together” needs to be developed. This is not surprising considering the low number of available option for public transport. In Muscat, bus services currently only run from Wadi Adai to Rui and Wadi Khabir, while others will be introduced to Muttra and Hamriya shortly. Bus stops can be spotted on occasion throughout other areas of the capital city but they are rarely seen hosting prospective passengers.

The transport sector in Oman has developed rapidly in recent times. Investments both domestic and international have flooded into the maritime sector, most notably at Sohar, Duqm, and Salalah Ports. The aviation industry is continuing to grow, with an expansion at Salalah Airport and a brand new international airport being developed in Muscat, which is set to open in 2017. To add to these, investments have been heavy in developing the intra-Oman road network, while the railway project for 2018 continues to be a national focus. Part of the controversial decision to increase national spending, despite a worryingly swelling budget deficit and a limp oil price, has been in order to continue the developments of these critical transport infrastructure projects that the country needs.

However, the conspicuously absent public transport system is a worry. In Muscat, the dearth of transportation options is an additional concern. Cycling is barely a possibility as roads have not been designed with cyclists in mind, while the sheer heat for most of the year makes walking nigh on impossible. Taxis also present a problem due to their arguably high prices and complete lack of regulation; if fuel subsidies are cut, taxis will likely raise prices even further, putting even more pressure on commuters. Outside of Muscat, the major road developments that now link the cities are also only weakly supported by public transport—with the rail network still three years away from completion, inter-city travellers are more often than not restricted to car travel.

Anxiety is spreading among many of the lower income Omani nationals as fuel subsidies look likely to be ended in the wake of a sustained low oil price and the UAE's decision to raise their petrol prices by 23.6% in August 2015. Commuters have been used to the cheap price of fuel but this luxury looks likely to end. Those earning a lower income will be especially affected as smaller incomes may become marginalized by higher travel costs. Among the lower earners are those in the private sector, in particular owners and employees of SMEs. These are the Omanis who need all the support they can in order to fast-forward the economy in the direction of innovation and sustainability.

The new CEO for ONTC, Ahmed Al Bulushi, is an important figurehead for the country's public transport system. After being appointed in May 2015, he already had some impetus. Plans have finally been discussed and pacts signed. ONTC has inked a deal with VDL, a Netherlands-based bus manufacturer, to provide Oman with state-of-the-art buses for its public transport network. A second agreement has been made with the Spanish company INECO, which will provide consultancy regarding the development of the ONTC's ongoing strategy.

ONTC has clearly understood its shortcomings and is now starting to act on them, while the new CEO has already made his mark. In the wake of these welcome developments, the hope is that their execution is efficient enough to offset imminent concerns regarding fuel subsidies. It may be a slow process to develop the public transport network, but it will undoubtedly have a positive socio-economic impact, and provide a much-needed, long-term solution for Oman's commuters.