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Oman 2019 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

Ithraa is the best example that Oman is open for business, ready to provide strong support to foreign and local firms looking to get involved in the domestic market, as well as target markets in the region and beyond.

Nasima Al Balushi
BIOGRAPHY
Nasima Al Balushi is the Director General - Export Development at Ithraa. She sits on the board of the Arab Union for Industrial Exports Development and is a member of the Permanent Co-ordination Committee for the development of non-oil exports in the GCC. She has an Executive MBA from the University of Hull, UK.

Can you tell us about Ithraa's work in helping boost Oman's non-oil exports and attracting investment?

Ithraa has worked with inward investors and Omani non-oil exporters since 1997, helping them identify opportunities domestically and internationally. We have helped to create and safeguard thousands of jobs across the Sultanate, spanning manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, financial services, and IT. However, without the continued support of our government partners and our wider private sector stakeholders, Ithraa would not be the award-winning organization it is today. Likewise, we have always been fortunate to attract an outstanding team of professionals, all of whom have served Ithraa and Oman well over the years. Today, Omani firms export to over 135 countries and, in 2017, exported USD8.2 billion worth of non-oil commodities, up from USD6.21 billion in 2016. And as of June 2018, Oman's non-oil exports were recorded at USD5.07 billion. Exporting is great for Omani business, workers, and jobs. Put simply, when Oman exports, Oman prospers. Targeting middle-class consumers in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe and North America is crucial to putting Oman's economy on a solid footing. Helping businesses penetrate these markets is what we excel at. Exporting is fundamentally a decision driven by local businesses. However, firms attempting to close an export sale can face hurdles, including lack of market information, challenges obtaining export financing, and strong competition from foreign companies. This is where Ithraa's staff and services play such an important role. We help Omani businesses assess export opportunities, from developing a plan, identifying buyers and markets, and advising on regulations to managing logistics. Our goal is to provide everything an ambitious company needs to succeed in today's global economy. Up to 2017, FDI stood at USD24.19 billion compared to USD20.95 billion for the corresponding period in 2016, a rise of USD3.23 billion, a growth rate of 15%.

Which sectors will be important for Omani companies?

There are a number of sectors that are growing at the moment, from logistics, manufacturing, tourism, and fisheries to mining. We are constantly encouraging companies from different sectors to go international with their products. Currently, our major export markets include China, India, the UAE, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Qatar, but we are also encouraging current and potential exporters to consider markets in Africa—Ethiopia, for example. We see significant potential in Africa for Omani manufacturers. We have also spent a great deal of time working on India. It is one of the world's fastest-moving economies, forecast to grow 7.2% in the 2018-19 fiscal year. However, it is a market that varies widely across its many different regions and states and is one that is taken seriously by Omani companies that are seeking to expand and go international. Interestingly, business opportunities have now stretched beyond the traditional business centers to emerging cities such as Chennai, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Pune, and Jaipur, to name but a few. Supporting Oman's growing export community are our ports, free zones, and industrial estates. In particular, it is important to highlight the important role Madayn, the Special Economic Zone Authority Duqm, Sohar Port and Freezone, as well as Salalah Port and Salalah Freezone are all playing in helping take Oman's ambitious economy forward.

Where does Industry 4.0 factor into Oman's manufacturing scene?

Today, Oman's manufacturing sector is being driven by social media, mobile technology, analytics, and cloud computing. Many believe our manufacturing sector could be on the cusp of a major breakthrough with the move toward Industry 4.0 (4IR), a revolution that has the potential to transform the way Oman-made goods are ordered, designed, manufactured, and delivered. According to a 2015 Accenture report, by improving productivity, reducing operating costs, and enhancing worker safety, 4IR could add USD14.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years. At the heart of this revolution will be smart factories, using technology to change global supply chains and production lines, bringing a much higher level of automation and digitization to their operations. Local manufacturers will use AI and self-optimizing and self-configuring machinery to complete complex tasks, delivering superior cost efficiencies and better-quality goods. Local manufacturers realize that the most obvious benefit of 4IR is the opportunity to increase production yields and reduce waste. Anything that affects yield, such as downtime or equipment failure, is a blow to any company's bottom line. Data that can inform an Omani manufacturer of problems with yield, alerting workers to fix equipment that is about to fail, or otherwise highlight pending issues is the perfect use of 4IR. There is undoubtedly a need to raise awareness of the potential, as well as the risks, of 4IR across the economic spectrum. While larger Omani companies in oil and gas and manufacturing are embracing new technologies emerging from 4IR and re-adapting business models, micro-businesses and SMEs are not always familiar with these. Technical staff in new and established enterprises, as well as managers and policymakers, need to be trained in order to understand the implications and opportunities of 4IR. This is a space we are working on.