A flood of cheap Chinese imports is threatening the livelihoods of traditional Omani craftsmen and women. But now they are fighting back, reports Deeba Hasan and Kate Ginn
Bent over her work, Layla al Balushi’s hands move deftly as she starts on another intricate creation, which could end up in a home in Oman or even further afield on another continent as a memento of someone’s visit to the Sultanate.
For more than a decade Layla has toiled away as a silversmith, producing delicate ornaments and khanjars. She’s rightly proud of her skill and contribution in keeping the traditional art alive in a country where silver workers have passed down their knowledge over centuries.
How much longer this tradition will be able to continue however, is questionable.
Layla and other craftsmen are being threatened by cheaper imported products – most notably from China, on the back of trade agreements signed between the two nations. Now they are facing uncertain futures with some businesses already squeezed out and others struggling to stay afloat in an increasingly perilous financial ocean.
“Once I made a silver USB drive for a big company in Oman, but when they found out the price, the company rejected it because it too expensive. They told me they could get the same thing at a much cheaper price from China,” recounts Layla, sitting in her small shop in west Al Hail.
She is not alone.
More than half of Oman’s cottage businesses have closed down in the last 10 years due to stiff competition goods manufactured overseas, according to statistics by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, a Muscat newspaper reported in June this year.
When Y investigated this week and spoke to local businesses, we discovered traders determined to stand firm against the flood.
Layla’s family business has enjoyed a new lease of life since progressing from a home-based operation. Her customers range from elite Omanis to various individuals from the GCC, along with large corporations and a few ministries.
There will, she asserts, always be demand for quality workmanship, but indubitable evidence proves that inferior products are starting to impinge on her market.
For a simple silver keychain Layla charges between RO10-RO15. “The same keychain can be bought for RO5 to RO8 from several dealers who sell cheap products from China,” she admits, before adding: “but mine is of better quality because it is handmade from pure silver.”
Not everyone, though, is quite so fussy about the provenance of their goods, as more and more items made in China are finding their way onto shelves in Oman.
Where once traditional souvenirs would have been made in Oman, cheap plastic imports have now taken their place.
On a quick trip to a local supermarket near Y’s offices, we found an Omani-style tea light holder for 850 baisa with a “Made in China” sticker on the bottom hidden by the price. A similarly priced ‘I love Oman’ key ring looks like it should’ve been made in the Sultanate, but flip it over and its true origin is evident, a gold and black sticker reading “Made in China.”
Clearly this is a cause for concern in the eyes of the authorities, as two weeks ago, it was announced that the Sultanate, represented by the Public Authority for Craft Industries (PACI), was actively promoting Omani craft industries, which are considered integral to tourism.
Omani Craft Houses, which showcase local products, have been rolled out to areas such as Nizwa and Ibri, following the success of the first one at the Royal Opera House Muscat. Marketing outlets have also been opened in hotels in Sohar, Musandam and Ras al Hadd, with more planned for various tourist sites around the country.
It’s all part of a strategy to reflect the Sultanate’s interest in maintaining its genuine culture and identity, says the PACI.
This will be manna to the ears of Fahad al Balushi, a silver craftsman who operates from a small shop in Seeb Souq making jewellery and decorative silver Omani pieces.
He has transformed his passion and hobby into a business.
Fahad says that it was difficult for him to begin with, “I was new to the trade and didn’t know much about it, but later things fell into place and people started to trust me. This is why I have a loyal customer base now. People who buy from me once always come back for more.”
As yet, though, he has been unable to hit the jackpot and enjoy the security that would come with it.
“Until now I haven’t been able to get an order from a big company and it is getting a little difficult to survive in this market,” he admits. “I am looking forward to getting some training from the Public Authority for Craft Industries in order to make some new designs.”
Next door to Fahad’s shop is a store selling similar products; only they are cheap Chinese imports – rings, pendants, bracelets and the like. Fahad says that it’s not silver that they’re made from, but a cheap metal instead.
“Some people buy those products because they are looking for cheaper alternatives, but I can’t compete with those prices because my pieces are all silver. Plus they’re handmade, whereas the cheap imports are produced in bulk by machines.”
Fahad, just like Layla, buys his raw silver from Muttrah souq.
No one from PACI has approached him yet with an offer to sell his products at the craft houses, but he remains hopeful.
PACI currently works with 14 types of crafts including weaving, pottery, silver and bronze.
“We advise the craftsmen on redesigning their products for the market today, both in Oman and abroad,” says Ahmed Abdullah al Hashami, Director of PACI’s Media and Public Relations.
“Customer demands have changed over the years. Most products today are used for decorative purposes and not for use at home. Therefore they have to look more creative and appealing to the eye.”
Younger traders have been more receptive to new ideas, he adds. “They are willing to adapt to the new market trends unlike the older craftsmen. It is a little difficult to convince the older craftsmen because they have been involved with these crafts for a very long time and do not want to change sometimes.”
Mansoor al Nabhani is one older craftsman who has adapted well and embraced the changing times.
At his home in Al Hail where he lovingly crafts handmade brass and woodwork, Mansoor still uses chisels in an art he has been practicing for nearly 50 years.
The craft has been passed down through the male side of the family for generations and Mansoor’s son; Mohammed al Nabhani, will ensure that the legacy continues for now.
Mansoor talks eloquently of the past and reminisces about selling one of his pieces to someone from Los Angeles in 1970.
His designs fetch upwards of RO800 and he does not see cheaper imports as a huge threat. “My work is all done by hand and what comes from outside is done by machines,” says Mansoor. “What I do is something that nobody else does, my craft is unique. So I am not worried about the cheaper imports as far as my craft is concerned.”
His work is mostly decorative these days and he’s been happy to adjust his supply to fit the new demands of a changing market.
Others have not been so lucky, pushed to breaking point before being washed away in the sea of cheap imports.
Mohnsin al Lamki, a carpenter in Rustaq, told a local newspaper in June that he had no choice but to shut up shop at the beginning of the year.
“I’ve been making solid wooden doors and windows since 1971 and business was good for 25 years. But then came cheap imports from China, made from compressed wood and aluminium that forced me out of business.”
Silversmith Khamis al Abdulsalam in Mussanah also told the newspaper he was struggling, saying: “There is not much of a market for my handcrafted silver products, they are not in demand anymore. People prefer machine made ones which are much cheaper but inferior in quality.”
Traditional potters in Bahla are also seeing business dwindle as people turn to cheaper materials or imports.
Y approached the Ministry of Commerce and Industry for a comment, which referred us to the Al Raffd Fund, an initiative to help Omani youth develop small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) or other projects.
The Al Raffd Fund, which was established through a Royal Decree last year, offers loans to new craftspeople and at-home manufacturers of up to RO100,000. No one from the Al Raffd Fund was available to speak to us.
Whether local tradesman like it or not, business with China is growing.
Reports last year revealed that bilateral trade volume between the two countries has reached $23 billion (RO335 million), seeing Oman become China’s fourth largest trading partner in the Middle East.
Moreover, China’s exports to the Sultanate account for more than 4.5 per cent of Oman’s total imports. In contrast, 30 per cent of Oman’s total exports are sent to China, according to a report by The Diplomat in May this year, which quoted the Sultanate’s Ministry of National Economy.
Trade agreements give bodies like PACI little room to manoeuvre. But the authorities, like the Omani craftsmen, are fighting back.
“We are aware that there are cheaper craft imports coming from outside but there is not much we can do about it,” Ahmed Abdullah al Hashami of PACI tells Y.
“We’re currently in the process of registering special Omani products with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), so that no one else can create imitations.
“We have already registered the five types of khanjars made in Oman and we are going to register more soon. After we register our products with WIPO, their imitations cannot be legally brought into the country.
“There are things done illegally and it’s very difficult to stop them, but our registered khanjars cannot be brought into Oman from other places, the custom officers are aware of this and they will stop any imitation products coming from outside.”
Meanwhile, craftsmen and women like Layla, Mansoor and Fahad continue to ply their traditional arts – as has been done in the Sultanate for hundreds of years – in the unshaken belief that quality will ultimately win the battle in the end.
Y visited a small supermarket near our office and browsed the “Omani” products on sale. We found these cheap items – both 850 baisa – bearing “Made in China” stickers.
* Source: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an independent researcher based in the UK and Qatar.