As the fiscal squeeze tightens in Oman, the dream is turning sour for some who have made the country home, with many forced to leave or choosing to go. In a special Y investigation, Alvin Thomas and Kate Ginn report on the expat exodus.
It was just another ordinary morning for Mathew*; nothing to mark it out as different from his daily routine of coffee and cereal with the news running in the background on the television.
A marketing analyst for a leading international airline company operating in Oman, he loved his job of six years.
“It was just another day for me at work,” he recounts.
“I had paperwork pending from my recent clients and a few booking offices from around Muscat. It was going to be a normal working day.”
Only this wasn’t going to be a regular day.
Walking into his office, Mathew remembers seeing his colleagues were a bit disturbed and when he reached his desk, he realised why. Waiting for him was a memo, the contents of which were going to shatter his life in a matter of seconds.
The memo announced that following a discussion with board members and a review of staff, he was being let go.
Mathew was given one month to search for a new job before he had to clear out his desk and his company agreed to provide him with No Objection Certificate (NOC).
His whole life flashed before his eyes. Everything – from his first day in the company to his first day in Oman – sprung to mind. He thought of his wife and two children, aged 11 and seven.
“I moved to Oman after my marriage to Nita* [his wife, who was already working in the country] in 2010,” Mathew tells Y.
“I came here on a family visa and spent more than two months searching for a job before getting hired. I understand the value of a job because I spent months looking for one.”
Back at home, his wife, a nurse, was preparing for an evening shift at the hospital in Muscat where she had worked for 16 years, unaware of what had happened to her husband.
When he returned home and saw his wife getting their two children ready for school the next day before heading out to work, Mathew couldn’t bring himself to break the news.
“Watching Nita work so hard, I realised that it wouldn’t be fair to give her a share of my tensions,” he says. “I had to stoop as low as hiding my problems away from my trusting wife.”
Over the next few weeks, Mathew began to search for jobs, keeping up the façade that everything was fine to his unsuspecting wife. He sent his CV out to 40 travel-related companies in two weeks with no luck.
With time running out and just a week before his leaving date at work, Mathew had to confess to his wife.
“There was no way out of it and I had to tell Nita everything. It was embarrassing and at the same time very shameful,” he says.
“Hearing everything that had happened, she was shocked and also very angry; after all, I did keep sensitive information from her.
“Things cooled down very soon and she was very supportive. She even called up her friends to ask for vacancies.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, two days before Mathew was due to finish work, his wife lost her job at the hospital.
Nita says: “The management decided to let go of staff who had been working here for more than 10 years and I was on that list.”
“Certain members of the staff also had their contracts terminated,” she adds. “They began replacing a portion of the experienced Indian staff with nurses from Philippines with lower starting salaries.”
Within a month, their lives had been turned upside down. And they’re not the only ones. As the economic downturn due to the falling oil price starts to bite in the Sultanate, more and more expatriates are either losing their jobs or choosing to leave the country for better prospects elsewhere in the region.
The domino effect of this – think of it like a falling domino setting off a cumulative chain reaction – is rippling out across Oman in an unstoppable tide. It makes for grim reading: car sales have dropped by up to 29 per cent leaving automobile dealers pinning their hopes on Ramadan promotions to boost figures; the residential renting market is in a slump with a new report this week forecasting a five to 10 per cent drop in rents across Muscat; revenue in the hospitality sector (including hotels) is down and some international schools are bracing for a larger drop in pupil numbers than usual after the summer break.
Redundancies in key sectors are set to continue, with the oil and gas sector shedding jobs, exacerbated by the slowdown, and government departments are having to introduce austerity measures, slashing some staff benefits and perks, as the country tries to claw back some of the 4.5 billion budget deficit.
No one is calling it a crisis, of course, but the outlook is gloomy, with some saying that even if the economy picks up towards the end of this year, as is predicted, it won’t be until the end of 2017 or early 2018 before this is reflected in Oman.
Value Added Tax (VAT) will implemented next year and next up will be income tax.
“The bubble has burst, it’s time to leave,” one expat who has lived in Oman for 18 years tells Y.
“I’ll be leaving when my contract ends next September.”
In our investigation, Y has spoken to many expatriates of different nationalities to gain a sense of the mood on the ground among people who have made Oman their home.
What we’ve found is a general feeling of anxiety and insecurity about jobs and futures. This, in turn, is leading to tightening of the personal purse strings, with many reluctant to spend their disposable incomes and saving it instead.
“I thought a while back that I might be let go because our business was down but in the end my colleague was cut instead of me. He’ll probably go in August,” says one expat.
We’ve heard of one worker in the oil and gas industry who was called in and told to accept a large pay cut or leave. There is talk of up to 1,500 jobs being lost in that sector over the next two or three years alone.
Tonia Gray, the general manager of Muscat-based recruitment services company Competence HR, says a trend has emerged for expats to be replaced by cheaper expatriate resources.
“There is a possibility that someone from Holland will be replaced by someone from Russia, or an Indian with a Filipino, because he or she will work for less,” says Tonia.
“This also explains the increase in the number of expats that are coming into Oman.
“However, I don’t think you can easily replace the experienced workforce with inexperienced staff.”
The issue of NOCs is also in the mix. Anyone who wants to leave their job in Oman but can’t obtain an NOC from their employer has no alternative but to leave the country for two years.
On Monday (May 30), the Ministry of Manpower announced that a temporary ban on issuing new visas for certain job categories – including sales, marketing, construction and cleaning workers – will be extended for another six months from June 1. Industry insiders say that businesses, already struggling from a drop in trade, are going to be further hit by the ban.
In the meantime, families are being torn apart. We spoke to one Indian family in Muscat who has decided to take their children out of school here and send them back home with their mother to a more secure, stable environment. The husband will remain here alone for as long as his job lasts.
Mathew and Nita (both of who are now in India) had to dismantle their life here and ship it back to Kerala, India. What couldn’t be transported was sold. But they have been unable to sell their two new cars, both bought on a finance deal, despite advertising on internet sites and in newspapers.
“We are still paying the EMI (Equated Monthly Installment) for one of the vehicles,” Mathew says.
“We were able to cover the shipping cost for our household items as well as finish the EMI of one of our cars using the money from my gratuity.
“Unfortunately, OLX (online classified ads) is flooded with ads from leaving expats.”
A quick investigation on OLX reveals that there are more than 400 live ads with the tag: “Expat leaving”.
Y also followed up with some of the ads, enquiring why they were leaving the country.
One of the advertisers in the household section of the website was Alessandro*, an expatriate from Italy, who was selling furniture.
Speaking to him about why he is leaving Oman, he says: “I relocated to Oman six months ago for a contracting company from Spain that was undertaking a major government project in the Sultanate.
“I was in the project management team that comprised of 140 staff.
However, three months back, the project was cancelled.
“And since I was only linked to the company for as long as the project was active, I was asked to leave.
“I received a three-month notice period, following which I have to leave Oman.
“I am a bit disappointed. I grew fond of Oman in the short time I was here.”
However, Alessandro says that a French construction company contracting for the government in Saudi Arabia hired him.
“Job instability is a major problem; not just in Oman, but various other parts of the GCC.
“I am not very comfortable moving to Saudi Arabia with my daughter. Oman is a very tolerant country and it is also culturally diverse. My daughter and I just fit in.”
“I wouldn’t mind coming back to Oman,” adds Alessandro. “However, the price of oil in the coming years is a major factor.
“More than 50 of us lost our jobs after this contract and more will lose their jobs in the coming few months.
“This will leave a huge gap in the various sectors of the society.
“The real estate and renting sector is going to suffer heavily if more expats have to depart from here.”
Indeed, the effects are already being felt.
According to a quarterly report by international real estate consultant Cluttons, released this week, the residential property market has registered a fall in rentals for the third consecutive quarter. Average rents fell by 5.9 per cent in the first quarter of this year, while there’s been a 12.7 per cent drop compared with the same period last year.
“With an economic turnaround unlikely over the short to medium term, it is our expectation that the rate of job generation and therefore demand for rented accommodation will continue to fall over the next six to 12 months, putting rents under further downward pressure,” says the report.
It’s bad timing for all the new apartment blocks and villa compounds that have sprung up across the capital over the past year, which owners are now struggling in fill. Y visited one smart apartment block in Azaiba and found whole floors with just one or two tenants, giving it the air of a ghost town.
Trawling local internet forums, we also found leaving expat families selling off the entire contents of their homes, offering some as “job lots” with televisions, fridges and ovens packaged up.
Some expats are also leaving their pets behind, the desperate ones simply dumping them on the streets.
“I live in The Wave [Al Mouj Muscat] and have noticed there are abandoned animals, mostly cats,” says Dr Svetlana, a veterinary surgeon at PetCare Veterinary Centre in Al Mouj Muscat.
“Contracts will finish this summer and the schools at the end of June, so we will see more abandoned.
“Mostly, the problem is money. When they find out the cost to take the pet with them when they leave [upto R900 for a cat with tests, paperwork and flights), they don’t want to pay.
“More people are leaving, our customers are mostly Wave residents and a lot of expats have gone. Our majority of customers now are Omani.
“We also have a big problem trying to rehome cats. Before there was a demand, people were waiting for our kittens, but now no one wants them and there are less expats willing to adopt. All our cages are full.”
According to Tonia Gray, the majority of expats leaving the country are from professional backgrounds – managers, engineers, nurses and more.
“My impression is that there is a definite increase in the number of expats leaving Oman,” says Tonia.
“There is also the issue of finding another job, especially with all the constraints surrounding the NOC.
“Many people feel that they are tied to their employer. Of course, most employers are honourable and treat their employees well, but there are employers who take the opportunity and mistreat their employees.
“I had a chat with someone from a logistics contractor and they said that they are shipping out at the very least one expatriate every day.”
Y spoke to the sales manager of another leading logistics company in the Sultanate, who told us: “We have had over 1,000 enquiries this month alone. However, very few go through with it after hearing the price. The average price for transporting goods to India is RO800.”
Meanwhile, the advent of the new two-year ban and the NOC means a lot more expatriates are opting to leave Oman in search of better jobs in other parts of the GCC.
An Indian expat engineer, who did not want to be named, says that he is relocating with his family to Saudi Arabia in the coming months after being offered a higher pay scale than in Oman.
“I was earning a total of RO2,500 in a petroleum engineering firm here in Oman.
“Aramco [the Saudi Arabian oil company] offered me a pay of RO5,500 and I gladly opted for it. There are a lot of restrictions for people looking to switch jobs here in Oman.”
Another Mauritian expat in Oman says he will be moving to Qatar in three months after he was offered the position of project manager in a major civil engineering firm with a monthly salary of RO2,300, RO600 more than his employer is currently paying him.
However, Tonia believes that it is very difficult to state that expats are moving in droves to other countries in the GCC.
“We cannot compare the life one has in Oman with, let’s say, the life in Qatar, Saudi or the UAE because your life in Oman [cost of living, safety and lifestyle] makes up for it.
“I think one of the main reasons people leave is because they feel unsettled at their jobs and if they have to change their jobs within Oman, the NOC becomes a factor.
“I know of not many people who would trade in their lives here [Oman], with a more expensive and brash lifestyle like that of UAE or Qatar.”
Some might argue, however, that Oman is beginning to lose its allure for many expatriates who are finding life here is not the enviable idyll it once was.
It’s not just expats who are leaving Oman. Here, in a very candid article, a young, modern Omani, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains why he is leaving the Sultanate.
I’m an Omani. I was born and brought up in this country and I love it, but I’m currently applying for jobs away from Oman.
“I don’t want to and it makes me very sad to even think about leaving but I feel that I don’t have a choice. The restrictions and rules are making it very difficult for me to live here. My wife cannot get a job; she’s not allowed to work on a spouse visa (she’s not Omani) even though we’re married. We’ve been clearly instructed that she cannot work if she’s on my visa. In the beginning, when we started the application, that wasn’t the case but they’ve told us the rules have now changed. It makes it very difficult for us as a couple to live here.
“This is the first time there’s a sense of restriction in Oman, not just for my wife and other expats.
“I know three different families who are leaving this month. These are people that are part of my life; people who I have grown up with and they are leaving Oman. They are packing up right now.
“My in-laws have both had their contracts terminated with no reason or explanation. Both are top experts in their fields and funnily enough, have been teaching up-and-coming Omanis.
“There is no growth in my field of work. Our industry really needs that right now but we cannot grow it. We can’t get any new visas to hire people.
“Even if my wife wasn’t an expat, I would still be leaving. I don’t think that I fit in here.
“One of my friends in human resources has quit his job today because he found it too much. They are saying to people: ‘Book a flight, your contract is terminated.’
“People have been here six years or more and they get two months’ notice to go. They’re devastated to lose their jobs and their life here. Some have been here for 20 odd years; to them Oman is home.
“We need Omanis who are capable and trained to take on these jobs.
“One idea is to have a mandate that anyone coming to Oman to work has to teach an Omani; it’s the simplest way of increasing the skill set of Omanis and make it competitive.
“I’m applying for jobs this week in other countries
“It’s a devastating feeling; that you don’t belong in your own country. If you’re an expat and come here and it doesn’t work out, you can always go home but if it’s not working out for me where can I go? I’m kind of lost.
“I would like to stay in the region; I’m looking at Dubai. My wife can work there legally because I’m a citizen of the GCC.
“I’ve really tried to make it work. I’ve given a lot and I don’t feel that I’m getting anything back.
“I’ve worked very hard for the last five or six years and now I have to pack it all in and start all over again. It is not any easy decision. It’s quite scary for me but I don’t see any other option.
“If I go, this move will be permanent. I cannot see myself coming back to Oman unless there are major changes.”