Oman’s motorists are under threat from a menace that means business – the ‘grey import’ vehicle market. With car fires common in the Sultanate, Team Y reports on how many motorists are driving blind, and why our safety is on the line as a result.
From something that gets you from A to B to being a status symbol, a car is not just a car.
No matter how vital your vehicle is to your life, there’s one factor we forget: it could be a ticking metal time-bomb waiting to go off.
A grim statement, yes, but one backed up by facts. We could have unwittingly bought a second-hand, imported car without any knowledge of its history or if its parts are compliant with GCC regulations.
Egyptian-expat Abdelrahman found this out earlier this year, after pulling up to the driveway of a bank, when his four-year-old German car burst into flames.
His ordeal is not an isolated incident, either. In fact, his was only one among 2,411 vehicles that caught fire between 2015 and this year.
And according to the Public Authority for Civil Defence and Ambulances (PACDA) and the Royal Oman Police (ROP), several cars involved in these incidents were imported from outside markets.
Thankfully, Abdelrahman lived to tell the tale – one that saw him scampering from his vehicle with his fire extinguisher and dousing the fire that started in the engine bay with CO2, in January this year.
However, his perception of cars and his confidence in them has been dented. The collection agent now relies on public transport – and in his own words – has also become ‘extremely spiritual’.
He says: “It was nothing more than a drive to the bank for me in my (make of the vehicle withheld) to deposit some invoices.
“It hadn’t been more than 15 minutes since I started the drive but I did begin to smell burning plastic within the cabin. I presumed it to be the a/c that was blowing the smoke inside, and kept driving.
“A few minutes’ later, I arrived at the bank,” he says, before adding: “The moment I stopped my car, I felt a strong heat from the pedals on my feet. That’s when I knew that something was odd.
“So, I quickly grabbed the fire extinguisher from the passenger seat area and ran outside the car.
By then, the flames had gutted the front, and he couldn’t open the bonnet as the heat had already consumed much of the engine and its parts.
“I basically approached the fire from the side of the wheels (from the wheel wells) and I got the fire under control. I also called the Royal Oman Police (ROP) and immediately asked for assistance.
“The fire engine was 10 minutes’ away and firefighters sprayed the car with a foamy solution that completely doused the fire.”
Initial analysis of the wreckage confirmed his doubts: glue holding the insulation from the engine had heated up the wires connecting the ECU and battery over time until it eventually led to an electric fire.
The resulting blaze meant the car had to be written off, and scrapped.
And as per the PACDA’s report, it was a combination of ‘neglect and non-compliant parts (from the US-spec car)’ that led to the fire.
This is not uncommon as an ROP confirms. He explains: “[Buying US-spec cars] is a great deal when compared with taking a second-hand car with GCC specs or even buying a new car.
“But what the people don’t realise is that these cars fall under the bracket of ‘grey import’ cars – and they pose a lot of risks other than just fires,” he says.
The official adds that the cars also come with speed readings in miles per hour (mph) than kilometres per hour (kph), lights that can be too bright for the Oman market, and rather worryingly, parts which are not rated for temperatures above 40-degrees-Celsius.
A quick enquiry reveals that a ‘grey import’ or ‘parallel import’ is a new or used motor vehicle or motorcycle that is legally imported from another country through channels other than those of the carmaker’s official distribution system.
Oman’s grey import market is heavily fed by countries such as the US and Canada where the steering is placed on the left-hand side of the car as in Oman.
While the statistics of cars imported by car dealers that aren’t manufacturers aren’t known, we’re told by the ROP official that more second-hand car dealers are popping up with dealerships and through social media channels.
We also stumble upon a website – americanautotrading.com – that claims to be the largest exporter of American cars around the world. As per the company, no vehicle inspection test is required to import a vehicle into Oman but cars above seven years of age cannot be imported into the country.
While that may seem like one less hassle, the dealerships importing these cars can then sell them to unsuspecting buyers.
Moreover, these cars can be marked 35 to 50 per cent lower than a corresponding new car or second-hand car with GCC specifications.
While this can stand as a cost-effective alternative to some, it has caused a crash in the market value of legitimate GCC-spec second-hand cars and is continuing to put several lives at risk with cars unsafe for driving.
The official validates this statement: “If the business is registered, it’s a legal process and bringing the car into Oman is also not a matter of concern if the vehicle is deemed accident-free and has a check by the ROP prior to its registration – but that doesn’t guarantee its safety.
“And that’s why we call it the grey market.
“We cannot prosecute them unless we find out that these cars’ past directly corresponds to a fire or an accident,” the official says before adding: “Sometimes, these cars have their history wiped off and most of the time, there’s very little evidence that can be procured post a crash, thereby meaning a lot of these dealers can escape prosecution.
“We’ve also learnt that quite a lot of dealerships now understand the risks but want to continue as this trend takes money from the customer upfront and then places an order for the car they want – be it new or old – from the US or Canada and then brings it to Oman under the name of the owner.
“That way, the middle man – the second-hand dealership – is nowhere in the picture. This shows how the greed of a certain few can change the lives of several unsuspecting people.
“Car fires are common in Oman with more than one reported per day across the country. And while most of it relates to the lack of maintenance, leakage of oil and fuel, and adding incompatible parts; a great many cars – nearly four out of all 10 – are imports.”
The number takes up 40 per cent of all burned cars in the Sultanate and it’s the first time these statistics have been revealed to the media.
In its crackdown on imported cars that do not meet Oman’s safety criteria, the ROP now reportedly uses specialised machines to check for damages in the chassis, floor, body, and also brakes, lighting, suspension and the engine (for emissions) – but some still slip through the cracks.
While a handful of new-age second-hand dealers are making a mint from this practice, we take a trip to the streets of Baushar and Ruwi to find out what these dealers have on display for us.
Surprisingly, several dealerships in these areas now claim to have stopped importing these cars to Oman but a bit of persuasion is all that is required to get them on their phones to check if cars can be brought in.
One dealership offer us an American-import sports car worth RO21,000 when new from the dealership for a shocking RO12,000 – complete with a V8 engine and ‘zero-miles’ on its odometer. They are also able to knock off a further RO1,200 from the price as a “discount”, forcing us to question why anyone would ever bother with a new car at all.
But our questions are answered when the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) – a 17-digit collection of numbers and alphabets – is emailed to our salesman from their agent in the US. As per autocheck.com, the easiest way to view it is to stand outside the vehicle on the driver’s side and look at the corner of the dashboard where it meets the windscreen.
The expat salesman then enters the number in a program on this computer and clarifies: “Sir, here is the complete history of this car. It was in a car showroom in Virginia in the US and the car is now being shipped to Oman.
“It’s a very simple process and we can even get the loan for you and the car to you in less than two weeks,” he adds – but we click photos of the VIN from the printed email and head out after refusing the rather generous deal.
Our suspicions are set straight when we enter the details on carfax.com and carhistory.com – both websites that offer car details for a very nominal cost.
The car – originally a blue sports car that was then painted white – was originally intended for sale in 2018 in Maryland but was totalled in a flood that struck the US state hard in July 2018. It was then refurbished by local dealers and then made ready for export to the foreign market.
When presented the records, the salesman first denies the allegations but then loses his cool, asking us: “Do you know how long we’ve been operating here (?) We’re very reputed and our arbaab (owner) has very good hold here.
He then threatens us: “Where are you from – India or Pakistan (?)
“Don’t come here to play games and waste our time. We’re here to do a business and a lot of people trust us. No one who has brought a car from us has ever had a problem with us.”
While we cannot validate the statement, we learn that several other dealers in the area are now being prosecuted for selling accident -ridden cars to customers in Oman. A simple search on Facebook reveals the grievances of unhappy customers.
One Omani writes: “I buy (sic) my car from [car dealer name withheld] and within six months, the engine seized. The garage tell (sic) me that I need 1,800 riyals to fix [the] engine head as it is (sic) damaged in accident from the USA.”
Another interaction with a dealership ends on the same note, as we find them selling imported car parts such as alloy wheels, exhausts and stick-on spoilers that are non-compliant with GCC standards.
This throws light on an earlier fire in Buraimi in 2018 that was pegged to the modified exhaust catching fire, leaving the driver to flee for his life.
All of this, as per the ROP official, is a complete violation of Oman’s motoring laws.
The current law suggests that flood- and accident-damaged cars cannot be imported to the country although one source at the customs department says that while cars can legally be imported, the ROP will only crack down on them during an inspection for registering the vehicle.
The customs agent then says: “This is actually a problem as we have anywhere between 10 and 20 cars being shipped to Oman per week and a lot of it exits our customs with no problems. A reason for this is that Omanis can import as many cars as they want without any limit if they have a licence to sell used cars.
“But, I’ve heard several reports of customers filing cases against individuals for selling them cars that the ROP just cannot register. One Omani came to the customs and asked us why his vintage British car couldn’t be registered – and we had no answer to that.
“Importing such cars is completely at the risk of the dealership, the customer, and at the discretion of the ROP,” he adds.
“The ROP is strict, yes. But, there are several ways some sellers bypass the system. One way is selling it directly to the buyer and then leaving it to them to have it registered and another is by using their contacts to conduct the initial checkup of the car.
“It’s completely illegal but it is happening in Oman.”
The official is right, as we learn that cars older than seven years cannot be imported into the country but this is still being practised by several sellers.
In an interview with car safety expert Samuel Jones, who works with one of the top automotive companies in Oman as a Safety Protocol Engineer, he says that safety must begin with full disclosure of the condition of the car.
He says: “The biggest concern is that nearly all second-hand dealerships here sell imported cars. I don’t want to seem a bit pinchy when I say that but there’s a certain level of transparency that’s required when someone sells a car.
“This must begin with the full history of the car; even if it’s a brand new one. And like you told me about the flood-damaged car you saw, there are plenty more and with even greater worries than that.
“I remember dealing with a customer who came crying foul over the warranty of a car he brought from a second-hand dealer here. He was promised with a dealer warranty – something that is normally only provided when you buy a car from a registered dealership.
“Moreover, after a careful analysis of the car, we learnt that its engine had been replaced and several panels replaced before being brought into Oman. I know it’s not funny, but the car was not even aligned properly and its bonnet was definitely not closing shut fully.”
He then reveals that the customer had to pay around RO2,000 in repairs for the Japanese car that cost him RO5,000 to buy in full.
“I suppose it’s also the mistake of the customer to buy a car of such sorts. But yes, it’s something the dealer needs to let the customer know. They can even take them to the Public Authority of Consumer Protection (PACP), if need be.”
“The same goes for the non-compliant car parts. If you see local garages using cheap imported parts, then raise it up with the PACP. The problem with these parts is that they’re mostly engineered for lighter use in colder climates, and exposing them to the GCC temperatures would end up damaging the part, and potentially, leave you without a car.
Samuel then tells us how things are slowly changing here and the ROP are taking matters such as these very seriously. “Such incidents of people coming up to us for help with their US-spec cars and wrecked parts are slowly reducing as the ROP continues to crack down on dealerships as well as refusing to pass and register damaged cars.
“The problems that arise from these cars can vary from something simple to even bigger ones.
“One of the greatest worries that we face here are the tyres that are put on these non-GCC-spec cars: some of these would not be compatible with the summer heat in Oman that can heat up the air in the tyre to past 100-degrees-Celsius.
“This can melt the insides and cause them to pop – especially if they’re winter tyres. And the ROP can overlook this fact as they primarily check for tread wear and the conditions of the tyres itself.
“The next concern is the glue that holds certain parts together and the grease that’s added as a lubricant. These can heat up and catch fire – known as glue and grease fires – and eventually burn down the car.
“An issue with fires in a car is that it can spread relatively quickly and can be difficult to put out due to the battery fluids and petrol in it. But, it can also turn deadly if the person is rendered unconscious due to fumes that may have entered the cabin.
He then tells us why it’s dangerous to camp inside vehicles. “I’ve come across several Omanis who buy American-spec SUVs and head out camping in them. They also use it to sleep at night – but you could be left for dead if the car is left ‘ON’ and it catches fire. Besides, it can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning.”
To avoid losing money – and potentially their car – Samuel urges everyone to conduct safety checks before buying a car.
“A simple RO40 will ensure that you buy a car that is not only of good quality but also one that will ensure safety for you and your family.
“One very worrying trend I’ve seen in Oman is that people take the car first and then worry about the repercussions. It’s a mindset that must change – not only for their own safety but for others’, too.”
“Fires, accidents, and car failures are all part-and-parcel of imported cars with a bad history. And sadly, a lot of them only realise the value of a wise purchase after something truly tragic has happened.
“And having been here for two decades, I can tell you that death is the common factor in a lot of these lessons.”
* With inputs from carfax.eu
• Get your vehicle inspected at least annually by a trained and professional technician.
• Check for any malfunctioning parts and hanging electrical wirings. If you see any, make sure you contact your service centre. Do not try to mend them yourself.
• Include a check of the fuel system in your regular maintenance schedule. Electrical and fuel systems or problems are the major causes of car fires.
• Watch for fluid leaks under vehicles, cracked or blistered hoses or wiring that is loose or anything that has exposed metal or has cracked insulation.
• Have your vehicles inspected and repaired as soon as possible if exhaust or emission control problems are suspected. A blown exhaust will sound loud, and may also allow gases to seep into the cabin.
• An early indication of a problem is a fuse that blows more than once. The source of the triggered fuse could be either a faulty component or a wiring problem. Check your vehicle manual for the location of the fuse box.
• Check for oil leaks and always use a funnel when adding oil. Oil spilled on a hot exhaust manifold can cause a fire. If you, or a filling station attendant adds oil, double check that the cap is on securely.
• Clean the vehicle regularly. Do not allow your trash to settle in the vehicle.
• Avoid throwing cigarette butts anywhere. Go as far as not smoking in the vehicle.
• When driving, be alert to changes in the way your vehicle sounds when running, or to a visible plume of exhaust coming from the tailpipe. A louder-than-usual exhaust tone, smoke coming from the tailpipe or a backfiring exhaust could mean problems or damage to the high-temperature exhaust and emission control system on the vehicle.
• Observe your gauge frequently. Check if your car’s temperature gauge is rising.