Here’s Why Oman Is Becoming A Hotspot For SMEs

24 Jul 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Oman’s grassroots businesses are the backbone of the nation’s economy – and are tied indelibly to those industries such as sustainability and technology that are linked at the forefront of innovation. Y explores how key strategies for SME support in the Sultanate is leading to success.

A hard-working nation with aspirations that aim for the stars – that’s the Sultanate in a nutshell. We’re a nation with a million-odd dreams to stand out from the rest, waiting to be tapped via an emerging small- and medium-scale enterprise (SME) sector.

With abundant spending power and an unsaturated market for fresh businesses, Oman is teeming with scope for those with ideas up their sleeves.

There’s no shortage of talent either, as the country proudly boasts 32,441 registered SMEs operating in the country as per figures revealed by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) in 2018, and several more that are quickly starting to take shape as time progresses.

While these SMEs are largely comprised of restaurants and cafés, fitness and recreational centres, arts and handicrafts, and small-scale importing and exporting firms, we learn that several are also cranking things up a notch to enter newer realms; businesses that support sustainable growth and embrace technology.

Little wonder then that Oman is now being hailed as a ‘startup-friendly nation’ by experts and entrepreneurs alike.

With ideas that aim to take the nation into the forefront of modern technology – some that are in the field of FinTech (financial technology), sustainable agriculture and botany, while others aim to showcase the nature, beauty, and handicrafts of the nation – the future of Oman is in the hands of its SMEs.

In fact, the Central Bank of Oman (CBO) estimates that 16 to 20 per cent of Oman’s US$79.29bn GDP (in 2018) is from SMEs alone – a respectable number when compared with several of its GCC neighbours.

On the forefront of top startup entrepreneurs in Oman is Haris Aslam, the founder of local SME Qonsults – a company focusing on digital enablement and FinTech – that has set its roots here but has also begun diversifying beyond the Sultanate.

The company is now focusing its efforts in the field of fashion and e-commerce in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, alongside several projects in the field of product development, UI and UX design and, above all, the implementation of FinTech across various sectors in Oman.

In an interview with Y, Haris Aslam, tells us: “A great part of what we’ve achieved today goes down to hard work and equal support from the Omani government. They’ve been incredibly fundamental in our growth since we started.

“The government itself is supportive towards local SMEs… and that’s what we are: an Omani SME. And we’re proud to say that.

“We have a very strong ICV (In-Country Value) plan in place, and in line with the government’s vision, we’re hiring amazing Omani talent and planning for their training in India and other leading tech markets.

“We don’t see challenges as we’re very much aligned with the overall vision of the Sultanate; we embrace the same and are living it with dedication.”

This is an emotion shared by several other entrepreneurs from outside Oman as well.

Eng. Nasser Saleh, the tech entrepreneur and founder of and motivational speaker from Jordan, tells us in an exclusive interview: “Oman is going through a transitional phase now – and the Central Bank of Oman (CBO) is pushing for companies to take FinTech more seriously.

“It’s amazing the support they’re offering the startups here,” he adds, as he talks about how the government has been aiding the growth of tech-focused SMEs in the Sultanate.

Our research into the matter reveals the extent to which SMEs are backed. With financial support pouring in from the government alongside assistance from several other private organisations, we learn that Oman has been striving to provide opportunities to those ‘looking to make a difference.’

One of the companies assisting to take the entrepreneurial drive forward is Sharakah – a closed-joint stock company incorporated by Royal Decree No. (76/98) in 1998.

In his mission statement to the public, Chairman Hani al Zadjali, is quoted as saying: “Sharakah gives full support to those who have the skills, desire, and commitment to start their own business.

“Furthermore, we support startups and existing businesses that have potential for growth, generate income, and ability to compete.

Since its inception, Sharakah claims to have provided financial support and guidance to a ‘substantial number of projects’ in different sectors including information technology (IT), engineering, manufacturing, services, and food and beverages industries.

“Our support goes beyond financial and continues even after the financial obligation is honoured,” he adds.

While advice and assistance can lay a strong foundation for an SME, it’s often the financial support that can kickstart life into the project.

And it’s projects such as Sharakah and Inma (an SME development funder) that can inject funds ranging anywhere between RO5,000 to RO500,000 (as per Inma’s website) to the formation of an SME.

In fact, the latter shows that they’ve funded a staggering RO27.6mn in loans to SMEs from 2014 to 2017 alone – however, reports suggest that the number for 2018 alone is RO14.5mn.

To boost this number further, Khimji Ramdas’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) wing, Eshraqa, has joined hands with the Public Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises Development (Riyada).

The partnership aims to offer a range of services in the field of entrepreneurship with a focus towards supporting the development of Riyada’s staff through management programs, while also empowering existing SMEs through training and support to better market their products, and offering strategic and management support to emerging firms for the initial start-up phase.

Commenting on the topic at a recent entrepreneurial event was Mr. Nailesh Khimji, Director of Khimji Ramdas. He said, “It’s essential to ensure a thriving, innovative environment to support and sustain SMEs as they play a major role in most economies, particularly in developing nations.

“We also plan on provision for turnaround of loss-making SMEs and micro-businesses, covering various aspects of reviving a business and helping individuals to run a successful business.”

That said, even government firms are getting in on the act. Leading the way in the fight for SMEs is Haya Water – a governmental organisation controlling wastewater and water management – which has begun awarding closed tenders to SMEs.

In 2017, the company had already fulfilled its target of RO1mn for SMEs – an impressive feat. Perhaps all of this could be why the number of SMEs in Oman are on the rise.

NCSI stats show that the number of SMEs registered by Riyada stood at 606 by the end of January in 2018, with over 230 enterprises registered in the Muscat Governorate alone.

This number was further complemented by the 91 and 44 new SMEs from North Al Batinah and South Al Batinah respectively, 68 from Al Dakhiliyah, 42 and 29 from North and South Al Sharqiyah respectively, 34 from Al Dhahirah, 40 from Dhofar Governorate, 20 in Buraimi, seven in Al Wusta, and one from Musandam.

Mundhir al Alawi

In an interview with Y, Mundhir al Alawi, the founder of 3rd Street Donuts in Al Khoudh, says: “If it wasn’t for the support from the government, my business wouldn’t be here.

“They offered me everything I required and simplified the process so that I could begin my operations quickly. In fact, the people from the ministry were so kind that they even offered me constructive advice on how I can run my business.

“Not only did this benefit me in setting up my eatery, it also gave me the morale to work to make my company a success. It felt like there were many people who were rooting for me,” the US-taught Omani adds.

Perhaps this is what has made Mundhir’s company a success in the food and beverage sector. He’s now in the process of opening two more outlets; the locations of which are currently under wraps – but all in the span of a year.

“There are several delusions surrounding the processes in setting up an SME. In reality, those who actually have done their research and have proceeded with it all have given me positive responses and have found success.

“At the end of the day, the goal to success is what drives and motivates us small-scale enterprises to keep trying to move forward daily. With a country that stands by us in our time of need and a market that’s ever-accepting of new ideas, I think there’s no better time to start up your own business.

“As a businessman, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Top local entrepreneurs and their SMEs

Here is a list of the top companies (and its founders) who are slowly shaping the future of Oman.

1) Qonsults

Founder: Haris Aslam

Key product(s): Designing UX and UI, mobile app creation, e-commerce and FinTech

Omani firm Qonsults proudly stands as a company that blends technology and marketing, offering smarter solutions to a nation that’s quickly transforming digitally.

While their services can range from anywhere between native digital marketing to creating full-blown mobile applications, web, and FinTech services, Haris and his team have been praised for accelerating the growth of retail e-commerce here in Oman.

The company has already struck three deals pertaining to the fashion industry in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and is continuing its efforts to redefine the way we go about our daily lives.

2) Thawani

CEO: Majid al Amri

Key product: Cash-free payments

Whether you like it or not, Thawani takes cashless payments to the next level. Forget your debit and credit cards, as your smartphone is all you’ll need to make a payment from here on.

Thawani’s implementation of a mobile application to proceed with payments is user-friendly. All you’re required to do is scan a barcode and the money will be transferred to the seller. If the barcode isn’t present at the shop, you can alternatively use their supplied merchant ID or saved phone number to carry out the transaction.

HE Eng. Salim bin Nasser bin Said Al Aufi Undersecretary of the Ministry of Oil Gas using Thawani app

Vice-versa, the retailer can send them a payment request via ‘WAYYAK’ on the app, which can then be approved to complete the transaction. The app is created in conjunction with the Central Bank of Oman and is in compliance with Omani laws.

3) Sohar Dates

Founder: Amna Abdul Jalil Mohammed al Morshedi

Key product: Dates, Omani halwa

The key to success isn’t one that comes easy; it may take a few months or even several years to find. Take, for instance, the case of Amna al Morshedi – the founder of Dates Sohar – who struggled for four decades (yes, that’s 40 years!) to set up her home business.

Today, she’s the proud winner of the ‘Oman Entrepreneurship Award’ for the best home business, but her products reach far and wide. She proudly says that her dates and Omani halwa have been bought by tourists from the far West (USA, Canada, etc.) and even from the GCC. Amna’s business fosters 10 employees who can produce a combined output of 40kgs of Omani halwa a day.

4) Ruken Al Pizza

Founder: Al Mundher al Battashi

Key product: Fast-food

It’s hard to come down hard on some of the top fast-food players in the market – especially when you consider how people rarely alter their eating habits.

Yet, local Omani startup Ruken al Pizza has maintained a stronghold on the market since its inception in 2015 – and it’s never let go since. With a blend of authentic pizzas that proudly wear Omani-style toppings, Ruken al Pizza takes fast-food dining to the next level. And what’s more amazing? They offer healthy dining options. This must probably be why they’re constantly expanding services beyond the Muscat Governorate. This tasty startup is a must-try for pizza lovers.

5) Gabol Watches

Founder: Adnan Gabol al Balushi

Key product: Automatic diver’s watches

bright, colourful (yet classy) watch-face with Arabic text on it, a brass shell, and a multi-function strap – what more could be asked for from an automatic watch?

This restaurateur—turned-watchmaker is slowly yet confidently taking over the timepiece market in the country. Limited to 300 pieces, his first collection of watches has been selling like hotcakes – some have even been exported to other GCC countries.

The watch is completed by a Japan-derived NH35 automatic movement and a marine-grade brass body. They’re also water-resistant up to 200 metres and the brass body can be activated to accumulate patina – a bluish-green film that coats the surface – to give it a retro look after diving.

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