Saturday, June 30, 2007

Oman's Oryx Sanctuary deleted from UNESCO's World Heritage List

The main in talk Oman, at least on the net and the so-called "blogosphere" is Oman's dubious honor of having the first ever site to be removed from UNESCO's World Heritage List. UNESCO announced their decision on Thursday in a press release which declared powerful words like "unprecedented decision" and further went on to cross out the sanctuary's name on the list. According to the press release:

The World Heritage Committee deleted the property because of Oman's decision to reduce the size of the protected area by 90%, in contravention of the Operational Guidelines of the Convention. This was seen by the Committee as destroying the outstanding universal value of the site which was inscribed in 1994.

In 1996, the population of the Arabian Oryx in the site, was at 450 but it has since dwindled to 65 with only about four breeding pairs making its future viability uncertain. This decline is due to poaching and habitat degradation.

After extensive consultation with the State Party, the Committee felt that the unilateral reduction in the size of the Sanctuary and plans to proceed with hydrocarbon prospection would destroy the value and integrity of the property, which is also home to other endangered species including, the Arabian Gazelle and houbara bustard.

I visited the Oryx Sanctuary in 2000 and by then because of the poaching all the oryx had been taken out of the wild and brought in to a fenced area to protect them. The poachers were working for the sheikhs in the UAE and Qatar who were taking the oryx alive and placing them in private zoos for these sheikhs.

The problem, which most people don't seem to comprehend, is that the Oryx Sanctuary is massive. It is 27,500 square kilometers. For comparison the entire state of Kuwait is 17,820 sq. km, while Qatar is 11,437 sq. km. So basically the Oryx Sanctuary was about the size of Kuwait and Qatar combined. It is not easy to protect an area that large when all what a poacher needs is a land cruiser abu shanab and a rifle to go in under the cover of darkness, shoot an oryx or two and drive through the desert, slip the border into KSA or UAE and sell the animal to a rich sheikh who would gladly pay thousands of rials for that oryx.

The decision to reduce the size of the sanctuary was by royal decree 11/2007 on January 28. This isn't some ministerial decision. This came directly from the Sultan of Oman. In fact, the Oryx Project itself is managed directly by the Diwan of Royal Court through the Office of the Adviser for Conservation, not the Ministry of Regional Municipalities. And even now with the sanctuary reduced by 90% it is still about 2,842 square kilometers, i.e. about 4 times the size of Bahrain!

Let me play devil's advocate with this question to my fellow Omanis: with your country's main income coming from oil and production having already dropped by about 300,000 bpd in the past few years, what's more important to you, more oil exploration or an oryx sanctuary bigger than some neighboring countries?

And to those who are complaining about why they didn't know before that the government had reduced the size of the sanctuary by 90%, or how come there hasn't been a statement from the government in response to UNESCO's decision; why are you are surprised? Was there a statement when Oman withdrew from the GCC monetary union last year or Gulf Air this year?

PS. Oman still has four other sites on the list.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Gonu Happened

It feels petty to want to write anything on the blog without mentioning Gonu. For posterity's sake, here's my take on Gonu. I wouldn't want to come back to this blog a year from now and find a big hole where the biggest event to hit my country in thirty years happened.

We got back from Thailand right before Cyclone Gonu hit Muscat. We were told that ours would be the last flight to be allowed to land in Muscat before the airport closes. Thank God, because we couldn't imagine ourselves being away from home while a hurricane batters our country and all our loved ones. So we landed and went home quickly, didn't even wait for all our luggage to come out. It started to rain two hours later.

I'm not going to go through it all. It's been two weeks, and frankly we've been Gonu'd out. It's devastating and heartbreaking: Thousands of homes damaged. Thousands of people living in shelters. Roads and bridges collapsed. Cars piled up in heaps everywhere (at least 10,000 cars totaled by one estimate).

The official death toll is mysteriously stuck at 49 since two days after the hurricane. We keep hearing stories of bodies being found every day but the police insist that only 49 people perished. I've been told that over 100 bodies were found floating in the sea alone. There's one workshop in Wadi Adai which reported 40 of its workers missing and so far 12 have been confirmed dead. Some guy swears that there are over 350 bodies in the Armed Forces Hospital which are still to be identified. Another guy claims that the total bodies kept in hospitals is already around 1000. Another guy who is usually quiet well connected claims that his sources confirm 1600 dead as of last Wednesday.

No matter which way you look at it, it is a major catastrophe. The initial estimates of the damage by the government were at around $4 billion of damage. The final figure would probably be around 6 billion. Reconstruction costs are going to be much higher than estimated. Price of building materials is already shooting up. Oman was already facing cement shortages before the hurricane. And with the existing shortage of labor in the construction industry the cost of rebuilding will definitely be high.

The government has a team of about 600 surveyors going around to all the houses that have been damaged by the hurricane making estimates of repairs as well as replacement of damaged items. However, there is yet to be any confirmation from the government of what the extent of compensation that citizens can expect. Will the government pay to rebuild these houses or will it only give partial compensation?

And what about the cost of rebuilding? Oman has steadfastly refused all outside aid. Initially the spokesman for the National Council for Civil Defence said that we don't need aid because we have a 6 month supply of emergency food and water. But what about monetary aid. Is Oman planning to cover the cost of rebuilding itself? It's just about the equivalent of last year's budget surplus which was transferred into the State General Reserve Fund. But our reserve fund isn't transparent like some other countries. Oman was running on a deficit for years until oil prices shot up earlier this decade. And the country has been investing into large big ticket projects like refineries, dry docks, a fleet of LNG tankers, not to mention Oman Oil's investments abroad. Have those been financed from the reserve or other sources? Since Oman thrives on rumors, word is that the country has agreed to accept monetary aid only from GCC countries on condition that the donations are kept secret. Who knows, it could be true that Saudi Arabia has pledged half a billion dollars and the UAE a slightly lower amount. Or it could be bogus.

On the positive side, despite the bitching and complaining by many (we Omanis love to bitch, it's our national passtime). The government did do a brilliant job tackling the disaster. If His Majesty the Sultan hadn't declared a national holiday and forced people to stay at home, the disaster would have been much greater. Many people thought they were getting a 4 day vacation, little did they know. The government forced an evacuation of coastal areas and sent thousands of people to shelters. They evacuated the entire population of the Halaniyat islands. The biggest fear was the strong winds and the extreme waves and tides. Little did we know that it wasn't the sea that was going to be the enemy, but the massive amounts of rain that fell in the mountains and came rolling down to the cities in a torrent unlike any we've ever seen. The response in the initial 48 hours following the hurricane by the various government bodies was excellent whether it was Oman TV and radio keeping people up to date with news of casualties, road conditions, electricity and water availability, etc. One criticism here is the lack of information in English. I kept switching the English FM during the hurricane and whenever I did all I heard was a continuous stream of pop songs.

Muscat Municipality did an outstanding job in rebuilding damaged roads. I was told by a couple of large construction companies that as soon as the weather calmed, the president of the municipality was personally calling them and mobilizing their entire available fleets of equipment without any discussion of payments or anything of the sort. All that could be done later, but getting roads opened was priority number one.

Two weeks post Gonu, in some parts of Muscat it's hard to tell that a hurricane had passed through. But in many places it will be quite a while till all's back to normal. The Qurm shopping area is still a ghost town with no electricity and shops still under layers of mud.

The beaches have been cleaned, but the ecological damage is immense. Assessments are still being done on the status of coral reefs, but the initial news is no good at all. In some popular dive spots the reefs have been entirely removed by strong currents or debris. The sea conditions are still bad and complete assessments will take time.

Was Gonu a freak incident, one of those once every 30 years storms that hit Oman? Or was this global warming in full effect? It's only been two weeks since Gonu and already there was a threat of another cyclone could be heading to Oman. Are we really in the midst of a shift in the world's weather patterns? Would Oman henceforth be a cyclone zone every summer? I hope not.


Flickr: All photos tagged with Gonu
YouTube: Gonu videos
Gonu Relief Blog's Gonu Discussion Forum - very good posts about Gonu

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hikayat Turabik (A song about Oman)

Hello everyone. I know its been a while, but... Oh well, not buts, it HAS been a while.

I know we weren't in the best of spirits because of what happened (Gonu and whatnot), but if you are reading this, then Im sure you have survived it :)

I wanted to share something special with you. Its Salah's Al Zadjali's new song. One which he wrote during the aftermath of Gonu..