Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shura Elections

This past Saturday, Oman's 6th Majis A'Shura council was elected for the 2008-2011 term. 631 candidates competed for 84 seats representing 61 wilayas (provinces) in Oman's consultative council (wilayas that have population of over 30,000 get two seats). 388,683 Omani citizens had registered to vote and of that number it is said that 63% showed up to vote, making it the highest voter turn out in Oman's short electoral history. Significantly, it is believed that more women than men participated in the election. However, despite the higher participation, and the fact there were 21 female candidates competing in the election, not one succeeded in winning a seat. In fact, the two female Shura members of the present council both lost their bids for re-election.

I did not vote in this election. It wasn't because of political dissent or anything like that. I hadn't register to vote in the past elections because I wasn't sure that any of the candidates running for my area were worthy of my vote. This time, I was planning to vote but I never got around to going to the Wali's office to register. Was I just plain lazy or was it apathy on my part? A bit of both I guess. More importantly, I think it's because I have no idea what it is that the Majlis A'Shura does. I don't know what the members do. I don't even know if they actually meet on a regular basis or only on the days when they are shown on TV questioning ministers, which I think only happens once per minister per year. I'm quite sure that despite the fact that the elected members aren't allowed by law to have full time jobs, they don't have offices or staff. I blame my lack of knowledge on the Shura Council and its activities entirely on our press. It is their lack of initiative and lack of coverage. We are never informed of what the council does except in generic articles that only tell us that a session took place without informing us what was actually discussed.

I understand that the Shura council has more powers than what is actually been exercises by its members in the past. It can question ministers and advise the government on economic and social issues, but cannot legislate law or get involved in defence or foreign policy. According to an article by Rafiah Al Talei which was forwarded to me by email:
Article 29 of the Omani law regulating the appointed upper house (the
59-member State Council) and elected Shura Council specifies the
powers of each body. The Shura Council's powers include reviewing
legislation drafted by government ministries and passing them on to
the State Council with recommendations, as well as submitting
proposals for social and economic legislation. The Shura Council may
also provide feedback on government initiatives, propose development
projects, and participate in raising citizens' awareness of the
country's development goals and government efforts in that regard.
Members may give opinions on subjects on which the sultan seeks the
council's input, and look into matters related to public services and
infrastructure.
I consider myself to be politically astute, for the most part, but on the day after the election an expatriate who is new to Oman asked me some questions about the representation system and I got totally lost and confused while trying to answer. Like for example, how is a Shura member's role different from that of the government appointed wali? If you as a citizen have a grievance with the government, when do you go to your elected council member and when do you go to the wali? And why would going to the council member be any good when s/he is an individual working on his/her own from their own house without a dedicated office or staff to help in getting the requirements of the constituents done?

According to the same article quoted above:

many Omanis believe that in reality the Shura Council's role has been
limited to looking into public services. And even for this council members
do not receive credit, as government ministers constantly
point out that development in public services and infrastructure is a result of the government's vision and plans rather than initiatives by council members.

Some Shura Council members are frustrated by the lack of appreciation from either the public or the government. Shura Council member Rahila bint Amir bin Sultan al-Riyami stated on several occasions that members do not receive due credit for their work, and asserted that the government actually does accept and consider suggestions and proposals of council members. Media coverage of recent council deliberations, however, revealed little government willingness to accept members' proposals and amendments to upcoming laws.
There's been a lot of discussion, since the start of the election process about encouraging voters not to just vote along tribal and family lines but to vote for the best candidate. For the first time ever the candidates were allowed to advertise and campaign, but I think they were limited in what they can write in their ads because all of them had the same theme: big mug shot, name of candidate and which wilaya he was competing for, and a brief two or three lines with his CV highlights. Nothing more. What was one candidate offering over the others? What would I gain by voting for Mr. X over Mr Y, other than Mr. X has a better education than Mr. Y?

I have to admit that if I had actually voted, I'd have probably towed the line and voted along with my community for our candidate, who actually won in his constituency. It's not just because the guy is a PhD and currently the vice-president of the Central Bank of Oman. But, in the end when it comes down to it, I am part of a minority. My community, the lawatia, is probably the smallest Omani ethnic group. I believe that it is important for my community to have a voice in the council. So yes, I'd have gone along with my "tribe". However, the lawatia at least are organized so they got together and decided they would all give their voice to their best candidate and after discussions and debates chose him. In fact their other candidates pulled out of the race to clear the way for him.

By the way, although the law says that a person who is voted to be a member of the council has to quit his job, I understand that the pay isn't that good. I asked around and heard that it's probably in the 1000 rial range, no higher than 1200 per month. Ok, that's not something to spit at, but still it's what a graduate with a good job would expect to get by the time he's a junior or mid level manager. It's not something you'd quit your job for unless you don't have the potential to get to that level in the first place or else you are independently better off. This could be a significant limiting factor for the quality of candidates.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Borders

Borders opened in Muscat City Center earlier this month. It's bigger than their shop in Mall of the Emirates and unlike that one it sells CDs and DVDs as well as books. The first time we were there I didn't have any particular books in mind and just spent an hour browsing its aisles. I can't stop myself from buying books even though I have three big stacks of books I haven't read. I came out with two books, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a book I've been wanting to read for a while, and Frank Herbert's Dune, one of my favorite books which I've read many times before but the last time was over ten years ago.

I went back to Borders this past Sunday with the following list of books from my Amazon wish list:

The Gum Thief - Douglas Coupland
Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart
Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds
Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks
Mac OS X The Missing Manual, Tiger Edition - David Pogue

They didn't have not even one of them. Not only didn't they have the Mac guide that I wanted, they didn't have any other Mac book in their computer section either. The sci-fi/fantasy section is quite large, but it looks like the books were ordered almost randomly or maybe by someone who doesn't care about the genre. For some authors you can find their more minor books but not the book they are most famous for. They didn't have the book I wanted, Revelation Space, but quite bizarrely they had its sequel. And not a single book by Neal Stephenson except for one book from the Baroque Cycle trilogy.

I'm not surprised because in my experience, even in the UK I could never find all the books I wanted in Borders so I shopped more at Waterstones or ordered my books online.

Conclusion, it's great to finally have a decent bookstore in Muscat but if you're reading taste is not mainstream don't expect to find what you're looking for.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Today is the first ever Blog Action Day where blogs around the world will unite to bring attention to a single issue. This year's issue is the environment.

If you are in Oman, I'd like to bring to your attention that the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) is the country's only environmental NGO. It has been around for only 3 years and has recently shifted from being a 100% volunteer managed society by hiring a full time manager. ESO has ambitious plans and has recently completed the formulation of a comprehensive 5 year strategy which will be announced soon. In order to achieve the goals and targets detailed in this strategy, ESO will require active participation from its members. If you are interested in the environment, please contact the ESO and see how you can help.

The ESO has also planned a very active calender of events for the coming year. We will be having a lecture every Saturday for the next three weeks. Our lectures are open to the public, so please don't hesitate to come.

You can also join the ESO group on Facebook to be in touch with other members and people who care about the environment. All ESO news and events will also be posted there.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Made the switch


My birthday gift this year from my wife and family: a white 2.16 GHz MacBook with 2GB RAM and a 160GB hard drive. I wanted white to be different from my previous Windows laptops. The switch to Mac has been mostly easier than expected except for transferring my 50+ GB iTunes library which I haven't been able to do yet because my HP laptop keeps crashing whenever I try to back up the library to my external hard drive.

I still haven't gotten around to installing Parallels and trying out Windows on the MacBook.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Welcome Back my friends


I'm back to wearing glasses. I had Lasik surgery in June 1999, so I guess I the cost of the surgery was worth the money considering the 8 years of life without glasses. (Though, if I factor in all the sunglasses I bought I guess it would turn out I spent as much on sunglasses as I used to spend on frames before.)

Anyhow, I have no regrets. My vision is now only slightly deteriorated by about -0.50 in the left eye which means I can still go on without glasses for a couple more years if I choose to. I've been getting lots of headaches and migraines in the past couple of months so the doctor thought it might be worth it to see if wearing glasses for this minor correction might make a difference. I think it has.

On the other hand, my wife is back to wearing glasses as well and in her case, it's barely just over 5 years since she had the corrective surgery. So for those of you who are thinking of getting Lasik done on your eyes, please don't be fooled by the doctor's promises. It might last a decade, or you might be back to wearing glasses within less than 5 years. Nothing's guaranteed.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Omantel - In Play

This is cross-posted from Oman Community Blog

Omantel issued a disclosure statement to the market late yesterday evening containing the following information:
  • The government has agreed to reduce the royalties the company pays from 10% on fixed line and 12% on mobile revenues to a flat 7% effective on 2007 revenues.
  • Omantel and Oman Mobile will be merged.
  • The government is planning to sell part of its stake in the company to a "strategic shareholder with vast experience in the field of telecommunications." While the exact percentage hasn't been announced, it could be as high as 70% of the government's share in the company, giving the new strategic shareholder just under 50% of the company.
The royalty reduction is a huge deal for the company. It would result in a significant increase in the company's net profit. The royalty is taken on the company's gross profit. In other words, the company gave 10% and 12% of gross fixed line and mobile revenue respectively to the government. This is taken right off the top before the company deducts its expenses. Of course, this change in royalty will also have a positive effect on Nawras, which had not reached break even yet. The recalculation of Nawras' income for 2007 based on this lower royalty rate will probably result in an earlier break even. (They had announced last month that October might be their first month to achieve break even). Royalty is not the same as tax. Royalty is paid from gross revenues, and tax is paid from net profit.

The decision to sell part of the government's stake to "strategic investor" is a biggie. The big question here is who this mystery investor is. Are we talking someone with global experience? The are rumors of a big European operator being interest, I can't recall if it's O2 or Orange. Plus Omantel had initially entered the bid for Qatar's second mobile license with Belgacom, so it too could be a possible partner. Other possibilities include regional companies like Etisalat, Kuwait's Zain (previously MTC Vodafone), Oger, or even Egypt's Orascom which is already heavily investing in tourism projects in Oman. Question is why anyone would want Omantel and how much would they want to pay for it?

Don't get your hopes up too high. With our luck in Oman, we'll end up selling our second rate telecom company to a second rate operator.

Update: Omantel's stock price jumped 10% (limit up) in Thursday's trading.

Related posts:

Bad Bad Omantel Shares
Omantel IPO

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Blue City shareholders lawsuit

Today I was searching for information on The Blue City project and I mistakenly went to www.bluecityoman.com, which is apparently an alternate website which has only press releases from the project, and read this very interesting "letter to stakeholders." Unfortunately, the letter is in PDF format so I can't copy it here. It is a letter from the CEO of Blue City 1 SAOC, the SPV which is building phase 1 of the project. Apparently, Cyclone LLC, the Omani company that started the project, is 30% shareholder in a company called Ocean Developments SAOC. They are now suing to takeover the shares owned by the Bahraini company AAJ Holdings, which owns the remaining 70%. Ocean owns a company called Al Sawadi Investments and Tourism LLC (ASIT), which in turn is the owner of Blue City 1, which is the borrower and developer, and Blue City Phase 1 Land Company Limited, which owns the Phase 1 site, and Blue City Future Phases Investment Company Limited, which owns the remainder of the Blue City land "included in the security available to investors."
Cyclone is asking for a right to acquire the shares in Ocean currently owned AAJH arising from the circumstances in which the ASIT were originally acquired by AAJH. Shares in ASIT were subsequently exchanged by Cyclone and AAJH for their current holding of shares in Ocean.

If the claim is successful, Cyclone will emerge as the sole shareholder in Ocean. Cyclone is an Omani company wholly owned by Omani shareholders.
AAJH has always been at front and center of the Blue City project. How come the Omani shareholders now want them out? This reminded me of a post in newsBriefsOman about the owner of AAJH, Ahmed Abubaker Janahi, and further of news earlier this year of a lawsuit filed involving one of the financiers of the Blue City project. One of the interesting details in that lawsuit was that AAJH had been declared bankrupt!

What's going on? Of course this is the kind of news that never gets reported in Oman.

Radiohead's new album

Radiohead, has proven once again why they are one of the most innovative mainstream bands in the world. The band, who have been without a record deal since their contract with EMI ended with their last album Hail to the Thief in 2003, announced that their new album, In Rainbows, will be released on October 10th, and will be available exclusively from their website for the first two months. The download will be DRM-free, and most importantly, there is no set price. "It's up to you," says the website. You can pay whatever you want. Or you can even choose not to pay anything. The album is also available to order in a "discbox" which contains the album with a bonus disc with 8 additional songs, 2 vinyl records, plus artwork and booklets which goes for £40

I pre-ordered my digital copy yesterday. I chose to pay
£7.