Image Caption: Omani youth attend a job fair in Muscat. Saleh Al Shaibany for The National
Muscat // More than two years after leaving university, Nawaf Al Omar is still trying to land his first job.
“Either my applications are ignored, or if I go for interviews I don’t get the job,” said the 25-year-old graduate in airport management.
Unemployment in Oman is at 12 per cent and like many other educated young people, Mr Al Omar is becoming increasingly disgruntled and questioning why foreign workers are being hired instead of the country’s own citizens.
“I am getting really frustrated. It has been two and a half years now since my graduation,” he said. “I feel angry. Why do foreign workers get preference over us? Because of cheap labour – they expect less than us Omanis. This is not right.”
While 86 per cent of total employees in the government sector are Omanis, they make up just over 10 per cent of workers in the private sector are citizens, according to the ministry of manpower. The private sector employs about 1.85 million expatriates compared to about 223,000 Omanis, in various positions ranging from management to manual workers. The construction, engineering and financial sectors are the largest employers in the private sector. At the same time, there are more than 54,000 Omanis looking for jobs, out of which nearly 33,000 are university graduates.
Last month, Ali Al Sunaidi, the minister of commerce and industry, warned private companies that at least 35 per cent of their workforce should be Omani or they would start to lose state benefits. That target was set in 2010 as part of the sultanate’s Omanisation process, which began in 1988 with a drive to replace expatriates in key sectors such as engineering, education, health and finance. The government established the Omanisation Committee the same year to encourage the private sector to employ Omanis.
State benefits granted to private companies which comply with the Omanisation drive include free commercial lands, training and low-interest loans. The government also organises regular job fairs to help the recruitment process
But for the unemployed, Oman offers no state benefits
Some young Omanis say they fear the high unemployment rate is causing feelings of resentment towards expatriates.
“This is not a healthy situation when you have thousands of Omanis jobless while hundreds of thousands of expatriates have jobs. It can be interpreted only one way, that expatriates take our jobs. Are we supposed to carry on happily and salute them when we see them in the streets? Of course not. If this continues then we will see an undesirable clash between the two communities and it won’t benefit the country at all,” said Hamood Al Nabhani, a 24-year-old business graduate.
Young Omanis staged protests across the country in 2011 to demand jobs. There were clashes with police during which many demonstrators were arrested but later released. The government responded by creating 50,000 state jobs in 12 months.
The Omani unemployment rate in 2011 was about 15 per cent but dropped to just under 5 per cent in 2013 before rising steadily again as large numbers of new graduates came on to the job market.
The drop in oil prices in 2014 from $120 per barrel to around $50 now has also badly dented the government’s ability to create jobs.
Employment analysts said resentment over expatriates taking jobs in the country was unlikely to go away without swift government action.
“As the rate of unemployment increases, young Omanis will get more frustrated. It may cause certain problems in the delicate harmony that exists now between Omanis and expatriates. The government needs to act fast to make sure the jobless spend less time in the unemployment queue,” said Hamood Al Toky, director at Capital Manpower Agency.
Technology experts said young people now have better networking tools to share their thoughts and vent their disappointment than they did in 2011.
“In 2011, social media was not as deep as it is now. Young people are now connected by electronic networks and get their thoughts shared in seconds. Information, good or bad, well meant or not, spreads like wild fire. This is something we need to look at and try to contain so that it does not produce undesirable results,” said Said Al Jabri, proprietor of Iconic Information Technology.
Oman has allocated 1.585 billion rials (Dh15.13bn) for education in 2017, which is 13 per cent of its total budget for the year. Last year, it allocated 9 per cent of the budget for education.
“We spend all that money to educate young Omanis and they come out of the education system without jobs. Something is fundamentally wrong somewhere,” Mr Al Jabri added.
Employers blame the government for awarding fewer contracts to the private sector since oil prices fell, which in turns means those companies cannot afford to employ as many Omani nationals. Omanis too carry some blame because their expectations can be unrealistic.
Saleh Al Maashari, managing director of Global Logistics and Supply Chain, said, “Since oil prices went down, the government has either reduced its expenditure on projects or cancelled them. That has reduced our income. Also, Omanis expect to be paid double what we pay expatriates. Many times, we cannot meet their pay expectations.”