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SDI initiative in Oman

During the past 40 years, Oman has witnessed rapid progress in the development of infrastructure. These developments were accompanied by growth in urban population density and a large number of construction projects. Meanwhile, the discovery of oil was an important element towards the provision of financial support for the development process. Hence, since 1970, Oman”s government, through its five-year strategic plans, has achieved security and prosperity for all Omani citizens.

After the completion of the infrastructures, the government directed to increase the economic activities as a financial stream supporting the development process. Certainly, the geospatial data is an important element required for wider future development, providing a fundamental basis for decision-making, sound planning and development and natural disasters management.

The increase in economic activities in any country requires facilitations to enrich the economic side and attract investors. Therefore, the government must have geographical or economic data to serve the development requirements. With this objective in sight, the Sultanate of Oman introduced e-government as an integral part of the Information Technology Authority in 2006 and increased economic facilities to enhance investment.

The government realised the importance of GIS since the beginning of the 80s as a tool for planners and decision-makers to find solutions for many problems. Government institutions in the country are considered the main engine for spatial data production. The nature of the work of these institutions, the quality of data used/produced and obstacles are the most important points, which will be answered in this paper.

Sultanate of Oman
The Sultanate of Oman lies on the Tropic of Cancer, extending between latitude 16°40´ and 26° 20´ north and longitudes 51°50´ and 59° 40´ east. In the extreme south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country occupies 309,500 km² of total area with a 3165 km long coastline that runs from Arabian Sea at the entrance of Indian Ocean in far southwest to Musandam and the sea of Oman in the north.

Figure 1: Indicates the location of the Sultanate of Oman on the world map (MD, 1996)

GIS in Oman
GIS is an interactive tool that helps to enter, store and analyse geospatial data for various applications such as data management and urban planning. The government realised the importance of GIS in the early 1980”s (Al-Awadhi T, 2002) as an aid to exchange geospatial data between ministries in the Sultanate for improvement of services. Therefore, several institutions made efforts to introduce GIS as a solid base since that time. These efforts existed as cooperation between some ministries or as unilateral initiatives to develop their capabilities and potential in the GIS technology. However, the absence of a governmental institution to organise geospatial data and contribute to the achievement of participation between ministries was an influential factor that affected the nature of geospatial data in the Sultanate.

Many obstacles like financial issues, lack of familiarity with the benefits of GIS and shortage of expertise were a priority problem that the government sought to solve through developing strategy plans to introduce GIS.

The establishment of the National Survey Authority (NSA) in 1994 as a map agency and the Supreme Committee for Town Planning (SCTP) in 1985, to coordinate all governmental GIS activities within the Sultanate, was the cornerstone to extrapolate the benefits of geographic information systems and was the first step to provide spatial data and implement strategies for geospatial data in the Sultanate.

“Chris Parker, et.al, (1997) has shown that GIS has been used within the Sultanate to address a number of environmental issues. It has been employed by Arabian Mapping Company in a land use study of Dhofar (Travers Morgan, 1996) utilising SPOT and Landsat TM imagery together with extensive field work. It was also used by the Planning Committee for Development and Environment in the Southern Region (PCDESR) to map ecologically distinct khawr (lagoon) environments (PC DESR, 1993). Flood risk maps within the Ministry of Water Resources are currently being produced utilising GIS (Bait-Ishaq H. & Burden P.1997). An early examination of the potential of GIS, combined with satellite imagery, was in the multi-disciplinary Wahaiba Sands Project (Kay, 1988). In this case, however, it appeared that, though the remote sensing was valuable in the preparation of a geomorphological classification, the GIS potential had not yet been fully exploited for the management of the sensitive Wahiba ecosystem”.

Moreover, GIS is widely spread in private as well as government departments. According to Mclay et al (2003) PDO have progressed well on the implementation of geospatial information strategy. Other private sectors also use GIS to assist in decision making. This progress is vital to improve GIS trend and to develop an advanced application (Al-Awadhi T., 2002).

The first step in this regard was taken in October 1988 when the SCTP was commissioned by a consortium consisting of a local agency supported by their American Associates to produce a comprehensive proposal for GIS implementation. It was a necessary step towards creating and designing an integrated system for geographic information in the Sultanate and identifying the needs of various ministries to create this system. The outcome of the study was based on several important themes namely: the implementation phases of the introduction of GIS in the Sultanate, the requirements of devices and computers among participants and update and provision of basemaps. The specialised company suggested 3 phases for the strategy implementation period ranging up to 10 years. The 3 phases include planning and designing stage of a pilot project, testing and reviewing the implementation processes and developing of a spatial database in order to create a network of geographic information systems between the participants. (Al-Awadhi T., 2002).

Availability of geospatial data to support the development process is one of the priorities that the government studied at the beginning. The study recommended the need to improve the land information system as an important tributary to provide development plans. In 1986, the technical Committee of the Supreme Committee for Town Planning introduced a proposal for Conservation of Land Information System to save the basic planning information and maps. This proposal got initial approval by the end of 1986, but the lack of digital maps on a large scale remains a major problem to meet the requirements of development.

The NSA subsequently took over the study and proposed a program to produce Long Term Planning map in 1988. This project of providing infrastructures map undertaken by the SCTP members to endorse the funding was done in cooperation with the NSA. The latter was iin 1993 commissioned to develop and produce GIS specifications for digital mapping. According to Al-Balushi. A. (2007) Feature Codes and Attributes for the basic mapping scales of 1:5,000, 1:20,000 and 1:100,000 have been produced. The Feature and Attribute Coding Catalogue (FACC) is based on the Digital Geographic Information Exchange standard (DIGEST). This specification was implemented to be the foundation for GIS data capture in the Sultanate. But LTP project could not be completed successfully due to lack of financial support and lack of commitment by contractors.

GIS applications have become an important aspect for most organisations and is a major priority to ensure the use, assessment and analysis of geospatial in the Sultanate of Oman. Therefore, it is considered as a means which must be applied in the planning and reconstruction as well as disaster management. During 2000 to 2010, vigorous steps were taken to introduce GIS in many government ministries. These include Muscat Municipality, Ministry of Water Resource (later Ministry of Environment and Water Resource), Ministry of National Economy, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Transport and Communication, Ministry of Housing and finally Ministry of Agriculture, in addition to SCTP, NSA and Petroleum Development Oman.

In May 2003, the SCTP Technical Secretariat discussed a proposal to establish a geographic information centre and technical studies centre. The proposal discussed the importance of integrated national geographic system and the need for infrastructures maps. A detailed study was conducted with cooperation from the Ministry of National Economy. In 2004, an ad-hoc technical working team from 8 government organisations was formed to supervise and follow up on the compilation of the study on the establishment of integrated national infrastructure of geographic information system. The study provided numerous suggestions and recommendations about the current status of spatial data in the Sultanate. It highlighted the need to complete the infrastructure in geographic information systems, in addition to the need for a correlation between the institutions of the State unified network.

Since the directive of HM Sultan Qaboos in 2008 that referred to the importance of using technology to relocate the electronic government, the sultanate of Oman commenced the implementation of a comprehensive National Digital Society Strategy. Hence, many of the projects proposed by ministries came to comply with this strategy and introduce GIS to improve their capabilities in the use of geographical data. These vital projects included the following:

  1. Create a national topographic database containing national geographic maps at different scales, satellite images, aerial photos, elevation data, geodetic control points and boundary information implemented by the National Survey Authority since early 2010.
  2. Establish an information centre in the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources to collect, archive and retrieve spatial information of municipal services and water information provided by the ministry.
  3. Introduce GIS applications to outline the limitation areas for pasturage, embanking palm trees and cultivation and plantation in the Ministry of Agriculture.
  4. SCTP launched a nationwide tender project for production of orthophoto (50 cm) resolution coverage with 5m DTM grid and data management system. The project will cover the whole territory of Oman. The project is the first step towards establishing a manageable enterprise GIS system that can serve other organisations and is a very important step in economising geospatial data to cover the shortfall experienced by institutions in the past. In addition to that, it helps to accelerate the process of participation between institutions, thereby laying the foundation for establishing NSDI.

Table 3.1: indicates the main GIS Milestone events in the Sultanate of Oman

E-government Oman
Oman is one of the countries working to overcome the digital gap and knowledge application of e-government. The application of e-government projects for public and private institutions in the clearance of transactions and administrative procedures, business and receive requests to be completed electronically are an important requirement the government is trying to achieve.

E-government project has received a lot of attention from all sectors and institutions in the Sultanate after the directive of HM in 2008. To further emphasise the government”s commitment to improve the development of information technology and communications, a Decree was issued in May 2006 to establish the Information Technology Authority as an independent body under the Ministry of National Economy (Al-Watan, 2010).

The government has launched Digital Oman to assist in the spread of e-government within the community through a project called Oman Digital adopted by the Ministry of National Economy and Information Technology Authority. Of course, the success of these national projects that serve the community requires the unification of all efforts and cooperation of all sectors in the Sultanate, whether public or private sectors, to form the e-government, to undertake the steps and facilities with each other and achieve a kind of interdependence and cooperation.

Oman Telecommunications Company (Omantel) was an essential partner in forming a bridge various sectors. The Convention which was signed in 2006 between ITA and Omantel to produce a unified network between ministries has linked these ministries and government agencies with the levels of advanced, fast and efficient modern technology, making its service the base engine mechanism to provide everybody with all the required services data (ESCWA, 2007). Under these circumstances of technical changes achieved by the government, NSDI should be looked at as another step in the way of activating electronic government.

Geospatial Data for Disaster Management
Global warming and climate change contributed significantly towards the Sultanate of Oman witnessing many natural disasters such as floods and cyclones in recent years, causing great loss of life, economic, social and environmental damage. For example, Cyclone Gonu, the strongest tropical cyclone ever in the Arabian Sea, struck the east coast of Oman in June 2007 (Figure 3.2), leaving behind severe damage and causing losses estimated at four billion dollars (Azaz. K, 2010).

Figure 3.2: Map showing rainfall around the Gulf of Oman between May 31 and June 7, 2007. The red areas show where rainfall exceeded 200 mm (8 inches) (Azaz. K , 2010).

Certainty, the magnitude of these disasters could be decreased if there are professional associations to better predict and deal with climate change and its effects. These elements were not available in the Sultanate in the years prior to Cyclone Gonu. With the impending threat in mind, the Sultanate of Oman moved to establish the Ministry for Environment and Meteorology with a meteorology centre to predict the weather. In June 2010, another cyclone called Phet, struck the east coast of Oman, but resulted in less damage due to the swift action taken by the government. Following Phet, the Natural Disasters Management Committee was also established to deal with such natural disasters in future.

After this experience, many government endeavours came to serve the environmental aspects and mitigate the disaster impacts. This prompts us to say that geospatial data offers a solid foundation to deal with these environmental variables from various aspects. Data availability, for instance, is one of the important elements that helped a great deal in disaster management. Colless, (2005) illustrated that different types of spatial data are required for disaster management that includes fundamental and location data, which is mostly owned and managed by government organisations or the infrastructure and socio-economic spatial data which is owned by the Ministry of National Economy and used by businesses.

SDI Initiative
The NSA initiative at the beginning of 1995 aimed to study the possibility of organising the geospatial data under a unified National Geographic Database (NGDB). The study offered several recommendations for the restructuring of NSA spatial data producers and other stored data of national archive. NSA is ready to acquire this technology in the coming years to meet spatial data demand in Oman. In September 2007, the Future Requirement Committee (FRC) in NSA prepossessed many suggestions to improve NSA developments. The suggestions include data work flow, monitoring system, software needed and data question equipments. In addition to that, the study shows that, “the concept of NSDI exists in NSA but in a scattered manner, in other words, in non-GIS reference system. The building of National Geospatial Database Infrastructure (NGSDI) is essential, in which NSA is the custodian of the national base mapping data and in collaboration with other organisations” (FRC NSA , 2007).

Establishment of NSDI for Sultanate of Oman will meet the long term requirements of a multitude of users as well as other benefits which have already been mentioned. GIS activities have been widely conducted by government and private sectors for more than a decade. However, various problems appeared, especially in data structure and data sharing. Hence the government felt the need for developing a NSDI. Under this, Ministry of National Economy Assigned a specialised NORPLAN company in 2004 to conduct a study on the possibility for establishing a National Geographic Information System Authority (NGISA) to serve as the basis for Oman Government to facilitate Integration of Multi-source Spatial Datasets in the Context of SDI Initiatives.

Although the study was limited to assess the available data in some government departments and proposed some solutions for the interdependence of government ministries, it presented significant requirements that must be considered in future planning related to the provision of infrastructure for this technology and support of some institutions.

The study unfortunately did not address the obstacles that stand to activate the Integration of Multi-source Spatial Datasets, for instance standards use, the subscription policy, the nature and quality of data required by the user. These elements are considered as the backbone to activate NSDI and the basis for data integration.

Driving forces towards a knowledgeable, Beneficial SDI in Oman
Due to growing awareness of the use of GIS for decision-making associated with the availability of data in the Sultanate, the government realised the need to adopt a policy of partnership and cooperation between stakeholders in the Sultanate as a prelude to largely activating and coordinating geospatial data. The studies which were carried out by the MONE, SCTP and the NSA focussed on the need for a clearing house for geospatial data at different levels in the country and to the presence uniform standards and clear policies on the national level. This view is entirely compatible with the concept of electronic government, which the government is trying hard to activate, either by providing an environment of fundamental equipment of hardware and software or to provide knowledge and Omani technicians.

The royal directives on the need to use information technology in 2008 and guidance in 2010 to set up a Disaster Management Committee is an important boost in the way of finding a (NSDI) due to the potential of geospatial data and the growing awareness of the use of GIS for decision-making.

Towards an operational SDI
The diversity of spatial data approaches taken by Oman ministries and private agencies makes multi-source spatial data integration inconsistent. Uncommon standard or different specifications and different institutional arrangements lead to weak collaboration and hinder spatial data integration. The establishment of national spatial data infrastructure concedes the solution that most nations try to achieve it. Certainly, one of the fundamental starting points for developing geospatial framework is clear identification for geospatial data situation and the user requirements. The development of geospatial framework for NSDI in the Sultanate requires a close study to investigate the main issues that are facing GIS agencies and organisations, identify types of products and geographic information needs, standards and technical specifications used, availability, coverage and accessibility of data, policies and regulation for data exchange.


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