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Sultanate of Oman: Towards geo-enabled future

Vaibhav Arora
Assistant Editor, Geospatial World
[email protected]

In the backdrop of rapidly dwindling oil resources, economic diversification is at the top of Oman’s agenda. Government is looking to promote the industrial sector, which will give geospatial industry a maturing ground in all likelihood. However, the need of the hour is to update data and facilitate data sharing, feel industry players.

Oman’s economy, like most other countries in the Middle East region, is heavily dependent on oil with the oil and gas sector making up nearly half of the country’s GDP and 70 percent of its export earnings. However, Oman’s comparatively small proven oil pool (5.5 billion barrels in 2010) runs the risk of getting exhausted by the start of the next decade and has prompted the government to go all out for better economic diversification. The country’s real GDP is projected to grow at 4.7 percent in years 2010 and 2011.

The ambitious Vision 2020 plan focuses on bringing down the share of oil in GDP to just 9 percent by 2020 from 41 percent in 2009. The focus on industrial sector is evident from the fact that its share in GDP is expected to grow to 29 percent in 2020 from just 18.5 percent in 2009.

Oman’s geospatial footprint
The history of geospatial technology in the Sultanate of Oman dates back to the late 1980s when it was introduced in various public organisations and later to implement a national land information system.

The Supreme Committee for Town Planning was tasked with selecting the appropriate systems and defining implementation strategy. National Survey Authority (NSA) was responsible for all the mapping.

Today, geospatial technology is being extensively used by various organisations. Summing up the present state of geospatial technology in the country, Pradeep Shriyan, Operations Manager at Esri Muscat says, “GIS has come a long way in the 20 years that we have been in operation in Oman. Major users of geospatial technology are the national government, local municipalities, oil & gas industry and utilities, be it electricity, water, wastewater or telecom.“

However, the unavailability of data remains a concern. “I think we can do better but for that it is important to have reliable data. Once Muscat has substantial data and sharing of information becomes flexible, more creative GIS usage will come,” says Nihad Bimani, Deputy Asset Systems Manager, Haya Water.


Market stimulus
Economic diversification: The Government of Oman is going all out in its efforts to diversify the economy and move away from the heavy dependency on oil and gas sector. The Vision 2020 plan aims to raise the contribution of the industrial sector to the country’s GDP substantially and this is acting as a stimulus for organisations to take up geospatial technology fuelling the market.

Second mover advantage: Oman has many foreign companies working in different fields that are employing tried and tested techniques to increase production and improve the level of services. Petroleum companies in the country are especially benefitting from the knowledge and skills of foreign experts. Companies like Occidental, BP and Shell have been involved in large scale extraction work in oil and gas sector.

Reasonably mature market: Oman has a long geospatial history and various organisations have been using the technology since the early 90s. Though the progress has been a little slow than expected, most people are well aware of the tremendous benefits the technology can bring.

Potential Verticals
Geospatial technology is being used extensively in verticals such as infrastructure, oil and gas, utilities, defence, municipality, environment and disaster management. Figure 3 shows the results of a survey conducted by Geospatial World, in which software providers, data providers and other GIS companies were asked to rate various verticals on a scale of 1-10 based on their geospatial potential in Oman.

Utilities: Utility sector in Oman is a major user of geospatial technology and has witnessed tremendous growth in the past few years. “In the last couple of years, the maximum growth has been in the utility sector because geospatial technology helps them reduce costs and provide services quickly,” says Pradeep Shriyan.

Haya Wastewater looks after establishing the sewage system and building sewage treatment plants in Muscat. GIS is an integral component in realising the organisation’s mission to make Muscat one of the best cities in the world. “We have made everybody here aware of the importance of this technology. Call centre uses GIS to locate the position of the customer while projects department now has access to the entire database. The operations also have a GIS application” says Nihad Bimani.

The Haya Wastewater invested around OMR 200,000 (USD 520,000) for the implementation of geospatial technology and plans to spend a lot more for its future projects.

Defence: As per the Ministry of National Economy’s budget estimates, the country’s spending on defence and national security in 2010 touched OMR 1,615 million (USD 4,199 million) and is estimated to be OMR 1,650 million (USD 4290 million) in 2011. A large portion of this money is being used to deploy new and improved technologies to strengthen the country’s defence forces.

Infrastructure: Buoyed by its vision 2020 plan, the Government of Oman is investing heavily to build the infrastructure required for economic diversification. The country’s new five-year spending plan aims to invest OMR 30 billion (USD 78 billion) in infrastructure projects.

While the construction and infrastructure sector in the country had to bear the brunt of global economic recession, recent announcements of large scale investments signal that the worst may be over.

Municipalities and town planning: Muscat Municipality started using geospatial technology in 1992 with a small project. The GIS section in the municipality, established in 1999, is a prolific user of geospatial technology and spends around OMR 50,000 (USD 130,000) every year in implementing the technology.

The Supreme Committee for Town Planning (SCTP) has been formed by the Government of Oman with the primary objective of preparing policies and framework for carrying out sustainable development. The SCTP has created an enterprise geodatabase that will act like a central repository of data and help in implementation of various projects.

Oil and gas: Oil and gas sector is considered to be the Omani economy’s cornerstone as it has continuously contributed over 40 percent to the GDP during the last few years. By employing advanced technology such as the enhanced oil recovery method with the help of foreign oil exploration companies, the country has succeeded in increasing oil production tremendously.

The country’s oil and gas is controlled by the government with Oman Oil (OO) and Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) being the major producers. PDO is investing heavily in geospatial implementation and spends around USD 1.5-2 million per year for data acquisition, systems and upgrades.

Disaster management: Oman had to face extensive damage as a result of cyclones Phet and Gonu in the last few years, which forced the government to work out ways to effectively deal with such threats. In 2010, it ordered the commissioning of a national level committee that makes use of geographic data to deal with natural disasters.

Challenges and way ahead
Data issues: Having access to timely and accurate data is a major roadblock for the quick uptake of geospatial technology in Oman. Even when data is available, organisations having that data are reluctant to share it. Highlighting the lack of support in data collection efforts from other organisations, Khamis Nasser AlQasmi, Director GIS, Muscat Municipality says, “There was very little help from other departments and authorities as they wanted us to build the database so that they could use it. Nobody wants to invest time or money but everyone is looking for readymade data.”

Lack of resources: While geospatial technology has been in use for several years, industry players feel a void as far as geospatial experts in the country are concerned. The need of the hour is to train people in using the technology in order to decrease the dependency on expats. “There is a shortage of GIS expertise in Oman and it is extremely difficult to get the required skills,” says Nihad Bimani.

Need for an SDI: Another reason that is holding the country back from taking off to the next level is the lack of a spatial data infrastructure.

Underlining the significance of an SDI in making people aware of the use of geospatial technology, Saleem Abdullah Al-Hashmi, Staff Officer 1 Production, National Survey Authority says, “It is extremely important to create awareness about geospatial data and how it is important in various sectors. This requires creating a national geospatial policy to further the vision of the government.”