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UK Delegation visit to Oman stresses the importance of our close relationship

A BGIPU delegation visited to Oman between 24 and 29 February 2023.  The delegation comprised a cross party group of parliamentarians led by Rt Hon Alun Cairns MP and including Khalid Mahmood MP, Baroness Jolly, Lord Cromwell, Jo Gideon MP and supported by Mathilde Ollivo, BGIPU Secretariat.

The first engagement was a briefing from HM UK Ambassador, Dr Liane Saunders OBE.  This meeting highlighted the strength of the relationship between the UK and Oman.  The phrase ‘special relationship’ was used purposefully to underline the strong ties that have existed between the two nations for decades.  The UK has been Oman’s most prominent trading partner since the 1970’s, is the most popular destination for Higher Education students and defence cooperation is the closest of all nations.  This strong relationship means that both Oman and the UK can be open and candid in discussions on some of the most sensitive of issues.

Oman is a trusted partner to all nations across the region and plays a positive influence in bridging differences.  We were told that the conflict between Israel and Gaza was foremost in the thoughts of Omanis concerned at the plight of Palestinians.  Ministers and Officials highlighted this throughout the visit, looking to the UK to seek a ceasefire at the earliest opportunity.

Our meeting with the Chairman of the Majlis A’Shura, Khalid Hilal Nasser Al Maawali, reflected the issues that HM Ambassador had raised.  The strength of UK-Oman relations was underlined, followed by the challenges in Israel and Gaza.  The Chairman and elected members sought support from the UK to bring about a positive influence for an early and lasting settlement.  There was a recognition that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron had visited recently and had been very active in the region.  This was seen in a positive way and his presence welcomed.

Vision 2040 is the document that highlights the strategy to diversify the economy and drive social change.  This focuses on transitioning away from oil and gas to generating green energy sources.  Oman has significant advantages in the region and looks to the UK to support the rollout of wind energy, solar and hydrogen deployment.

Following the Vision 2040 theme, the Council are seeking to attract more visitors to Oman.  The delegation recognised the strong offer to tourists, combined with the stable environment in Oman provided a great opportunity.  Boosting investment is also a priority and with the UK making up 50% of Oman’s FDI, albeit focused on oil and gas, provides a platform from which to diversify.  The UK’s negotiations with the GCC on a free trade deal were discussed and the options of bilateral trade opportunities were explored should there be undue delays in a comprehensive agreement.

During our meeting with the Vision 2040 Follow Up Unit, an independent board of senior business people and academics appointed by HM the Sultan, they highlighted that they had engaged with a range of UK organisations for support and advice and that the British Business Bank had been in discussions recently. The Follow Up Unit monitors each of their outcomes and has the authority to refer matters to Ministers, the Shura Council and the Sultan if necessary.

Invest Oman is the agency that is charged with the role of facilitating trade with international partners.  Although the organisation had only been launched 12 months previously, it was clear that it had a specific plan, along with targeted measures.  Its focus is to communicate opportunities in Oman through to helping site projects and to support the necessary permissions from relevant government departments and agencies.  Vision 2040 was again the context in which they operated.  Strengthening and diversifying trade with the UK was a matter that they wish to pursue, and the discussion considered how best to engage.

The British Council (BC) reported of the strong influence UK Higher Education plays in Oman.  The UK is the preferred destination to Omani undergraduates and postgraduates.  Study destinations are across the whole of the UK, rather than London centric.  This was also evidenced in all our meetings, where Council members, business people, officials and staff all referred to their time in different parts of the UK, with an excellent understanding of economic and cultural differences.  BC explained about their work with the Department for Education in supporting policies for children with Special Educational Needs.  This is a significant change in approach for the Department and something on which the UK can share experience.  The delegation highlighted this with other Agencies later in the visit.

The director highlighted that the Oman UK relationship is the strongest that he has experienced of all nations he has worked.  This was considered a matter that should continue to be nurtured and developed even further, particularly in that other EU nations are now showing a strong interest and committing resources to the country.

The Upper House, Majlis A Dawla, is appointed by HM Sultan and includes 14 female members.  The delegation took the opportunity to meet and engage with this group.  Most were appointed last November for the first time.  The individuals had a range of backgrounds in a number of fields from investment and finance, the oil and gas sector through to medicine and research.  Demonstrating their strength of positive influence was deemed as the best way of growing female representation.  As a group of female representatives, they said that they feel respected and not discriminated against.

The Human Rights Commission is an independent organisation appointed by the Sultan.  It was created in 2010 to support and assist in developing policies to respect human rights.  There was a change in legislation to increase its influence.  It is currently a Grade B status on NHRI assessment and has a clear ambition and plan to become Grade A at the forthcoming evaluation. They also highlighted their recent focus on individuals with learning disabilities.  This ties in with the work mentioned previously by the Department for Education, supported by the British Council.  As a result of us highlighting this, the commission said that they would also engage with the BC.

The delegation also engaged with the economic committee of the Shura Council, where more detailed discussions were held on Vision 2040.  In highlighting their work to protect heritage sites but also encourage visitors, they were keen to explain the delicate balance they are seeking to follow.  The history and respect for heritage are at the forefront of their planning.  This is also demonstrated in the museums that have been established such as The National Museum of Oman in Muscat and the Oman Across Ages Museum.

The Royal Academy of Management is also a new institution of impressive design.  Its focus is to support the upskilling of management and officials, again to achieve the 2040 vision.  It has partnerships with world-leading institutions, including Oxford University.  We noted, however, that many nations have greater prominence here and that the UK could seek to develop a closer relationship if we are to maintain our deep and strong ties in academia and education.

The Oman-UK Alumni Network were passionate about the UK relationship, most stemming from the experience of having studied and worked in the UK.  Skills development was a common subject and colleagues are keen to share and explore further work relating to vocational education and training, particularly UK focus on apprenticeships.  Delegation members plan to pursue this further.

Similarly, the Oman British Society were also vocal in their call for further UK interaction.  Again, Israel Gaza was introduced at the outset of the discussion and with the point having been made, the meeting moved on to areas where there is a will for closer working; tourism, free trade, investment and the need for frequent Ministerial and Parliamentary engagement.

The whole visit was exceptional in terms of access to influential individuals who have a genuine interest in supporting the Oman-UK relationship.  There is a wish for further engagement to maintain the special relationship both nations share.  In addition to our cherished historical ties, Oman’s status as a stable presence that holds key influence in the region makes the nation an extremely important strategic ally to the UK.  This, however, needs constant nurturing, along with a recognition that other nations are alive to Oman’s qualities and role.

Rt Hon Alun Cairns MP