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Cementing ties

More than four decades ago, when Oman opened its doors to other nations with its liberal policies, out of the many countries that fostered partnerships with the sultanate, Sri Lanka found a unique way to establish its ties. Not many are aware of the fact that the Oman police force at that time was organised by Sri Lanka's Felix Delip de Silva, who went on to become the first inspector general of the Royal Oman Police.

Thereafter, he was appointed as an advisor to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said for police affairs. At that time, Oman also began to witness an influx of Sri Lankan nationals seeking employment in the different avenues of growth that were then opening up – factors that culminated in the establishment of bilateral relations between the two countries that will complete 25 years this December.

Sri Lanka set up its embassy in Oman in 1987 and two years later, the Sri Lankan School was set up in Muscat. Both countries have been able to foster trade - that includes oil exports to Sri Lanka and imports of some food products like coconut oil and tea and furniture to Oman – which resulted in the signing of an agreement to avoid double taxation in 1994.

The bilateral trade that developed between the two countries as of 2011 stands at US$232mn. In the last one year Sri Lanka has emerged as a popular holiday destination for travellers from Oman as it stepped up its efforts to promote tourism. But as the 25-year anniversary of this relationship approaches, His Excellency Asoka Girihagama, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Oman, is keen on strengthening these ties and taking this partnership to the next level.

New phase

Despite the numerous years of bilateral relations, Oman and Sri Lanka have traded only a few products and commodities, with Oman's exports to Sri Lanka occupying a majority chunk of the trade at US$223.19mn as of 2011. H E� Girihagama explains that Sri Lanka increased its dependence on Oman when Iranian oil imports dropped.

Two Sri Lankan companies are currently present in Oman, one in construction, namely Milcris,� and the other is a catering company. “In the GCC, Oman comes in as the fourth or fifth trade partner for Sri Lanka and this is a barrier I want to break. Sri Lankan companies have not looked at Oman very seriously to establish their presence in different sectors and have focused on regions like Qatar when it comes to construction.

At the same time, Oman like many other countries, have the perception that Sri Lanka is still suffering from terrorist activity. This is not true and we are promoting the destination as a peaceful and enjoyable place for tourists from all over the world,” says H E Girihagama.

Sri Lankan companies are looking at more investments in Oman's hospitality industry to promote its tourism agenda. Some educational institutes and construction firms, too, are looking to establish a presence in this market. H E Girihagama points out that there are opportunities for Omani companies, too, in Sri Lanka's agriculture, construction and the gems and jewellery sectors. The ambassador is looking to bring in a trade delegation to Oman to foster new ties and explore other new growth areas in the coming days.

Another key step towards enhancing this partnership is a Memorandum of Understanding on foreign employment that will be signed by Oman and Sri Lanka in the coming days, as the number of Sri Lankans seeking employment abroad has increased recently. An MoU on consultations between the foreign ministries of both countries will also be signed shortly. “Developing the renewable energy sector is a strong area of focus for both countries.

Perhaps Oman and Sri Lanka can work together on discovering alternatives,” says H E Girihagama. Currently, Oman’s affairs in Sri Lanka are managed out of Delhi in India, but this may change in the coming years as H E Girihagama says that the idea of setting up an Oman embassy in Sri Lanka has already been proposed to Oman authorities.

Friendly ally

While Oman and Sri Lanka are yet to see robust levels of trade between the two countries, one cannot undermine the close ties both countries have been able to maintain, that was seen strengthening in the last one year. As both countries are part of the Non-Alignment Movement and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, they share similar political views and strong cultural partnerships, points out H E Girihagama.

Currently, two Omani companies are present in Sri Lanka's agriculture sector, namely Oman Foods International and A'Saffa Foods. Oman's investment in Sri Lanka stands at around US$100mn, while at the same time a few investments from Sri Lanka into Oman's hospitality industry exist. Till date, around 16,000 Sri Lankans are living in Oman, with many employed across industries such as construction, education, engineering and the healthcare sector. In 2011, the Jewel of Muscat ship docked at a port in Sri Lanka before continuing its voyage to its final destination, Singapore.

Last year, Sri Lanka also emerged as a popular tourist destination for Omanis, who sought out new avenues for a quiet vacation exploring sunny tropical beaches or cool misty mountains. As a result Sri Lankan Airlines recently increased its Muscat-Colombo flight frequency to four from two a week and its load factor has now reached almost 100 per cent for each flight out of Oman. In March this year, Oman Oil Company signed an MoU with Sri Lanka's Ceylon Petroleum so that Sri Lanka could decrease its dependence on Iran for oil.

With the required systems in place, H E� Girihagama sees no reason for this partnership to not progress to the next level. “This partnership should not be limited only to trade. We need to develop multilateral ties. We would like to see close connections and activities between the two countries in the international arena as well.”

As Oman and Sri Lanka celebrate 25 years of bilateral ties this year, both nations can look towards 2013 and beyond with much optimism as the best years of this partnership are on the horizon for these countries.

Exports from Sri Lanka to Oman
( US$9.77mn in 2011 )

Boards, panels, consoles, desks and cabinets – 25 per cent
Coconut – 13 per cent
Wooden articles, fruit, mattresses, articles bedding, fuel wood and tea – 62 per cent

Exports from Oman to Sri Lanka
( US$223.19mn in 2011 )

Petroleum gases and other gaseous hydrocarbons – 75 per cent
Petroleum oils and oils obtained from bituminous – 20 per cent
Polymers of propylene, foil,and strip, ferrous products, Portland cement, aluminous cement, slag cement, fish, dried fish, smoked fish, bread, pastry, �Quick lime – 5 per cent

Source: Business Today - Oman 18.09.2012