Althebeeb Hamad Al Gunibi, 70, head of the fishermen's union on the shore of the Arabian Sea in Duqm, Oman. Photo: Sebastian Castelier
Althebeeb Hamad Al Gunibi, 70, head of the fishermen's union on the shore of the Arabian Sea in Duqm, Oman. Photo: Sebastian Castelier

Oman’s 3,165-kilometer eastern seaboard, a pristine jewel facing the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean beyond, has been sailed for millennia by adventurous fishermen.

But big changes are brewing, with the coastal town of Duqm slated to become the Middle East’s biggest fisheries hub — and a link in China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

China in 2016 agreed to build a $10.7 billion industrial park in Duqm, and according to local authorities, has already leased land for the next quarter of a century.

Oman offers them stability and good diplomatic relations, so they come with a model as a developer. They have lands on lease for 25 years, renewable, and will bring investment and mostly Chinese projects, said Saleh Hamoud al-Hasni, general manager of the Duqm Special Economic Zone Authority.

They already brought 10 investments last year. China’s main market is in East Africa and Duqm is like a trans-shipment hub for them,” he added. 

Daily catches sit for sale on the shores of the southeastern seaboard of the Sultanate of Oman. Photo: Sebastian Castelier

The revamped fishing harbor of Duqm will be ready to start full-scale operations by early 2020, according to Hassan Hussain Al Aghbari, the local Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries chief.

“About 400 big fishing boats will exploit our vast marine resources. Fish processing plants and cold storage facilities will work around the clock to export our products, mainly to Asia,” he told Asia Times.

Masirah Sea Fish Products LLC, an Omani fish processor and exporter, has already opened two production lines in Duqm capable of handling 120 tons of frozen sardines a day. Sardines from Duqm are in high demand in the international market for their quality and large size, according to the company.

The developments are part of Oman’s economic diversification plans that aim to reduce dependence on oil, which accounts for 55% of national revenues.

Small fishermen, big plans

While waiting for the new port to be inaugurated, Duqm’s 500 fishermen have been temporarily restricted to an isolated, windy beach.

“The fishermen community in Duqm dislikes those big boats because they will surely overfish and we are too modest to invest in this project,” Althebeeb Hamad Al Gunibi, head of the fishermen’s union in Duqm.

In spite of promising economic forecasts, villagers are voicing concerns over the risk of exploitation associated with a growing industrialization of the sector.

“Big boats cruising off the coasts will eventually take all fishes out! There will be no stocks left,” complained Mohammad Jafar Iqbal, a fisherman in Duqm.

Elderly fishermen can still recall when this sleepy outpost struggled to transport its catch to the capital.

“Back in the ‘50s, we would dry fishes and ride our camels across 500 kilometers of desert areas to sell our products in Muscat,” said Gunibi.

Things started to change in 1970 when Qaboos bin Said al-Said became the Sultan of Oman and initiated a campaign to modernize the country, including a vast highway network.

Fishermen work on the Arabian Sea shore in Duqm, Oman. Photo: Sebastian Castelier

Five decades later, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has sought to allay fresh fears of changes the fishing overhaul will bring. 

Fishing will remain off-limits across 10 protected areas, while bottom trawling  one of the most destructive ways to catch fish  is forbidden in Oman, according to information delivered to Asia Times by the ministry.

That said, Oman stands about 80 times below the target in terms of marine protected areas recommended by a UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Another point of friction is the use for the last 20 years of foreign workers on local fishing boats. Although forbidden by law, foreign workers from the Indian subcontinent account for 90% of fishing crews operating small fishing boats registered in Duqm.

Bangladeshis workers fish in the Arabian sea, on the shores of the southeastern seaboard of the Sultanate of Oman.

Every month, about 120 of those foreign workers are deported to their country of origin by local authorities.

Aghbari argues that Oman cannot afford to deport them all, however, as they make up a critical component of the workforce.

“We don’t want to catch them all, because the fisheries sector as a whole will stop,” he told Asia Times. 

“Young Omanis no longer know anything about the sea and have become lazy. We’ve tried to employ Omani fishermen. They stayed three days, felt tired, abandoned the boat and went back home,” lamented union chief Gunibi.

The government plans to set aside traditional fisheries for local communities as Duqm develops. Foreign workers will be allowed to work on larger fishing vessels, however, where they can account for up to 70% of the workforce.

A promising sector

By 2023, Oman expects to quadruple fishing catches to up to 1.4 million tons per year and increase exports to enhance the contribution of the sector to the GDP.

Hussain Mohammed Redha Almuscati, director of Development of Fisheries Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, is enthusiastic about Oman’s potential in the global market. 

“Demand surpasses available supply, so whatever we catch can be exported,” Almuscati told Asia Times.

Global per capita fish consumption has increased from 9.9 kg in the 1960s to 18.1 kg today, the Oman Authority for Investment & Export has found.

Oman’s 50,000 fishermen are the leading fish suppliers to the Gulf Cooperation Council, exporting more than half of their production. 

But most operate less than six nautical miles from the coast and pressure these coastal areas. Therefore, a strategy has been designed to exploit fishing stock on the high seas and increase catches.

A total of 300 coastal vessels — 270 modern boats and 200 industrial vessels — are slated to be added to the existing fleet of 23,000 small fishing boats. No new vessel licenses will be issued as part of a strategy to replace small-scale boats with larger crafts.

According to Almuscati, “fishermen villages” will be built across the country to help fishermen pursuing a structured activity.

“Oman is shifting from artisanal fisheries towards an organized commercial modern fishing sector,” he said.

A millennia-old fishing tradition looks set to be modernized on the altar of economic diversification in a manner similar to the way Oman’s once nomadic bedouins had their movement restricted.