By Conrad Prabhu — MUSCAT — The clustering of Port of Sohar, Freezone Sohar and Sohar Industrial Estate into a single economic zone has the potential to generate some 80,000 direct jobs and an estimated quarter of a million indirect jobs, according to a senior port official. Jamal T Aziz, Deputy CEO of Port of Sohar and CEO of Freezone Sohar, outlined this vision of an integrated economic zone, which he dubbed ‘Gateway Sohar’, at a forum on transport and logistics.
“Gateway Sohar is the brand of our vision of the ‘Economic Zone of Sohar’,” said Jamal. “We would like to think of it as one economic zone which has the industrial and logistics arms to it, underpinned by one robust and dynamic customs regime and a common standard on Health-Safety-Security-Environment (HSSE) that is embedded and practised across the entire zone. We would also like to offer One-Stop-Shop services that would help investors who come here focus on their core business.”
He said the Gateway Sohar concept has the potential to spawn the growth of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as well as jobs on an immense scale. “Roughly speaking, when we look at the economic zone model, we are looking at perhaps 80,000 direct jobs when it’s fully developed. Add to that a factor of 3 in indirect employment opportunities, and you will see a wide distribution of jobs with the transport cluster accounting for a big chunk, the industrial cluster contributing to a third, and the free zone playing a key part as well.”
Jamal listed in his presentation a number of factors that would contribute to the future success of the Gateway Sohar model. In particular he singled out a steel-based industry as a key driver of economic opportunity and employment generation. “Steel is one of the largest job generators among heavy industries,” Jamal explained. “It requires the least amount of energy, but contributes the highest in terms of employment generation, especially if you go further downstream. With a major upstream iron ore project (now in operation in Sohar) along with industries that convert iron ore into steel, we see the potential for manufacturing and fabrication based investment in the free zone. Indeed, steel is an extremely strategic commodity for Oman with the potential to draw SMEs and create a lot of jobs. And when it comes to steel, we are ahead in Oman than others in this region, and we should build on this.”
Another key area of focus is food production, towards which a substantial area of land — called the ‘Green Belt’ — has been allocated, said Jamal. “We want to play a role in this field not only because it’s important from the food security point of view, but also because it gels nicely with the type of community that we’re part of in Batinah North. We would like to see fishermen and farmers involved in something more than just conventional fishing and farming. So food for us is an extremely strategic goal.”
The official also highlighted the potential for investments in downstream petrochemicals, transshipment and re-export of chemicals and bulk liquids, exports of bulk minerals, mineral processing, and a host of other industrial commodities and processes. The presence at the port of some of the world’s leading operators and service providers, such as Hutchison Whampoa, Oiltanking, and C Steinweg, augurs well for efforts to attract investments into the Economic Zone of Sohar, he said.
A key goal of the Gateway Sohar initiative, Jamal said, is to concentrate industrial and economic activity in one geographic area, thereby generating cargo volumes that would in turn attract major shipping lines to Sohar. “We need to create critical mass (in terms of cargo volumes) in order to compete with well-established regional hubs and get the big ships to come to Sohar. One way to create volumes is to consolidate business in a certain geographical area.
So when we integrate the whole Batinah (North and South) and Muscat governorates with one gateway port, it creates critical mass.” The Gateway Sohar initiative also has the potential to serve Saudi Arabia, one of the Gulf’s biggest markets, through improved road connectivity. “A road leading to Saudi Arabia will make Sohar a more successful model as an export oriented distributed hub. Also with increasing volumes, we will also see a lot of interaction with regional markets,” the official stated.