Over the past year the Chinese have become key to Oman’s effort to transform Duqm, a fishing village 550 km south of Muscat, into an industrial centre that will help the country diversify its economy beyond oil and gas exports.
Oman’s state finances have been hit hard by low oil prices, so it is scrambling to attract foreign money for new industrial zones that will create jobs for Omanis whom the government can no longer afford to employ. Duqm is its biggest such project.
For China, the project is a potential success in its Belt and Road Initiative, a government-backed drive to win trade and investment deals along routes linking China to Europe.
Duqm, which lies on the Arabian Sea, is a potential operating base for Chinese businesses near export markets which they want to develop in the Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and East Africa. Duqm is also close to some of the raw materials which Chinese companies will need for that purpose: the oil and gas resources of the Gulf.
The result could be a bonanza for Duqm. Eventually, Chinese firms aim to invest up to $10.7bn there, said Ali Shah, chief executive of Oman Wanfang, the Chinese consortium.
If that figure materialises – which is by no means certain, given the multi-year time frame and the many pressures on Chinese companies – it will be equivalent to over half of Oman’s current stock of foreign direct investment.
“Duqm isn’t like Jeddah or like Dubai. It’s still new, it needs time to develop. But we at Wanfang are thinking the future for Duqm will be better than those cities inside the Gulf,” Ali Shah told Reuters.
Duqm is marketing its location as a major attraction – not only its proximity to maritime trade routes but the fact that it lies outside the Strait of Hormuz, which could insulate it from conflict if regional tensions rise.