Sultanate of Oman

Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world and, like much of the region, its economy is largely dependent on its oil and gas reserves. As the region collectively looks to become less reliant on its natural endowments, we speak to in-house counsel in Oman to see the impact.

Since the first shipment of oil out of Oman in 1967, the Sultanate’s economy has been largely driven by oil and gas revenue. While that in itself is far from unique to the region, in some respects, Oman does stand alone. It is the largest oil and gas producer in the Middle East that is not a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and has the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who has been in power since 1970.

Strategically located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Oman has been labelled as the Switzerland of the Middle East. The country has managed to maintain a peaceful outlook, despite sharing a border with war-torn Yemen, and being situated between powerful rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman also overlooks one of the most important oil and gas shipping lanes in the world, the Strait of Hormuz. In 2018, an average of 21 million barrels of oil were transported through the Strait every day according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, accounting for a fifth of the world’s oil and linking crude producers in the Middle East with markets across the world.

‘The Middle East is heavily dependent on oil revenue, so whenever oil prices are high then, largely speaking, countries in the Middle East are doing well – although the reverse is true as well,’ explains Richard McLaughlin, general counsel of Oman Oil Company Exploration and Production (OOCEP). OOCEP, a subsidiary of the Oman Oil Company, focuses its activities towards upstream and midstream investments in Oman and abroad.

Growing pains

Oman’s oil and gas exports play a crucial role in driving the country’s economy. In a bid to maintain industry growth, the Omani government is introducing new laws aimed at encouraging private, international companies to continue to invest.

For example, a new law, labelled the Foreign Capital Investment Law, was revealed in July 2019, and will come into force at the start of 2020. It includes a raft of changes, all with the express purpose of making the Sultanate more attractive for foreign investment. The new regulations removed minimum capital restrictions on foreign investment, and allow for overseas investors to retain 100% ownership over their investments.

‘Everybody understands that you cannot rely on oil all the time. It will be depleted, and then the question is how you diversify your business. So Oman is following the UAE and Qatar and other countries who are doing that. So that is interesting in a sense that they are welcoming foreign investment,’ says one in-house counsel working in the oil and gas sector.

‘Foreign entities have limited options at present, for example, they can enter into joint venture agreements with local entities. So we join with foreign companies and enter into joint venture agreements with investors. Currently, in Oman, there's a lot of investment from Korea, China and, to a certain extent, France and other European companies.’

Though it is generally felt by in-house counsel across the region that this is a step in the right direction, if Oman is going to be successful in attracting larger pools of foreign capital, there will be further legislative shifts required.

State owned, state controlled

The oil and gas sector in Oman, as in most regions across the Middle East, is heavily regulated by the government. Unsurprisingly, that influence changes the way in-house counsel across the region must operate.

‘It brings a different dynamic – there is a lot of interaction with government, especially when it comes to oil and gas – and different government agencies have different drivers. Although you are a commercial entity, there are a lot of factors to consider. I think that’s something you need to learn pretty quickly when you are working in a government-dominated sector, because it’s not just the commercial interests that you have to consider all the time,’ says McLaughlin.

‘For example, if a company was thinking about releasing a drilling rig as it no longer needs it, the associated personnel that might have been employed to use it will also be no longer needed. A commercial company would say that it no longer needs that drilling rig anymore and it would terminate the contract and move on. In a government agency, employment is a big factor to consider. They may decide that the best option is actually to keep the drilling rig, and ensure all of those people remain employed.’

Balancing between government objectives and commercial obligations is key to success for in-house counsel working in Oman and across the Middle East.

Crudely opaque

The nature of the industry impacts everything, from the kinds of partnerships being entered into to the minutiae of the legal team’s day to day.

‘Although we are part of a larger group, we have our own autonomous structure. We have numerous joint ventures inside and outside of Oman,’ says McLaughlin.

‘We also have a lot of joint ventures with a lot of the big industry players: Shell, BP, Eni, Total Occidental, etc – so quite a range. In particular, we have acted on many transactions over the past few years, some of which were amongst the biggest in the sector.’

Working for a government authority lends itself to further considerations. When representing Oman, Orpic – a downstream business line for the oil and gas sector – has to ensure it legally complies with laws in other nations.

‘One legal challenge we have is to ensure that we comply with the applicable foreign laws as we extend our footprint abroad. Currently, Orpic has established offices in Turkey, India, Singapore, and China. Therefore, it is more critical for us to understand the laws in each country,’ says Elina Mohamed, general counsel of Orpic.

‘On the commercial law side, there are anti-corruption, antitrust and money laundering, laws for example, which can extend beyond your local jurisdiction. So those are what we call in law, “laws with extraterritorial effect”. This means that these laws can affect you, even though your principal business is based in Oman.’

In a bid to ensure legal obligations remain consistent across the business, Mohamed plays a key role in overseeing compliance protocols across Orpic: ‘As part of our compliance initiative, we make it a practice to have a face-to-face meeting with our advisers and lawyers in foreign countries. We are also trying to improve our compliance function internally, as compliance becomes more important as you start going abroad and expanding your business outside Oman.’

It is imperative that laws focused on preventing bribery and corruption, especially those which extend across jurisdictions, are complied with. Even if a transaction is deemed legal in Oman, it also needs to be deemed legal in the jurisdiction the business is associated with. Understanding these differences is essential for in-house counsel working in the Middle East and can present a steep learning curve for those who trained outside of the region.

Lorenzo Bruttomesso, head of legal at LNG LLC, started his career in his native South Africa, before moving to Oman in 2008 following eight years spent in private practice.

‘The essential difference, from a legal practice perspective, is that South Africa is a common law jurisdiction, whilst Oman is a civil law jurisdiction. In addition, there is no doctrine of judicial precedent in Oman.’

‘Agreements concluded between Omani and international entities are thus governed by predominately English law, with dispute resolution by arbitration, usually to be held in London, Paris or Singapore.’

Another factor is that despite the volume and size of commercial transactions, Oman has a small legal market compared to other countries in the Middle East, so in-house counsel have less choice when seeking the assistance of external legal advisers.

‘There are not that many international law firms here, so that reduces options at a local level, whereas, say, if you were in Dubai, that really would not be an issue. So that is quite different, but not a huge issue. It’s meant that we are not massively reliant on external counsel,’ explains McLaughlin.

Watts next

Fluctuating oil prices have long been a contentious issue across the Middle East. A combination of a prolonged global downturn and steady resource depletion has forced Oman to refocus its economic agenda.

The Oman Power and Water Procurement Co (OPWP) is a governmental body and the sole procurer of electricity and water capacity for the Sultanate, and is expressly aiming for Oman to become a regional leader in sustainable energy. Launching several major projects, OPWP hopes that as much as 30% of the Oman’s energy demands will be filled by renewable energy by 2030.

To meet this target, the OPWP announced in a 2019 press release the launch of its latest solar energy projects: ‘In line with Oman’s vision to diversify fuel sources through the use of clean energy for power generation, Oman Power and Water Procurement Company… is pleased to announce the launch of two solar Independent Power Projects (IPPs) in Oman. This launch follows the successful tendering of OPWP’s first utility scale solar IPP.’

‘With Oman’s continuous growth, implementation of wider scale solar power projects based on the IPP model will allow OPWP to achieve its objectives of sustainably providing power generation capacity.’

The Authority for Electricity Regulation Oman (AER) – Oman’s power sector regulator – has also taken steps towards encouraging homeowners in Oman to install rooftop solar panels. Its 2018 annual report outlines specific subsidies received by homeowners who have installed solar panels:

‘Article (18) of the Sector Law implements a mechanism through which the Ministry of Finance provides electricity Subsidy calculated by the Authority to licensed suppliers on an annual basis.’

In particular, the report highlights the Sahim 1 and Sahim 2 projects, which encourage large households and businesses to install solar panels: ‘During the first phase of the Sahim project customers that installed rooftop PV solar systems, at their own cost, were allowed to be compensated for PV electricity exported to a licensed system at the relevant approved Bulk Supply Tariff.’

Improving on the system, the AER implemented further allowances by enabling the privatisation of the energy sector. Oman’s shift towards renewable energy coincides with a global movement towards green energy, explains Mohamed: ‘Because of various issues worldwide, everybody is conscious of the fact that everybody has to be disciplined in terms of health, safety and environment.’

The road ahead

With a population of only 4.4 million people, Oman has transformed itself into an oil and gas trading hub. Regardless of its geographic location, the country has remained a safe and secure business and commercial centre.

‘As a country, Oman is very safe and secure. In fact, the 2019 Expat Insider survey, which was released by InterNations, ranked Oman at the top on the list of both the safest and the friendliest countries in the world for expatriates to live and work,’ outlines Mohamed.

‘But, at the same time, it also has its own challenges in terms of raising funds and attracting foreign investment.’

Nevertheless, in-house counsel in the region have witnessed continued efforts by the government to diversify Oman’s revenue streams – from law changes, to boosting foreign investment, and to increasing renewable energy initiatives.

‘Working as in-house counsel in Oman, there are both pros and cons. Specifically, some of the legal frameworks and regulations in Oman are still being developed and there are a lot of areas that require clarification,’ summarises Mohamed.

‘The flip side, of course, is that it also gives room for lawyers to argue on the interpretation of the existing law.’

Oman is an emerging market and, as such, provides opportunities to lawyers that would not be available in less developed markets. As Oman develops as a country, in-house counsel across the nation are exposed to unique and varied issues, challenges and opportunities. n