BADER AL KIYUMI –
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been proliferating across the Sultanate over the past decade — a welcome development considering their importance as lifelines that inject new life into the Omani economy. After all, SMEs are known to catalyse employment creation and economic growth on a significant scale in any economy — a well-established fact that Omani authorities have taken to heart in fostering the growth of an SME-centred economy in the Sultanate.
But the question to be asked is whether enough deliberation has gone into the planning of areas and zones earmarked for SME-based activities, notably of the manufacturing and small-scale industrial kind.
In some parts in the capital, small industries have mushroomed that are not in sync with the general planning of the wider area. Indeed, much of the city has not been designed to include any kind of industrial activity, save for the industrial park operated by the Public Establishment for Industrial Estates.
Take, for example, the clustering of automobile workshops, marble cutting units, welding shops, carpentry workshops, fish retail outlets, and so on, all in one designated zone. This reflects poor planning on the part of authorities. Ideally, these activities should be segregated according to their type, and underpinned by suitable support infrastructure and services.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit an industrial area, which is home to a number of small scale industries. While browsing the surrounding area, I was alarmed to observe that traffic gridlocked the entire block. It took me 15 minutes to cover a 300-metre distance from one industrial unit to the next — which should give you a sense of how chaotic the traffic situation was in that area.
During my visit, I happened to meet Ahmed, an old friend who stays in a dwelling within earshot of the industrial area. The teeming bustle of the neighbourhood, compounded by the traffic chaos, has got Ahmed so aggravated over the years that he is contemplating plans to move out of the area. Rising costs are also threatening to price him out of the neighbourhood, he says.
Ahmed moved into the industrial area in question some 12 years ago after acquiring a plot of land from the government. But poor planning and unregulated development have all but erased any modicum of residential living in the industrial area.
A 20-metre-wide road is that separates his house from the industrial area, he laments. The cacophonous din from the nearby industrial units, made worse by the constant stream of heavy vehicles plying the narrow road outside his house, has made life for him problematic.
Just across from his dwelling, a daily livestock market compounds his misery. On habta festivals, the market attracts huge crowds of buyers and sellers drawn from various governorates.
Thriving on one side of the livestock market is a used car market that is busy round the week, save for Fridays when attention shifts to the Juma Market at Al Wadi al Kabir.
Ahmed posed several pertinent questions to me. He is upset that a once ‘planned’ neighbourhood has become so disorderly. Where are the authorities from the municipality, environment, housing, commerce, and so on, he asks?
Doubtless, small scale activities do play a vital role in fostering economic development especially in small towns and villages around the country. The authorities administering SMEs and related activities deserve praise and support for their efforts. But I am concerned that deficient planning can have an adverse effect.
Perhaps, the authorities can consider the establishment of integrated cities for small scale activities complete with smart technologies and services that are pivotal to their success.
These zones should ideally have systems for storm water drainage, dedicated walkways for people to park their cars in one area and walk the distance to other parts of the facility, and civil defence and healthcare services. Air-conditioned waiting areas and restrooms would be welcome feature as well.
R&D and innovation should be key features of integrated cities. After all, advances in science and technology can fuel the growth of such integrated cities. Accordingly, consideration should be given to investment towards higher learning institutions, tech hubs and R&D centres in the development of these integrated cities.
To recap, prudent planning of small scale industrial hubs is the need of the hour. With a bit of forethought and deliberation, Oman can play host to thriving and successful small scale zones that will make a robust contribution to national development.