Choosy Omanis add to government's unemployment headache

Wed Sep 12, 2012 10:24am EDT
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By Saleh Al-Shaibany

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Rushing out of a bank door, Harith Mohsin smiled as he clutched a paper approving a $50,000 state loan to start his own business, happy that he would no longer have to depend on unemployment benefits.

Mohsin, 23, is one of 1,500 young Omanis whose low-interest loans have been cleared since January under the government's self-employment financing scheme, which aims to reduce an unemployment problem that has triggered political unrest.

"I was looking for a job for a year until the Ministry of Manpower asked me if I would like to operate a business in my hometown," said Mohsin, who wants to start a tour company in the northeastern city of Ibri, which is near old forts and tombs.

"This is an opportunity for me to be my own boss."

Late last year Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled for 42 years, ordered a fourfold boost in funds available for the program to 60 million rials ($156 million) annually as one measure to slash the jobless rate.

The scheme offers loans with an annual rate of 2 percent and a one-year grace period for repaying credit above 5,000 rials. No interest is charged at or below this amount.

Unemployment among Omani citizens exceeded 24 percent in 2010, according to an International Monetary Fund estimate based on the latest population census, though the IMF conceded that the number might include many people who were not truly looking for work. The government does not release jobless data.

Political stability in Oman, which has seen sporadic street protests demanding jobs and a crackdown on corruption since February 2011, is important for the region because the small oil producer sits on the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of oil traded worldwide passes.   Continued...