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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Eclectic mix of mourners at Oman sheikh's funeral sheds light on smuggling trade

Sheikh Ali Al Tamimi owned about 25 fishing boats operating along Oman's east coast, but residents in the tiny hamlet of Dughmur said he was 'different things to different people' in his 94 years of life

The Omani coastline stretches for 1,700 kilometres between the UAE in the north and Yemen in the south – the longest of all GCC states. Raimund Franken / Getty Images
The Omani coastline stretches for 1,700 kilometres between the UAE in the north and Yemen in the south – the longest of all GCC states. Raimund Franken / Getty Images

The funeral of Sheikh Ali Al Tamimi in a little village on Oman’s east coast brought together a broad and unlikely group of mourners.

Among those gathered at his family’s cemetery plot last Tuesday were smugglers, police officers, dignitaries, politicians and wealthy businessmen from the eastern region.

Al Tamimi had owned a fleet of more than 25 “fishing boats” and was primarily seen as a benevolent benefactor in the coastal hamlet of Dughmur, but residents said he was different things to different people in his 94 years of life.

“To the police he was known as a smuggler but they could not pin anything on him because he hid his tracks very well,” said Saif Al Daghmari, a fisherman in Dughmur.

“To us villagers, he was a patron of goodwill because of his generosity. To the business people, he provided wealth from the merchandise he smuggled in.”

Politicians also benefited from his largesse, Mr Daghmari said with a chuckle.

The late sheikh, who had never married, left all his wealth to charity, including money to be raised from the sale of his boats.

He is hardly alone in being suspected of taking advantage of Oman’s long coastline to benefit from the lucrative smuggling business.

“They bring in labourers without legal papers from the Indian subcontinent on these ‘fishing boats’,” a senior coastal patrol officer said. “Cigarettes, alcohol and even drugs to waiting customers. It is hard to pin anything on them.

“Why? A simple reason is that everybody in the villages keeps quiet because they donate money to the villagers on a monthly basis to keep them happy.”

In the first eight months of this year, 87 people were caught trying to smuggle drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and labourers into the country by sea, compared to 72 in the same period last year, the patrol officer said.

“None of these smugglers caught can be linked to the people who operate the trade here in Oman,” he said. “These are just workers hired by people where the merchandise comes from in countries like the UAE, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“They use the boats owned by people like Sheikh Tamimi but these boats are operated by partners abroad.”

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The Omani coastline stretches for 1,700 kilometres between the UAE in the north and Yemen in the south – the longest of all GCC states. Last year, Oman doubled its fleet of patrol boats to 1,200 but the coast is still too long for them to be effective.

“It is not just the long coast that defeats the police but the villagers who benefit financially help to cover people who control the business,” said Ahmed Al Toki, an Omani research student at the University of Cardiff.

“They are very poor and most of them just don’t care what’s going on as long as they get a monthly donation disguised as charity. This is the reason why they don’t report these activities to the police.”

Businessmen in the coastal areas are aware that the cigarettes and alcohol they sell and the labourers they employ were brought in illegally, but the returns are too great for them to resist.

“With smuggled cigarettes, I save the payment of 100 per cent government tax,” a Muscat businessman said. “I don’t need a licence to sell alcohol, which is so difficult to get. I also sell these items much cheaper than any other outlet in the country.”

A farmer who owns 25 hectares of land in Al Batnah region said it would cost him a fortune if he were to hire legal labourers.

Read more: Thousands of illegal foreign workers in Oman living in poverty

“I have 65 Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani labourers working on my fruit and vegetable farm,” he said. “It would cost me 85,000 rials [Dh810,200] every two years to renew their labour permits, visas, medical check-ups and tickets to get them home.

“I pay the labourer providers only once to bring them to my farm, at a fraction of that cost.”

Mr Al Toki said that many farmers and building contractors use smuggled labour because they could not find locals willing to work in the heat outdoors.

“Omanis will never work on farms or construction sites,” he said.

The foreign workers, who accept lower wages, also contribute to the demand for cheap alcohol and cigarettes.

“These illegal foreign labourers have few thrills in their lives,” Mr Al Toki said. “Cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption are the two only relaxations they have after a hard day’s work in the field.”

The residents of Dughmur say Al Tamimi will be missed for his generosity.

“His charity helped a lot of poor people here. Many of us would struggle without his monthly cash handouts,” said Hafidh Al Jenaibi, who used to receive 100 rials a month from late sheikh.

“He looked after us and now he is gone.”

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