With a background in Britain as a General Manager with an award winning independent retailer, I arrived in Arabia in March 1986 to manage a retail business in Muscat.
Though I had looked at the economy of the country before accepting the job, just before my arrival the currency was devalued against the dollar by 10%. The result was stock now cost us more and yet our customers had less money to spend.
The business I found was comparable to all the other similar sized businesses in Oman, driven by low price and discounting down from that, it was teetering on financial collapse with all the downward pressure on income.
In August 1986 an additional financial shock occurred; the government set the price of an Omani barrel of oil to $8.20 a barrel, down from the November 1985 price of over $27.
The economy, then as now driven by the oil price, was slumping from a GDP10.4 billion dollars a year in 1986 to 8.3 billion in 1985 – an extraordinary drop of over 20% in 12months.
To turn the business around I focused on developing it into one selling quality branded products, to lift it away from other businesses. Lego, Waddington’s, Mattel and more appointed us as their distributors and we built ourselves around their strong image.
This enabled the introduction of a then innovative ‘fixed price’ policy to Oman for non-food products, where we the retailer decided our prices rather than the customer. This horrified some customers who took it as a personal affront and took their time to tell me - face to face. With prices assured and superb exclusive products, we then set up our own ‘shop-in-shop’ units in other retailers including the then most prestigious store in Muscat ‘Salam Studios’ the Qatari based business.
I constantly travelled around northern Oman during this period, for work and then during the weekend exploring.
This certainly was not ‘Kansas’ I heard Dorothy whisper in my ear as the new world rushed past. On one heart pounding occasion I drove from the sea across the mountains in my trusty Mazda 626. It was graded track all the way and inevitably I came face to face with the problem of exploring along unpaved mountain tracks in a saloon car. The route eventually descended down another slope but there was no way a 626 could return and climb that hill, I had reached the point of no return. Forward I careered with my foot on the accelerator and in 1st or 2nd gear to gain power through the dry river beds, the car crunched its way over rocks and stones to safety many kilometres farther on.
Reaching a garage a chassis inspection revealed the sump bolt had been sheared off, doubtless the trail of oil drips lead back to the end of the track. I learnt there is an alternative to treating an amazing car very badly (it never gave up on me), - hire a 4x4.
In 1989 I took up the job of managing the new BHS department store franchise in Al Khobar Saudi Arabia and subsequently was asked to manage both it and the new Jeddah store.
Though BHS was a known brand in Britain; for Saudi Arabia it had no resonance as the country was (and is) oriented toward the USA. With the financial structure of the franchise, the customer was also paying a substantial premium for the products of this unknown brand. To create better perceived value I focused on enhancing the retail experience – with improved customer service, store housekeeping and displays.
Buying was done by creating a boutique’s range out of the BHS offering; a win-win as our relatively small number of potential buyers would have ‘exclusive’ products; we in return had a very high 'stock-turn'. To further solidify the confidence shoppers had, when spending their cash with us, I started probably the first ‘cash refund’ assurance on purchases in Saudi.
On Thursday 2nd August 1990 I arrived into the store and almost immediately received a call from the Director in charge of Franchising at the BHS head office in London. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, did I know? I didn’t! When the staff were told and a ‘game plan’ given I was surprised that, when asked, nobody wanted to leave. In several cases their own country was also war torn and they decided to stay with me. That week some of the family who owned the franchise, all of whom are Kuwaiti, arrived in the store bringing the impact home.
In BHS one stand out department was toiletries and cosmetics, with sales per sq meter many times greater than any other. On 23rd December 1991 – I became self-employed having opened my own toiletry and cosmetic shop back in Muscat after months of planning.
Perfumes are big business in Arabia and though we were a minute business in the scheme of things we acquired business from Sultan Qaboos (Palace delivery only - unfortunately) and as far away as ladies from Abu Dhabi.
One day I was talking in the shop to a group from the UAE ; they started smiling – “you speak like an Omani” – my poor Arabic had become that mix of Arabic and Hindi that is probably unique to Muscat.
Later I also ran the ‘Disney Corner’ franchise until Disney’s Paris headquarters for the region decided franchising was not really what they wanted to be involved in and with a signature all Disney Corners in the Arab world closed. With all the ups and downs in the oil price the Oman economy was also a bit like a Disney Land roller coaster, which made me realise how important the very deep pocket of my employer in Saudi Arabia had been.
The staff team were more than capable of running the business without me and I took the opportunity to diversify into tourism. Over a few years this grew until, in December 2000, when there were forward bookings through to early 2002, all three shops were closed. Business in tourism looked very promising as 2001 started and the internet meant that communication was easy, direct and inexpensive.
However just before the start of the winter 2001/2002 season something far worse than oil price fluctuations devastated the business,
the September 11th attacks. Business plunged to practically zero, in fact only the clients who had pre paid arrived, including a group of clients of a banking group from Norway. The Norwegians wore a lapel badge with their Scandinavian cross flag, and citizens of the USA wore the Canadian maple leaf – they wanted it known they were all friendly visitors into a country that they were anxious about. By the end of their visit we all plunged into crowds of Bedu at a Camel race relishing the experience; Oman had won them over.
My appalling financial outlook was saved by a kind landlord postponing the flat rentals and a kind friend offering me employment in the UAE. However it was the arrival of the US Cavalry, in the form the USAF, being posted in Masirah Island and Seeb North air bases as a centre for Afghanistan and Iraq action, that turned my situation around.
I got in touch with the USAF contracts officer on Masirah Island. After the meeting I returned to Muscat - and then received a phone call from him; 'would I like to tender for a very small contract'. Most definitely and the tender was proposed and accepted, following that start I succeed in a number of subsequent tenders on Masirah and also Seeb North air base in Muscat; all labour and material suppliers agreed to supply me on credit. They were paid through the remarkable agreement of immediate cash payment by the USAF, on the day of contract completion. I had morphed from retailer, though tourism, into a valued small contractor with the USAF. Very disappointingly, in early 2003 the cavalry disappeared over the northern horizon into Iraq.
Tourism was fortunatly increasing, all be it without most travel companies from the USA.
We were remarkably fortunate with our experience in tourism as our clients were, without exception, interesting and interested in Oman. Frequently experts in a field which has resonance in Oman, they enabled us to learn from them as they explored the country.
A regular client wanted to visit Yemen, that small push got me to travel in an extraordinary land as I pre-planned the visit. On several occasions I travelled as ‘guest lecturer’ by small cruise ship between Salalah and Bahrain. The additional perspectives of these neighbouring coastal states helped illuminate Oman much more.
Dealing directly with clients also meant that they needed some sort of reassurance regarding the company they might deal with as I required 100% advance payment on a booking. Local reputation in a small market doesn’t travel far, so a blog was started about my own humdrum existence. That was the start of this blog, and I added writing about Oman for various publications .
My writing gradually changed in scale via several commissions including from Oman's Ministry of Tourism, these also included my photographs. During the summer of 2016 I re-wrote Diana Darke's Bradt Guide to Oman. The new 4th edition published on 22nd December has all-new maps & text that brings the guide up-to-date; including the December 2016 opening of the Anantara hotel in Salalah. Accommodation that is off the radar for other visitors, and most residents, is written about to enable travel from the Yemen border in the south through to Khasab in the north. Its not all 5 star offerings. Amongst many other places to eat is a tiny restaurant that has offered our guests exactly the same simple but excellent menu for over 15 years - its very well tried and tested by me, but new to you.
I am fortunate to have worked with probably the finest Travel Companies in the world - and lead tours in the MENA region - I will be delighted if you join me - availability here.