Kenya opened its embassy in Muscat this April to enhance bilateral relations with the sultanate. In an exclusive interview with Muscat Daily, Yabesh O Monari, Chargé d’Affaires at the Kenyan Embassy, shared his views on the potential areas of cooperation between the two countries.
Why did it take so long for Kenya to set up an embassy in Oman despite historic ties between both nations dating back to the 17th century?
Opening a mission depends on a number of issues, including logistics. We had two embassies in the Gulf - in Saudi Arabia and UAE - set up in the 1980s and 90s respectively. The embassy in UAE was overseeing matters in Oman so far.
However, Kenya is committed to increasing its presence in the Gulf region. In the last five years, we have opened three more embassies - Kuwait (2007), Qatar (September 2010) and now Oman. With our presence already in Iran and Israel, we now have seven embassies in the Middle East.
What is the current level of trade cooperation between Kenya and Oman?
The Kenyan Embassy in Oman aims to promote bilateral relations including trade, investments and tourism. The two-way trade was RO102mn in 2010. Kenya’s exports to Oman were estimated at RO50mn, while imports from Oman stood at RO52mn.
Kenya is the biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa and our strength is agriculture. Kenya exports tea, coffee, meat, and agricultural and farm products, including vegetables and fruits such as mangoes, avocadoes and passion fruit. Kenya is also a very big flower exporter. Many of the flowers that you see in the markets in Oman with Holland labels are actually from Kenya. Holland acquires these flowers from Nairobi and then they are packaged and re-exported to the rest of the world.
We import oil, petroleum products, plastic, aluminium and small boats among other things from Oman. Kenya is exploring the possibility of buying fibre-optic cables and machine tools from the sultanate.
Besides, Oman has an extremely efficient technology for desalination. Kenya’s coastal region still depends on fresh water so we are keen on using the Omani desalination technology to meet the growing needs of potable water in Kenya.
Which are the other aspects that Kenya is seeking to promote in Oman?
We want to market Kenya as a source of skilled labour. Nearly 400 Kenyans professionals are already working in Oman, mostly teachers of Science and English. But there are quite a number of Kenyans working as hoteliers, engineers, pilots, marketing professionals, etc.
The potential for Omanis to source skilled labour from Kenya is promising. Kenya produces very good doctors and nurses. Kenya has also exported sportsmen to other nations. Some of the most successful athletes in Qatar and Bahrain are Kenyans. We would also like to promote Kenya as an attractive investment destination for Omani businessmen.
Nairobi is the headquarters of the international media in Africa. It is also home to UN agencies similar to Geneva, Vienna and New York. Kenya has a huge pool of English-speaking enterprising workers. It is strategically located as a regional, financial, telecom and transport hub.
Kenya offers investors access to a wider market of 120mn people through its membership in the East African Community (EAC) and an even wider base of 400mn people as a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
In Oman, an estimated 22,000 people speak Swahili, which is an official language in Kenya. Are the two countries cooperating on the research and promotion of the language?
Swahili is now a major language in Africa. Swahili can certainly encourage more people-to-people contact between Oman and Kenya. There are a number of Omani officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat who speak Swahili. The language creates an instant connection.
However, most speakers in Oman learn the language at home owing to their family linkages to Kenya. We would like to see Sultan Qaboos University and Nairobi University - the two premier universities in both the countries - enter into a partnership and promote Swahili language and literature.
Kenya is a renowned tourism destination. How is the inflow of tourists from the Gulf, particularly Oman?
Kenya has a very developed and diverse tourism sector. Wildlife tourism is the number one attraction. Last year, Kenya played host to 1.2mn tourists from around the world. Most of our tourists come from Europe, particularly eastern Europe, Yemen and now even China.
Kenya’s national carrier Kenya Airways operates direct flights between Muscat and Nairobi thrice a week. The airline also provides maximum connectivity to other parts of Africa.
We are seeing an increasing number of visitors from the Gulf. The number of visas issued throughout the summer months were impressive. Many Omanis visited Kenya during the period - some of them for tourism and others to visit family members. Quite a lot of expatriates from Oman also travelled to Kenya this summer.
The trend may go up with the opening of the embassy and issuing of visas on the spot. Since April, we have issued over 1,000 visas in Muscat. Besides, many more may have travelled and received visas on arrival.
Earlier this month, a British man was shot dead and his wife abducted from a Kenyan beach resort by suspected Somali pirates. Incidents like these may put doubts in the minds of prospective tourists. What are the steps that your government is taking to reassure tourists about safety?
The British case is unfortunate and isolated. It is not a common practice in Kenya. If you consider that we had 1.2mn foreign tourists visiting Kenya last year and all of them came out safe from the country, it gives you the idea that Kenya is very safe. Somali militants and pirates are causing a lot of menace in the region including in Kenya.
Kenya is in the forefront of the fight against piracy. We have cooperated with European Union Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) and even signed MoUs under which the arrested pirates are sent to Kenyan prisons. We have held trials and convicted several captured Somali pirates.
However, we have faced the brunt [of the menace] for our efforts. Our prisons have become congested. The cost of doing business at the Mombasa port - one of the busiest in Africa - has gone up due to increasing piracy cases. The international community should work together to bring peace in Somalia. The African mission in Somalia should be provided with facilities and infrastructure for them to be able to assist the transitional government there.