Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Smugglers becoming one of Oman's tourist attractions


The Iranians come at daybreak, buzzing across the green water in small boats packed with goats. They deliver their livestock to Omani traders, idle away the hot midday hours and, as darkness sets in, return to Iran, this time loaded with cigarettes, tea and clothing.

Aside from the starkly beautiful rocky fjords, tourist attractions are scarce on this remote tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Watching the Iranian smugglers come and go is about the best local travel operators can muster.

"We do it as part of the city tour," said Abdul Khalique Ahmed, the managing director of Khasab Travel and Tours. "People like to see the smugglers."

The boats speed across the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow shipping lane that connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea and beyond. About 15 percent of the world's oil passes through this vitally strategic sea lane, closely guarded by the US military.

But the goat and cigarette trade, running perpendicular to the oil tankers, is the only commerce the locals care about. It is said to represent over half of the economy here on the Musandam peninsula, a small outpost of Oman north of the United Arab Emirates. The trade is illegal in Iran but legal in Oman, which means that the Omani government collects taxes and grants de facto visas to the Iranians, as long as they do not stray far from the port or stay overnight.

The smuggling started after Iran closed its borders after the 1979 revolution, and exploded after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Trade grew further after completion of the first paved road from Khasab to the United Arab Emirates in 1997.

These days, however, traders like Abdullah Sadani, a 33-year-old Iranian, complain that reform in Iran is ruining business. An import deal that Iran signed with international cigarette companies in 2002 has decimated that trade, which was by far the largest and most lucrative.

Sitting in a cafe near the port, Sadani, grizzled by sun, cigarettes and several days of beard growth, explained that despite the lower pay this was the only way he could support his wife and four children back in the Iranian port of Bandar-e Kong.

Over the years, he said, he has been robbed by pirates, shot at by the police and occasionally forced to dump his cargo overboard to avoid arrest.

Problems with the Iranian authorities are solved in time-honored fashion.

"Baksheesh," Sadani said emphatically, using the Persian word for tip or bribe while making a circular motion with his hand over his head.

A translator interpreted the gesture. "Baksheesh makes the world go round."

Like other traders, Sadani carries a cellphone with two SIM card phone chips, one for Iran and one for Oman. He switches chips halfway through the journey, so spotters on the Iranian side can easily reach him on his return trip to warn him of police activity.

Cigarettes are still smuggled to avoid the taxes the Iranians levy on the newly legal trade, but other products, including tea, clothing, soft drinks and even electronics, have gained importance.

Even at that reduced level, it is an enormous amount of business to the roughly 30,000 Omanis who live in the region. And for young men like Hassan al-Kumzari, 22, smuggling is clearly the option of choice. Dressed in a traditional flowing white gown and white cap, he oversees a fleet of 10 trucks that shuttle his goats from the dusty port to Ras Al Khaimah, the northernmost city in the United Arab Emirates, and then returns with goods destined for Iran.

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