How Covid-19 is accelerating the digital transformation of trade at Oman’s ports

Since the Covid-19 crisis began earlier this year, border agencies, logistics companies and traders have been exploring at pace how they can leverage technology to protect their people from the virus while keeping goods moving across borders. Ali Al Shidhani, Vice President of Technology, and Hilal Al Kharusi, Senior Strategist, at ASYAD Group, explain how the crisis has helped accelerate digital adoption in Oman’s ports.

The push for digital transformation is not new in Oman where the median age is just 25 and new technologies are deeply engrained in the lives of young Omanis. As a key gateway to growth markets of Africa and Asia, Oman has already set an ambitious trajectory for modernising its logistics industry, and ASYAD has been mandated by the government to enable digital transformation of Oman’s ports as part of the National Logistics Strategy, SOLS 2040. The country was also one of the first in the region to fully implement the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, and has the fastest import and export compliance times within the GCC countries according to the World Bank.

Yet when Covid-19 arrived, so did a new reality, especially with harnessing technology to accelerate digital transformation. Whether people were ready for it or not, they became increasingly reliant on technology, and the levels of digital adoption we expected to take months or even years to reach, were realised in mere weeks. It is true in all areas of life, from health and education to the way we socialise. Trade is no different.

Industry practitioners agree that the shift to fully electronic procedures must take place even in normal circumstances. The Covid-19 crisis is merely expediting an inevitable change to paperless trading.

Digital transformation on steroids

Suddenly, with restrictions on physical contact and people being encouraged to work from home, contactless transactions have become an absolute necessity and not a visionary goal. Our interconnected economies are highly dependent on ports to ensure that the world’s medical supplies and food continue to reach those who need them.

In Oman, the Ministry of Transport announced all paper-based transactions were to be made electronic, including, but not limited to, delivery order, bill of lading and online payment. Parties on the ground responded quickly. Some measures are temporary and have been adopted, understandably, to keep goods moving during crisis. For example, Customs in Oman has been proactive to brace the impact of the crisis. Customs’ Bayan system allows traders to apply and obtain any required permits, often in a matter of seconds. Also, Customs has adopted a flexible approach, agreeing that when importers and exporters are struggling to present an original copy of the certificate of origin for their goods, those goods will be allowed to pass based on their barcodes. In other cases, scanned documents sent by email are accepted as replacement for hard copies. Yet other measures will bring longer-term benefits. For instance, the submission and processing of delivery orders, bills of lading and service payments were moved online, and within just two weeks all transactions at the Port of Salalah had become digital, and over 60% of those at the Port of Sohar.

Other digital measures that had been introduced in recent months are also now demonstrating their value during the crisis. Customs’ Bayan system, or single window, is enabling customs to close some offices and instead, have agents clear goods virtually from the safety of their homes. Cargo manifests will be required to be submitted to Customs’ Bayan system at least 48 hours prior to vessel arrival so that authorities can conduct risk management before the goods arrive. This means traders can submit declarations and even see release of shipments before arrival or at least shortly after arrival.

Hutchison Port Sohar recently introduced the Ubi app; an online e-tracking service that updates vessel and gate schedules, tracks container shipments, and allows parties to exchange documents, payments, and data. Drivers are no longer required to wait for the physical documents before being able to pick up cargo. The benefits of these measures are clear – not only for the safety of all parties involved, but also in reducing delays that can be costly for border agencies, port operators and traders alike.

Turning crisis response into sustainable change – the future of digital logistics

While digitising Oman’s ports has been on the national agenda for some time, the global pandemic has highlighted its importance both for building resilience to future crises and making trade simpler and more cost-effective for parties along the supply chain. This presents us with an opportunity to accelerate our transformation. Some of the measures we have seen introduced have demonstrated the potential of paperless transactions but go only part of the way to unlocking the full benefits of digitisation. In the near future, there may well be millions of transactions for ports’ stakeholders to process and that load can only be processed if the processes are truly digitalised.

The next step for Oman is to connect all its ports through a National Port Community System – one common platform that will allow transporters, importers and exporters, port authorities and border agencies in all ports to exchange data, dramatically reducing administrative burden and making trade simpler, faster and more secure.

While we strive to return to some form of normality, it is important to reflect on the lessons learned from the crisis and ensure that all the positive steps we have taken are not lost. With digitisation now firmly at the top of many stakeholder’s priorities, this is the time to bring them together to make it a reality.

As part of its work to accelerate trade facilitation globally and promote international best practices, the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation is connecting Asyad into its public-private network to gather insights and lessons learned from other parties who have been involved in implementing similar port community systems, including our Moroccan partner Portnet.