Iranian smugglers set up shop in coastal Oman

Iranian smugglers at work. Photo by Afshin Valinejad.
 
 
Due to the ramping up of international sanctions, many Iranian merchants who were working legally in Dubai are leaving and heading to Khasab, a small coastal town in Oman, where smuggling is rife.
 
Khasab, in the southern part of the Hormuz Strait, is conveniently located just 45 kilometres from the Iranian island of Qeshm. Many Iranian merchants who previously worked in the UAE are now establishing themselves in Khasab, where they rely on “shooties” – a local term for smugglers – to take their goods to Qeshm and from there to the rest of Iran.
 
"A" marks the town of Khasab in Oman.
 
According to our Observers, as well as other reports, both Omani and Iranian police appear to turn a blind eye to this practice. A photographer who recently travelled to the region told FRANCE 24 that the Omani authorities try to prevent this from making the news. He said that after taking photos of the smugglers, he was repeatedly interrogated, made to erase almost all his photos, and warned to stay away from Iranians working in Khasab.
 
Many Iranian businessmen have quit Dubai in the past couple of years because UAE authorities -- under pressure from the United States -- have made it increasingly difficult for them to work there. Many Iranian businessmen’s bank accounts have been frozen; they no longer enjoy banking facilities such as loans; and work permits are increasingly difficult to obtain. According to one veteran Iranian businessman FRANCE 24 spoke to, such measures have pushed Iranians who were previously working in the UAE legally to go to Oman, and smuggle their goods to Iran via Khasab: “They simply could no longer compete with non-Iranian merchants and were incurring loses. Doing business here in Dubai has now become almost impossible for Iranians.”
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“The locals are predominantly Salafists who would usually be anti-Shiite, but they tolerate these Shiite Iranian businessmen who bring in so much money”

Hamid is an Iranian journalist who recently spent several months on Qeshm island, during which he frequently accompanied shooties on trips to Khasab and back.
 
Travelling between Qeshm and Khasab is easy. Shooties only take about 45 minutes to complete the trip by speedboat. Usually the whole process of going to Khasab, picking up the goods and coming back takes place at night, and the goods reach Qeshm before sunrise.
 
The shooties bring back goods like cigarettes, clothing, satellite receivers, medicines, household appliances made in Asia, dry food stuffs, and sometimes even frozen meat. [According to Iran’s state-run Mehr News Agency, about $5 billion worth of goods are smuggled into the country every year]. I never saw them smuggle anything that could be used for industrial purposes. Shooties also take some things from Iran to Oman, for example goats and sheep, but also, unfortunately, illicit drugs like hashish and opium. They also bring along diesel fuel, which is very cheap in Iran, and sell it to passing ships they meet in the busy straight.
 
The police in both countries leave the shooties alone, especially in Oman, where investment in the impoverished area of Khasab has greatly improved the local residents’ living conditions. In the worst case scenario, the issue is resolved with a bribe. Still, shooties try to unload their shipments on isolated beaches, far from the island’s main city.
 
Boats used for smuggling can be seen in the background of this photo by Afshin Valinejad.
 
“The life of a ‘shootie’ is not easy; many lose their lives during storms”

Nevertheless, the life and work of a shootie is not easy. They don’t make much money, and navigating the waters of the Persian Gulf at night is dangerous. Boats don’t use any lights to avoid attracting attention. Shooties even use empty cans to conceal the light of their cigarettes when they smoke. Many shooties lose their lives during storms. Some of the shooties are women, which the locals called “khale”, which means “aunt”. Like the men, the female khales load and unload cargoes. They are very appreciated as they are less likely to arouse suspicion from the authorities. Both men and women, but even more so for women, usually belong to a shootie “gang” or have to pay a gang to transport their cargo.
 
In Khasab, I have seen warehouses of over 4,000 square meters built by Iranians. Not only are they in plain view, but their owners don’t seem at all worried about getting into trouble. The merchants I met stock their goods in these warehouses until the price of a specific item goes up in Iran, and then smuggle it over. Locals know what these warehouses are used for, but don’t seem to mind. It’s interesting to note that the people living in Khasab are predominantly Salafists who would usually be anti-Shiite, but they apparently tolerate these Shiite Iranian businessmen who bring in so much money.
 
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