AOM conference in Oman a success

by Emily Wilson
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Ripple shocks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and intense media speculation over military action in Afghanistan limited the number of delegates at the 13th annual conference and trade show of the Association of Operative Millers’ Middle East & East Africa District, held Oct. 8-11 in Muscat, Oman, but organizers still called the conference a resounding success.

The final attendance was 247, down from an expected 350. However, many of those who cancelled their registration were thought to be spouses of millers who had planned vacations in Oman to coincide with the conference. Many companies also cut back on the number of delegates that they sent.

Ian Watson, conference chairman and site manager at Oman Flour Mills, based in Ruwi, said his office received faxes, e-mails and telephone calls every day after Sept. 11, including some cancellations and a few registrations, but most from people seeking reassurance that the conference would continue as planned.

"Misinformation and rumor were rampant," Watson said. "We became much more robust in our responses to questions of safety and travel plans. ‘What do you know that we don’t?’ and ‘What are your sources of information?’ became our standard response. Participants’ fears were challenged directly — we were trying to organize an international meeting and we refused to become victims of what was clearly becoming a media-induced global malaise. A few of the earlier withdrawals recognized this situation and requested reinstatement."

Many delegates from North America were the first to withdraw. "This was understandable at first, and we had no idea whether withdrawing participants were direct or indirect victims of terrorist acts," Watson said. "As the days and weeks passed there was no sign of a let- up in the media blitz. The blanket coverage left no room for any other news whatsoever, and the sense of unreality and uncertainty was all-pervading."

When a few major sponsors, exhibitors and conference speakers withdrew, there was some question whether the meeting could financially or logistically proceed. "Every day we asked the same question: Do we know of any factors which could in any way affect the personal safety of our participants or materially affect the ability of participants to travel to and from the conference? The answer always came back negative," Watson said.

During the opening reception on Oct. 7, participants had just begun dinner when news came through that the first U.S.-led strikes where taking place against targets in Afghanistan. Watson said a rumor quickly circulated that airports in the Persian Gulf region had closed. However, other than one or two evening flights that were delayed in Dubai, all other flights were on time.

"The Middle East millers’ reaction to the strikes in Afghanistan were, in general, an acceptance of the inevitable," he said. "The only practical effect of Sept. 11 and subsequent events on the milling and grain industry in the Middle East has been the imposition of a ‘war zone’ insurance premium on all shipping entering the Gulf. The reasons for this measure remain obscure."

Paul Dickerson, vice-president for U.S. Wheat Associates’ overseas operations, was one of the few North Americans to attend the AOM conference. He said that while he personally felt very safe in Oman, he was concerned about getting marooned there. "There were some street demonstrations [in Muscat] but they were very orderly," he said. "We went on to Cairo after the conference and there felt far more at risk."

In an important side meeting, Dickerson and some of his U.S. Wheat colleagues met with the secretary general of the Association of Iranian Millers and representatives from six Iranian milling companies. "The Iranians are very interested in doing business with us and we are working hard, together, to explore ways to make it happen," Dickerson said.

One of the world’s largest wheat importers, Iran last year purchased 6.5 million tonnes from non-U.S. suppliers. While the Iranian government is responsible for the country’s wheat purchases, there may be an opportunity for private mills to buy wheat for "transshipments," where wheat is imported, milled and then exported as flour, Dickerson explained.

Henry Stevens of U.S. Wheat’s Portland, Oregon, office, added, "It was quite good for us to be there as far as business was concerned, and security concerns were minimal."