Oman's illicit meteorite industry unearthed

Oman's illicit meteorite industry unearthed
8 min read
28 June, 2021
For years, smugglers have stolen Oman's rich supply of rare meteorites, trading them without consequence. Now, with new legislation bringing the illicit trade to an end, there is renewed national interest into the story behind Oman's meteorites.
A meteorite fragment on display at the Omani Natural History Museum in Muscat [MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP via Getty Images]

Dr Mohammed Hilal Al Kindi, director of the Earth Sciences Consultancy Centre (ESCC) lamented the sale of thousands of Omani meteorites via commercial and auctioneering websites as a huge loss to Oman, not only in scientific and geological terms, but also for tourism in the country. Oman boasts more meteorites than any other part of the world except Antarctica.

Meteors are solid bodies made from rock formed in one of the celestial bodies of the solar system, or from asteroids. When the meteor breaks the earth’s atmosphere it becomes known as a comet, and once it crashes into the earth’s surface, it is called a meteorite.

Meteors fall to earth when their orbit around the sun intersects with the earth’s orbit causing them to enter the Earth’s gravitational field. Their mass upon collision with earth can be anywhere between less than a gram to tens of tonnes, and some of the meteorites which have been found in the Sultanate have reached up to 200 kg, according to the Ministry of Information in Oman.

Between 1999 and 2004, a total of 1,439 meteorites were found, according to “Omani Meteorites”, a study by Professor Edwin Gnos and Dr Beda Hoffman from the Faculty of Science at the University of Bern in Switzerland in 2006.

In all, 4,335 meteorites have been found and documented in Oman, out of which 1,300 have been analysed. Meanwhile the Omani Ministry of Heritage and Tourism, who are responsible for the preservation of the country’s geological heritage, calculates the total number of meteorite fragments in the sultanate to be around 5000. The ministry also affirmed the scientific benefits brought by the meteorites, because they provide a chance to research the formation of the solar system as well as the Earth's history and the beginnings of life on it.

Omani meteorites from Washington University website St.Louis
Omani meteorites have been smuggled out of the country for scientific and commercial reasons [University of Washington in St.Louis website]

Depletion of geological reserves

Most of the meteorites found in Oman are "chondrite" meteorites which are a sub-branch of stone meteorites (one of the three main meteorite groups which are iron, stone and stony-iron), which derive from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A smaller number of rarer types, originating from Mars and the Moon, have also been found.

Professor Ahmed Al-Rawas, Dean of the College of Science in Sultan Qaboos University, says that the continuous smuggling of meteorites from the Omani sultanate is depleting these rare geological reserves, and explains that since 1999, meteorite hunters, some amateur and others experienced geologists, have been visiting Oman to search for these rare treasures. He mentions that the main area they have focussed on is Al Wusta Governorate, and that they have taken an estimated 85% of Oman’s rare lunar and martian fragments.

"In the fifties of the last century, British geologists working with petroleum companies in Oman found a number of important meteorite fragments and transported them to London"

Dr Al Kindi concurs, confirming that meteorite hunters, mainly from Russia and America, flocked to Oman after the 84th issue of “Meteoritical Bulletin” (an American publication) was published in August 2000, containing a report on 39 meteorites discovered in Oman during the years 1999 and 2000.

However, the exodus of Oman’s meteorites goes back further, says Al Kindi. In the mid-nineteenth century, British geologists working with petroleum companies in Oman found a number of important meteorite fragments and transported them to London.

One of the most well-known meteorite hunters is Mike Farmer, an American with an interest in geology, who visited Oman at the end of 2011 to search for meteorites in the Dhofar region. Despite the risks involved, Farmer recalled enjoying the expedition and saw the potential gains as worth the trouble as he said in a conversation with The New Arab’s sister publication, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, because Oman has so many rare meteorites which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. He added: “I was able to gather lots of lunar meteorites from the desert in South Oman, but in the end I was arrested and jailed for two months: everything I had collected was confiscated and I was expelled from the country”.

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Official recognition of the problem

The Omani Ministry of Heritage and Tourism has acknowledged that meteorite smuggling is a problem in the country, and states that meteorite hunters come from all over the world, entering the country with tourist visas before organising their own illegal expeditions. Many have been seized and the meteorites found in their possession confiscated, before being handed over to the Omani judiciary.   

Meteorite hunters benefitted from the lack of legislation around searching for and collecting meteorites without an official permit, according to Khalefah Bin Marhoon Al Rabhi, Secretary of the Omani Lawyer’s Association, and Visiting Faculty member at Sultan Qaboos University. The Consultative Assembly was alerted to that legal gap and a sultanate decree was passed in 2019 which counts meteorite fragments as moveable cultural heritage.

This means that legal decisions applicable to cultural heritage offences can now be applied to them. According to the law, anyone caught in possession of items of cultural heritage taken illegally will face a prison sentence of one to three months, and be fined between 500 Omani rials ($1299) and 10,000 OMR ($25,974) – or just one of these punishments will be applied.

In addition to this, the Mineral Resources Law was introduced by Royal Degree in the same year, which criminalised the possession of meteorites without an official license or agreement from the relevant authorities. According to article 27 of the law, anyone who does hold a licence must immediately inform the authorities if the following are found: meteorite stones, fossils, historical artefacts, rare geological phenomena or any other natural resources which are not listed by the law.

Al Rabhi believes that the punishments introduced are acting as a deterrent and explains that after the passing of these two decrees, the relevant authorities worked with the police to search for those attempting to trade in Omani meteorites and handed those found doing this to the judicial authorities – some were Omani citizens and others were foreign nationals.

The study of meteorites can shed light on the beginnings of our solar system
The study of meteorites can shed light on the beginnings of our solar system and life on Earth [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

A treasure of immense scientific and material value

The meteorites found in Oman make up 4.8% of the meteorites which fall to the earth, according to Dr Al Kindi. Most of these meteorites are discovered in the two governorates of Dhofar and Al Wusta, which are flanked by the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali) to the west, the rocky coasts of the Arabian Sea to the east, and the flood plains which lie before the Al Hajar Mountains in the north.

This region is made up of limestone and light-coloured soil, which aids the search for the dark-coloured meteorites. In addition to this, the region is distinct in terms of its flat terrain, which results in the meteorites staying where they land and not drifting due to erosion.  It is estimated that between 11 and 36 meteorites fall to earth in Oman every year, and the areas in which most meteorites fall are Jiddat al-Harasis, Dhofar, Ubar, Al-Sahma Sands and Wahiba Sands.

Dhofar and Al-Wusta governorates in Oman

 

There are different types of meteorites explains Al-Rawas. He says that around 6% of the Omani meteorites are classified as “differentiated” meteorites, which are rare and scientifically and materially valuable. The iron meteorites fall into this category - most of these are believed to come from the cores of asteroids which melted at an early point in the history of the solar system.

They contain iron, nickel and small amounts of sulfide and carbide compounds. Stony-iron meteorites are also classed this way and contain a more even mix of iron, nickel and silicate crystals. A small number of these rare meteorites are from the Moon and Mars and these are highly sought after – a gram of lunar meteorite can be priced at $10,000 and a gram of martian meteorite can reach $5,000. 

The other 94% of the meteorites found in Oman are the chondrites which are classified as “non-differentiated”. They contain small round particles called chondrules and tend to be formed predominantly from silicate minerals. It is believed that they derive from the asteroid belt and represent the original material from which the solar system was formed - they are considered the building blocks of the planets, according to Al-Rawas.

"A gram of lunar meteorite can be priced at $10,000 and a gram of martian meteorite can reach $5,000." 

Omani meteorites play an important role in geological studies internationally, according to Dr Maya Musa, director of the research department at the Gulf Institute of Gemology (a private institute for analysis of precious stones and geological research), stating that continuous Swiss-Omani cooperation in research and analysis has contributed to increased international interest and brought advantages in terms of tourism.

The Omani-Swiss cooperation was formalised in February 2020 with a signed agreement between the Omani Ministry for Heritage and Tourism and the Natural History Museum of Bern in Switzerland which set out details on the surveying, documenting and study of meteorites.

The Ministry is also working on a project with a scientific team from Bern Museum and a technical team from the University of Warwick in Australia to start a network to monitor falling meteorites. The Ministry clarified that it is hoped the project will be able to document the passage of meteorites from the moment they enter the Earth’s atmosphere over Oman, as until now there are no records providing precise information on their journey from that point up until the moment of collision with Earth.

Governmental efforts

The Ministry of Heritage and Tourism has expended efforts to protect Omani meteorites from being smuggled out of the country. As a first step, it has collected all the meteorite fragments, previously kept in different governorates with the aim of their sorting and classification.

It confirmed that some meteorite fragments were currently in the Natural History Museum in Bern, but these were only samples, the originals being kept in a special storage facility, from which small pieces were sent for classification, documentation and research. The Ministry indicated that the first batch sent out had been returned and coordination was underway to secure the return of the remaining samples soon.

Al-Rawas emphasises the need for suitable storage facilities in which the returned fragments will be safe, suggesting the establishment of a museum specialising in meteorites, and Al Kindi stresses that work is underway to establish the "Oman Through Time" Museum near the Al-Shoumoukh Fort in Nizwa province in the Ad Dakhiliyah region, south of Oman, where there will be a space in one department dedicated to the display of meteorites.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original click here.