December 07, 2011

In Memory of Reason

A recent discussion with my blog-buddy Mimi coinciding with her comedy death threat (well, I thought it was funny, that's just me), had me thinking about the state of the global Islamic community (the "Umma").  Not just in the more grotesque stereotypes of some non-Muslims, but in hard fact.  I am a Muslim.  And there are some ugly truths that we need to face up to about ourselves.  Now Mimi is a very unusual and indeed difficult woman. But she is just a woman.  One little person, with some thoughts in her head that might be good or bad.  Why is it that so many people feel threatened by an expression of unorthodox opinion, or even just a question?

I address this mainly to my coreligionists.  But as many, maybe a majority of readers, aren't, I should give a brief explanation of Islamic history for those who don't know.  My fellow Muslims must forgive me, please, if I over-simplify or use non-standard descriptions.  This is an illustration of context, not a spiritual guide.  So, infidels, please pay attention: yesterday was 'Ashura.  The tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Hijri calendar.  It is a special day.  To explain why, we need to go back to the death of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).  On his death, it was decided that someone should succeed him as leader of the Faithful, the "khaleefa", in English "caliph", or successor.  Someone to act as the focal point and guide for the still vulnerable Muslim people.  

There was, in short, a disagreement.  Abu Bakr, the oldest friend, mentor and father in law, was chosen. Ali, the younger but equally dear friend, first cousin and son in law, was not.  Some felt this decision incorrect, and became known as "Shi'at Ali", or "Ali's Partisans", the origins of the people we know today as "Shi'a" or "Shi-ites".  There was no conflict as such, and the decision was nevertheless respected.  As were the subsequent decisions to appoint Omar (something of a controversial figure, to put it mildly, in Shi'a thinking),  then Othman (under whose authority the Qur'An was finally collected into a single written book agreed by all who had heard it first hand, that exists in original copy to this day).  Finally, Ali became the fourth "khalifa".  This appointment saw the first open conflict among the Muslims, and a rival sought to establish himself.  After the death of Ali by assassination (another story), things got messy.  The Shi'a supported an hereditary system for the caliphate, through the sons of Ali, who were also of course the grandsons and only descendants of Mohammed (pbuh).  But the other faction had established itself too.  Wars began.

So, now you're up to speed with the basics, back to 'Ashura.  On this day in history, Hussain, the son of Ali and supported as his successor by the Shi'a, was attacked by an opposing force near Kerbala in Iraq.  Most of their own supporters were defected or deceived into abandoning Hussain's camp, and vastly outnumbered,  Hussain and his cohort were slaughtered.  Ashura (derived from the Arabic word for ten, because of the date), is a day of mourning and regret, when Shia feel sorrow for the deaths of the Imam, and that his followers were not there to save him.  It is common among Shia to wear black, to have commemorative and funereal gatherings, and even to inflict physical chastisement on themselves as atonement for the failure of their forebears to protect their leader.  Although many died in the battle of Kerbala, it is the name of Hussain that is the central reference of Ashura.  He was believed to have fought bravely to the last, before being killed and his body defiled and decapitated.  "Oh Hussain!" is a cry you will hear from mourners on Ashura.

There you go, Ashura 1.1.  Apologies in particular to Shia friends who would like to say more about the significance of this day, but that's another conversation.  I need to explain why I'm talking about it at all.  Now the heathens are up to speed, I'd like to turn attention back to the brothers and sisters and ask, in the nicest possible way: what the hell is wrong with you people, really?

There's a new trend that seems to have established itself in several countries, of blowing up Shia as a special Ashura gift.  The first incidences of sectarian bombings of which I was ever aware, were from Pakistan, Karachi in particular.  I don't know when that started, or who started it, but it seems in my memory to be a pretty old tradition of sectarian hatred compared to the more headline-grabbing atrocities in Iraq over recent years, and now also exported to Afghanistan.  In some cases, particularly the latter two, there seems to be a political hand behind it - countries fighting by proxy with other people's sons.  Not naming any names (OK, it's Iran and Saudi Arabia), the war of sectarian ideal through influence, mosque-building, missionaries and propaganda, has grown into actual sectarian conflict.  

I wouldn't say that Saudi Arabia supports blowing up worshippers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Karachi or Baghdad, but there is certainly a role for which they have to answer, in creating and fostering an ideology of sectarian loathing.  And politically, both countries pick their teams, fund and arm them.  Before 2001, the Iranians had the Northern Alliance (and many Shia among them), and the Saudis had the Taliban.  After 2001, exporting extremism became gradually less fashionable in Saudi or Pakistani politics, but it's pretty hard to put an ideology back in the box when so many heavily-armed and lightly-brained individuals are already enjoying it.

The problem is, though, that it's not just politicians, kings, arms dealers and insecure would-be Islamic popes who make sectarian and ideological murder a reality.  It's the permissive environment in which they are allowed to operate.  It's you and me.  It's the emails on the one hand from my friend K, about freeing the Shia from oppression and murdering whatevers in Bahrain, and the others from my friend A, ridiculing the Ashura commemoration and praising the very people demonised by the others.  Sectarianism too easily becomes a badge, a party, a national allegiance, and a declaration of enmity.  When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I remember in one town of mixed Sunni/Shia population, that some people would not drink from a public water fountain after a Shia had used it.  That someone would rather go without water really says it all: the supernatural evil that one man can attribute to another for no good reason other than a point of view, is simply extraordinary.

Sunni on Shia and vice versa.  Muslim on non-Muslim.  Muslim on Jew on Christian and any inversion or combination you can imagine.  Everyone on Hindu, Hindu on everyone.  The ridiculing, de-humanising, derisive and visceral loathing inflicted by one man on another by reason solely of a difference in ideas.  A look through comments on this blog and others to which it links, will give plenty of examples.  And take my word for it, English language blogs contain a lot less sectarian speech in general than the Arabic ones.  The specialism in the English language blogs and forums, with their wider spread of nationalities and religions, is the atheist egomaniac: there is no religious viewpoint as intolerant and belittling of others, as the atheist.  In his own way, he's the mirror image of the smug, grinning extremist seen in every major religion - so self-affirming and patronising that he sees others barely above animals, mentally and spiritually deficient.  Every religion has them.  And atheism is very much a religion.  But Muslims, yes, we have those un-reflecting, unmerciful, intolerant, arrogant and judgmental maniacs, in spades.

So, in light of all of the above, it was a deliciously sour irony to my mind that someone should threaten to "strike [Mimi] down in the name of Allah" for a spiritual "reward", on the day of Ashura, and for a new wave of sectarian bombings to occur.  Although a day of mourning for Shia, and a day of fasting (for more obscure reasons) for some Sunna, it seems to me that there are still plenty around who will commemorate a day when we remember a tragic civil war among the Muslims, by calling for the murder of some Muslims, or worse, actually carrying it out.  I have to say that even in some Shia gatherings to mark the day, the mood seems to move easily from mourning, to some kind of expression of sectarian hatred, a call for retribution, a perpetuation of a sense of persecution and injustice.  The persecution and injustice is real for some of course, but that applies across all sects and religions.  Might not the occasion of Ashura, whatever one's sect, be a suitable occasion for all to join  together in saying "never again"?

I keep asking myself why new thought is considered so threatening, or why diversity of opinion even within traditional schools of Islam more than a millennium old, still seems to cause so much ill-feeling.  On the first point, I was invited the other day to sign something called "The Amman Message".  On the face of it, this is just the kind of message of unity and understanding that I would support: acceptance and even celebration of different views within Islam, respect for non-Muslims, a code against violence, etc.  But I didn't sign up.  Here's why: it has three main points.  The first says that Islam has eight major schools of jurisprudence (four Sunni, two Shi'a, Ibadhi, and Thahiri) that should be respected, plus the "true" Sufi tradition and Salafi tradition.  It doesn't define what is true and what is not in either of the latter, but I guess the later points are supposed to make this self-evident (e.g. non-violence etc).  None of these groups should ever declare the other to be apostate, or imply that they are not "real" Muslims.  The second point says that this diversity of opinion is a good thing, and as long as all believe in God, the Qur'An, the Prophet (pbuh), the angels, Judgement Day and the five pillars (attestation, prayer, fasting, charity and Haj), they are all Muslims.  Differing ideas beyond that are unimportant.

But the reason I couldn't sign up to it, is the third point.    It says that only those who are "qualified" within one of those eight schools of jurisprudence (I'm not sure where the two "traditions" mentioned, fall into this, but there are overlaps anyway), are entitled to speak for their religion.  It mentions specifically the authority to issue a "fatwa" which, as I have previously explained, is a formal ruling or opinion on religious interpretation (not a death sentence on Salman Rushdie).  But the implication is nevertheless clear: unless one "adheres" to one of these structured bodies of jurisprudence and is recognised by the established "scholars" within it, it is unacceptable to voice an opinion in public.  I have written more than once about how these "scholars" and the like have created churches and clerical titles for themselves and that I believe that to be un-Islamic.  But this issue is broader.  This declaration says you take orders from these guys, or you shut up.  That makes me very uncomfortable.  In a way, the third point also undermines the first: the first point is set out to emphasise inclusivity, saying that all the schools and traditions, despite their differences, should recognise each other as equally valid in Islam.  And yet in the context of this third point, that becomes not an expression of inclusion, but exclusion.  Conform, or be outside the "real" Islam.

The goals of the Amman Message are easy to understand and to accept.  They set out, clearly, to oppose sectarianism, and to stop the Bin Ladens of this world calling themselves leaders of the faithful and such like (the title of a caliph), and issuing religious edicts as new laws and obligations to pressure Muslims into support.  The Amman Message sets out to oppose and undermine extremism and violence against different sects, religions and so on.  That's a good thing.  Even better is that the Message itself (by the way "Message" or "Risaala" in this context, has very strong connotations of prophecy) is co-authored by the most respected religious leaders of all these sects and schools.  Even the Saudis are in there, which explains the care not to exclude the Salafi movement, even though they try hard to qualify its ideals.  The Iranians are not, but then much as they would like the world to think otherwise, the Iranian theologians are not the top trumps in Shi'ism: that title goes to Ayatullah Ali Al Sistani, in Iraq.  And he's a signatory.

The problem is that by trying to separate mainstream Islam from violent extremism, they also establish yet another declaration of intolerance towards debate and discussion.  There is no acceptance of reformist or revisionist thought, no real acknowledgement other than in name (the undefined "real") of Sufi thought, which is extremely varied, and no acceptance at all of the idea that a new or alternative perspective could be considered valid.  While trying to say "those who condemn other Muslims are not Muslims", they do the same themselves: "If you're not one of us, you're not a Muslim".  Full circle.  A movement for peace and against terrorism, in the name of inclusion and tolerance, sets out limits of tolerance and inclusion.  That's why it does not have  my signature.  One more reason is the hilarious dialogue box, asking "are you a [religious scholar]?" I resisted the temptation to tick "yes".  I mean, I've read a lot about religion and I try to learn more all the time.  So who's to say?  The problem is, I know what they mean, even if they shouldn't.

The fear of terrorism and intolerance seems to fuel intolerance itself, just as the fear of injustice, or anger at violent tragedy, seems to fuel the injustice and violent tragedy brought about by terrorists.  The fact that this declaration didn't happen until 2004 - when the Iraqi sectarian conflict was just getting started, and three years into the foreign intervention in Afghanistan post 9/11 - says a lot about how seriously as a whole, Muslims really take extremism.  Where was this declaration during the bombings of Karachi in the nineties, or prior to the attacks on New York and Washington in the many years that Al Qaida had already been active?  Where was the opposition to the Taliban's openly sectarian Salafist rule, or the sectarian hate speech coming from every quarter, be it Iranian radio broadcasts, amateur internet campaigns, or so-called scholars declaring others to be apostate?  Did it really have to be American worries about Iraqi internal cohesion under occupation, that stimulated the Umma to come up with such a campaign?

Here's an interesting thing to share: I came across the Amman Message when I was searching for details of a certain "scholar" who had been in trouble with the law for plotting to establish a theocracy in his country by overthrowing its government.  He was the signatory on behalf of one of these main schools.  Now that he's pardoned and no doubt, reformed, I'm sure he's just the guy to talk about tolerance.  The other angle on this is that, in 2011, I'm reading this message after an internet search in English about one of the signatories.  Why haven't I heard reference to this more often before?  As it happens, I was aware of it, but I can't recall any references to it in religious debate in Oman, Iraq or anywhere else I've been in the last seven years.  Nor even  on an internet forum.  Every major "scholar" from every major sect, and nobody thinks it's worth a reference? 

This seems to be another irony, that the very people who shout down unorthodox views, have their own very specific views of what orthodoxy must be.  As a Sufi scholar once put it "the ways to the truth are as many and varied as the souls on Earth".  I think he's probably right, although I'm not sure if the Amman Message's "true Sufism" includes him, so best to be careful.  There can't be any single document on the planet that's a more orthodox, plain-words expression of scholarly agreement than the Amman Message, but it doesn't seem to have hit much resonance among the masses.  Is it just that it's human nature to be individual and maintain a unique perspective?  We all feel the need to belong, certainly, but can we really be homogenised into one, consistent viewpoint?  Perhaps, in that respect, the Amman Message is just as futile as the extremists are self-defeating.  "Fighting for peace" is an oxymoron, perhaps in the metaphorical campaigning sense, as well as the literal one.

But holding a billion unique views is one thing, fighting over them another.  Why do we Muslims seem to go from zero to infamy in seconds?  Naturally, the statistical incidence of Muslims who are terrorists is extremely low.  Even the most high-handed, right-wing internet sniper in the Omani blogosphere will have to admit that, for all the things wrong with Omani society, he's probably met a lot of Muslims here, and none of them have murdered him for being a kaffir even if they did cut the queue in the petrol station.  I go back, though, to that question of permissive environment.  Most Muslims are not terrorists, but as I've mentioned before, I think far too many of us are passively accepting of an extremist ideology.

The stereotype of a violent Arab Muslim is inaccurate.  Most Muslims are not violent, and indeed, most Muslims are not Arabs.  Three quarters of Muslims are from the Indian Sub-Continent.  The largest single Muslim country is Indonesia.  India has more Muslims than the entire Arab world.  With that in mind, perhaps it's worth remembering, then, that most Muslims are poor.  Most live in countries struggling with corruption, social injustice, poverty and despair.  Not because, as the Evil Bobs of this world would have it, Islam makes people corrupt and unjust, but because those places have been that was for centuries.  It's arguable, I think, that poverty in Asia, the caste system in India, and the Islamic doctrine of equality between races and peoples and helping the poor, are the reasons that Islam has taken hold so firmly in many developing countries.  But, as with any perfect idea in the hands of man, it still relies on man for its implementation, and as is often the case, man falls short.

So that explains why the Amman Message is an unknown reference for most Muslims: most Muslims have never used the internet.  Most down own a television.  Many can't read, and most certainly don't buy a newspaper.  In such an environment, taking authority and guidance from a man of status is the default.  The "scholar" is the only man who can read.  The leader.  The respected pillar of the community.  I would argue that even when a community begins to prosper through development or migration, becomes literate and self-sustaining, those traditions remain.  Extremism is easy to sell to a hungry man.  It is also easy to sell to a man whose cultural traditions are of obedience to the paternalistic figure with the loudest voice and the longest beard, even though he may now have access to other voices.

But even if all of that is true, what about the rest of us?  What about the ones who lazily pick a side in whatever conflict is spooned up in the TV news?  What about the educated, well-fed, historically prosperous Muslims who use their Facebook pages to ask their friends for a gesture of sectarian loyalty?  Look at where it leads.  Look at what it really represents.  Whether it's Ashura or any other day, whether there's a bomb in Kadhimiya or a death threat to a blogger talking about definitions of marriage and sex, take a moment to think about it.  We are the ones with the freedom, the information, the choice, and with it the responsibility.  So I ask again, in the nicest possible way:  what the hell is wrong with you people?

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December 03, 2011

So About That Opera House....

I'll keep this brief (yeah, I know I've said this before, but...), but I have two big issues about this apparently raging controversy:

The first one is, as I feel Dhofari Gucci might be too polite to say, who cares what he thinks?  I, like DG, have every respect for Ahmed Al Khalili as a man who has dedicated his life, no doubt with great effort and conviction, to seeking truth and helping guide the people to a more moral existence.  May God reward him.  I have shaken his hand a couple of times here and there, and he strikes me as a rather gentle and modest man - something I've noticed about great man of religion from other faiths too, over the years.  

But nevertheless, is his opinion really so important?  I have written before about how I have great cynicism towards those who set themselves up as "muftis", "sheikhs", "scholars" and so forth - not because I doubt the effort and learning of one who makes this his life's work, but because of the implied role it gives them in society.  There is no occupation or social status of "mufti" or "scholar" mentioned in the Holy Qur'An, nor even in the most widely accepted traditions of the Prophet (pbuh).  A "sheikh" is either the elder of a tribe, or the man chosen to lead them in war.  Islam, I believe, dislikes titles.  On the contrary, it is a basic tenet of Islam that we have no priests, popes, vicars, gurus, lamas or similar such creations acting as intermediaries between us as individual Muslims, and God.  So even when a man makes himself (or worse, society makes him) into a respected full-time student of matters spiritual, does that really give him the right to speak as if his views or understanding are incontrovertible fact?

I lay the blame for this not at the person of "Sheikh" Ahmed, but more at the society (and I mean the Umma more generally, not Oman specifically), that has created such roles.  The very fact that a man has to ask on behalf of his mother (let's not look at that too closely either), and is prepared to make a decision apparently based solely on this one man's reply, is to me indefensible from a theological standpoint.  There are many people one might ask for an advice or an opinion, but relying on one, however clear his heart or great his library, is simply creating an Islamic church with doctrinal dogma growing beyond what we believe to be the world of God.  Listening to someone else's opinion, and treating it as an inherent part of religious understanding, is a mistake in my view.  Is music forbidden?  Personally, I doubt it, and there are many schools of thought on the matter, or at least on where the boundaries lie, but that's not the issue: the issue is that making one man responsible for everyone's view, is elevating him to a status that I believe to be itself forbidden, unequivocally, by the religion we claim to share.

There will be different views on all of the above of course, and I mean no personal insult to the individual or to anyone else.  But here's the second thing: why have an opera house at all?

I don't mean in respect of whether it's OK to have music venues, bars or other such non-traditional facilities built with the country's wealth as a matter of principle based on their content.  That will always be debatable, and let's debate it.  But I  mean the specific issue of building a big, expensive, eye-catching project that is not empirically a priority for the under-educated, under-paid, under-employed, under-served Omani majority.  A few comments on other blogs and forums have put the view that the opera house was a waste of money, and although not mentioned in the original discussion, they are nevertheless questions that have been raised by many.

When I wrote a few days ago about things that Oman should be proud of in marking National Day, I had meant to include this project.  Not because of the way the project worked (over a year late, inadequate access, signage and parking, and a budget to make your eyes water), but because of what it represents.

Of course on one level, it represents the personal passion of Sultan Qaboos for classical art forms.  In that respect, Oman has an opera house for the same reason as it has a symphony orchestra, the same reason Oman FM has always set aside time for classical music, the reason Oman now has a dedicated classical radio station, and that both the Al Bustan and a certain royal palace, have full-scale pipe organs.  His Majesty spent a formative part of his education in a music-loving house, and learned to understand and to love the richness and beauty of various classical forms of music.  It is a passion he wishes to share with his people and encourage among them, no doubt in his mind a representation of higher civilisation, a badge of intellect and social maturity to which the nation should be helped to aspire.  It seems to me that His Majesty has a rather different view on the morality of music than Ahmed Al Khalili.  Whoever is right, I am happy at least that neither view is repressed out of insincere conformity.

But to me, the Royal Opera House of Oman represents something beyond that.  When a government or a leader sets a budget, and looks at all the priorities for a nation, there is something beyond paying the bills, maximising the provision of services and planning for infrastructure requirements or even national defence.  There is the question of self-respect, community pride.  A question of representing all the progress and aspirations of a nation in something tangible.  Some leaders build big statues of themselves, or monuments to some past revolution.  Some take a more utilitarian approach, with a new park or planting a forest.  In a way, perhaps an opera house is a statue of Sultan Qaboos as it represents so directly and personally his own vision of what cultural progress means.  But it is open.  Just as the parks and corniches are.  Even if the performances are expensive, they vary, and a tour or just a view from the road as you drive by, is for everyone.  This is no mere vanity project, it is an invitation.

It reminds me in a way of the Beijing Olympics - that event mired in all sorts of controversy, inside and outside China (and at least an opera house was built without evicting anyone!).  But it was a statement.  In building that remarkable Bird's Nest, that extraordinary performance to open the Games, and of course the massive investment in China's own athletic performance, a country announced itself confident and come of age.  It was a tonic to the nation, an item of pride and self-esteem.  "We can invite the best of the World to come to us, and appreciate the joy and tradition of these games".  So said China with its Olympic Games.  So says Oman at the opera or the ballet.

Instead of complaining at the cost, or debating whether this or that form of entertainment is traditional or religiously compliant, I think perhaps Oman needs a different view of what this building is about.  Yes, there are many things this country needs, and more urgently than to hear Andrea Bocelli.  But just as someone struggling with a budget needs, once in a while, to pick up a tub of that expensive ice cream after a hard day, or take his wife out on their anniversary, financial priorities are not always solely about paying the bills.  They are also about embracing life, about just occasionally, saying "let's treat ourselves" to something a little out of the ordinary.  The daily grind, the pressures and stresses of making a living, will always be there.  But everyone needs to have something special on their birthday.  Oman got something beautiful, and beauty is a gift from God.

November 30, 2011

Dear Sultan Qaboos (2): Things to Be Concerned About on New Year's Day

When the public holiday was declared to combine both the commemoration of the forty-first national day, and the new year of the Hijri calendar, it rather neatly linked the two thing about which I wanted to write: an occasion for looking back over past achievements, and an occasion to look forward and make plans.

In my previous post, I pointed out a few things - obvious things, or at least to me - that Oman has already done. Obvious, but important.  Even extraordinary.  That was the full half of the glass.  Now for the half that's empty.  Again, I would suggest that most of the serious issues facing this country at present and for the future, are equally self-evident.  Yet they're forgotten somehow, by officials, planners, even ordinary people, who expect things to just somehow roll along by themselves.

One thing that has characterised the "Omani Renaissance", has been a willingness to change things.  Abolish old restrictions.  Open up to international business.  Invent and develop a whole new means of political participation - and accelerate it on demand.  Emancipate women through equal suffrage and exemplary public appointments.  But as each of those ground-breaking steps has been taken, it has been upon the eggshells of reactionary tradition and, sometimes, vested interests.  The balance has been kept rather well, I would say, but just as time seems to get faster the older we get, so the pressures on Oman are in a phase of acceleration. Some eggs may need to be broken.  

I'm just a foreign migrant here, trying to make my living like anyone else.   But like many of my peers, I have also made a home, engaged with Omani society, and developed a sense of care and shared community.  If I have to criticise, it's not to throw stones, but to warn a friend out of concern - concern for a future in which I too hope to participate.  I have lived in several countries, and as a perennial outsider perhaps I have a different perspective.  And from this view, I see the shared future of this wonderful country as suddenly uncertain.  I hope to be wrong, as we all would, but hope is not enough.  The next forty years of development need to exceed the first if the great vision of 1970 is to be realised.  Here are some things which need to be looked in the eye:

1.  Face the demographics.  I said a lot of this was obvious, after all!  Every year, tens of thousands of new citizens come into existence, and may God bless them all.  Oman must feed, educate and employ them all.  But how? Since the previous census, private sector employment has increased and educational provision to support it.  Yet it's not enough: compared to seven or eight years ago, fewer Omanis leaving education get a job in the private sector now than then.  Insufficient opportunities?  Unrealistic expectations?  Or inadequate skills?  Oman's economy has grown, but its workforce is not growing fast enough.  More people registered for the new job seekers' allowance than are currently employed by all the businesses in Oman (including state-owned enterprises).  Those skewed proportions, on current trends, will get worse every year rather than better.  It can't go on, but where is the discussion of these cold realities?

2.  Foreigners help and hinder.  Like me.  Doing a job that maybe someone else should be doing.  Someone Omani.  In my own defence, I have always been predisposed to hiring Omanis, and have "Omanised" jobs where I've worked out of preference rather than under obligation.  Perhaps I have always been confident in my position, confident that doing this wouldn't at some point cost me my livelihood.  Anyone who has worked for or with an Omani company knows that there are foreign workers who help Omanis get on, and others who stand in their way.  The office or factory can be the backdrop to an strange employment cold war, with some Omanis having to fight through a system to get trained or promoted, others happy to be passengers on a boat rowed by Indians.  Bizarrely, sadly, the insecurities of some expatriates seem to be passed on to Omani managers too, who then stand in the way of their countrymen, fearing an imaginary zero sum game where someone else's advancement is their loss.  Employers see Omanisation as a tax or a punishment, something to be avoided, or exaggerated for the Ministry and the annual report.  But the fact is that at a time when Omanisation is a decade or more into serious application, and hundreds of millions invested in opportunities for Omanis, there are more foreigners working in Oman than there were a decade ago.  The number of foreigners in the Omani private sector has increased faster than the number of Omanis.  That growth can be reversed, and must be.  Hiring a foreigner is still the easier option.

3.  Slavery Lives.  And it's a shame.  That's a strong, emotive word.  Perhaps I should say "human trafficking", "bonded labour", "exploitation" or some other euphemism.  But the fact remains that some people work in Oman in conditions outside the law, for little or no pay and against their will.  There is only one word for that.  I'm not singling out Oman - this is a problem in many nations.  And employer abuses run a spectrum from unlawful contracts right through to wrongful imprisonment and physical abuse.  All are found here, and more people than would like to admit it - educated "decent" people reading these words - are involved either actively or passively in supporting such crimes.  I cannot lay that charge at the feet of the Ruler, of course.  Under this reign, Oman has acceded to any number of treaties and agreements, passed many laws (including the latest on working hours) and issued a hundred decrees on the rights of the worker.  But the system, the society, has not internalised these messages.  Enforcement is weak, education of the exploited is negligible, and the public maintain a clear unwritten multi-layered apartheid between VIP, citizen, notable foreigner, and disposable foreigner.  At this point, perhaps I could offer a suggestion?  If the minimum wage were applied to all regardless of nation, and if the uneducated migrant workers were given pro-active, multi-lingual information on and access to the courts, Oman would be acting practically to implement the just policies laid down so far.  What's more, in such a situation, unskilled labour would be cheaper from Omanis than from illiterate foreign-speaking migrants.  That presents its own problems, described in the next two points:

4.  People avoid responsibility.  I could say that about many societies, including the one that raised me (perhaps especially that one!).  It is a widespread phenomenon.  My grandfather's generation set great store by a work ethic, by taking care of one's family, and by providing for oneself not only out of duty, but as the very essence of self-esteem.  That attitude declines in many places, and Oman is among them.  I wrote recently about how manners among Omanis had become worse, from cursing to cutting queues to dangerous driving.  But that is just a symptom.  The disease is more pervasive, and that disease is a lack of personal moral responsibility.  "It's not my fault".  "It's not my problem".  The twin maxims of a society whose fabric is ever more loosely woven.  Drug use, sexual issues like prostitution and HIV, vandalism, violence and of course, abuse of the migrant worker, are all getting worse.  Oman can be proud of keeping many traditions that Europe or America have in large part lost: an expectation to care for elderly parents, a closeness more broadly between generations, a strong sense of the value of marriage, a respect for education - maybe.  But it's changing.  The younger generation do not remember having no hospitals and walking barefoot on dirt to an open-air madrasa as the only form of learning.  They do not feel grateful for air conditioning or subsidised clean water.  Instead they look at their even more fortunate neighbours in, say, Abu Dhabi, and ask for more.  The simple equation that Abu Dhabi has seven times the income and half the population, is not their concern.  Somebody needs to remind them or their blessings, and their responsibilities.  There is an increasing nihilism among the coming generation that needs to be stopped in its tracks, because it is self-fulfilling.

5.  Too much for too few.  We can hear this rhetoric on six continents today, about the uneven distribution of wealth, social justice and so on.  I'm sceptical, in as much as I believe, broadly, that it is the differences in our achievements and potential that spur us on to try to better ourselves.  But I do believe in social justice, in that those whose circumstances, self-made or unfortunate, put them below the means for basic human dignity, must be helped.  I know that this country tries to provide for its poor.  I know that the father of the nation takes a personal and deliberate interest in public services for isolated villages, orders electricity generators on mountains, helicopters to take children to school, and scholarships for the least privileged to get the best education.  There is more to be done: I once picked up a half-blind old man from the side of the road on a hot summer's day, who had made his way almost a hundred kilometres in order to ask the Ministry if they could help him pay his water bill of twenty Riyals.  He was lost for the last few, and I helped him, as many others would.  But I wondered, wasn't there an easier way for him?  He represents addressing the poverty of some.  But the more controversial question is addressing the greed of a few others.  When certain groups called for the "old guard" of ministers to be removed, they did so not just on grounds of alleged incompetence.  They did so because those people were perceived to have taken vast wealth for themselves by exploiting their positions.  I believe that a significant part of that wealth, in land or opportunities, came in personal gifts from a grateful ruler, much in early days when its future value could not be imagined.  That context is perhaps lost on the "protestor", who is simply envious.  However, perhaps when moving some of these extremely privileged public servants on, it might be worth considering whether some of that wealth could be...shall we say "encouraged"?...back into the ordinary person's orbit.  Perhaps a not-so-gentle hint that a certain proportion needs to be reinvested by that group into a new fund, designed solely to provide long term employment opportunities?  Just a thought.  But the point is this: the balance of power in society changed this year, when a less accomplished section of society made its voice known in a disturbing and ugly fashion.  That voice is now as important as the old guard, maybe more so.  And nobody wants to hear it again.

6.  Business needs to help.  Someone commented on my previous post that acceding to the demands of protestors for benefits and jobs, was unfortunate.  I disagree, not because I think paying people not to work is good, or that having the state create jobs out of nothing is a good economic policy.  I believe acceding to those demands, and quickly, sent a message that unlike in many other countries, the head of state was hearing his people.  It needed to be done, because it needed to be seen to be done.  A few months on, and the different situations between Oman and certain other countries, couldn't make that point any more eloquently.  But an equally interesting part of that response was the encouragement of private sector companies to follow. Company X announced two thousand new jobs, company Y five hundred, and so on.  Again, it's no way to run a business to hire on demand, any more than it is good policy for a government department, but it needed to be seen to be done.  Now that precedent has been set, and the symbolic gesture made, business needs to address the real issues just as the Government does.  And in the case of business, that should mean a serious look at who is getting away with economic murder.  Few, if any, of the large private sector companies I know have any significant Omani management.  The board, yes.  The executives, no.  A result of that is that the executives of many private (family) businesses are protecting their interests, or even their nationality's interests, at the expense of the economy.  Omanisation is a tax.  Visa rules are a game to be played.  Work permits a currency to be traded, embezzled and spent.  Ministries need to look at themselves, but they are hamstrung by the power of some large companies.  A willingness to say "no" to established family interests is essential.  They will threaten to "move their wealth elsewhere" (I've heard that one), to "no longer be able to employ so many Omanis" or "undermine confidence in the economy".  The threats are idle.  They know full well that if Oman is a cow, it is their small group of hungry fat mouths that are attached to the udder, and only drops reach the pail below.  The last thing they will do is leave, and every minister needs a remit, nay an instruction: don't be blackmailed; say "no" to "company X" if they want to flout the rules.

7.  Apply the law.  Oman is the only GCC country I can think of that has put senior officials in jail now and then for corruption, or at the least, bumped others out of their jobs as a chastisement.  Is it enough, though?  It is a bitter, shallow soul who would enjoy seeing people of status locked up just for the spectacle.  But the reality of corruption in so many places, might demand it more often.  I am not talking, necessarily, about a minister whose new house appears to have built itself by the power of love, or the coincidences of certain family owned companies cropping up time and time again in tender awards.  Those are issues, they must be addressed, but for all their seriousness, they are but a tip of the iceberg below the big table.  And how can one expect a senior official to understand that a gift or a favour is a bribe just the same as a brown envelope, or that passing on his nephew's cv is no better than stealing another man's livelihood?  Certainly he is to blame for any such sin he might commit, but not entirely.  Because at every step of his life, he has been told that it's normal.  Then in turn, seeing what goes on inside the marbled offices of the top floor, the man at the bottom merely imitates as best he can, and breeds a new generation of nepotism and thieving.  How is it that the son of a rich man escapes punishment for a traffic offence when a poor man spends a few days in jail?  How is it that some people can have a driving licence without a test?  How is it that a company can be called to tender for a contract before the tender has been issued?  I am not for a moment suggesting that serious corruption is endemic, or that it is an accepted policy to allow it.  There are many good men and women in many important roles, some of them even committed to fighting such injustice.  But my point is that while a culture of favours, of influence, of wasta, of hiring the best "PRO" who can have his cousin process your papers faster than the other person, fosters a culture where a "small corruption" is OK.  But the bigger one gets, the smaller any corruption might seem.  One day fifty for a licence.  The next, well, others know better than I.  There should be a unit of secret policemen investigating major corruption - I suspect there already is.  But I think it's even more important to attack the small corruption - through education, discipline and enforcement.  Show people the definitions.  Fire the low level bribe-taker and name him.  And when the billionaire runs a red, let him spend his three days in a cell with the others.  Word will spread soon enough.

There are some big subjects here, and I think I will leave it for now: seven things to worry about is enough.  And as most people - me included - are essentially still happy here, it is only right that the things to be proud of should outnumber the concerns.  I don't think I've really said anything that has not been said before, and I hope I've not crossed any unacceptable lines.  I love this place, and I want it to be better for everyone.  That's all.

I will probably write about some of these issues individually again, and think of more both good and bad.  Perhaps, having opined about these things so arrogantly, I should be equally confident in offering some suggestions that might help.  Let me think about it.  In the mean time, I think we all have things to think about. God bless you, and may He continue to guide you too.


November 28, 2011

Dear Sultan Qaboos (1): Things to Make You Proud on National Day

At the risk of sounding patronising, or sycophantic, there are a few things I'd like to mention that Oman can feel very smug about.  That's not really why I want to write them down.  I want to write this because, in the last year, Oman has been on a list of countries lumped together as one in the international consciousness, and has got some bad press by association.  But the fact is, Oman as we know and love it, is about the same age as me.  From humble beginnings and with a pretty unhelpful peer group at times, expectations might not have been great.  That they are now, says a lot.

So, if you'll forgive a foreigner for stating the obvious, here are some things to be proud of at the age of 41:

1.  Existence.  It's easy to forget that Oman as a sovereign state, within its current borders, might not have existed at all.  The people would be in the same place, and perhaps much of the recent development and culture would have been similar anyway.  Or not.  But half a century ago, Oman could have become one with the UAE.  Or worse, the Soviet-backed insurrection in part of the country could have gone further, and left Oman with the same confused and tragic legacy as Yemen.  That Oman is Oman is something, and the choices, alliances and policies chosen by its current ruler, have been a major factor in ensuring it.

2.  Freedom.  The word is thrown around a lot in this region, normally by foreign men on top of tanks, or sponsored insurgencies.  But to me, it means the ability to go about your reasonable, lawful business unhindered.  Most of us take it for granted.  I'm damn sure Omanis do.  Life isn't always easy, but the freedom to travel, to work, to start a business, to educated your children, it's all there.  Perhaps the law is a little paternalistic.  Perhaps there are issues that still need to be addressed.  But the fact that (as an Omani or a foreigner) one can write on a blog criticising policies and social phenomena with impunity, is pretty special for a country in this region.  Making slander and libel of individuals a criminal, rather that civil matter, looks strange to some.  But it's designed to provide the same deterrent, and is more likely to mean justice than (financial) vengeance.  I feel free.

3.  Tolerance.  In a world and a region where ethnic and sectarian violence makes the news every day, Oman doesn't.  Three major Muslim sectarian groups live together, pray together and inter-marry.  We joke, we criticise, we even argue.  But there is no hate or fear.  Non-Muslims are plenty, but again with Government-funded temples and churches, there is no sense of oppression.  Ethnically, old tribal attitudes die hard, but there is no legal discrimination, minorities hold the highest posts and own the biggest businesses, and the variety of ethnicity, language and culture is as much a feature of Omani nationals as it is of the international migrant workforce.  We don't have to look far away to see that it could be otherwise.

4.  Development.  It almost seems corny to say this as it's been written in so many places, so many times.  But it has to be said!  This country had essentially no schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, sanitised water or industrial development.  Really, for 99% of the people, none.  And that was within the lifetime of many people reading this.  Mogadishu now has better public services than Muscat did then.  Afghanistan had better infrastructure and education.  Think about that for a minute.  Men had walked on the moon, but Oman didn't have a television set, a bus, or an operating theatre.  None, not even in the capital.  And out in the villages, people were living pretty much as they had when William the Conqueror was buying a ferry ticket and the Mayans were inventing Tekken-basketball.  Every fancy house, clinic, school, electricity sub-station, factory, apartment block, traffic light and water meter has been built in the last four decades.  Wow.

5.  Women.  OK, technically Oman always had women.  But it didn't do much with them.  I'm guessing that His Majesty had a formidable lady for a mother because respecting women seems to have been a recurring theme of speeches and policy statements.  At a time when Saudi scholars are saying women shouldn't use the internet without a mahram supervising, Oman has more female ministers than any other GCC country, women in prominent private sector positions, women as ambassadors abroad, women running campaigns and charities, women in politics and women, frankly, leading the way.  Sure, it's true that very few women have won elections in this country, but not because of any institutional obstacle.  Society might be taking its time, but the message of the leadership is clear enough: women can do stuff, and should.  It's almost ten years now since the first woman was given ministerial rank.  But that much-ridiculed appointment paved the way for some big steps.  Women now run both education ministries.  Is there a bigger responsibility given to anyone?

6.  Politics.  How are we doing so far, Your Majesty?  Well, I hope it all feels pretty good.  This one might be making some people nervous, because yes, we all know this country is a monarchy.  Meaning one guy, who didn't get elected or even selected, is in absolute charge of everyone else.  That's you.  Yep.  The thing is, when people talk about non-elected leaders ruling by decree, the implied understanding is that this is not a popular arrangement, and certainly not a consensual one.  But I beg to differ.  A leader, a ruler in fact, who is above personal criticism, is definitely a king.  But a leader whose laws forbid personal insult to anyone - not just himself - is just.  And a king, although never permitting insult, who nevertheless allows public criticism and discussion of any and every policy and decision, is wise.  Such is the case in Oman.  Also, I would suggest that the degree to which traditional rulers in the Gulf rule by the consent of their people, is often underestimated outside.  Absolute rulers are always praised by their people in public.  But it is a ruler truly trusted by his people, who is loved rather than feared in private as well.  And of course, now the paradigm has shifted completely with the development of more direct popular participation.  The "Shura" means something:

7.  The Arab Spring Sprung.  Thanks to the events in Tunisia, and the copycat demonstrations, insurrections, and foreign-sponsored civil wars across the region, Oman has had its own rumble of discontent.  Perhaps it was good fortune that the Majlis al Shura elections were already scheduled for this year, and without question the handling of the issues in the first days, was tragically inept.  But the response from the top, was simply masterly.  The people called for more jobs.  Jobs were created.  The people called for help for the unemployed.  A new allowance was delivered.  The people called for the "old guard" of long-serving ministers to be replaced with new blood.  Every one of them was replaced.  The people called for a bigger role in politics and reform.  They got it.  And remarkably, they got it literally within days of asking.  Overall, very few were doing the asking, but they were heard.  Those who carried on demonstrating afterwards (without direction in my view), were encouraged to stand for election themselves and engage constructively.  They did, and some have won seats.  They will have new powers to make the law.  The problems that I will describe later are serious, but in Oman, major civil disorder has not become one of them.  A group of people cried out, and were heard.  That is, as I said above, why an absolute ruler can still be loved, rather than feared, in private as well as in public.

8.  Diversification.   From an economy that had little more than dates, goats and fish in the 1970s, Oman has come a long way.  Even half way through that development period, it would have been hard to imagine Omanis making hi-tech televisions in a factory in Sohar.  Actually, it's pretty hard to imagine now.  But it's there.  The oil, gas and petrochemical industry was on its way from day one, but meeting senior financiers, engineers and managers now who are of my generation, tells me that Oman has arrived.  Tourism, manufacturing and services are following.  And it's not just about investing the money and building the facilities, it's about building the people.  When an international oil company hires an Omani to work on a rig, the expectations are that he's going to do the job.  That wasn't always the case, and is not the case now in every GCC country.  Oman started last, but has arrived first.  From CEOs to coffee shop waiters, Omanis now do every job.  Sure, some good and some bad.  But a lot more on merit than there used to be.  This the upside only of course, but it is a real upside.

9.  Peace.  I heard someone say recently that Oman's foreign policy can be represented in one simple phrase: "Don't piss anybody off".  And it's kind of true.  As a policy, it has its value as a tendency towards appeasement and moderation, and its risks - of being seen as an insincere or fair weather friend, and not taking the (right) side in any argument.  But it's worked.  Partly because, as we have seen, nobody has got into a fight with Oman in forty years, at least not really.  Disagreements, periods of cooling, even tension, but Oman has not picked any fights, and that's a good thing.  It's not easy either, with some difficult neighbours, and difficult times.  And when Oman has been forced to take a position, its not always been the line of least resistance: not joining the Arab boycott of Egypt after Camp David, for example, and taking the lead in normalisation with Israel after the Oslo accords.  Not easy decisions, either regionally or domestically, but genuine statements of principle.  Oman has not merely been passive in wanting peace, and even those countries with opposing viewpoints, have managed to respect Oman's self-made identity as the region's "professional moderate".

10.  Recognition.  This contradicts, ever so slightly, what I said earlier about Oman's reputation being tarnished by association.  But the fact is that before, since and even during the "Arab Spring", a lot of people have said a lot of good things about Oman.  The international stability index ranks Oman and Qatar as the only two Arab League members with a "green" rating.  And Qatar only has twenty five citizens and they're all billionaires so that's an easy thing to manage.  But for Oman to have achieved the same with more people and a fraction of the resources, is something.  Western politicians, journalists and international organisations have called Oman the World's most rapidly-developed nation.  Oman has relationships everywhere, and no apparent enemies (recent friction with the neighbours notwithstanding).  One journalist wrote with great enthusiasm about young girls at the University speaking to him in educated English about all sorts of issues, representing a modern, international Oman.  To him as an outsider, that said it all.  

He was right, but he missed the point: they are all those things, yet they have managed to remain distinctly Omani.  In short, this is what Oman has achieved in forty-one years: massive, unprecedented and accelerated development, while retaining a unique cultural identity.  Of that, Your Majesty, you and all Omanis can be proud.

(Now, here comes the more difficult bit...I hope you're sitting comfortably with a cool glass of water...)

November 27, 2011

Dear Sultan Qaboos...

There are a few sharp intakes of breath I can hear around the place.  "Don't do it" said my friend Mimi.  But don't be alarmed.  Firstly, I've no intention of being rude to or about any individual.  And secondly, I think most people - heads of state included - like to be told how it is, unedited, once in a while.

You see, Linoleumites, I've been wondering lately whether it's worth the effort to write the odd satire here and there, or rant on about something that irritates me or upsets me, whether it's a world political event or just a social habit.  Sure, I get some pleasure out of it, and I'm truly grateful for and delighted by the feedback from readers.  Even the negative ones; even the abusive ones, are all cool with me: if I'm simultaneously accused of being anti-Muslim and a Muslim fundamentalist, anti-Arab and an Arab apologist, anti-Western and a Western chauvinist, hating Omanis and making excuses for Omanis, then I must be getting it about right!

But at the same time, I have been asking myself: "but what's it for?".  You might have noticed that I've been pretty quiet of late.  That's partly down to the pressures of real life, but also maybe a lack of motivation: The posts I write about serious issues (the inspired civil wars across the region for instance), get relatively little response or interest.  The ones that are just for entertainment get more - which is fine; making other people smile is rewarding and fun.  But the posts here that are about social issues are the ones that seem to capture the imagination.  My top ten most popular are almost all about real societal problems.  A couple of my more lazy and obvious ones have snuck in there, but a top three of prostitution, FGM and false religious propaganda, satisfies me a lot more.  So where to go now with that kind of thing?

Well, here it is: I'm going to write a couple of posts now that I've been thinking about for a while.  They might turn out to be a bit of a stream of consciousness, but there's some stuff that needs to be said.  Good and bad. Good things that this country's achieved that are not recognised sufficiently, and bad things that need urgently to be addressed for the future.  The plaudits for the first, and the challenge for the second, can best be directed at one man.  The personification of modern Omani identity: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said bin Taymor Al Said.  There is a saying in Arabic that I've mentioned before: "your friend is the one who tells you the truth, not the one who believes you".  These are the words of a friend you don't know.  May God give you long life, Your Majesty: these are the thoughts I'd like to share with you.  

November 19, 2011

Impoverished Nations Seek International Help -"Colonial Liberation"

(WARNING: Contains nuts.  And blatant fabrication.)

European Capitals - "The Linoleum Surfer" Reports:

The breaking news that oil-rich Angola has come to the aid of destitute Portugal, has given a glimmer of hope to the European undeveloping countries.  Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passo Coelho, showing considerable wear to the knee areas of his suit, expressed his country's sincere gratitude on returning from his meeting with the Angolan buyers: "On behalf of the people of the Province of Portugal, I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart, our President and Big Daddy Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, for agreeing to buy us.  We have high expectations of the new colonial era and as well as the beads and mirrors in this bag, we are also expecting a revolution in technology and development from our brave and liberating masters.  And maybe a railway."

Other members of the undeveloping countries or "U12" expressed excitement at the prospect of widespread neo-colonialism from the the fast-growing "Third World".  Coelho's Spanish counterpart is reportedly already in contact with President Chavez of Venezuela, with whom he shares a socialist philosophy as well as a shared history.  "Yes, I spoke to Hugo today", said Prime Minister Zapatero.  "He's down with the people, you know, he is the one to stick it to the bankers and help out a brother with these damn loan payments."  A spokesman for Chavez also confirmed that a conversation had taken place. "Yeah, we heard from Zapatero and we are definitely going to be buying some shit in Europe", adding "and maybe Louisiana, but they are being hard-assed about it so far."

Two of U12's "big three" have also raised expectations, with France's Nicolas Sarkozy adding several prominent Algerian figures on Facebook and posting a picture of Zinedine Zidane to his profile.  Italy's interim administrators are also looking to North Africa for a deal. "Hey, Libya's got plenty money and we totally supported bombing the crap out of their country for them when they asked, so we're going to milk that, such thing as a free [missile] launch, they say..." quipped acting Prime Minister Super Mario.  But the largest player in the Uro-zone, Germany, appears keen to remain independent.  Leading Urologists believe that Chancellor Merkel is still too sensitive about the country's history to allow a colonial arrangement with former partners Namibia, whom she is alleged to have described as "deeply racist about Germans since that whole genocide thing."

Europe's other major undeveloping nation, the United Kingdom, is not one of the Uri-nations but has nevertheless been affected as a Ur-out as much as the Ur-ines.  Prime Minister Cameron is believed to have tried on several occasions to contact his New Delhi counterpart for a bailout, but has been on hold since Wednesday with a call centre in Bangalore who "value his custom but are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls at this time."

September 29, 2011

Freedom of Speech?

Well here we are, the "Arab Spring" a few months on, and Oman has a new cause celebre, involving basic principles of  "freedom", international NGOs, gleeful finger pointing from the neighbouring country's press, and a lot of hand-wringing all round.  Even the celebrated "Muscat Confidential" and the scion of Salalah, "Dhofari Gucci", have been on the case.  A newspaper has been prosecuted for writing something about a Ministry.  Now don't get me wrong, I think being able to say what you think is pretty important (hell, read down this website for a few hours!), but on this issue, I'm going to take the traditional Middle Eastern view of this online human rights convention: I'm citing a reservation.

A long time ago, in a land far, far away...well, about fifteen years ago in a neighbouring country called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, their lived two funny men.  They made a television programme called "Tash ma Tash" (roughly translated...."Sh*t Happens").  It was a success, a huge success.  Not because the humour was original or sophisticated, not even because there was no other comedy around.  No.  It was because these two talented men tapped into something people were really ready to watch: satire of real life in Saudi Arabia.  As a resident there at that time, I too enjoyed it very much.

In (I think) 1997, the programme became a huge sensation during Ramadhan, where it seemed the whole country would come to a standstill after iftar as households - men, women and children, old and young, sat down to watch it together.  One episode at that time showed the two anti-heroes running around trying to get a "licence" (yes remember those days?) for a mobile phone contract.  They were met by bureaucracy, rudeness, obstructive staff etc.  And there was no doubt about whom they were talking: pre-privatisation telecomms in KSA were all in the bailiwick of the Ministry of Telecommunications.  For the first time on Saudi-accessible TV, people were openly mocking poor services from a Saudi government organisation.  The reaction was like an earthquake: the Minister was writing in the newspapers immediately, explaining the ministry's plans to improve things, defending his staff, laying out commitments to better services, etc.  The media had acted, in this case through comedy, as a voice of the people, and been heard.

Years later, newspapers in Saudi Arabia, talk shows on satellite TV channels and yes, "Tash ma Tash" still, are all talking about social issues, government services and even (carefully) the religious establishment.  The Saudi press, far from being some reactionary stereotype, has evolved into one of the most dynamic media forces in the region.  And the strange thing is, those men who first satirised their government's telecommunications services, did so with impunity.

So, back to Oman.  I don't know the facts of the case, I don't even know what was said, as like most people (bar the immediate families and friends of the owners and employees, possibly only under duress), I didn't read "Az-Zaman".  But again like most people, I have nevertheless read a lot about the prosecution of its editor, a certain journalist, and the suspension of its licence to operate.  It's fair to ask, then, why in mean old Saudi Arabia it's OK to criticise the Ministry of Phones, but in cuddly lovely Oman it's not OK to criticise the Ministry of Right and Wrong?  The answer is pretty simple I think, hence my reservation on this whole allergic reaction to the prosecutions at "Az-Zaman".  The answer is that never, in any episode of "Tash ma Tash", never in any insightful newspaper editorial, did anyone expect to be able to insult or accuse an individual.

Oman shares the depressing distinction, at least in my opinion, of having the worst media in the GCC.  Not just in quality, but (along, I hasten to add, with the UAE), in domestic coverage.  With these recent prosecutions, it's easy to say that it's all because of censorship.  I would disagree - I think the failings of the domestic print media are largely based on self-fulfilling assumptions about censorship; a kind of self-censorship that prevents any serious local commentary or reporting.  Those that show a bit more spirit are doing well: take, for example, "The Week", and "Muscat Daily" - publications from the same stable that have openly reported on policy and service failings e.g. in the wake of Cyclone Gonu.  Did the owner get prosecuted for pointing out problems?  No, of course not.  The "Az-Zaman" case, then, is for another reason - we're back to individuals.

You'd have to be pretty ignorant to live in Oman for any length of time and not be aware that the insulting people is a criminal offence.  Like it or not, flipping someone the finger or calling them names, can get you a fine and up to three months in prison.  It's not socially acceptable.  It's not culturally acceptable.  And, reflecting the sensibilities of its people as a legal system should, it's not acceptable in law.  You can be mean to someone.  You can be selfish or even ill-mannered.  There is a limit to how much the law can prescribe human interaction, and rightly so.  But nevertheless, in this country the law draws a very clear line: insult someone directly and you have crossed it.

These prosecutions are not under that law (ihanat karaama -"offence to dignity") as far as I know, but the point is that in a legal system where such a crime exists, it is not hard to predict that rules on libel are also a matter of criminal proscription.  To put it simply, in a place where you can't call Johnny an a-hole, writing "Johnny is a thief" in your newspaper is also (pretty obviously) going to be unacceptable.  I don't know what "Az-Zaman" wrote about the Minister of Justice, his Undersecretary, or what may be true or false in their writing.  But what I do know is that the journalists involved must be extremely naive to think that taking an accusation of criminality from a disgruntled official and printing it as fact, could possibly go without a reaction.

"Az-Zaman" is a tiny paper.  Perhaps they are trying to make a name for themselves (as some have in other countries) by writing tabloid rumours or even "investigative journalism" to capture the public imagination.  But publishing accusations in the newspapers is ugly, and the reaction pretty predictable.  Perhaps also the prosecutions of these people are totally counter-productive, giving a big voice to a small paper by making a rumour into a scandal.  It seems like a heavy-handed way of going about things, but at least it sends a reminder to others, however painful: if you think a crime has been committed, give your evidence to someone whose job it is to solve crimes.  

I have spent a lot of my life dealing with newspapers and the like - giving interviews, advising other people on how to deal with them, or even writing for the papers myself.  In light of that, I'm extremely critical of the poor quality of both print and broadcast media in Oman.  But at the same time, there are some things I wouldn't change here.  In some countries where reporting rumours and accusations against individuals is easier to get away with, it's become a whole media industry culture.  Even blanket coverage of trials, hammering home the message to an audience or readership that so-and-so is in court - an image that taints a name forever even if he or she is acquitted.  Trial by media is something I could never wish to see in Oman.

It's no secret that all sorts of different government organisations look at what goes on in the media, or even through private online expressions like this website.  Yet I don't feel constrained in what I write, other than by my own morality!  I would like to think that the reason this humble portal has a bunch of people who don't know me at all following it, is that I write sometimes about subjects in which people are interested.  Newspapers that do the same, I think, get more readers.  But if I were to start accusing this person and that person of criminal activity because it was "what I'd heard", then sooner or later I would expect repercussions. I don't have a problem with that.  I don't even feel that it's a restriction.  I just feel that it would be wrong to accuse someone based on gossip, when if I had any actual evidence I know where it should go.

So, although I do feel sorry for anyone who's faced with prosecution or with losing their livelihood, I'm not convinced that this is a serious issue of human rights or freedom of speech.  I personally think that freedom from personal slander or libel is pretty important too.  Maybe these journalists will produce proof for their accusations and be acquitted in which case well done.  Either way I suspect they will be shown some clemency.  But the thing is, even if we all acknowledge that there have been corruption cases or whatever in government organisations before, we also need to respect the fact that this is a country where it's possible for a minister or other bigshot to go to jail occasionally.    It's no excuse to say "oh, well they wouldn't do anything so we're taking it into our own hands".  It has happened.  And either way, how much store do you set by "they say that..."?  Is it enough to ruin someone's reputation?  Wouldn't you feel awful if it turned out to be untrue?  Ask yourself this: would you expect to be accused through a newspaper, rather than reported to the authorities?

I won't pre-judge "Az-Zaman" either and suggest that they've set out to be dishonest.   Maybe they are just on a quest for truth and justice, and good for them.  But there are some rules in this society - not just about VIPs, ministers and big businessmen, but about anyone.  You can't accuse people publicly of things that you just don't know.  I'm actually glad that such limitations exist.  I hope these cases get concluded quickly without too much damage and some lessons learned instead.  And my advice to "Az-Zaman" would be that if they want to make a name for themselves, don't try to use these questionable short-cuts.  It's perfectly possible to  write about problems, issues, and even government policies.  Just do it without abusing the human rights of other individuals.  And as others have shown, that is what makes a newspaper better, and it's a much more sustainable way to gain respect and a bigger readership.

P.S.  No I don't know the Minister of Justice, nor the other guy, nor anyone at the paper or in the least bit associated with this case, and no I'm not on anyone's payroll either.  Just in case you were wondering.  Although I'm prepared to be, if you're offering - at least while I'm waiting for the arms dealers or drug barons to come through...

September 23, 2011

You Ignorant Bastards!

The wise and fragrant blogster Susan al Shahri has been talking about customer service in Oman.  A subject about which, I'm sure, most of you have a story or ten.  Anyway, I started writing a response on her page, but got so carried away I thought I'd better regurgitate the whole thing unedited through my own febrile voice box.  Seeing as I wrote a warm, positive life-affirming piece last week like some lily-livered bleeding-heart hippy, it's time to have a bit of a rant and let the spleen back out.  But not about politics for a while, because most of you don't give a shit anyway.  I'm not quite ready for lame restaurant reviews ("Grated carrots! Yay!"), or complaining about how the maid doesn't know how to programme the washing machine, but a bit of day-today whinging is always a hit.  So, here we are.  Dedicated to Susan, I'd like to talk a little about the "f*** you" culture that is becoming the hallmark of Omani society - as ever, catching up with the neighbours at its own pace...

Everyone knows that shops, banks, airlines or whatever are in some cultural dark age when it comes to customer relations in Oman.  The "can't do" culture is living loud, manifested through people of every background and nationality, united in a common quest for obstruction, obfuscation and sub-mediocrity.  What each company wants to do about it is their own problem, and they know it.  That most are still failing is something so obvious I can't be bothered to go on about it - plenty of others have.  I do have one very surprising (in a positive way) customer experience from Nawras though.  Without going into incriminating detail, they made an excellent effort to make me happy.  And although the product still basically sucks rear end, they kind of did - mainly just by wanting to.  But for every one of those (OK, it is just the one), there are a hundred of vein-throbbing, eyeball-popping, fist-shaking meltdowns I could offer to the case for the prosecution.

Anyway, the point of this isn't just about customer service, it's about manners.  The sad thing is that most Omanis (at least most of my friends anyway) have a self-image that tells them Omanis are polite.  And in a way it's true - with people they know.  No smoking in front of the older generation.  Ladies first.  Gentle language and gentle manners even in all-male company.  No quibbling over the bill (unless it's a fight to be the one who treats the others), no cursing or stealing the last chicken wing, profuse apologies for the slightest perceived shortfall in kindness and camaraderie.  My friends are nice, really.

But what is it with people in general?  I'm not imagining it: the younger generation are getting less and less polite, and even older ones (especially on the road - a whole other subject featured in a previous rant) seem almost as bad now.  Queue-jumping, no more "ladies first that was standard when I first came here ten years ago, and general arrogant disdain for other human beings - no response to your polite greeting, talking on the phone while you're waiting to be served, standing in the way of their elders without care or apology, spitting, swearing, and insulting passers by (attitudes to women are also a major issue) .  It makes me furious.

The only way to counter it, though, is to keep doing what the aforementioned Sheikha Susan is doing: keep talking, keep insisting on a response, keep picking people up on their rudeness.  Most people, even the most ignorant, still have some sense of shame to which you can eventually appeal.  There is a magic screen around rude people, young or old.  The car is usually an effective one - it allows them to see another human being as an object, an environmental irritation, rather than a person to be reckoned with.  And some, the most talented boneheads, are able to switch off their human interaction radar even in close proximity to their fellow beings.  For them, you have to try hard, and it's worth it.  Deliberate eye contact and a strong "as-salaamu 3alaikum" to a bunch of young brain donors has an almost magical effect sometimes.  The same in the supermarket at the checkout - being 230lbs and male helps, I imagine, but forcing the spotty human ballast to look at you and speak, changes the whole atmosphere.  If we all do it, I'm sure they'll develop into better social creatures.  

And we'll all get better customer service as a result.  Also, I do have some sympathy for the sheer mind-numbing spirit-crushing craptaceousness of the jobs (or lack of jobs) faced by the average Omani school-leaver.  First of all, if you haven't got a job, you can read through all the papers and find nothing worthwhile at all.  Sure, there are lots of young guys and girls who are just fundamentally lazy, spoiled and/or stupid.  They find it hard to get jobs anywhere (except maybe in teaching).  But let's not write them all off:  if you're an eighteen year old Omani, your family has a borderline poverty income and your parents weren't educated, you've been to a government school that is supposed to have been teaching you English for eleven years and you can't string a sentence together, let alone write one, it that really your fault?  Is it really your fault nobody bent the rules or was able to pay to get you into university?  Then you look at the situations vacant and everyone wants an Omani national with five years' experience and bilingual.  Real meaning: they don't want you at all, they just had to advertise unsuccessfully before employing an Indian.  So a lack of motivation in young people might not be entirely without reason. 

Also, even if you do get a job as a young Omani, especially as a non-graduate, it can suck pretty badly.  Chances are you're being hired as part of a quota rather than a management preference (i.e. they didn't really want you, you're kind of a human tax).  You're not going to feel exactly valued and welcome.  And a lot of the time, your colleagues are going to resent you, and it's got to have a psychological effect. Imagine your Indian boss won't tell you anything in case you steal his job, your European boss doesn't really understand anything about who you are, and worst of all, your Omani boss has the extraordinary mental agility to believe simultaneously both that you're about to steal his job and that you're mentally retarded - treating you both as a threat and an inferior as a result.  And due to the collective incompetence of all of the above, you're asked to implement a customer service policy that seems designed by the Marquis de Sade and Franz Kafka during a long absinthe session, usually as a desperate defence of a product or service over which you have no control, which has been delivered to the paying customer with the grace and inherent value of a face full of monkey vomit.  

Sheikha Susan was writing about a particular supermarket - not naming names and I'd normally agree, but I think in this case it was specific to Lulu.  I kept wondering from her piece about how you can "wheel a basket", then I remembered that Lulu have this great idea of something that's half way between a cart and a basket: that plastic one with wheels on, which I think is what she was talking about.  I'm sure other supermarkets have their problems (security at Carrefour as an example anyone?) so I'm not picking on Lulu and I don't think Susan was aiming to.  But as an example of desperately moronic policy affecting standards of customer service in the customer's eye, this isn't a bad one.  If you don't know, Lulu's policy is that the plastic wheelie baskets can't leave the store and enter the car park.  Therefore, Susan's story of being chased by the Basket Police is one that leaves me with sympathy for both parties, rather than dismayed at the actions of a grim-faced teenaged employee.

Now, to my occasionally-logical mind, it seems that if you have a receptacle designed to be wheeled on the floor because it's too heavy to carry, then making people carry its contents from the checkout is kind of stupid.  Sure, the contents of a basket you can carry - you carried them all around the shop for twenty minutes (and maybe stood in the queue for something similar!).  And a cart/trolley is for stuff you can't carry, which is why you get to wheel it to your car, unload it, and (if you're not one of the aforementioned arrogant shitmunchers, old as well as young), you put it back rather than leaving it blocking the only empty parking space for a hundred meters because someone less important than you can move it if they want to park.

So why provide an object that's designed to carry your heavy shopping around on wheels, but is lighter and more manageable than the steel cart, and then not allow you to...carry your heavy shopping in it on wheels?  Are they so afraid that, unlike those heavy carts, the thieving customers will just load these into their cars and steal them?  That would seem to be the only explanation.  Considering how far away I've seen the carts end up, I can only assume their fears are justified, which is a pity.  Maybe they need to hire some people to be i the car parks and make sure the wheelie baskets don't get stolen.  A sad indictment of popular morality indeed.  But not letting Sheikha Susan take her bags to the car on wheels is just retarded.  And because of it, some poor young Omani dude whose responsibility it was to stop her, not only has to face the wrath of an angry lady, but also help her carry her shopping.

There is no excuse for being rude (like the fat acne-monster in a Shell station who sat there fiddling around with his tray of lighters two minutes before iftar instead of letting me pay for my water, and ignored my greeting three times), and people should have manners even when they're not having a good day.  There is a culture of selfishness and aggression that I barely recognise from this country a decade ago.  A pervasive attitude that says "f*** you" to anyone and everyone: I'll park in two spaces because the next guy doesn't matter.  I'll throw my garbage here, only three feet from the trash can, because someone else will pick it up.  I'll jump into this queue because I'm in a hurry and "f*** you" all because I just don't care.  It's disgusting, it's eating at the morals of this society, and year by year it's alienating more and more people who want to visit, live, work or invest in this country.  Make no mistake, that's a really bad thing.   Bad for everyone.

But I think we also need to look at why this is happening, and at the gulf between the young generation's reality and the expectations we all have and had of our lives.  That's not peculiar to Oman - a whole disaffected generation exists in a hundred countries, manifested in benefit fraud, petty crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour everywhere from London to Lahore.  What strikes me about Oman, not just because I live here but because it's different, is how suddenly this has happened.  Maybe it's just economics and demographics - a simple factor of unemployment doubling since the last census while two hundred thousand more, largely unskilled workers, were hired from outside the country.  Maybe.  

What's wrong with the economy and how it should be fixed are maybe subjects for another article, or several.  They're certainly subjects that the new Majlis al Shura needs to get its teeth into next month.  But in the mean time, although I'm complaining as much as anyone else about the lack of manners and respect in Omani society as a whole, I think we also need to ask ourselves why the most polite country in the Gulf is developing the same depressing, selfish, nihilist and amoral social environment as the worst inner cities of Europe or America.  Maybe, as businessmen, HR managers, colleagues or just members of society, we need to ask what we're doing to make the future better, realistically better, for those who are trying to follow us. Otherwise is might not just be the sullen teenager at the checkout who's an ignorant bastard.  Maybe it's us?

September 21, 2011

Only Yourselves to Blame!

Also known as: "The Idiots' Guide to Developing Democracy"

Not that I'm calling anyone idiots.  It's just a turn of phrase.  OK, I guess I am calling idiots idiots, but not really directly or overtly because that would be mean.  And idiots never know they're the idiots anyway in my experience so it's kind of redundant anyway.  Right.  Now that's out of the way, back to...democracy.

Democracy, or "tabloid rule" as I like to think of it, is a pretty popular concept in a lot of countries, or at least in Europe and America.  It's where every adult gets to vote (even idiots; even total, card-carrying entirely demonstrable idiots), and by some complex system related to that process, someone gets to be in charge of them for a number of years.  Which is fun, I suppose.  Not knowing who is going to be in charge of your  healthcare system or national security.  Just participating in a kind of masked show of hands to select a person.  And that person and a few hundred others also selected by other blind shows of hand, then get to have an open show of hands to choose who's in charge.  

It sounds a bit frightening really, that the girl whose knowledge of current affairs comes mostly from Hello magazine, the guy who has never read a book, and Uncle Joe who won't talk to "darkies" all get exactly the same say.  Equal rights sounds like a good idea.  Equal right to be in charge of all national decision making is a bit less convincing.  And let's not forget, the person you vote for you might not really know.  You might know who he or she has pledged allegiance to, and will vote for as leader, but you might not know the exact position on other issues.  Wars.  Gay marriage.  Currency unification.  International aid.  Whatever your thing is.  

So you, the airhead, the moron and the racist all line up to show hands.  And someone whose future actions you can't really predict gets chosen.  To be one of many you didn't choose who then in turn choose someone you may or may not have chosen yourself.  And even then, the one you chose might change his or her mind at any time and stop choosing the leader they said they'd choose (over a disagreement on a war, gay marriage, etc etc..).  Or worse, keep supporting one despite disagreeing on such a thing.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is democracy.  Not the "mob rule" exactly, more of a mob ritual.  Some people who have the money and the organisational infrastructure, and usually the established brand name (blue, red, nationalist, socialist, whatever..) get to put themselves up to be chosen, leaflet your house and advertise in the media.  And you, the airhead, the moron and the racist all get to say which one you'd like to be one of the hundreds of strangers who choose the one you may or may not like to rule you for, say, five years.

The more alert reader might have decided by now that I'm not a big fan of democracy, which is true.  And you might also ask the question, that if democracy is imperfect, what is a better solution?  Well, the answer in Europe and America is democracy.  The thing is, the process above isn't very democratic.  The referendum (where everyone is asked a question on an issue and the answer is a simple majority "yes" or "no"), is rare.  The number of members of a certain party in the parliament may be entirely disproportionate to the number of votes they won.  And most strikingly, a person can be chosen as head of government when two thirds of voters actually preferred someone else.  No run offs.  No second and third choices. 

The reality of democracy in most of these cases then, is a system evolved over hundreds of years to maintain a status quo: an illusion of individual voices, filtered through weighted processes of access to wealth, design of constituency bounders, seats or electoral colleges or suchlike, and eventually down to a narrow contest between two similar and perennially victorious political cliques.  A president or prime minister in Europe or the USA can be the head of government with 30% of the vote.  And when only 50% of eligible adults vote, too.  15% "majority" rule.  A strange democracy indeed, but now a standard one.

That's not always the case, though.  At  least not when the pseudo-democracies are calling for "Democracy" elsewhere.  For example, as I might have mentioned before, the constitution in "liberated" Iraq is based on a proportional representation (PR) system.  The kind of system that even the pro-PR Liberals in the UK knew was so unacceptable to their governing coalition partners as well as opposition, that they abandoned it even though it had been central to their election manifesto.  The system that, even when watered down heavily to an "alternative vote" system that retained electoral constituencies, was rejected by both main parties who campaigned successfully against it in a unique referendum - on the basis that it would be "too complicated for people to understand".  Basically, "let us decide what's best; you're idiots".  

You might think that the vested interests of  major political parties in established democracies are what keeps these very un-democratic democratic systems in place.  And that might be the case - who wants to have anyone able to make a party and take a proportional share in government according to their popularity?  It would be chaos, right?  Well, that's a fair point too.  Having a distorted "first past the post" system helps stability, in two ways: firstly, it means that a lot of people tend to stay in politics for a long time, gaining experience - whether in government or opposition.  And secondly, it means that small, single issue or extremist parties can't really win a share of government with a short-term craze of public opinion.  With "first past the post" you're establishment, or you're nobody.

So it begs the question: why do the UK, US etc try so hard to export an ideal of democracy that's totally unacceptable to them at home?  Iraq is a model example, with full proportional representation, leading to the effective impossibility of a single party forming a majority government, leading to government that has to happen entirely by consensus, and so crippled by constraints such as a two thirds majority to make any important decisions (in the UK or US it can be one vote...they literally wheel people in on hospital beds to vote sometimes), that there is really no government at all.  Parties are largely of ethnic or sectarian identity, all have to agree, no one position holds any real power, and nobody can realistically "win" an election.  And who wrote this constitution?  The UN, with technical support from the US, UK and Australia.  Who all use a first past the post system and require simple majorities for legislation.  Even the UN's people were American and European.  

Bizarre.  So why did they?  I know the answer: because, they decided, no more Saddam-a-like dictators could possibly emerge in a country that had a constitution where nobody's allowed to be in charge, to win, or to be able to change the constitution.  That probably seemed like a smart idea in the Green Zone at 2am after a marathon negotiating session, but it did have the small and ever-so-slightly disastrous effect, of not allowing the possibility that anyone could realistically form an effective government.  As Homer Simpson might have said, had he been part of that constitutional drafting team: "Doh!".  And I'm not saying he wasn't.

The "West", then, is pretty confused about democracy.  It's something that, at home, needs to be controlled, managed, filtered and diverted, to produce a midde-of-the-road, moderate, mainstream and preferably predictable outcome.  This guy might win or that guy.  But they both dress the same and the people who will vote in the house of representatives to support or oppose them, will already have been there for an average of two to three previous terms of government.  But if you're selling it abroad, go crazy: get right back to Plato.  Everyone has a say, nobody can rule anybody else.  From the Republic, to the Tower of Babel.

In the context of all this, then, more democracy is coming to the Middle East.  Either at the point of a gun, in Libya (we'll see), after much chaos, confusion and indecision in Tunisia, or whenever the army decides they will allow it in Egypt (great job there, guys..).  Having seen the way it's turned out in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, I'm not convinced it's a great idea - especially if it's the undiluted, overnight instant-acting version doled out to those countries, regardless of context, culture, history or sensitive stomachs.

Amidst this madness though, a small glimmer of sanity: Oman.  A lot of strange things have happened in the GCC over the last couple of decades: Saddam's sudden interest in seaside vacations in 1990.  Oil at $9 a barrel in '98.  King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah going on a world tour dressed as a cowboy (maybe at that price he was trying to fit in in case they had to hitchhike).  Al Qaida discovering airports are a faster route to attention than supermarkets, ships or embassies.  And everyone in the GCC being against another war in Iraq apart from all of those who participated secretly.  Which was everyone.

But one of the first things that happened was democracy in the Gulf.  After the massed ranks of everyone came and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait, there was a strong insistence that it was time to modernise the whole culture of government in the region, and that meant being more "democratic".  For Kuwait, most indebted to the democracy-sellers, it meant jumping straight into a full-on parliamentary democracy with an uncertain model of constitutional monarchy, and predictably, only massive oil wealth could keep troubled political waters more or less under control.  In other Gulf countries, the idea was either do nothing at all and wait for this nonsense to pass while smiling politely (UAE, Qatar maybe), or like Oman, be a little more strategic.

In 1991, Oman began its first democratic experiment in the modern era.  A consultative council (the Majlis al Shura).  Every five years since, the franchise has been extended, the role talked up, even the membership expanded.  A British-style upper house i.e. appointed rather than elected, and from those who've already achieved some status, was included, and together they make the equivalent of an Omani parliament.  Step by step, the Majlis is now at a critical point, where anyone can stand, anyone 21 or over can vote (unless they work for a goverment security body in which case they can't - kind of the opposite of Egypt...), and it has more say than ever in how things are going to work.  Twenty years on, with the fifth election just around the corner, the Majlis is serious.

In March this year, the Diwan announced that as of this election, the Majlis would have legislative powers for the first time.  What's more, some of its elected members would be chosen as ministers.  Although the extent of those legislative powers and the exact authority of either house is not yet confirmed, both of these things are enormous.  What they mean is that the old, tired criticisms of the Majlis al Shura as "irrelevant" or a "talking shop", are torpedoed.  The Majlis matters.  Which means that voting in the coming election, understanding who the candidate is, and what they stand for, matters too.

In previous elections, a lot of people either didn't vote (although ironically, voter turnout was still comparable with the US or UK), gave their votes to others to cast (how or why this is possible are interesting subjects for debate!), or voted simply for the person they associated most with their family. tribe or father's opinion.  Sorry stuff.  That's not to say Omanis vote for stupid reasons: some do, but then that happens everywhere,  but some just didn't take it seriously.  

On the latter point, it's a pity.  The role of the Majlis, even without law-making powers, was as an intermediary between the citizen and the top levels of public administration.  Instead of the traditional routes of tribal leader, wealthy and influential friend, or camping outside a VIP's office, they created a channel for seeking better services or dealing with problems.  A channel that could increasingly be based on meritocratic competition for votes.  So even without the power to change the law, the Majlis should always have been important.  Its had four terms to establish a culture of constituency representation regardless of ethno-sectarian or other narrow allegiance.  To show that an elected official works for everyone the same, whether or not they voted for him.  To breed a culture of accountability.  Perhaps it has just not been "marketed" in that way sufficiently.

Now though, no excuse.  Whatever those powers are, they mean something.  Also, more than ever before, candidates can promote and explain themselves and compete in public.  They have websites (mostly awful) and socal media accounts where they talk about their views (mostly vain platitudes but hey, they are aspiring politicians), and basically just more freedom to reach an audience.  If you're an Omani voter, you have more choice and access to more information than ever before.  And you'll need it: that guy (or girl, please let there be some girls..) you elect isn't just someone to ask about the regularity of your local garbage collection.  That person might vote for a law saying you have to collect your own.  Or become minister of garbage collection, and be in charge of yours and everyone else's directly.  Or  minister of education, or health - big stuff.  That guy or girl on the poster.  How important do you think your decision is now?  Yeah, quite.

I was pretty depressed yesterday reading a forum which is populated mostly by a privileged, highly-educated younger generation of Omanis.  In other words, exactly the people who should be most informed about this election.  There was a discussion of the subject in which none of the participants seem to have noticed the new importance of the Majlis al Shura.  The same tired old excuses for disinterest and cynicism were trotted out again.  I don't know whether it's just laziness, lack of information or stupidity.  But I'm starting to think they deserve what they get and I hope that the new Majlis passes a law making luxury cars illegal for the under 25s.  Maybe they'll notice that.

I've always had the view that since day one, His Majesty has intended a gradual, iterative transition to a participatory political system based on a constitutional monarchy.  Every step over the last four decades has seemed like a step towards that.  Yes, slowly, but without the chaos seen in other countries - a product designed for its market.  And now, with this latest small step, a quantum leap in giving power to the electorate.  If he reads the ill-informed and inelegant reactions of the cream of this country's youth, I imagine he might wonder why he bothered.

Anyway, the point of all this is simple really: after centuries of democracy and its transformation (erosion?) in some countries, people who have always voted can be lazy, sceptical and stupid with their votes.  But while others, rightly or wrongly, all across this region are seemingly begging for the chance to choose, I think Omanis need to wake up to how important these new rights are.  I'm not Omani, just an outsider who's lived in a few countries and feels an urge to share an opinion.  But I love this place, and I love my friends and colleagues who make it my home.  And to them I just want to say: someone is going to get elected, and with these changes, that someone is going to affect your life.  So think and choose carefully and participate, because if you don't and this country changes in a way you don't've only yourselves to blame.

P.S.  I never did say what I thought was the best system of government: absolute rule by a wise and benevolent leader.  I'm willing to be considered in at least an advisory role :)