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...)


Sarah MacDonald said...

Looking forward to the next part!

Capital Letters said...


......the water is getting less cool.

I think you know what I said...

Finally you are back!

Great piece of writing and representative of what the cross-section thinks, by that I mean the smart locals and the expats who care.
Though i don't agree that the govt should have acceded quite so quickly on the demands for simply creating jobs and subsidising the unemployed- a more open process with private sector input should have taken place (and still should...)

Looking forward to part 2.

AZ said...

I am still sitting. And waiting.

Welcome back LS!

Nadia said...

Still waiting TLS....

Blewyn said...

ITYKWIS....I heard that one of the reasons for the rapid response (and the rate of the unemployment pay) was that it is consistent with Omani culture to respond to the tribe members and pay them their share of the tribe's wealth or earnings if they ask for it.

Consultation with private sector... Hmm....ever tried pulling a donkey ?

Sarah The Grouch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

Can't wait for part 2!

Andrew Brown said...

Nice...but don't go and get yourself in trouble with the next one! ;-)

Anonymous said...

"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."

Really???? Are you actually saying there is freedom of speech in Oman? Many a blogger have been arrested and many a message board shut down due to the critical comments of its members/owners. Sometimes criticizing ones policies or pointing out the ugly truth of a corrupt individual can be considered libel and punishable by imprisonment.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Freedom to express ideas, yes. I am but one of many who are living proof! Sure, I know people have been taken to court before, but I've never heard of anyone being prosecuted for criticising a policy or a principle. Not ever.

This country has a law that says it's illegal to insult someone. So if you insult someone, you break the law and get prosecuted. Is the freedom to insult, freedom of speech? I don't think so.

Even where you're allowed to insult someone, like in America or Europe, you sure as hell can't just write an article accusing someone of a crime (like corruption). It might not be a criminal offence, but just try making an accusation through the media about some bigshot in the US or the UK. The action will be civil, not criminal, but they will bankrupt your great grandchildren!

There is no country in the world where you can say what you like about anyone or anything. And personally, I think the laws on personal insult and libel being criminal rather than civil issues in Oman, are fair. Cases of the former are almost always dropped anyway, but I'd rather see cases of the latter dealt with by a prosecutor than a someone looking to enrich themselves through being libeled as revenge or just a deliberate tactic to get paid.

I'm just saying it like it is: I don't feel afraid to criticise a policy or a decision or a thought, because I've been around a long time, said and read a lot of things, and in Oman that just doesn't seem to be a problem.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

P.S. You had to be anonymous just to say that? Unnecessary self-censorship out of paranoia is almost worse!

Anonymous said...

Well from the other side, I'm someone who "insulted" someone and had a very unpleasant stay with the ISS.

Anonymous said...

"I've never heard of anyone being prosecuted for criticising a policy or a principle. Not ever."

Yes, because they don't take you to court; things are conducted behind closed doors with threats, censorship, criticism, punishments and coffee and dates.

In Oman there is the law and then there is life and they are two very different things.

Also, criminal offenses here such as "insult" are often settled fiscally. I know of someone who was arrested for giving someone the finger and had to pay the person he flicked off 300 rial directly to him in the police station. Finally, there was a story of an American girl in Salalah back in 2008 who kicked a car and cursed at the driver and she was sentenced to 2 months in prison. She was kicked out of Oman without having to serve her sentence but the whole thing seemed to be way overboard and the punishment didn't quite fit the crime.

The Linoleum Surfer said...

Pretty generous to allow a foreigner to leave instead of serve a sentence, I think.

"Ignorance of the law is no defence". Same in any country, and I'd be surprised if anyone in this country is ignorant of that particular law. Obey it or don't obey it, but no point in moaning if you break it.

As for censorship behind closed doors, I find much of it to be self-imposed out of fears going back to another era. All I can say is that I've spoken about a lot of things, and had no negative implications. I'm under no illusions that what I say and do can be and probably is monitored, and in any case, a lot of people know the real human being me. But nobody's said a peep.

I've known a few court cases about posts on internet forums in Oman, but in every case they've been about a personal comment rather than a policy suggestion. And you should read some of the religious debates!

lil-bee said...

+1 :)

Anonymous said...

Is this the freedom of speech you were talking about?