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.