Oman: Foreigners Go Home…

As published in the Huffington Post 08/08/2012

But wait…not if you are a tourist whose numbers the country wants to increase on its sparkling beaches, glamorous hotels and at remote sites for off-road driving and ancient water holes where ancient forts, castles and towers are being meticulously restored across a diverse terrain of mountains, deserts and jagged coastlines.

It is the badly-needed approximately 1.6 million expatriates living in this country of fewer than 3 million people whom the Omani government would like to go home. But they are crucial to the country’s functioning. In both instances the government believes that the increase in the foreign tourists and the decrease in foreign workers would result in major gains for the economy and the long-term stability of the country.

However, in order to reduce the numbers of expats (as they are called), the Omanis must produce a workforce of well-educated and highly motivated individuals who can take over the jobs now held by Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos (and other nationals) as well as becoming the entrepreneurs for new ventures. (Expats hold 39% of the current jobs in the private sector.) And therein lies the rub. The will to work has proven difficult to instill in this oil-rich country where a generous government has provided a comfortable life for the majority of its citizens. (Health care and pre-college education are free. Ninety-three percent of the population have cellphones and have excitedly greeted the arrival of Apple’s update iOS7.1.)

I first visited the country in 1998 when the process of Omanization (i.e. Oman for the Omanis) had begun under the decree of the country’s revered leader, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. But the number of expats has continued to grow. When I returned in March of 2014 more stringent rules were in place to reduce their numbers, but success was reported as a drop of 0.1% in the past six months. The expats continue to be better educated, more experienced, harder workers and as seen in most countries of immigrants, willing to work longer hours for lower wages.

The Omanis have countered this with a virtual explosion in the numbers of schools, universities and technical training opportunities. The determination to educate Omanis is evident everywhere. In recent years, the government has invested increasing sums of money to encourage both the education of young Omanis and their ability to establish small businesses.

My visit to Oman in 1998 made it possible for me to spend time with a small group of the country’s young elite. Their hospitality brought about a week where my every-day reality outstripped anything my fantasy life could have conjured up. Thanks to a well-liked American ambassador with whom I stayed, I was included in expeditions to a royal sheikh’s desert tent where we stayed overnight at his camel-raising/racing ranch listening to Mozart played on an oud while we reclined on sumptuous rugs and pillows under a star-filled sky. I attended a luncheon given for former president George Bush I (adored because of US involvement in Kuwait) in a white marble palace attended by the male establishment…dressed in long white dashikis…creating a scene of staggering beauty. A fabled Sheikh, the father of a young Omani woman whom I had entertained in Cambridge (MA) gave a barbecue for me (baby camel…eating it demanded that I muster my best Margaret Mead manners) at which for the first time the wives of the American Embassy staff were included. The Sheikh one of the richest in the country already had promoted the career of his daughter, now an internationally successful business woman. Signs of progress for women in government departments, education and the workplace were already in evidence.

Former President George Bush I was not in Oman this time. Instead the local newspaper headline blared in very large letters: A ROYAL WELCOME. Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani arrived for a two-day visit during which time bilateral agreements were signed to construct a gas pipeline for an Iranian supply to Oman, and exchange expertise in vocational training. Major emphasis was placed on the exchange of students. The visit opened by a twenty-gun salute was covered in great detail in the press and was considered of momentous importance for Oman. The United States would do well to increase not just the small numbers of Omani students who study here, but to increase the numbers of Americans studying in Oman as well as this part of the world gains increasing significance in international economics and security.

In 1998 the compelling questions were how to plan for a post-oil economy, how to Omanize the country, and as mentioned above, increase education and the will to work.

In 2014 these questions remain although new discoveries of oil have reduced the immediacy of the post-oil period. The emphasis now is on how to create “Small Business Enterprises.” In addition, the buzzword is implementation. “We have many, many policies. How to implement them is where we fail.”

Thanks to the help of the Omani Information Services I was able to reconnect with a few of the people I had met on my previous visit, each of them now leaders in the business community.

The most striking observation came from the head of a large corporation who said that the impact of social media and the Arab Spring had been enormous. “More people are more outspoken; more are talking about corruption; and more people are going to jail.” She went on to say that as a result of what the social media had made possible, transparency had occurred for the first time and the Sultan had changed his entire cabinet. In addition, she added, there was increased consumer protection. Her greatest praise was for the younger generation which she credits with ending censorship…while her surprise comment was “we need more lawyers to enforce the changes.”

The local newspapers carried editorials about corruption and the need for transparency, quite different from 1998 when there was little in the press. From informal conversations with Omanis, I came away with a sense that corruption had not been obliterated but that much progress had been made in exposing it and the pressure to punish corrupt individuals in industry and government would not abate.

The country from the perspective of a brief visitor is one of stability…incremental change (strikingly different from the fantasy extravaganzas of Dubai and Qatar), maintaining the past while moving determinedly into modernization; and genuinely trying to build the infrastructure that will provide the education and opportunities for women which the Sultan has promoted since his reign began in 1970.

The most pressing question is who will replace the much-respected Sultan Qaboos now 74 years old and without an heir. Each time I asked someone I was reassured that all will be well. Much less clear was the basis for their certainty. There is rumored to be a letter that will be made public on the Sultan’s death naming his choice or perhaps a group of people from whom one leader would be selected. But it is actually a bit murky. In both visits I heard criticisms of the government but never of the Sultan who continues to travel throughout the country to maintain contact with his subjects and to work for a gradual opening up of the society to greater participation and representation.

Now if the government can introduce a humane immigration policy to protect the expats who have helped bring Oman to its current level of development while increasing the ‘will to work’ of the Omanis, the carefully measured march into the future will undoubtedly bode well for Oman. In the meantime, a long life to Sultan Qaboos.

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