Workers Flower in Desert

As published in the London Times Higher Education Supplement  

February 5, 1999

Dorothy S. Zinberg looks at how Oman is investing oil wealth to ensure its citizens are its greatest resource

Once a year, Sultan Qaboos, ruler of the Gulf state of Oman, accompanied by only a few aides, drives the length of the country to listen to and talk to its inhabitants. In recent years, his message has been that people should take any job even if it does not provide a large income.

Based on the teaching of religion, and in Oman it is Ibadi, a liberal form of Islam, he propounds that it is the work itself that is valuable, whether it be as a filling station attendant or carpenter. The results are not in. Guest workers are everywhere in evidence in menial jobs, while the middle-level management of Omani-owned large businesses and hotels and the proprietors of small shops appear to be predominantly Indian.

But there is little doubt that the country is giving its all to education. In 1970, there were three schools; today there are 968 with plans for 1,000 at the turn of the century. The architecturally stunning Sultan Qaboos University suffers from not being able to accept more than 5 percent of the age cohort, as more of the population, well aware that a college degree will provide entrance to better jobs and careers, clamours for admission.

Oman was even more exotic than I had anticipated with the heavy aroma of frankincense in the steamy souks and roasted baby camel eaten in a desert fort under a moonlit sky to the sound of Mozart played on an oud and Arab drums. But Oman was also determinedly committed to the unexotic – improving education for all of its citizens, increasing women’s participation in the workforce as well as in politics, and creating not just jobs but the will to work.

Oman is not on the screen for many Americans, unless they are involved in the oil business of military security issues. But Bostonians were trading with Oman in the 18th century and George Washington and Oman’s sultan exchanged delegates not long after the American Revolution. It was Frances Cook, the United States ambassador, who told me of the reforms in education and women’s rights enacted by Sultan Qaboos. Educated at Sandhurst, he spent six years working in Europe before staging a bloodless coup that forced his repressive father out of the monarchy and the country in 1970.

He has stated on many occasions that educated people will be the country’s greatest resource. Having heard this sentiment enunciated by many western politicians in their election campaigns, only to be forgotten or down-sized once in office, I was eager to observe what happens when there is an hereditary leader who does not have to live up to campaign promises.

I met educators, officials, business leaders and a number of Omanis who had received university degrees in the US and had returned home to positions of influence. Everyone, even those who were well aware of the problems, had something praiseworthy to say about the liberalizing policies of the sultan, and the wisdom of social change at a measured pace in order to avoid major disruptions to a country that spans a centuries-old way of life among its desert dwellers to the cellular phone-wielding, Armani-clad, “I keep my boat in Monaco” business people.

My first formal meeting was with Fawziya Al-Farsi, the undersecretary of education, who did her graduate work at the University of Florida. When I mentioned that I was meeting many women professionals in my short stay, she responded enthusiastically.

There are three women undersecretaries; four in the state council (elective offices) and two in the consultative council that reports directly to the sultan. She outlined the country’s ambitious goals. To begin with, 17 new schools had opened that would have co-education for the first four years. The university is co-educational, although most of the professional women I met had gone abroad to college.

Teaching English and information technologies begins in first year primary school where the libraries have been renamed learning resource centres.

More than 90 per cent of Omani children are enrolled in schools. Per capita income before the recent drop in oil prices was $6,800 per year, and life expectancy now exceeds 70 years.

The overall population is slightly more than two million, a quarter of whom are temporary workers. The government, through its Omanisation programme, wants a workforce that will not be dependent on outsiders. The great challenge lies in the rural areas, where a large percentage of the population lives, growing at more than 3 per cent a year. Here the emphasis is on instilling “life skills” where education will attempt to integrate agriculture, fishing, and the environment to stave off large-scale emigration to the cities, and to enhance water conservation and the production of food.

The main goal is to develop a strong work ethic from early childhood in a country where enormous oil-based revenues have led to a large foreign workforce that can no longer be sustained. As economic and environmental woes accrete rapidly in the Middle East, it is easy to understand the pessimism of a scholar such as Fouad Ajami, who predicts a gradual return to poverty.

Perhaps this is happening in countries that have not had visionary leaders. But a short time in Oman convinced me that the efforts being made there, combined with a reinvestment of wealth – intellectual and financial – by its citizens who have been educated abroad, offer a revolutionary model for combining human resource potential with cutting-edge technology.


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