Not so long ago, we joyfully celebrated Oman’s 40th anniversary.
Almost everyone — but especially the young people here in Muscat, the capital, and in small towns — decorated their houses and cars with stickers and fliers in support of the government. As an academic I usually like to watch from the sidelines; this time, I joined in and decorated my black Toyota Camry with the national colors of red, white and green. Together, we rejoiced over what we have achieved since His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to power in 1970.
Never would I have thought that just a few months later Oman would find itself part of the “youthquake” now sweeping the Middle East. Never would I have imagined that demonstrations in our peaceful, media-shy nation would end up on the front pages of newspapers around the world and mentioned in the same breath with the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
So what happened?
On Feb. 18, a small protest was held in Muscat’s Khuwair neighborhood, where most government ministries are situated, expressing thanks and professing loyalty, but respectfully asking for more job creation and a few other changes. This was followed by letters posted online on the Omani Sebla (our local social network) that also requested relatively small social and political reforms but with respect and love for country, people and leader. So far so good.
But then the protests in Sohar happened. In that northern city, during a Feb. 27 rally, the police and protesters lost control: there was violence and vandalism; some reports indicate one person was killed, others say two. We were all stunned.
The government, though, was quick to take the right action by promising to create 50,000 jobs, provide aid for registered job seekers, reshuffle the cabinet, improve the social welfare system and allow citizens more say.
Most important, it responded to the people’s request for dialogue. As the government was doing damage control, and as Omanis were trying to grasp what was going on, I kept answering my overseas friends’ e-mails, explaining that Sohar was an anomaly, a lapse in judgment, a momentary loss of control.
Then a sense of shame swept over Oman. We do have problems, we all agreed. But doesn’t everybody? What country doesn’t suffer from unemployment? Censorship and monopoly control are also problems in many nations.
But the bigger question was this: Is this how we as Omanis try to effect change — vandalism and shootings? And after 40 years of living in peace and prosperity, is this what we want to broadcast to the world? Is this how we repay the wise leader who has done so much for Oman and its people?
Westerners may not understand the kind of love that Omanis have for our Sultan. But ours is a visionary leader who brought our country out of the dark ages and into a state of modernity; Sultan Qaboos bin Said has placed Oman at the forefront of many Arab countries, if not of the world, in terms of rights for women, people with disabilities and foreign workers and in providing free education and health care for all. These efforts have allowed Oman to strike a unique balance between traditional values and progressive development.
Then three nights ago, I received a text message from a colleague that has been circulating ever since: it was a heartfelt apology to His Majesty written by an anonymous Omani.
Facebook and Twitter might have helped bring down Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But here in Oman, where we are masters of cellphones, using them every Friday to send holy greetings and jokes, we used text messages to get back on track. The text apology sent this message: Stop! We clearly have problems but let us not forget that after 40 years of building our country, we have to ask not just what our country can do for us, for it has done a lot, but, as John F. Kennedy eloquently stated decades ago, what we also can do for our country.
I finally got it. There is a clear disconnect between Oman’s forward-thinking government and the young people who grew up with — and thus take for granted — free education and free health care. My own university is a cutting-edge institution in the Middle East thanks to the foresight of the government.
Somewhere along the way, the older generations of Omanis forgot how to talk to our young, to instill responsibility and to share our story of the trials and tribulations we went through to make Oman not only one of the most beautiful places in the Arab world, but also a better place to live. In our zeal to protect a generation from the hardships of the past, we failed to impart a sense of appreciation.
Recently, in one of my college seminars, a student screamed that Oman needed to give those with disabilities their rights. I had to remind him that laws establishing their rights already exist, along with everyone else’s. The problem was that he didn’t know about those laws and that some private and public institutions don’t abide by them. That’s something we all have to figure out how to fix.
So what I and my fellow Omanis have learned from the protests is that we need to talk, peacefully, respectfully and responsibly, about our past, present and future; about our recent disconnect; and about our shared investment and responsibility. And that is what is happening in Oman — we are talking!
By Najma Al Zidjaly, an assistant professor of linguistics at Sultan Qaboos University.