Good morning. This is Akshay Chalana from ZTTV, with a special report on one country you certainly don’t hear about much on television. In fact, this country has a much more stable and equal social structure than much of the region where it is located due to a balanced history and an amount of influence from non-Arab cultures. That’s right; we’re talking about the only remaining Sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman. Of course, the only context we’ve been hearing about them in recently is the World Cup qualifiers, but there’s a lot more to the ancient country. Let’s get started.
Many would agree that one feature of social structure has perhaps the greatest impact on conflict within the country, or at least potential for conflict. This is a caste system, which is characterized by class divisions based on background, particularly economic. Everyculture.com, a compilation of information from many reputable sources curated by Advameg, Inc. states that “Omani culture does not have a caste system, but it does operate in a hierarchy based on family connections (tribal ties), relative wealth, and religious education.” The result of this is that “the culture has been very tolerant of other groups. Ethnic, sectarian, or linguistic conflict rarely occurs in Oman although tribal disputes are not unknown” (Advameg). This is particularly interesting considering the sectarian violence that reigns through the rest of the Middle East, between the Sunni and Shiite sects. The primary reason for this is that the largest sect of Islam in Oman is Ibadi Islam, with 75% of the population following this, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. According to Terry Morgan, an American who lived in Oman for a number of years, “at the heart of the intellectual definition [of Ibadism] is the democratic belief that any leader, an Imam, should emerge only through election.” Furthermore, Everyculture.com states it to be a “relatively austere form of Islam,” that is a form that is plain and without luxury. Combined, these two characteristics explain why, having avoided the complexities of other sects, the culture of Oman has managed to avoid conflict based on differences.
Despite this tendency towards peace and acceptance, Oman was not left out of the protests that rocked the Arab world during the Arab Spring of 2011. In a working paper for the reputed Italian organization Istituto Affari Internazionali, Silvia Colombo states that “in Oman, unrest erupted after hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in the northern port city of Sohar demanding jobs and an end to corruption.” Colombo even goes so far as to describe “the crucial importance of shared culture, history and identity across the whole Arab world” in Oman as a cause for these protests. It is interesting to take this into account when much of the cultural history is based in the tribes and sects of Islam that were exclusive to Oman. Even so, this goes to show the split personality of the country’s people and points out that there must be some greater reason behind the equality in Oman than the ethnicity which may not be the core of culture, but is still that which the people identify with. Nevertheless, the importance of a stable democracy to the culture of the country caused the Sultan to “swiftly [respond] by firing 12 cabinet ministers and raising government salaries while agreeing to boost unemployment benefits and minimum wages by 40 percent. These measures brought calm back to the country” (Colombo). It is this sort of historical background, with an extremely responsive government that works hard to serve its people, that, when combined with the accepting culture, has led to a stable social structure for Oman.
Plus, despite this one example of disagreement with the government during the Arab Spring, Everyculture.com states that, in Oman, “civil disobedience is unknown and there is complete respect for the law and state institutions.”
In a world that is constantly looking forward to the future, an essential measure of social equality and progress is education. The CIA’s World Factbook provides school life expectancy by gender, stating that in 2009, this statistic was 11 years for females and 12 for males. This difference is mirrored by the country’s literacy rate: 86.8% for males and 73.5% for females. That’s a 13.1% difference! Now, the reason this is particularly strange is that the country’s constitution specifically aims to fight this problem. Under Article 12, which concerns Social Principles, “justice, equality and equality of opportunity between Omanis are the pillars of society, guaranteed by the State” (“Oman”). While blame for this could partially be placed on the government of Oman, it is vital to remember that “a large percentage of Omanis live in rural areas… Many of those… are self-sufficient farmers and fishermen” (Advameg). The roles of both sexes in these roles represent a situation in which it is very hard for this to be otherwise. Furthermore, these statistics are extraordinary compared to the 34.4% difference between the literacy rates of men and women in neighboring Yemen, according once again to the CIA World Factbook.
Unfortunately, this difference isn’t solely reflected in education. Terry Morgan states that “there are specific social and religious rules that govern contact between the sexes. Most houses have separate dining and living rooms used for entertaining.” Furthermore, Everyculture.com confirms that “outside of the kin group… women have little authority of privilege.” While all of this does go to state that the two genders aren’t considered equal as Oman’s constitution decrees, it is significantly less oppressive of a system than nearby countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore, these small restrictions are beginning to rise as the country transitions to a more technologically advanced and modern phase. A perfect example of this is, returning to the idea of education, the fact that “enrollment in the university is nearly equally split between male and female students” (Advameg). As a growing percentage of the population goes to college, it is apparent that the future bulk of this society will come to be much more equal than in the present.
There are a few ways in which foreign cultures have directly affected the social structure of Oman, both in the past and in the present, starting with the prominence of the Baluchi people of India and Iran and that of Indian merchant families as “the wealthiest group” of pre-oil-discovery Oman (Advameg). This is very interesting, as Indian culture places much importance on a caste system which doesn’t exist in Oman. However, it further focuses on equality between men and women, which is exemplified by Oman compared to its Arab neighbors. As interesting as this distant past of Oman is, it is much more interesting to consider how the country’s more recent history has had an impact on its social structure. In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos, the current leader of Oman, came into power, he undertook an effort to make Oman a more modern country by creating “paved roads, electricity, education, [and] health care” (Morgan). Unfortunately, there simply weren’t enough Omanis to do this, so the government imported hundreds of thousands of low-wage laborers from India and Sri Lanka. However, since this has happened, the rate of population growth has grown, resulting in another government program called Omanization, which aimed to replace all imported workers with Omanis by 2007 (Morgan). Of course, doing something like this had its consequences. Importing these workers to complete all the low-skill work essentially created a separate class, allowing Omanis to avoid doing this difficult blue-collar work. Forcing this “upper class” to do the work of the “lower class” never works out too well. However, Ashley DeFlumere, a student of World Politics at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, makes an interesting conjecture about this by stating that “by relying on the native population for workers, the need for women in the workforce is increased. This increases their role in society, and thereby puts them on the road to equality.” Thus, while a program such as Omanization mistakenly forces a class to socially redefine itself, in doing so it forces the entire class to fulfill this goal, equalizing it greatly. Thus, in yet another way, foreign cultures have forced Oman to adapt to being a more socially equal and stable country.
So, to recap, it’s clear that Oman has a much more socially equal society than much of the Middle East due to a peaceful past and a regime that is highly responsive to its people, as well as a present economic and immigrant situation that is forcing it to become more accepting. Of course, as you saw, the society isn’t completely equal, and there are gaps among the people, but these are miniscule compared to much of the region. Furthermore, as you also saw, a more equal social structure is in view for the future of the country through the growing percentage of the population that is attending college. However, similarly, the Omanization program that has played a great part in this equalization also poses a threat to the future of the country. Placing people in jobs where they don’t have much of an incentive to work serves to reduce competition and innovation, causing regression in the position of the country economically. Thus, it will be interesting to see how the country does in the coming years considering both this and the great social aid packages instituted by the Sultan in response to protests in 2011. Once again, this is Akshay Chalana from ZTTV. See you next time on International Report.
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