Archive for the ‘Oman’ Category

Oman: Will the Imamate Return?

Some twenty years ago, I wrote up the following notes for myself after reading John C. Wilkinson’s The Imamate Tradition of Oman (Cambridge University Press, 1987):

While Omanis are virtually all Muslim, many (roughly half) belong neither to the Sunni nor the Shi’a sects, but to a smaller third sect called Ibadi.  Temporal and spiritual authority in Oman was traditionally exercised by an Ibadi Imam.  The Ibadi Imam was, at least in theory, elected by the faithful on the basis of his personal qualifications.  Many elections to the Imamate in the past, though, had not been regarded as legitimate, and this lack of legitimacy had been the cause of civil wars among the Ibadis.  Ibadi political theory allowed for an Imam to be deposed by the faithful if he became incapacitated or acted against the precepts of Islam, and some had indeed been deposed.  Ibadi political theory “rigorously excluded…any notion of a hereditary Imamate,” though it tended to be dominated by different families in different periods (pp. 169-76).

According to Wilkinson, the Imamate has experienced repeated historical cycles in which it has “always declined into dynastic power, but equally inevitably re-emerged as the national ideology reuniting the state” (p. 4). At times, Wilkinson records, the Imamate has disappeared altogether due to defeat by foreign or non-Imamate Omani forces, but its memory has always remained among the Omanis who have restored it whenever the opportunity arose.

From the 1850s until the 1950s, there existed two power centers in Oman:  the Imamate in the interior of the country and the Sultanate on the coast which was backed by the British.  There were several clashes between the two in which the Sultanate would have been defeated completely had it not been for the intervention of British forces.  In the mid-twentieth century, however, oil was discovered in interior Oman.  The Sultan’s British-backed forces overran the Imamate completely in 1955.  The Imamate leadership launched a rebellion in 1957 which it took the British two years to crush, and the Imamate then came to an end (pp. 299-328).

I cannot not help but wonder, though, whether it really did.  If the memory of the Imamate and the desire to restore it remained with the Omanis in other periods when it disappeared, is it possible that this is also true now?

This question has become more relevant than when I first wrote the above due to the  increasing uncertainty about the state of Sultan Qaboos’s health, about who will succeed him (no heir has been named and the process he set up for choosing his successor is untested), and about whether there will be a smooth transition or a power struggle.

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Ignored Letter

On May 25, 1997, I sent a letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs in response to an article it had just published on Oman.  Foreign Affairs, though, did not publish my letter (or even acknowledge receiving it), and I did not publish it anywhere else.  I recently rediscovered it in my computer files, and decided to post it here on my blog now:

To the Editor:

Judith Miller’s commentary preceding her interview with Sultan Qaboos (“Creating Modern Oman,” May/June 1997) states that “he intends to move toward representative government and the rule of law.”  This process, however, has largely been a sham.  As a result, tensions are building up in this strategically located country which will have very negative consequences for the West if they boil over.

Those who argue that Oman is successfully democratizing point to its new parliament, the “majlis al-shura.”  But citizens are not allowed to elect its members directly.  In the first selection process held in 1991, citizens in each district could nominate three candidates to represent them, but final selection was made by the Sultan.  In 1994, they could nominate two candidates, but again the Sultan made the final selection.

In addition, the royal decree establishing the majlis only allows it to deal with nine specifically listed fields such as social and economic legislation, development plans, and the like.  It cannot consider issues relating to Oman’s foreign relations, defense policy, or broader political structure.

Furthermore, the majlis’s “internal regulations” forbid members from “leaking out any informations [sic] relating to the discussions at the majlis” or “allowing non-majlis members to peruse the minutes of meetings.”  But any member who wanted to leak information to the Omani press would not succeed anyway since it is all strictly controlled by the Ministry of Information.  Article 31 of the new Basic Law issued by the Sultan in November 1996 guarantees freedom of the press, but only “according to the terms and conditions specified by the Law.  Anything leading to discord…is prohibited.”

Oman may not seem any less democratic than the other Gulf monarchies.  Indeed, Oman allows a greater degree of popular participation in politics than neighboring Saudi Arabia does.  But this is not saying much.  And there is evidence that the Sultan faces growing internal opposition.

During 1994, an “Islamic conspiracy” against the Sultan’s regime was discovered.  Several hundred were arrested and many were detained for over a year.  Although “released” toward the end of 1995, the activities of most of the detainees have been closely restricted ever since, according to Omani sources.  What was especially noteworthy was that those detained included many prominent members of Omani society, including an ambassador, undersecretaries at two ministries, a commander of a naval vessel, members of the wealthy al-Ghazali family, and a member of the majlis.

Although widely covered in the Arab press and some Arab groups based in the West, these events went virtually unnoticed in the Western press.  What little coverage the country does receive in the West tends to be laudatory and uncritical of the Omani government, as was Judith Miller’s article.  (How does Miller know that things are going so well in Oman?  Why, the Sultan himself told her so!  She did not bother to cite any dissident Omanis.)

But Miller is hardly alone in portraying a glowing image of Oman.  At a symposium on Oman held by the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council in October 1995, speaker after speaker waxed eloquent on what a paradise Oman has become, thanks to the all-wise policies of the Sultan.  Yet, unlike previous seminars on Oman I have attended in Washington, there were signs at this one of growing concern within the foreign policy community over Oman’s internal stability.  In a conversation with a small group of us after the symposium, one of the speakers who had lauded the Sultan’s regime in his public comments predicted that it would be overthrown within the next ten years.

A young Omani present in the audience was a brother of one of those arrested in 1994.  Far from loving their Sultan, he told me that most Omanis consider sultanic rule to be illegitimate since it has relied on the British to protect it against the population for over a century now.  He reminded me that there were rebellions against sultanic rule in the mid-1950s and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  Omanis have a rebellious spirit, he noted, and this spirit may be about to burst forth again.

The downfall of the Sultan’s regime would cause serious problems for America and the West.  Oman occupies a strategic location at the southern end of the Straits of Hormuz; Iran is at the northern end.  All tanker traffic to and from the Persian Gulf must pass through these narrow straits.  If there were a hostile Oman as well as a hostile Iran on both sides of the Straits, Western access to Gulf oil could become less secure and oil prices could shoot up dramatically.  America and the West thus have a strong interest in preserving a friendly regime in Oman in order to avoid even the possibility of this scenario arising.

But we are unlikely to succeed in preserving a pro-Western regime in Oman if we refuse to acknowledge that there are some very serious problems in this country.  It seems highly doubtful that the sham democracy the Sultan has created will please the Omani people for long.  He has raised their expectations, but has not fulfilled them.

Simply to protect our own interests there, America and Britain should encourage the Sultan’s regime to undertake three steps.  First, the Sultan needs to get rid of many of his long-time ministers and advisers, and replace them with more educated and capable younger people.  In its generally laudatory report on political development in Oman issued in 1995, the International Republican Institute acknowledged that a “source of frustration in the country is the powerful position of some of the Sultan’s informal advisers.”

Second, the Sultan needs to end his reliance on his many highly paid British and American advisers and replace virtually all of these people with Omanis.  This may be the single most important source of tension in the country.  Even Omanis who will say nothing critical of the Sultan complain bitterly about the thousands of British and American advisers occupying positions they feel Omanis should have.

Third, and most importantly, the Sultan should be encouraged to institute real democratization, including complete freedom of the press.  Washington and London should urge him to do this sooner rather than later.  For if democratic change does not come about soon, the prospects for revolutionary change in Oman are likely to grow.

Mark N. Katz

George Mason University


Did Foreign Affairs do right to ignore my letter back in 1997? In that Sultan Qaboos is still in power, it would seem that Miller’s 1997 analysis was closer to the mark than my own.  Unrest, though, has continued sporadically in Oman since then–especially since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring”  in 2011.  However unwelcome discussing it might be to the Sultan’s government and its Western supporters, the possibility as well as the implications of further unrest in Oman should not be ignored.  Not discussing problems does not make them disappear.

For information about recent developments there, see the Oman section on the Jadaliyya website:  http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/Oman

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Ill Omen for Oman?

Washington, DC (2007)

In February 2007, the Oman Daily Observer criticized an article about Oman that I had published back in 2004. The fact that this happened, I fear, bodes quite ill for the country. Not because the Observer criticized my article, but because it made any mention of it at all.

This requires some explaining.

Oman is located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula; it borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Straits of Hormuz through which tankers carrying oil from the Gulf must pass. Since 1970, Oman has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said (as the Daily Observer spells his name), who has overseen the country’s rapid economic development. Oman has also been a close ally of the United States.

However, while largely benevolent, the sultan’s rule has been autocratic. The government-controlled Omani media (including the Daily Observer) only refers to the sultan in laudatory terms. No criticism of the ruler ever appears in it. No opposition to him is tolerated either.

Western press coverage of Oman has been remarkably positive. Yet while Oman is certainly doing better than most countries in the region, it does have some serious problems. Not discussing them, in my view, does not mean they do not exist. So, in 2004, I published an article that did discuss them entitled, “Assessing the Political Stability of Oman.” It appeared in Middle East Review of International Affairs, (MERIA) – an online academic journal published in Israel.

The article noted that Oman is facing not only important economic problems (a growing population combined with shrinking petroleum reserves), but political ones as well, including the aging of Sultan Qaboos, an unclear succession (Qaboos has not produced an heir and refuses to name one), lack of administrative experience in other members of the royal family (since Qaboos has never allowed any of them to acquire it), sectarian differences, signs of resentment toward the sultan, a history of rebellion in the past, and sporadic opposition activity in recent years.

The Oman Daily Observer piece in which my article was mentioned (“Meet-the-People Tours,” February 24, 2007) did not discuss any of this. Instead, it noted the historical roots of Sultan Qaboos’ annual tours outside the capital to meet and talk with Omani citizens. In the last paragraph of this article, the author (Viju James) noted that my MERIA article described these tours as “tightly stage-managed events.” Referring to me, his next sentence stated, “He based his findings solely on the opinion of two people and made no effort to probe either history or records of the tours.” This point was backed up by two photos of individual Omanis speaking with Sultan Qaboos and another one of a large crowd of Omani men, apparently gathering to see him.

Again, it is not surprising that the Oman Daily Observer did not approve of my article. What is surprising, though, is that it printed my full name, the full title of the journal it appeared in, and the year it was published. Typing all three of these elements into Google will yield a link to the full text of the article, where the reader will then find much more serious criticisms of Sultan Qaboos’ rule than what Viju James referred to in the Oman Daily Observer.

Why would the Omani media, which simply does not criticize Sultan Qaboos, direct its readers’ attention to an article such as mine that does? Surely it would have been better to avoid any mention of my article at all. Readers who don’t know about it are far less likely to seek it out than those who do. Why the Oman Daily Observer referred to my article in sufficient detail to make it easy to find, then, is really quite puzzling.

 I can only think of one plausible explanation: the Oman Daily Observer gave such a detailed reference to my article not because it wanted Omanis to go find it, but because my article is already so well known in Oman that referring to it does not serve to introduce it to many – perhaps not to any – new readers. Indeed, referring to it openly may have been judged by the Omani government as the best way to try to refute it.

If this explanation is indeed accurate, this is a bad sign for the Omani government. For if my little article is sufficiently well known inside Oman for the Omani government to take the trouble to try to discredit it, this suggests that the criticisms expressed in it are familiar to Omanis. I, of course, simply do not know how well my article is known inside Oman. I suspect, though, that the Omani government is far better informed about this.

Originally published by the Middle East Times (metimes.com), October 9, 2007.

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Two Views of Oman

Muscat (1980s)

Oman is a strategically important country.  U.S. Government officials will invariably tell you so.  Of course, U.S. Government officials have been known to describe a lot of other countries as being strategically important too.  Indeed, I never heard them describe any country as being anything less than strategically important.  But Oman really is.

The reason is simple.  It has to do with oil.  The West is highly dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf.  Most of that oil is shipped by oil tankers.  To get from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and beyond, those oil tankers must pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz.  On the northern side of the Strait of Hormuz is Iran.  Iran and the West haven’t hit it off since the downfall of the Shah in 1979.  On the southern side of the Strait is Oman.  Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qabus, does hit it off with the West.

Since there is a government unfriendly to the West in Iran, those who worry about these things consider it especially important for there to be a government friendly to the West in Oman to maintain free passage through the Strait.  If both Iran and Oman were hostile to the West, together they might be able to jointly restrict or even block oil tanker passage through the Strait.  The price of oil would then shoot up into the stratosphere, and the West could be economically crippled.

Clearly, we do not want what happened in Iran to happen in Oman.  But is that likely?  Unfortunately, that is a very difficult question to answer.  For in addition to being strategically important, Oman is also extremely isolated.  It is very difficult to obtain reliable information about what is going on there.  This is mainly because the Omani government severely restricts foreign access to the country.  But even Westerners living there usually cannot learn much about the political situation.  The media in Oman is all government controlled.  And it is not easy for a Westerner to penetrate Omani society.

During my three visits to Oman, I had several long conversations with different U.S. government officials living there.  One was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy.  The other was a public affairs officer who ran the U.S. Information Service office–which consisted mainly of a library.  Each had been in the country for a significant period.  But their observations about what was happening in Oman were so different from each other, it seemed as if they were describing two different countries altogether.

 * * *

The political officer told me about the dramatic progress Oman had made under the enlightened rule of Sultan Qabus.  Before Qabus came to power, his father ruled the country in a harsh, arbitrary way.  Even though oil had been discovered in 1964, the old Sultan refused to spend money on economic development.  He apparently believed that if people began to acquire education, they would want political change.  “Ignorance is bliss” was his philosophy.

Omanis were not allowed to leave the country.  If they managed to get out illegally, he would not let them back in even if they acquired skills and education that the country needed.  In 1965, Oman only had five cars, three primary schools (which the former Sultan shut down for fear they would breed communism), and one 12-bed hospital.  In the same year, a rebellion broke out in the southern part of the country (Dhofar) which acquired a Marxist character and grew quite serious.

In 1970, though, Qabus overthrew his father with the help of the British.  The new Sultan immediately began to spend Oman’s new oil wealth on economic development projects.  Through a combination of military force and a generous amnesty program, the rebellion sputtered to an end in 1975.  The new Sultan even appointed some of the former Marxist rebels to his cabinet.

Unlike his father, Sultan Qabus did not want to isolate himself from the Omani people.  Soon after he first came to power, he journeyed overland into the interior to visit Omanis there.  Sultan Qabus has made a similar journey, or progression, every year since then.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Kuwait, Oman does not possess vast oil reserves.  Oman, however, has used its money wisely–it has not wasted it on useless projects as have so many other oil producing states.

In terms of political development, Oman remains an absolute monarchy.  There is, however, no significant political opposition.  This is because the government meets the population’s economic needs.  In addition, there is nowhere in the Middle East a better government than the Sultan’s while there are many that are worse.  The Sultan is an enlightened monarch.  While Americans may not consider this to be as good as a democracy, there is no point in trying to push for democratization in a region which has virtually no experience with it.  Too rapid modernization, after all, was what led to the downfall of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

We are fortunate that Sultan Qabus is ruling such a key country as Oman.  His identification of Oman’s interests as being similar to those of the West has led him to cooperate with us in maintaining free passage through the Strait of Hormuz.  His benevolent rule ensures that Oman will remain stable so long as he is in power–which could be for many more years since he was only born in 1940.

 * * *

The public affairs officer had a very different view.  According to him, Oman has become an extremely repressive state.  Internal security concerns dominate the sultanate’s decision-making process.  The Omani government is concerned about external threats too.  But the primary external threat which it sees is not Iran or Iraq, but the West.  For the more contact that ordinary Omanis have with the West, the more Westernization, including democratization, they want for Oman (the prediction of the Sultan’s father has come true).

Although completely isolating Oman from the West is both impossible and undesirable, the government has taken two steps to limit the extent to which ordinary Omanis interact with and know about it.  First, the government only allows young Omanis from what it believes are politically reliable families (those with an important stake in the preservation of the regime) to study abroad–even when the U.S. government provides their scholarship money.  For while USIA chooses which students receive its scholarships in most countries, the Omani government insists on making the selection from among its nationals–a condition which higher authorities in Washington do not object to.

Second, the Omani government severely restricts the availability of Western publications inside the sultanate.  Western newspapers and current affairs magazines are generally not available except to a limited extent in the main hotels.  Every publication acquired by the library of the nation’s sole university (named after, like almost everything else in Oman, Sultan Qabus) must be approved first by the Ministry of Information.  According to the public affairs officer, the ministry has not allowed the university to obtain any material discussing the role of the British in Oman (which even now is very important).

But the university does not possess the only library in Oman; USIA also maintains one.  As in other countries, the USIA library in Oman is small but is well stocked with books, periodicals, and newspapers.  In addition, the USIA library is open to everyone.  Not surprisingly, Omani intellectuals (or aspiring ones) visit the USIA library frequently.  And this the Omani government does not like.

The public affairs officer described the typical pattern he observed:  A young man (almost never a woman) not connected with the government would come to the library and become enthusiastic about what was available there.  He would return several times to borrow books, read periodicals which do not circulate outside the library, and talk about current affairs.  But after several visits, the young man would telephone and state in a somewhat unnatural voice that his schedule no longer allowed him to visit the library.  The books he had borrowed would later be brought back by the police.  Sometimes, there would not even be a phone call; the police would just drop the books off.

But from his conversations with these young men when they did visit, as well as his other Omani contacts, the public affairs officer learned that there is considerable unhappiness about the political situation in Oman.  Many complain that the Sultan has grown increasingly reclusive and aloof, just like his father.  The annual progressions into the interior have become less an occasion for His Majesty to meet his subjects than to avoid them.  His motorcade speeds through towns where the security forces have already preceded him to make sure that no one is outside or in any of the buildings along the route.  The television scenes of happy Omanis cheering and serenading him at his desert “camp site” in the evening are all carefully chosen government employees.  Outside of camera range are armed soldiers whose purpose is to ensure that everyone in this group of loyal supporters remains loyal.  (Although the public information officer had not actually attended any of the Sultan’s annual progressions himself, I spoke to a senior Omani official who had; he confirmed the accuracy of this description.)

According to the public affairs officer, there have arisen three sources of discontent within Oman.  First, opposition to the Sultan has revived in the southern province of Dhofar.  Many of the complaints that the Dhofaris have now are similar to the ones they expressed before their rebellion acquired its Marxist character in the late 1960s.  The Dhofaris object to what they see as arbitrary rule by northern officials sent to their province to rule over them, the inability of Dhofaris to control their own affairs, and the relative scarcity of economic development projects in Dhofar compared to the north–especially the capital area.  Some Dhofaris want greater autonomy for their province while others want outright independence.

A more serious source of opposition is Westernized, educated young people.  Many of these attended universities in the West or lived for a significant part of their lives there (such as the children of diplomats).  These people want to see progress toward democratization.  They are not satisfied with the deliberative bodies created by the Sultan (first the consultative council, now the majlis al-shura).  These bodies have only been allowed to discuss economic development issues; they have no say over foreign affairs, defense, internal security, or other political issues.

Part of the problem is generational.  After the Sultan first came to power and in the years of rising oil prices that followed, the government was able to hand out jobs easily to Omanis who did not have much education.  Since then, a generation of younger Omanis has appeared which is better educated than the previous one.  This younger generation, though, has found its job prospects to be far more limited.  Often, well educated younger Omanis find themselves serving under poorly educated older ones, or worse, unable to find professional employment at all.  All Omanis born after 1970 have only lived under the rule of Sultan Qabus.  For them, the government’s propaganda about how life in Oman is so much better under Qabus than it was under his father rings increasingly hollow.  For they can envision a better life still.

The third source of opposition is the one that the government apparently fears the most:  conservative Muslims in the interior of northern Oman.  Like conservative Muslims elsewhere in the region, those in Oman feel that there has been too much Western influence allowed into the country by the government.  The conservatives (as well as others) are angry that the Sultan’s cronies have enriched themselves through directing government contracts to their own businesses and other means of corruption.

Partly because of these reasons, the Ibadis (a third branch of Islam, besides Sunnis and Shi’ites, who are found mainly in Oman) of the interior also do not recognize the Sultan in his claim to be their religious leader.  In addition, this group used to have their own leader–an imam–who also exercised temporal power in interior Oman until Qabus’s father and British forces drove him out in the late 1950s.  According to the public affairs officer, an imamate movement is experiencing a revival.

Qabus did much to bring positive change to Oman in the years after he ousted his father.  But stagnation has now set in.  Popular expectations are increasing, but are also increasingly unmet.  Feelings of gratitude have diminished.  The regime is becoming less popular, but the Sultan refuses to allow meaningful political reform.  America and the West must be prepared for the possibility that the Sultan of Oman will be ousted just like so many other Middle Eastern monarchs have been before him.

* * * 

Both the political officer and the public affairs officer were well aware of each other’s views before I spoke to them.  Indeed, each was able to give me a short summary of what the other’s argument was.

I asked the political officer to account for how the public affairs officer could maintain views about Oman so diametrically opposed to his own.  The political officer replied, “I just don’t know who he is talking to.”

I later asked the public affairs officer to account for the political officer’s viewpoint.  The public affairs officer answered, “The guys at the Embassy talk only to the people at the Palace.  I only talk to people not at the Palace.  It all comes down to which group you believe more.”

As in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, unrest broke out in Oman in 2011.  Unlike these other countries, though, the Western press has not reported much about what is happening in Oman.

previously unpublished

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Muscat (1989) 

I was visiting the home of an Omani friend in northern Virginia.  I was just about to visit Oman for the third time.  I wanted to get some background information from him before I left.

There in my friend’s kitchen was his daughter, a high school senior.  She was sitting at the table looking through the admissions applications and catalogues for several colleges and universities.

She and I talked about her preferences.  She told me point blank that she wasn’t even applying to the university where I taught; it just wasn’t up to her standards, she informed me.  Her father laughed and shook his head.

At the time, nothing seemed particularly unusual about this scene.  After visiting Oman a couple of weeks later, however, I realized how extraordinary it actually was.

After arriving in Muscat, another Omani friend who worked at the Foreign Ministry invited me to his house for dinner.  He had been stationed at the Omani Embassy in Washington for five years and had just returned home with his family the previous summer.

I had often talked with him at various Arab embassy receptions and other gatherings in Washington.  He was always well-groomed and witty.  It was not surprising that he was popular in Washington; he certainly seemed to know everyone.  He was clearly an asset to the embassy.

Before leaving Washington, he had told me that the Omani government actually wanted him to stay in Washington, but he was returning home because he was afraid that his five children were becoming too Americanized.  He feared that the older ones would not be able to fit into Omani society if the family remained in the U.S. much longer.

My friend’s house was in a wealthy suburb of Muscat called Qurum.  He greeted me at the door and took me into a sitting room.  The room was furnished with a mix of things he had acquired in Oman and in the U.S.  He asked me about our common acquaintances in Washington.  Just hearing about them made him laugh.  “I miss all those people!” he told me.

I asked him how he liked being back in Muscat.  His attitude became more serious.  He looked at me and said reverentially, “Here in Oman, the life is good.”

Just then, his five children burst through the sitting room door, followed by their mother.  The two youngest were boys while the older ones were all girls.  The eldest I’ll call Jasmina (not her real name).  She was thirteen.

Jasmina was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse with a colorful design on the front and long white baggy pants.  Her head was uncovered and her long black hair hung loose practically to her elbows.

Her enormous brown eyes fixed themselves on me.  She smiled as she quickly came over and sat next to me on the couch.  Her words came flooding out:  “I can’t stand it here!  It’s so boring!  I want to go back to America so badly!”  She spoke English just like an American teenager.

My friend did not look pleased.  He scowled at his wife, but she was preoccupied with the two boys who were shouting and running around.

“Why do you say it’s boring here?” I asked Jasmina.

“Isn’t it obvious?  There’s nothing to do here!  There’s nowhere for teenagers to go.  I have to go to an all girl school, which is totally abnormal,” she said with contempt.

“You can’t even get good magazines here,” she added.  “Hey, when you get home, can you send me a copy of Bop?”

This was something I’d never even heard of.  “Okay,” I answered a little uncertainly.  “Where can I buy it?”

She looked at me with amazement.  “At the Seven-Eleven!  Where else?”

I could make no reply before the father admonished, “Jasmina, you must not be bothering Doctor Mark.  And you must not speak about your school like that.”

“But Dad, the way they teach at school is so boring.  They just want us to memorize what they tell us.  They don’t want us to ask questions or talk about anything.”

She turned to me and said, “My school in America was much more interesting.  I didn’t know it then, but I do now.

“I want to go to college and then to med school.  What I’m afraid of is that the school here is so bad I won’t be able to get into a good college in America or into med school at all.”  She turned back toward her father, “I am going to college in America, Daddy!”

This was obviously a sore subject.  “It all depends on whether I’m posted back to Washington when you’re that age,” he told her.

I had the feeling that my friend intended to make sure that he was not sent to Washington or anywhere else outside of Oman when Jasmina was old enough to go to college.  The obvious question that popped up in my mind was why couldn’t they send her to college in America on her own.

As if she could read my mind, Jasmina turned to me and said, “My father is afraid to send me out into the big bad world by myself.  He’s worried that I won’t behave myself.”

“Enough!” shouted the father.  “Out!”

Within five seconds, my friend and I were alone again in the sitting room.  He held his hand to his head as if he were in pain.  He was clearly upset with Jasmina.  But I thought he was also annoyed with me for being the instigator of his daughter’s outspokenness.

I thought I should give him the opportunity to vent his feelings.  “So how’s the family adjusting to life back in Oman?” I asked.

“Jasmina is giving me so many problems,” he said bitterly.  “She is not respectful toward her elders.  She won’t study her Koran.  We stayed in America too long.  Now she’s an embarrassment to me.”

“But you know,” I said, “she’s seems very bright.”

“She is very bright,” he agreed.  There was a note of pride in his voice.  “But maybe she’s too bright.”

Soon thereafter, two of my friend’s brothers arrived for dinner.  One of them was an officer in the internal security force.  We moved into the dining room where there was a long table with eight chairs.  There were, however, only four place settings–enough for the adult men alone.

My friend’s wife came in to say that Jasmina had asked to join us for dinner.  Her father’s response was a curt “No!”  The wife left the room with a sad look on her face.

Once we men were alone, my friend once more said, with even greater reverence than before, “Here in Oman, the life is good.”

Throughout dinner, the three Omani men took turns with one another in describing to me what a paradise Oman is and how there are no problems whatsoever.  I wondered.

When I got back to the U.S., I dutifully went to the Seven-Eleven and bought Jasmina her Bop.  I even ordered a year’s subscription for her.  She wrote me a nice thank-you note, but I never heard from her or her father again.

About fifteen months later, I again visited my other Omani friend’s home in Northern Virginia.  The daughter I had met before who had been applying to colleges was there wearing shorts and a tee-shirt.  She was now in college and we had a little debate over whose school was better, hers or mine.  An older daughter in law school was also visiting home.  She too was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt.  Both young women seemed happy and self-confident.  They chatted with me about what they might do once they’d finished their education.  Both had no doubt that they would be working women.  Nor did their father.

I told my friend about Jasmina and asked whether he or our friend in Muscat was the typical Omani father.  He shook his head and replied, “I’m afraid he is.  He’s not just typical of Oman, though, but of all the Gulf states.

“They actually think they’re doing what’s best for their daughters,” he added, “even if they destroy them in the process.”

“What will become of Jasmina?” I asked.

 “He’ll break her.  She’ll never go to college.  She may even be married off by now.  If not, she will be soon.  I only hope that the boy also spent time in the West and can sympathize with her.”

What haunts me about Jasmina is that when I met her, she was culturally more American than she was Omani.  If she had only grown up in Oman or somewhere like it, she may not have been happy about her future, but she never would have imagined that it could have been different from her father’s vision of it.

Jasmina, though, knew that it could be different–much different.  But there was nothing she could do to make her dreams come true as long as her father insisted on imposing his dreams on her.

previously unpublished

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The Throne Room

Muscat (1986)

During my second trip to Oman in February 1986, I visited the officer’s club at one of the Sultan of Oman’s Army bases near the capital, Muscat.  The invitation had been extended by an officer who had sat next to me on the Gulf Air flight into Muscat from London.

There were about a dozen officers in the club the night I visited it.  All of them (including the one who had invited me) were British, not Omani.  They told me that there were British officers at all levels of the Sultan’s armed forces.  Indeed, during the 1970s, almost the entire officer corps was British.  Even now, there were a large number of British officers, especially in the Navy and Air Force.  Some were seconded from the British armed forces to Oman; others worked for the Sultan’s forces on contract after having retired from the British military.  H.M. the Sultan, they informed me, paid much higher salaries than H.M. the Queen.

The club was one of the few places outside the major hotels where alcohol was available.  Most of us were drinking good British lager.  The officers were regaling me with tales about their experiences.  Some of them had been in the region for two decades and had participated either in the successful British counter-insurgency operation in southern Oman (Dhofar) or even the unsuccessful one before that in what became Marxist South Yemen.  Those involved in the latter were still bitter toward the Labour government of the mid-1960s for having withdrawn British forces from Aden and basically abandoning the country to the Marxists.

After a couple of hours and several beers, I asked the bartender to direct me to the men’s room.  He started to point the way to me when one of the officers said, “Let’s take him to the throne room!”

The entire group came with me.  Someone opened the door to a small room that had been added onto the building.  The most prominent features of the room were a toilet and a sink.  They looked like they were made of solid gold, though they were probably only finished with gold leaf.  All the room’s other fixtures were gold also.

“Last year was the fifteenth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Sultan Qabus,” explained one of the officers.  “For the occasion, His Majesty made ceremonial visits all around the country, including to this base.  The Palace insisted that this room be added in case His Majesty felt the necessity of relieving himself.”

“Did a bathroom like this have to be built every place he visited?” I asked.

“I suppose so,” said another officer.  “You wouldn’t want the royal rump to be seated on ordinary porcelain, after all.”

“But this room probably cost ten or twenty thousand dollars,” I estimated.  “How many places did he visit altogether last year?”

“Dozens I suppose,” someone replied.  “Maybe a hundred visits altogether.  The newspapers were full of stories about them.”

“That means one to two million dollars were spent so that the Sultan could go to the bathroom,” I calculated.  “That’s not exactly cost effective.”

“In this case, it wasn’t cost effective in the least.  For as I recall, His Majesty didn’t require the use of these facilities at all when he came here.”

“Still, it wasn’t a dead loss,” said the officer who had invited me to the club.  “After all, we use these facilities practically every night.  And although they’re a bit more elegant than we might require, it’s still possible that they’ll be used for their intended purpose.  His Majesty might just pay us another visit on his twentieth anniversary.”

“Unless he wants a platinum loo then,” said someone.

Everyone laughed.  The officers then went back to the bar, allowing me to go about my business in majestic solitude.

previously unpublished

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