By CHRISTIAN LEDFORD, Guest Writer
Since 2015, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) has cooperated with Alwaleed Philanthropies, the organization founded by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, to bring American students and educators on study excursions to the Arab Gulf Countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) as part of a program aptly named the Alwaleed Fellows. In August of 2016, myself and professor of political science Ronald Stockton were given the opportunity of a lifetime when we were invited by the National Council to participate in a 10-day study visit to the country of Oman.
Oman is located on the Arabian Peninsula to the southeast of Saudi Arabia, bordered on the west by Yemen and to the northeast by the United Arab Emirates. The country is shaped similarly to the U.S. state of New Jersey and has its capital at Muscat in the northeastern region of the country near the Persian Gulf. Oman has a population of nearly 4 million people, with over a million being expatriates from India and Pakistan as well as other countries from the Arab world. The majority of the nation is Muslim and roughly 75% of Muslims there follow the Ibadhi sect of Islam (making Oman the only nation in the world to be majority Ibadhi); however, there are also populations of Hindus and Christians living inside Oman. Since 1972, the nation has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said.
The goal of the NCUSAR-sponsored trip was to raise awareness of the culture of Oman, a country that not many in the West are familiar with, as well as awareness of the country both economically and politically. During the trip, myself, Stockton, and other American attendees met with Omani diplomats, government officials, business experts and educators, gaining valuable knowledge on Oman and its rich culture and important role in not only the Persian Gulf but the Arab world. Our group’s first segment of the trip was spent in Oman’s capital, Muscat, and on our first day we met with His Excellency Abdul Aziz bin Mohammed al–Rowas, advisor to His Majesty the Sultan on cultural affairs, in the Omani Ministry of Information and received an enlightening lecture on the history and culture of Oman as well as its role in the Middle East.
Rowas, discussing religion and Islam in Oman, described Ibadhi Islam as simply a denomination based on inclusivity of and unity with other Muslims, stressing a message of peace and incorruption; indeed, the Ibadhi faith takes doctrines from both Shia and Sunni Islam and its doctrinal differences with the two rival sects are largely surface level. Rowas chose to simply say, “What agrees with the Holy Quran is Islam and what goes against the Holy Quran is not Islam.” Extrapolated from these peaceful ideas on religion and faith came the most pleasantly surprising aspect of the country to me: Oman’s egalitarian and relatively liberal nature. Rowas stressed the importance of gender equality, saying, “Men and women of Islam are responsible for each other,” and everywhere we went this statement rang true; in discussions spanning our next few days in Muscat, from Oman’s Ithraa corporation and the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs we listened to Omani women in positions of authority and power speak of pertinent economic and political issues. At base level, discrimination based on gender is prohibited in Oman under article 17 of Oman’s Basic Law; the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) protects all laws not in accordance with Sharia Law, the base for legislation in the country. Hijab (headscarves) are not legally-mandated for Omani women, who are free to drive, leave their homes freely, and hold political and economic rights, unlike in some of Oman’s notoriously misogynist neighbors.
Another aspect of Oman stressed not only in our discussion with Rowas but at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well is the nation’s status as a peaceful cooperator and negotiator. In fact, the country is readily referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Rowas and others happily explained how Oman functioned as the middle ground between the United States and Iran in 2015 and also explained Oman’s role in the complex conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen as well, showing an undoubted history of Oman striving for and fostering peace between its allies and neighbors. However, Omanis do realize that in an increasingly volatile world, this peace may not always be possible. Rowas said to our group, “We strive for accommodation when possible but accept confrontation when necessary… Passiveness is not always an option.” Nevertheless, Oman functions as an important neutral state in the Middle East and ally of the United States.
After spending time in Muscat, we flew to the southern part of the country and explored the surprisingly green region of Salalah, the beneficiary of southern Oman’s monsoon season. I didn’t think there was this much green in the entire Middle East, much less just Oman. Next we traveled north again, visiting sites along Oman’s Empty Quarter (where Oman meets Saudi Arabia’s Rub al Khali desert) and in the country’s interior, traveling to Nizwa, Ash Sharqiya, and Ad Dakhiliyah. We ended our 10-day trip by returning to Muscat.
I valued my time in Oman and appreciated the opportunity to explore a country many Americans don’t know much about. Not only did I get a view of the Arab world from the inside, I also got a view of the Arab world from a country that I didn’t know much about beforehand. It was enlightening. After traveling to Oman, the Arab world is now real to me. Seeing and meeting the people made it tangible and concrete. I hope to someday return to Oman, perhaps in an internship with the U.S. state department before my college graduation.