Media Misrepresentation of Oman Protests

Posted: March 7, 2011 by Zeddington in Middle East
Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone who has ever been to Oman knows that the phrase ‘sleepy sultanate’, while annoying, is fairly accurate. Not a lot goes on in Oman: day-to-day life is pretty sedate and mundane. So when a few protests broke out last week, there was plenty to talk about.

Never mind that most of the protests were in support of the immensely popular Sultan Qaboos, this was news. The sleepy sultanate, rising out of its slumber? Hardly. Talking to people in Oman, it appears that the whole situation is a bit of a storm in a teacup. It is unprecedented, yes, but only because nothing like this ever happens in Oman. And yet, if you were to read the Western media, you would start to believe that Oman may possibly be next (and if you were to read the local media, you wouldn’t even know that anything had happened at all).

Now that Oman has become interesting to the press, you get a hold series of hurried, ill-researched and badly misguided articles attempting to analyze the situation. Suddenly Qaboos is interesting, 40 years after coming into power. Now, not all articles written have suffered from these problems. This article in Foreign Policy provides a very basic summary of the country and its leader for those who have no idea about either. And yet it mentions only in passing the very real problems that the nation faces, as an attempt to inject some relevance into the article, linking it to the current unrest.

On the other hand, you have articles such as this one in The Guardian, a publication I normally have a lot of time for. The author clearly has never visited Oman, and has spent about half an hour online before coming to a conclusion about a country he knows very little about. To be fair, his information about media laws are spot on. If Oman is going to continue its transition into a modern, developed nation, these will need to be reformed. And while I do not want to sound as if I am defending such issues, some consideration of this man’s achievements are in order. He’s done a lot in the last 40 years, as recognized by the 2010 UN Human Development Report, which rates Oman as the #1 nation in the world in terms of development progress since 1970 (although, since a lot of the indicators used to judge these things are absent in the case of Oman, I’m interested in what methodology they used to come to that conclusion).

I’d like now to turn to a blog post by Undercover Dragon on his excellent blog. He highlights four differences between protests in Oman and elsewhere in the region, and while I’m not sure I agree with at least one of those points, he does correctly point out that the responses by the Omani government seem to be hasty and not well thought out. He has some ideas, and I’d like to give my thoughts on them:

1) Allow a free media and crack down on mysterious income sources – I agree entirely with what he suggests, including the details mentioned. I think credit needs to be given to magazines such as The Week and Y Magazine, amongst others, which have instigated some form of investigative journalism that was absent in the past. Generally, issues covered are minor, but it’s something which needs to expand and grow in Oman. It is one of the pillars of a free and responsible civil society. I also agree about the taxes and disclose of income for public officials and their immediate families.

2) Change the political system – again, I agree with the changes proposed. People in the country, and others in the Gulf, often have a real fear of democracy (not all people, but those that have something to lose are often the most vocal). And sometimes, those fears can have some basis in reality – such as the fear that Islamists would regress the rights of women. Which is why societies need constitutions, both to protect minorities from the majority of population, and vice versa. Democracy doesn’t mean that majority rules no matter what, it means that the people as a whole are ultimately in control, and can rest assured that those with a weaker voice are protected and represented.

3) Improve educational meaningless – I think one big problem is with the culture of education in the Sultanate: nobody learns for the love of learning. It’s all about the certificates, about the paper. It means nothing if there is no passion to learn and no desire to improve oneself through education. I understand that that is something relatively rare even in the best of societies, but in Oman it is almost non-existent. I also believe that the arts are not emphasized enough in the region as a whole, nor is philosophy and other related disciplines. These improve the depth of a society, and are required. It’s not all about churning out doctors, lawyers and businessmen.

4) Level the employment playing field – I’m not sure that the proposals Dragon suggests are viable in practice – one would need to look at the theory behind it and crunch some numbers – but in practice the proposals seem sound. The objective ought to be to discourage the hiring of imported labor without forcing companies to hire Omanis that do not want to work. Companies need to be provided incentives to not just hire Omanis but to train them. At the same time, Omanis looking for a free ride should not be allowed to benefit from laws that make firing them almost impossible.

5) Bring in compulsory pseudo-military service – I’ve seen how people who’ve done some military service can be very different from those who haven’t. The effect is drastic. Naturally it’s not for everyone, but not including the exceptions it would help instil a work ethic into a labor force that seems to have precious little. Linking unemployment benefits to this is also a good idea.

6) Reduce population growth – easier said than done, but every country that has begun serious development or even moved into the classification of ‘developed country’ has seen a drop in population growth. Some countries choose specific policies that force people to limit the number of children they have, such as China. For other countries, its an organic process: better education, in particular for mothers are daughters; lower child death rates; and a healthier population all tend to encourage families to choose quantity over quality, and invest more in the children they have. Cultural and religious issues may need to be overcome (such as resistance to birth control – and the relatively recent appearance of condoms in supermarkets shows that the government is trying).

7) Reduce tribalism – in a word, yes. Historically, countries with a more diverse population tend to have greater friction and potential for conflict. It’s not rocket science really, and is a great source of corruption, nepotism, and racism in society. Reward people for marrying across tribes, and have social programs that work on removing the social stigma of doing so. Discourage marriage between cousins.

None of the suggestions Dragon makes are headline friendly. They’re not exactly things you would announce in an attempt to quell rising anger. People tend to want immediate solutions, but they are usually the ones that backfire.

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