Sunday, May 17, 2015

Here it is: How Safe is Oman in Relation to What's Happening in Yemen?

In this journey of preparing to leave for Oman I've come to see just how loved I am.  I find myself facing people who have a lot of concern, fear, disagreement and even anger over my decision to move.  It's interesting how I have an easier time accepting those emotions than I do the deafening silence that follows those who step out of my life entirely after hearing the news.

I had a wonderful conversation with my 9 and 10-year-old brothers yesterday on a hike where they shared their concerns and fears about my moving to the Middle East.  It was amazing how educating them on the facts of Oman and the people who live there eased their fear.

In my experience, fear tends to wrap itself around the unknown, or the insecure.  Those who don't know me, don't know about where I'm going, or are insecure in the relationship we have tend to be the ones who resist my going in fear and anger.  Sadness is a whole other issue unrelated to the following.  In order to ease the fears and anger of those who have (and have not) expressed it, I'd like to share some facts, researched by credible sources, to make some sense out of what seems to make no sense at all.

Let's start with Yemen.  We've all heard snippets on the news about the unrest and violence and horrible atrocities that are happening in that country, a direct neighbor to Oman.  Without going into all of the history of Yemen, I will tell you that in February 1989 north Yemen joined Iraq, Jordan and Egypt informing the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), an organization partly in response to the founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and intended to foster close economic cooperation and integration among its members.  In 1967 the British left southern Yemen in the wake of an intense terrorist campaign.  It was then the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was created.  In 1969 and 1973 there were military clashes with Saudi Arabia and the PDRY provided active support for the Dhofar rebellion against the Sultanate of Oman.  The PDRY provided sanctuary and material support to various international terrorist groups.

Following the Gulf crisis, and the liberation of Kuwait, Yemen continued to maintain high-level contacts with Iraq.  This hampered its efforts to rejoin the Arab mainstream GCC and mend fences with its immediate neighbors, Oman and Saudi Arabia who are part of the GCC.  The Omani-Yemeni border has officially been demarcated.  The Yemen border is porous, and illegal weapons and narcotics smuggling remains a serious problem.  The Saudi government is working to secure its border with both Iraq and Yemen to prevent the infiltration of terrorists associated with the Iraq insurgency and active al-Qa-ida affiliates in Yemen.  On the regional front, border agreements signed with neighboring countries are expected to bring about economic and trade benefits.  The country needs it.

In relation to the current conflict, while Saudi Arabia marshaled a seemingly impressive coalition for its air war on Yemen, Oman is sitting out of the war. Oman is the only Arab monarchy that declined to participate in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen.  They didn't deploy its military to strike Houthi targets in its southern neighbor, showing that it is the GCC member most independent from Riyadh's sphere of geopolitical influence - and most committed to cooling regional sectarian tensions.

The position of Omani leadership in relation to Riyadh's strategy in Yemen, is that is misguided and dangerous for the entire region.  Rather than dropping bombs, Muscat has decided to pressure the international community to pursue a diplomatic solution to the rapidly deteriorating conflict.  They also emphasized that a negotiated settlement must come from the Yemeni people, not foreign governments.  "Oman is a nation of peace," said Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi.  He continued to say, "We cannot work on peace efforts at the same time we should be part of a military campaign."  Their strategy of relative neutrality is consistent with Sultan Qaboos' traditional foreign policy of maintaining respectful relations with all relevant actors and offering Oman's service as a third-party mediator.  This same strategy brought American and Iranian diplomats to talk in Muscat in 2012.  This led to the historic framework deal that world powers and Iran reached in Lusanne in March of this year.

Oman is the one GCC state that shares the Strait of Hormuz with Iran, and Oman has a vested interest in cooling the tensions between the Islamic Republic and the Persian Gulf's Arab sheikhdoms.  Muscat is also heavily invested in finalizing a deal between the P5+1 and Tehran to decrease the risk of a military confrontation over Iran's nuclear enrichment program - a conflict that would inevitably threaten Oman's vital economic and security interests.  Oman is a very unique Arab state given its reputation for religious tolerance.  "There are common passionate feelings among Yemenis and Omanis that prevent Oman from participating in the conflict," said Alawi.  Those common passionate feelings stem from the fact that most Omani's practice Ibadi Islam - a strand distinct from both Sunnis and Shiites and many have a fair deal of sympathy for the unique Houthis in Yemen seeing how Saudi Arabia views them as "apostates" or "infidels" because of the Islam they practice.

Oman is actively attempting to negotiate an end to the fighting in Yemen.  Muscat has put before Riyadh and Tehran a seven-point plan called the Omani Initiative for achieving a peaceful resolution to Yemen's ongoing conflict.  Oman views Yemen's crisis as one that can only be solved through dialogue, rather than continued violence.  To prevent violence in their own borders, to essentially fortress the sultanate from growing unrest in Yemen, Oman's government approached India's Central Public Works Department to construct a border fence along the entire Yemeni border for $300 million.  Additionally, Oman has deployed forces to its land and sea borders with Yemen to protect itself from AQAP's destabilizing terrorism in Yemen.  When asked about Oman's capacity to protect itself from turmoil in Yemen, he said, "We have enough vision and arrangements in that part of the border.  There is a risk, of course; there is no border with zero risk."

In the meantime, Oman has stepped up its humanitarian role by accepting Yemeni refugees.  Nearly 2,700 people of 48 nationalities entered Oman as refugees from Yemen during the first half of April alone.  Unlike a handful of Arab states that have been plagued by Islamist insurgencies and violence waged along ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines, Oman has stood out as a peaceful beacon of tolerance and harmony among its various religious and tribal groups.

There are always risks, no matter where you go in the world.  With various news reports of acts of terrorism within the United States we no longer have the illusion of safety and security we had decades before.  September 11th, 2001 was proof enough of that.  While the country of Oman is in close proximity with much violence and unrest, the country itself is home to people who bond together under beliefs such as unity, harmony, tolerance and respect.  Many American's could take a lesson from this Islamic country.

*Note: the links on this page are the resources to which I found much of my information.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Top 25 Questions & Answers About Oman

In no particular order, these tend to be the top 25 questions I’m asked when I tell people I’m moving to Muscat, Oman in August.  Sources for my answers are at the bottom of the page.  Stay tuned for my next blog, which will discuss the political and militaristic position of Oman in light of all that’s happening with ISIS in the Middle East.

1. What is the commonly spoken language in Oman?
Arabic.

2. Can I get by using only English?
Most locals are able to understand English at least in the Muscat area.  It’s best to use the services of a guide or interpreter in the interior area.

3. Is it safe to travel to Oman?
Oman is a very safe country to travel to.  The people are very friendly and always willing to help.  There is virtually no crime in Oman, a statistic which Omanis are very proud of.

4. Is there a strictly enforced dress code?
Oman is among the liberal countries in the Middle East where it’s all right to dress as you please.  Be conservative in your style of dressing especially when visiting the interiors.  It’s best for women to cover their arms and legs.  In public functions dress codes are mentioned and strictly enforced.

5. Is it okay to consume alcohol in public?
No.  Alcohol is bought and sold only against a permit.  Alcohol can only be consumed in licensed pubs and bars.  At duty free outlets, alcohol is limited to a bottle per person.

6. What can I eat?
Oman offers all kinds of cuisine thanks to the cosmopolitan nature of its expatriate population.  Apart from local food you can savor authentic Italian, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, English, American, Chinese and Indian cuisine.

7. How efficient is the local transport?
For long distances the ONTC or Oman National Transport Company is a good choice.  Within the city feel free to use the taxis or cabs.  To visit the interior its best to hire a car and travel in groups.

8. When is the best time to visit Oman?
The most frequented time is from around September through April, which is the winter.  Here are the average highs and lows: 00 (F), (00) (C).

January: 81/63 (27/17); February: 79/63 (26/27); March: 84/70 (29/21); April: 93/75 (34/24); May: 102/84 (39/39); June: 104/88 (40/31); July 100/86 (38/30); August 97/82 (36/28); September: 97/81 (36/27); October: 95/75 (35/24); November: 86/70 (30/21); December: 81/64 (27/18); Average: 91.6/75.1 (33.1/23.9) 
Between May and August it’s particularly hot and hazy.  There is a mid-June to late-August rainy season in southern Oman.  Many Gulf visitors flock to this area.

9. Can we wear bathing suites in Oman?
You can at your hotel as well as on private beaches near the hotel, but it is asked that when you are in a public place that you respect the local custom and cover up.

10. Is there camping in Oman?
Camping is available almost anywhere in Oman.  One shouldn’t camp on someone’s property unless given permission.  However you’re able to camp on many of the beaches along the coastline as well as on the mountains.

11. What is the cost of living in Oman?
Although the exchange rate of the Rial is very strong, the average cost of living in Oman is very low compared to other countries in the world.  Everyday necessities are very affordable and can be bought throughout the country.

12. What are the roads like in Oman?
Oman’s roads are generally very good.  There are still some places that are only accessible by 4x4 but most of the major cities are connected by tarred roads.

13. Are there exciting things to do in Muscat?
There are many exciting things to do in Muscat as well as the rest of Oman.  Horse back riding, quad biking, and bull fighting are just some of them.

14. Can I buy a car?
To own a car in Muscat you must be a resident of the Sultanate (not on a visit visa).  You must have a valid Oman driving license, which you can receive easily by transferring your current license to an Omani one in one quick appointment.

15.  Can I go dune bashing in my 4x4?
Absolutely.  It’s best to follow safety measures and go with a group of cars in case you get stuck in the sand.  If you do get stuck you can always call 9999 to reach the police and they’ll be able to find you with their excellent tracking system in no time.

16. Is Malaria an issue in Oman?
It’s no longer the scourge it once was due to effective preventative measures taken by the Ministry of Health.  Today malaria is found in some regions of the country with high humidity and dense vegetation, but it is unlikely that you will come into contact with the anopheles mosquito that spreads the disease.  Malaria prophylaxis is available at most pharmacies if you wish to take it.

17. What’s the geography like in Oman?
A vast gravel desert plain covers most of central Oman, with mountain ranges along the north and southeast coast, where the country’s main cities are also located: the capital city Muscat, Sohar and Sur in the north, and Salalah in the south.  Desert shrub and desert grass are found but vegetation is sparse in the interior plateau, which is largely gravel desert.

18. What are the Demographics?
According to the 2010 census, the total population was 2.773 million.  1.96 million of those were Omanis.  50% of the population lives in Muscat and the Batinah coastal plain northwest of the capital; about 200,000 live in the Dhofar (southern) region, and about 30,000 live in the remote Musandam Peninsula on the Strait of Hormuz.

19. What religions are there in Oman?
67% of the population consists of Ibadhi, a form of Islam distinct from the Sunni and Shia denominations, 32% Sunni Muslims, and the Shiia forming the remaining 1% of the Omani population.  The Oman government doesn’t keep statistics on religious affiliation, but most citizens are Muslims.  Non-Muslim religious communities individually constitute less than 5% of the population and include various groups of Hindus Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians.  Christian communities are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar and Salalah and include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and various Protestant congregations organized along linguistic and ethnic lines.  More than 50 different Christian groups, fellowships and assemblies are active in the Muscat metropolitan area, formed by migrant workers from Southeast Asia.  Many non-Muslims in Oman are due to the historical and cultural influence of India.

20.  What’s the currency in Oman and are there taxes?
The currency is the Omani rial (OMR).  One rial is officially tied to the US dollar at 1 rial = 2.58 dollars.  There is no personal or sales income tax in Oman.  Income taxes are levied only on the income of a company or an establishment at a flat rate of 12 percent.  However, hotels and restaurant charge a 17% tax rate (5% municipality tax, plus 4% tourism tax, plus 8% service charge).

21. What are the people like?
The Omanis are generally very humble and down to earth people.  The usual rules of respect should be followed even when locals appear to be a little less “uptight” than their neighbors.  Staring is quite common in Oman; children, men and women are likely to stare at you simply for being a foreigner, especially if you travel off-season and in out-of-the-way places.  This is not meant as an insult, it rather shows an interest, and a friendly smile will leave the kids giggling and showing off, and the adults happily trying out their few English phrases.

22. What are the public holidays for 2015?
The exact dates of the Islamic holidays depend on the sighting of the moon and can be off by a couple of days.
1 January: New Year’s Day
3 January: Mohammed’s birthday
14 February: Valentines Day
16 May: Israa & Miaraj Night (Night of Ascension)
18 July: Eid Al Fitr (End of Ramadan)
23 July: Rennaissance Day
24 September: Eid Al Aha (Feast of Sacrifice)
15 October: Hijra New Year’s Day
18 November: Birthday of HM Sultan Qaboos and National Day
25 December: Christmas

23. How do you get a job in Oman?
Many people come to work in Oman because the salaries are higher and you have tax-free earnings.  The quality of life is also better due to the amazing climate, spacious homes and an almost nonexistent crime rate.  It is best to come to Oman with a job that is already lined up and waiting for you with appropriate sponsorship and accommodation. 

24.  Is there hiking in Oman?
Oman is an amazing place for exploration and discovery, especially by foot in its spectacular mountainous scenery.  You can go hiking year round and the routes are marked for beginner, intermediate and expert levels allowing you to choose the best hike for you.  Some of the best hiking routes are: Western Hajar, including Jebal shams, Oman’s highest peak; Eastern Hajar – inland from Sur; the Wahiba Sands desert; the Capital area around Muscat and the adjacent coastline.

25. Is the current Middle Eastern conflict involving ISIS having any effect on Oman and its people?
“Oman is a majority Ibadhi country, its people are kind and moderate, and there is little chance of ISIS finding an environment where it can grow in Oman, even amongst the Sunnis.  Militarily speaking, it is unlikely that ISIS would be able to expand beyond the northern region of the Arabian peninsula (and that is in the worst case scenario), let alone the rest of the Arabia, where it would have to go through Qatar, which hosts a US military base, Bahrain, home to the US fifth fleet, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, etc. before reaching Oman.  It is very unlikely that this would happen, especially since Oman has no beef with anyone ( so even al-Qaeda in Yemen attacking Oman is not a likely scenario).” – from http://www.quora.com/Is-the-crrent-Middle-Eastern-conflict-involving-ISIS-having-any-effect-on-Oman-and-its-people

If you have any additional questions or concerns about the information provided, please feel free to contact me :)

Sources: