29 March 2011

On beach culture and jobs in coastal Oman

The harbor at Sur, Oman, about 220 kilometers southwest of Muscat by car.

With a week for a break from my job in landlocked Afghanistan, I chose to visit Oman, which has abundance of coastline and beaches and is relatively nearby. However, beaches in the undeveloped Arabian Peninsula are where fishing boats are launched and docked, not places where people routinely swim or socialize. In places like Oman, where cloudy days are rare, the sun is understood as something that can be mercilessly lethal, so if you go to a beach in, say, the early afternoon, when most commercial and outside activity ceases, you will likely be alone.

That even included the spectacular beach at Ras al Hadd, where the Gulf of Oman, which appears sublimely green near land and blue at a distance, rolls over pristine beige sand. In fact, if you are from the global north, the virtual absence of human activity makes you feel like you are doing something horribly wrong—or at least hard to comprehend by local standards.

In the several days I was in and around Sur, Oman, some 220 driving kilometers southwest of Muscat, I have found local residents to be friendly without being obsequious and the commercial culture to be mercifully free of those persistent peddlers of overpriced doo-dads I find annoying. There is a concerted effort in Oman effort to develop tourism to diversify the economy from its historical dependence on a diminishing supply of oil. The pedestrian area in beachside Sur, for instance, is undergoing a substantial rehabilitation with new walkways, seating areas, and streetlights. However, tourism seldom creates widespread local benefits and typically favors developers, hotel and restaurant owners, the airlines, and tour and travel operators while creating an abundance of low-paid jobs for most everyone else. The process also substantially increases the chance that the local culture will be commodified to meet the tastes of relatively affluent travelers.

In all likelihood, the lowest-paid jobs in tourism or any other industry will not be filled by Omani nationals. While about 19 percent of Oman’s population of a little more than 3 million is from somewhere else, very often the countries of south Asia, “non-nationals” make up a whopping 60 percent of the Omani workforce. The cold reality is that immigrants from relatively poor countries often fill the lowest-paid jobs in developed nations, whether they are Turks employed in Germany, Mexicans in the United States, or Indians in Oman, yet their income is often greater than what they could ever expect to earn in their nation of origin.

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