22 March 2011

Woman in orange on balcony overlooking Muscat

Her view from the second-floor balcony overlooks the harbor at Muscat, the capital, on the Gulf of Oman.

Oman, which is ruled by a Sultan, has seen expressions of civil unrest from organized labor and others in recent weeks but it has not experienced the convulsive outbreaks of the pro-democracy movement that is sweeping the Arab Middle East and dominating the daily news.

I don’t know what news reaches the average Omani, but the TV news channels via satellite in the hotels catering to tourists are crammed with reports from divided and bloodied Libya, disintegrating Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria, which suddenly seem vulnerable, and of course the unfolding devastation from a Japan ravaged by earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear disaster. Spare me the claptrap about endtimes, but the old political and economic orders are reeling.

For a first-time visitor, the diversity of Oman, at least Muscat, is striking. There are south Asians everywhere and while they seem to perform much of the poorly paid and low-status jobs, they are also represented in the business and professional ranks. Despite its relative affluence, wealth and income disparity and unemployment appears to be significant, particularly among young non-Omanis.

Oman before air-conditioning, especially inland away from the sea breezes during the midsummer, is difficult to imagine, but like other societies in similarly blistering climates, socioeconomic life makes adjustments. Traditional businesses close for between three and four hours before 4 p.m., when they reopen for trading though the early evening. With few visible trees, the preferred building materials are stone and more often concrete. Muscat, the capital, is surrounded by sharp, dry peaks and valleys and it seems every flat, gravely spot unoccupied by a building is converted to a football pitch with a net-less metal goalpost on either end.

1 comment: