Omani Culture

Nizwa Fort, built by Imam Sultan al-Yarubi in 1649.As in any Middle Eastern country, religion is the center of the culture. It dictates everything: dress, hygiene, diet, everything. The approach to life is "Inshallah", which literally means "Allah willing".

Oman adopted the Ibadhism form of Islam shortly after the Prophet's death in 632AD. At the heart of the intellectual definition is the democratic belief that any leader, an Imam, should emerge only through election. An Imam is, literally, "one who sets an example." A candidate is identified by a council of tribal elders, then presented to the people for their scrutiny and due acceptance or rejection. If successful, the new Imam publicly commits himself to upholding Ibadhi principles and maintaining the integrity of the nation. In return, the assembly pledged allegiance to the Imam. Should the Imam be seen to fail, the nations allegiance is withdrawn. The first Imam in Oman was elected under this process in 750AD.

In stark contrast, Saudi Arabia practices the Wahhabi form of Islam. It was founded in the 1700's by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It preaches a literal interpretation of the Koran and any modifications since it's writing are blasphemous. Hence, anything deemed to be a modernization since the time of the prophet, such as material wealth, are not allowed. The Saudi's and Omani's are historical and religious enemies. In fact, it has been only during times of Saudi and Persian occupation that the country has unified itself.


The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Built to the Sultan's exact specifications, it's beauty rivals most European cathedrals. The Persian carpet covers the entire floor at a cost of some $15 million and is the largest in the world. The main chandelier weighs 6 tons and also cost in the tens of millions. It is said the mosque was built twice as every detail required the Sultans approval. Often, entire sections were rebuilt at his discretion. Cost overruns ran to several billion dollars.


The Birds & The Bees

There are specific social and religious rules that govern contact between the sexes. Most houses have separate dining and living rooms used for entertaining. I've been invited to dinners and parties where wives were either not invited or separated on arrival. Women are allowed to go to public places unescorted, but whenever I've had meetings with Omani women, they were escorted by a male relative. An Omani woman bought my car; when she came to look at it, her husband came along; when we went to change the registration, her oldest son came along. It's a common practice. Whenever introduced to a Muslim man, we shake hands, one only shakes a woman's hand if she offers it first, and sometimes Muslim men refuse to shake a woman's hand even if offered.

Courtship is technically, strictly controlled. There are the occasional arranged marriages, but usually the boy asks the girl's family for permission to court. If granted, the girl is always escorted. Of course, reality is somewhat different. Because women are covered to varying degrees, it's easy to sneak around - all women look the same, especially with the face covered. The mobile phone provides the perfect tool for surreptitious rendezvous. Boys and girls are constantly text-ing each other, often anonymously. One section of Muscat beach is known as "Lovers Lane", where boys and girls strut their stuff, hopping in and out of fancy cars. But it's a tricky game: no man would marry a girl that went too far.

Most Omani men, and especially Indian men, seem to be fascinated by Western women. They are always respectful and polite, especially when children are present. Some Omani men take Western wives and the rare Omani woman marries and expat (family approval is difficult and the women are grilled by a council of elders before receiving a license). With so many Omani's being educated overseas, I'm sure there's a lot of experimentation. Although there are strictures against extramarital sex, prostitution is common, with Russian and Chinese girls working throughout the Gulf. Although not publicized, sex crimes do happen, particularly with the Indian and Sri Lankan maids. And, there are rumors of a growing AIDS problem, probably imported from Thailand.


The Women

These brightly-dressed women usually live in small villages in the mountains and in the desert interior. Their faces are not normally covered.


Islam dictates a modest dress code for both men and women. However, for women, this includes covering the head and sometimes the face. As with any religion, it is open for interpretation and style takes a role.


These are the traditional Bedouin women. They still live the traditional nomadic life throughout Oman. Occasionally, one sees their tents and huge herds of goats, but there's always a good turnout at the goat market in Nizwa, where it's acceptable to take photos. Normally, the face is covered, especially if they come from a religiously conservative family. Some, however, can be seen wearing makeup.


This is the dress seen most often in Muscat, even among young teenagers. It's an all-black abaya, with only the face, hands, and sandaled-feet showing. The more conservative do not wear any makeup and cover their face completely.

The Men

Men's dress is more basic with a dish-dash and hat or turban. The third man from the left is wearing the most common style. The turban and colored dish-dash are considered more formal.



The Nizwa Souq

Nizwa, one of Omans larger cities, was where the Imam ruled over the interior. Situated between the Hajar Mountains and the Wahiba Sands, it has a thriving market where Omani's buy, sell, and trade their cattle and goats.

For the Bedouin it's serious business - they take little notice of us tourists. It's a great place for people-watching and one of the few places to take photos.


Maiya wanted to buy a cow, but I had to say no.



Mid-East Oil Economics

Saudi Arabia is the largest producer in the world, with 6 million barrels of oil per day (depending upon OPEC restrictions). The price target set by OPEC is $27 per barrel. Production costs in the Kingdom are ridiculously low, probably around $1 per barrel (in comparison, most offshore fields are lucky to operate at $6 per barrel). So, assuming the Kingdom nets $26/barrel, that's $156 million per day, $4.8 billion per month, $57 billion per year. Saudi Arabia is notoriously corrupt and a lot of money is siphoned off in the form of construction projects, arms purchases, etc. In fact, the Bin Laden family is the largest construction contractor in the kingdom. Yet, the average Saudi lives in abject poverty and those massive construction projects do little to better their lives. The Saudi Royal Family is some 30,000 strong, with all of them scheming for a piece of the pie; there is no trickle-down. With the oil-boom beginning in the 70's, came a subsequent baby-boom: 42% of the population is under 14 years of age. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, the pie does not get smaller for a long, long time. But the number of mouths is growing and continues to grow. Unfortunately, the $27/barrel price target is not a result of some grand plan to modernize the country. Rather, that's the price the Royal Family needs to sustain it's lavish lifestyle.


The Baby-Boomers of Oman


The average Omani family has 8 children (the most recent census in 2004 says that number is more like 4, but I have my doubts). It is legal to take multiple wives and many men do it, particularly older men (a fellow Omani mountain-biker is 1 of 18 kids, from 3 wives). Often, successful men may have a few favorite wives living in Muscat, others in the village, all of them with children. In any case, 42% of the population is under the age of 14. There are some 30,000 college graduates every year, all of them expecting jobs, all of them expecting Omanization.
Oil was first discovered in Oman in 1964 and first production (revenues) began in 1967. With field development, the production increased year after year; in 2000, production peaked at 900,000 barrels per day ($18.2 million per day using the prices above). Unlike other Gulf countries, Oman's oil reservoirs are complicated limestones (high & low permeability streaks which preferentially flow water, bypassing the oil), and, most importantly, limited in volume. Although Shell has made many promises to the government, production continues to decline, with current rates at 700,000 barrels per day. As with any mature field, it takes money to maintain production, or rather, prolong the decline.

Since 1970, Oman has embarked on a major modernization program. There has been corruption and many an Omani has become fabulously wealthy, but there are new roads, electricity, education, health care - things that did not exist 30 years ago. Most Omani's have gone to university overseas (mainly the US and UK). They receive low-interest-rate loans, free health care, drive expensive cars, and have the latest mobile phone. In one generation they've gone from herding camels to a consumer society.

Today, Oman finds itself at a crossroads: declining production, increasing costs, population explosion, and imminent Omanization. The population explosion is a common story throughout the Gulf, but unless Oman makes a major find soon, the cost curve will soon overtake the revenue curve. With all those Omani's expecting jobs, the nice car, fancy mobile phone, and with production rapidly declining, the Sultan faces a major challenge.