Thursday, May 27, 2010

World Cup Mania ... Dhofari Style

Published May 25, 2010 - Muscat Daily
Brace yourselves everyone! The excitement is building up. On June 11, the world's attention will be shifted to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the start of the most watched sporting competition in the world. One of my soccer-fanatic colleagues has a chart on the wall in his office. Every day he stares at his chart with a glazed look and ticks off yet another day. Then he turns to me and enthusiastically proclaims 'Only 'x' more days till the World Cup'! I often wonder what reaction he expects from me. Usually he gets a blank stare. You can't blame me. I'm a woman.
I can almost understand soccer mania when Oman is involved. The crazy happiness Omanis felt when our national soccer team won the 19th Gulf Cup last year was phenomenal. We felt united. Traffic stopped for hours. Hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets celebrating in all corners of Oman. It made me feel proud and it all made sense. Hey, we even we got a national holiday. Another cause for celebration!
However, as a young woman who is not a huge soccer fan, I fail to understand why so many would be so obsessed with an event happening so far away, which should have no effect whatsoever on Oman. I've seen men get into serious fights over which team to support. Will it be Brazil? Italy? Spain? Will Algeria, the only Arab country participating, survive? People I know are already starting up support groups on Facebook, and I'm pretty sure I heard a shopkeeper this afternoon singing 'Waving Flag', one of the more catchy World Cup 2010 songs.
My brother and his friends have clubbed together to rent a piece of land near the mountains, set up a tent, and buy a generator. One of them is bringing his flat-screen TV, another is bringing a receiver and the bunch of them are going to basically camp out on the plain for a whole month until the World Cup is over. They've been planning this for weeks, in detail. Why a tent, you may wonder? Well, evidently they are sure that the shisha cafes that usually host soccer matches are going to be overflowing with soccer fans. Getting a seat will be impossible. Anyone in the restaurant business with a huge outdoor screen is going to be making a lot of money next month in Salalah. No doubt about that!
The male population of Dhofar has always been into soccer. I supposed it's because the idea of children having 'toys' is still a relatively new concept here. From around the time boys are toddlers, they start playing with a ball. When I was young, the neighborhood boys my age used to spend every afternoon outside playing soccer barefoot, in the dirt. They never got bored and never gave up. To this very day, the same groups of boys still play soccer on a daily basis. And of course the new generation is out there now too. If you cruise around Salalah in the late afternoon, you are bound to spot a heated soccer match, complete with a crowd of dusty spectators, almost every time you turn a corner. And these matches hardly ever take place on proper soccer fields. Most Dhofari boys and men play in paved parking lots, on empty plots of land, or on the beach. Hardly any other sport is practiced at this end of the country. They're just very passionate about soccer. (Mind you, there isn't much else to do, so it's great to see how much they enjoy their game!
So, back to World Cup mania. The men in my life have been trying to enlighten me but I still don't fully understand why someone would actually (yes, really!) postpone their wedding to avoid clashes with the World Cup schedule. Nor do I understand why someone would save up their holidays and take the entire month off to watch the matches. To me it seems like a waste of precious annual leave.
However, despite my ignorance, I guess I'm going to have to keep track of who wins what match, and when, in order to avoid going out onto the streets at the wrong time and being engulfed by cavalcades of crazed boys singing and beeping their horns while hanging out of the windows of their cars and pick-up trucks. I'll also have to make sure I don't say the wrong thing to a colleague the morning after. I'm going to have to congratulate the soccer fanatics around me and offer condolences when needed. I can't run away from it, and neither can you. Oh well, come to think of it, I guess I'll be supporting Brazil!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Diving into Debt

Published  May 11, 2010 - Muscat Daily

A few weeks ago, I received a frantic call from one of my colleagues asking me to come and pick her up at her bank immediately. Without asking any questions, I got into my car and drove to her rescue. She came out of the bank clutching a large envelope, got into my car and asked me to take her home. I asked her what was in the envelope and she opened it to show me bundles of 50 rial notes! I must have fainted momentarily, because she tapped me on the side of the head and said 'Drive!' And this is how I drove across Salalah with thirty thousand rials in my car. I felt like I'd just robbed a bank.
You may be wondering what the money was for. Well, so was I! Evidently, she had decided out of the blue to buy her dream car. She got the cash without any complications, through a personal bank loan, since she is too young to get that much through a car loan program. This girl is a recent college graduate, is in her very early twenties and has only been working for some months. It's going to take her ten years to pay off that loan. Is it just me, or do you also find that frightening?
 It's no secret that a large percentage of young Omanis, now both male and female, in their twenties and early thirties are living way beyond their means and are refusing to accept a standard of living that suits their income level. Many take loans to support their families, but a large percentage of them (like my happy or perhaps hapless colleague) decide to go into debt for a car. Car loans, bank loans, personal loans, misuse of credit cards. What next? Among the factors contributing to this phenomenon are the rise of consumerism in Oman, an increase in the cost of living, and the need to keep up 'appearances', especially in Salalah. With mobile phones and cars emerging as fashion statements and lifestyle necessities in the Gulf, the pressure to spend is on.
A recent survey revealed that the spending habits of youth in the GCC are such that more than a quarter of the respondents admitted that they were in debt. More shocking were the figures from Oman. Evidently, thirty five percent of youth between the ages of 18 - 24 in Oman claimed to have loans. Thirty one percent of them had personal non-business related loans. The culture of credit cards shoulders much of the blame. The survey found that the main concern among young people is the rising cost of living in the region. To keep up their lifestyles, they have to spend more money, and in turn, take on more debt.
The concept of living within one's means and earning something after hard work is lost to many young people (and older people obviously) in Oman. Most of my friends are buying cars on credit. And these aren't just any cars. The majority cost between 16,000-30,000 rials. How is a person in their mid-twenties going to come up with that kind of money? What makes them think they need that kind of car when they haven't earned it? The only thing worth going into debt for, in my opinion, is higher education. Anything else can pretty much wait.
 Whatever happened to the concept of starting small and working towards your materialistic goals slowly? Young Omanis should be able to see the fine line between what's 'necessary', and what's 'luxury'. This is not how we humans are meant to live. Banks shouldn't make it so easy for young people to be given loans on a silver platter. Unfortunately, though, we can't blame only the banks. With debt becoming an increasingly significant and not so positive issue in Oman, due to changing lifestyles, I don't think it's going to get any better in the near future unless people become more aware of the dangers of living beyond their means. Someone please start a campaign to educate our children on the dangers of debt before they even leave school! If we can scare them into not smoking, surely we can convince them that getting into debt is equally, if not more dangerous.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Change is Coming

Published April 28, 2010 - Muscat Daily

Less than a week ago the female population of Dhofar witnessed their first (and hopefully not their last) meeting with Oman's Minister of Social Development, Her Excellency Dr. Sharifa Khalfan Al Yahyai. The aim of the meeting was to discuss women's issues in Dhofar. In my opinion, this was a positive step taken by the Ministry to address some of the issues we face here in the South. We tend to feel a little neglected sometimes.
To my secret delight, the meeting was informal, a little discreet, and with barely any media coverage at all (I approve) and the buildup to it was a little hush-hush at first too. The names of the attendees were selected very carefully and invitations were sent out quietly. I was privileged enough to be among them. Most of the attendees were females in high positions in the government sector and private sectors.
There were about 90 females present from every corner of Dhofar, and quite an eclectic mix, too. Doctors, school headmistresses, volunteers, managers, social workers, writers, poets, researchers, businesswomen, etc. Seeing all these women in one place together moved me. It was, to say the least, empowering. For other women in Oman it may seem completely normal and unimportant, but for Dhofar this was new. We've become accustomed to seeing each other at weddings and other social occasions, but rarely are we privileged enough to see such a large group with their work diaries and car keys!
One of Her Excellency's first remarks as she looked at the congregation of women was "You have come a long way and you have overcome so many obstacles. There is nothing stopping you from achieving your goals and being active members of society." She spoke the truth. Ten or even five years ago it would have been strange to spot a young woman driving a car. Men would still feel nervous about speaking to a female cashier at a bank. There were very few women in high positions in the government and private sector. There were no women from Dhofar in the media. Most women still wore the face veil. There were very few women in Dhofar completing their higher studies, and you could forget about seeing any female executives at this end of the country!
Look at Salalah now! So much has changed, but we still have a lot more to do. I know we're blessed to be living in a such a peaceful country, but that doesn't mean we don't face any difficulties. Women in Dhofar have to deal with a lot. Society in Salalah is extremely conservative. A large percentage of women still suffer from huge social pressure, polygamy, lack of personal freedom as well as privacy. It's not easy.
Her Excellency touched upon several topics concerning women. One of the main ideas she was trying to communicate to us was that the educated and working women of Dhofar should become more active in volunteer work programs and in the women's associations in the province (there are about eight of them). I totally agree. If we use our brains to do good, change can happen more quickly. Women are more mobile now and definitely more flexible.
It was an informal discussion, and I thank her for taking the time out to come down to Salalah and exchange ideas and thoughts with us. I believe that change has to start from within. We can't wait for the government or some other authority to pave the way for us. Change can happen if we create it. To all the women out there who are nervous about what people will think as they break out of their shells, take one step; take it straight ahead, and others will follow. Throw a pebble in the water and watch the hundreds of ripples begin to form. Change is coming.