Published June 28, 2011 - Muscat Daily
( I wrote this while in transit at Frankfurt Airport last week. Humour me, will you?)
It's 5am in Frankfurt and I have not slept for two days. After combing the airport for nearly an hour in search of decent coffee, I finally found this café. There is a lot of bustle and activity despite the early hour, and the huge monitor above my head tells me my plane doesn't take off for another four hours.
I'm on my way home after spending an incredible week on the US Foreign Press Centre Tour on blogging/writing for social and political change that took place in Washington DC and Minneapolis. In other words, and despite severe caffeine deprivation, life is great and all is well in my world.
A couple of months ago I was contacted by the US Embassy in Muscat asking if I would be interested in participating in the tour, based on my work for this column. Candidates were selected from countries that are currently struggling with social and/or political tension. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, I agreed immediately.
Upon receiving the final list of selected participants in May, I knew it wasn't going to be an ordinary tour. The 19 people who would be joining me represented China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan,Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Portugal, Germany, Morocco, Bahrain, Jerusalem, Iraq, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya. When I first saw the list, I couldn't believe I would be spending an entire week with such a wide mix of nationalities. Their impressive biographies were intimidating, but once I got to know them, I knew I'd made friends for life.
Our Washington leg of the tour involved meetings with officials at the State Department, employees at the Foreign Press Centre, NGO representatives, bloggers, journalists and activists in Washington. We then moved on to Minneapolis where we were invited to meet with professors and students at the University of Minnesota's Journalism Centre. We also took part in Netroots Nation, a political convention for American progressive political activists.Being involved in the world of American politics, if only for a few days, was quite the experience, especially for those of us who come from countries where political activism is almost non-existent. The theme at most of our meetings was the use of social media in invoking political and social change.
All the roundtable discussions gave us the chance to see things from the Americans' point of view, in addition to hearing what my fellow participants had to say on the current situation in their respective countries. Our understanding of US government policy regarding civil society initiatives, democratic reform, and Internet freedom has definitely increased.
Our tour was jam-packed with meetings and appointments, with barely enough time for sleep, let alone sightseeing! However, I have nothing to complain about. The FPC were wonderful hosts, and we met some incredible people from all walks of life over the course of those five days, starting with very senior officials at the State Department and ending with homeless musicians and Amish vendors at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market. If you've never heard of the Amish people, I advise you to look them up online immediately, if not sooner.
Apart from writing about the recent political unrest in Salalah, my interests have always leaned more towards social issues and women's issues in Oman. However, after the tour and with the Oman Shura Council elections coming up, I confess I find myself intrigued by the world of politics.
Social media has forever changed the face of politics in the US, and I'm sure, in the years to come, the same will be true for Oman. Judith McHale, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said something to us on our first day that kept coming up again and again in our official and private discussions for the remainder of the tour. She said, “The days of one-to-one government relations are over.”
Thinking about it now, what she said was very true. With online social media tools and websites like WikiLeaks available to hundreds of millions of people around the world, it will become increasingly difficult for governments to withhold information from their people.
Politics and social media aside, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from this tour was to sit back and listen to the world speak, literally. We often get so absorbed in what is happening in our own countries that we neglect to take an interest in world affairs. Our tour brought together activists and writers from 20 countries with nothing in common but an Internet connection and a passion for creating positive change.
After listening to first-hand accounts of the horrors that face my fellow participants in places like China, Zimbabwe, and even our neighbour Bahrain, I was truly humbled.
Overall, the tour was an eye-opener for me and I am bursting with new ideas. Oman may not seem like the most democratic of nations, but we are pretty stable and are definitely on the right track. We have more freedom of speech than we think and we have much to be thankful for. I left the US feeling inspired, empowered, and extremely proud of my country. I honestly feel blessed to be living in Oman. You should be too.