Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The World of Shura

I'm an independent Omani female in my mid-twenties. I work with hundreds of people, I read the newspaper everyday and follow local news on Facebook and Twitter. I keep tabs on anything and everything interesting that goes on in Dhofar, and last but not the least, I'm a registered voter.

During the past few weeks, huge bulletin boards have been popping up around town at every major intersection and highway. All of them show photoshopped sullen looking Dhofari men in expensive turbans. If you get close enough, you'll see the person's name and about half a sentence about them. Majlis A'Shura elections are coming up in a few weeks and I will be casting my vote, but the question is...for whom? I only recognise three of the candidates!

Over the weekend, I decided to take my vote seriously and do a little research about those mysterious men on the bulletin boards. Who are they and what do they stand for? First of all, I found the Shura elections website through the Ministry of Interior. Most of the tabs on the website are inactive, but I could click on the final list of candidates. Lo and behold, there are over one thousand people running for Majlis A'Shura in Oman this year; and 32 of them are from Salalah! Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with having 32 final candidates running for two seats in a town as small as Salalah?

Next to the name and photo of each candidate, there's a link to their biographies, but clicking on it takes you to a blank error page. It's hard to believe that no one has bothered to upload candidates' resumes onto the website yet. On the same website, I found campaigning regulations, voting rules and other interesting information. I also discovered that pretty much anyone over the age of 30 can run for Majlis A'Shura if they're a sane Omani with a good reputation. (how the heck does one measure reputation?!)

After noting down the names of the candidates, I started searching online in Arabic and English for any information on them. Three hours and 17 candidates later, I gave up. Out of the 17, three had actually posted easy to find information online. One of them had a website, as well as accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Obviously, he'd done his campaigning homework before signing up.

What about the rest of them, though? After discussing it with several people, I've come to the conclusion that the remaining candidates are simply not interested in attracting strangers' votes. They're counting on their tribes to endorse them. I'm not sure how prevalent tribal power is in the North of Oman during Shura elections, but it's definitely the force behind elections down South. Believe it or not, in 2007, when the last elections were held, I didn't even bother finding out who all the candidates were. The men in my tribe held meetings with men from sister tribes, and after months of arguing, they all decided to endorse one candidate. I was driven to the election centre and told to vote for a certain individual. I did what I was told because I was a naive 21 year old. Today, I'm ashamed of myself for not even bothering to find out who I was voting for.

The only semi-valid excuse I can come up with in my defence is that Majlis A'Shura didn't mean much to many of us in the past because it served as a consultative authority only. However, after Oman's version of the Arab Spring earlier this year, things changed. When His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said reshuffled the cabinet of ministers, he appointed former Shura members as new ministers. Then came Royal Decree 39/2011 granting Majlis A'Shura legislative powers.

This council is the closest we will ever get to having a parliament in Oman, so it's time to take our votes seriously. First of all, shouldn't the long list of candidates be filtered before election day? I'm pretty sure there are candidates out there who should never have stepped forward in the first place.

I met one of the candidates this week and asked him how his campaign was going. He proceeded to lecture me on how he was running for office to protect our land and our tribe from the enemy. I stared blankly at him until he finished, then politely nodded and changed the subject.

As noble as his cause may be, it has nothing to do with the future of this country. Sadly, he's not the only candidate out there who has stepped forward for all the wrong reasons. These elections should be more than just a fight for tribal power. Candidates should be astute politicians who are able to think about where the economy is headed and what they can do to improve education, health, and job opportunities for Omanis. They should be addressing demographic issues, corruption, and so forth. Dare I suggest that the purpose of this election should be to have a public debate to discuss the future of Oman? In the wake of the recent protests, Omanis want more from our candidates. They also want more from Majlis A'Shura. People should be publicly discussing the new powers that the council is supposed to have possessed after Decree 39/2011.

Most of my peers are boycotting the elections simply because they don't believe in Majlis A'Shura. In a way, I don't blame them. How does one convince independent young Omanis to vote for an establishment that has no clear powers and its members seen as incompetent middle aged males picked by their tribes for all the wrong reasons? We have a long way to go before tribes stop controlling elections, but I’m optimistic about the future. Come mid-October, I'll be casting my vote and may the best man win!

Published September 27, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Customer Services Woes

I like to think of myself as the ideal customer. I'm easygoing and I always make sure to thank all customer service representatives with a smile. When they're being rude or seem irritated, I assume they're probably having a bad day and I go out of my way to be even nicer. In supermarkets I smile at the employees who stock the shelves, I package my own bags, I thank the cashier, I wheel my groceries to the car, and I return the basket to the basket rack.
If a helpful employee insists on carrying my bags to the car, I tip them generously and make sure to thank them at least three times. If someone puts me on hold or keeps me waiting for a long time, I do not tap my fingers on the counter or complain loudly. I look outside and admire the clouds. I believe in the Golden Rule.
Every once in a while I come across a customer service representative or a cashier in Salalah who actually takes a second out of their time to smile back or say 'you're welcome' when I thank them. When such an incident occurs, quite often I'm so surprised it takes me a few seconds to react. Remember, this isn't Europe or North America where clerks usually want to chat about the weather.
I go out of my way to be extra polite to people every single time I walk into a store in Salalah. However, 99 per cent of the time I never get a response. I'm fine with that. I just continue doing what I'm doing hoping perhaps that one day, someone will smile back. Last week, however, I reached the end of my tether for a few moments. I debated whether to write about this, but the situation was so ridiculous that I decided I had to.
I walked into one of Salalah's major supermarkets after work last Monday, grabbed a basket at the door and proceeded to tick items off my shopping list. During my 8.5 minutes of shopping, an employee who was stocking shelves dropped a tin of hummus on my foot without apologising. I bit my tongue, picked it up, smiled at him, and placed it back on the shelf. At the vegetable counter, I thanked the person who priced my vegetables. No response. At the cashier, I let an irritated older man go first because I could see he was in a bad mood. The female cashier literally tossed my items at me as I packed my bags then she threw my receipt and change at me without looking. I thanked her but she ignored me. There was no one else in line, so she could have tilted her head just a little bit and responded, right? Wrong. She just had to go back to gossiping with her colleagues.
I placed my bags neatly in my basket and began wheeling it towards the door when I heard someone shouting loudly ‘Stop! Where are you going with the basket?' Along with several other people nearby, I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. An Omani male employee wearing the store's uniform was marching towards me shouting that I am not allowed to take the basket one step further. I asked him patiently how he expected me to get my groceries to the car. He said 'this is the store's property. You are not allowed to take it out'.
I began to feel my blood pressure rising, so I informed him politely that I would wheel my groceries to my car, and then return the basket to the place I picked it up from. Seeing how irritated I had become, he tried to convince me that he was joking. By then a crowd had gathered to watch the argument, so I just wanted to get out of there. He tried to take the bags out of the basket and help me carry them but I just grabbed them and left. I haven't felt that angry in ages. What on earth was he thinking? Every single major supermarket on the planet lets you wheel your shopping basket out to the car, right? I don't care if he was serious or joking. All that matters is that he shouted at me in front of at least fifty people and accused me of doing something illegal.
I can handle crappy customer service most of the time, but as a human I'm allowed to complain every once in a while. Everyone knows that Oman is lagging far behind in the field of customer service. I know it’s not part of the culture to be friendly and nice to random people, but that has got to change. Banks, post offices and other service providers in Oman deserve an entire column of their own.
To be fair, not all of them are as bad as the guy at the supermarket. If I were a typical customer, I'd probably report him to his managers, tell my male relatives, and use all the wasta I can sum up to make sure he loses his job. Lucky for him, I’m not that difficult. I'll just stick to this column! If you deal with customers regularly, please go out of your way to be nice to them, and if you're a customer, please go out of your way to do the same to the cashier at your local supermarket. We're all human beings who need to be appreciated.
Note: my shopping cart story took place at Lulu Hypermarket Salalah, but I did not add that detail to my newspaper column. 
Published - Muscat Daily - September 13, 2011