Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Things are OK

Published June 18, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the column on their website.

The title of this column may sound a little strange, but it’s actually the official name of an informal event that took place in Salalah’s largest ballroom last Friday night with none other than H E Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs.

The aim of the meeting was to invite young people in Dhofar to meet with His Excellency in an informal setting as part of the National Youth Commission’s efforts to address youth issues in Oman. Naturally, word got around quickly in Dhofar about his visit so hundreds flocked to the meeting from all corners of Dhofar. I arrived an hour early and the venue was already filling up.

By the time His Excellency arrived, the room was so full that there were dozens of young men standing along the walls eager to listen to the discussion. I refer to men here because out of the 500 or so people who attended, unfortunately no more than a dozen were women.

The efficient moderator ensured that no time was wasted on introductions or flowery language. His Excellency was eager to start receiving questions from the audience. Over the course of five hours, questions concerning everything from Oman’s relationship with Iran to our Bedouin persona non grata were thrown his way.

An experienced diplomat and politician, he skillfully continued answering nearly every question into the wee hours of the morning. Two huge monitors in the room were broadcasting the live Twitter feed of the event with questions and commentary from people following remotely.

Among the recurring topics was the general discontent with the employment situation for young people in Oman and the rise in cost of living. Other issues covered in the discussion were Oman’s financial situation, speculation about a GCC union, borders with Yemen, Omani embassies around the world, Syria, politics in Dhofar, Iran, education, health, the Arab Spring and even intermarriage!

He pointed out time and time again that the only way Oman is going to move forward in this world is with education, hard work, dedication, and drive. Everyone knows this but it was important for youth to hear it from the one man who truly understands Oman’s position in this world. I was thrilled that he was openly criticising the ‘Omani productivity issue’ which translates into many Omanis still expecting to be spoon-fed by the government. One of his classic quotes during the evening was ‘Money that didn’t come from sweat will not last’.

Naturally, the night was not free of heated debates on sensitive topics that are often kept to private discussions behind closed doors. As far as I’m concerned, honest discussion of difficult topics is extremely healthy if we are to progress as a nation. During the Arab Spring, there was an explosion of free debate on the political situation in Oman and the region. This was followed by a major clampdown on free speech a year ago exactly which has caused general bitterness among writers, bloggers, journalists and activists in Oman.

As a young Omani woman who cares deeply for her country, I choose to be more optimistic. His Excellency’s visit was extremely important to our region and our youth. Although Oman is a relatively small country, officials don’t tend to mingle with the people very much. It’s not part of our leadership culture. The country’s top officials rarely make speeches or directly communicate with locals in public.

Despite the fact that His Excellency has been Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs for over four decades, I have never seen an interview with him nor heard him speak in public or on television. All I know is that he has done a remarkable job of maintaining Oman’s positive foreign relations and following His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s simple foreign policy ‘Oman shall not have an enemy on the face of the Earth’.

Overall, the event was a positive step taken by one of Oman’s top leaders to ensure more honest communication takes place between Omani youth and their government. After the youth-dominated nationwide sit-ins and protests since 2011 in particular, I’m hoping our officials begin to see that the only way forward is transparency.

On a final note, there has been a lot of speculation this week in Dhofar on whether other key officials in Oman are going to step forward and make themselves available for similar unfiltered discussions around Oman. Once we move away from a culture of finger-pointing and blaming to a culture of cooperation and productivity, it will be safe to say that things are OK!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Public Transport

Published June 4, 2013 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on their website.

Rest assured that this is probably the last of my happy travel columns for a little while. I spent the past two weeks abroad in Sweden for a conference then Switzerland for a few days to visit a special friend of mine whom I failed by not bringing nearly enough sunshine from Oman for her.

Upon my return to sweltering Salalah a couple of days ago my family, friends and colleagues wanted to hear all about Europe (by now they’ve gotten used to the fact that the world won’t stop if a young Dhofari woman travels on her own).

Although Sweden is incredible and Switzerland is breathtaking, the one thing I ended up gushing non-stop about was the Swiss public transport system. Public transport in Switzerland is considered one of the world’s greatest success stories.

Of course, this success can be attributed mostly to the Swiss people’s unconditional acceptance of public transport as a way of life. From what I observed, most people leave their cars at home and simply use public transport for their day-to-day needs. There was very little traffic compared to Oman.

The level of incredibly high efficiency of transport companies is something that had me in awe most of the time. Inter-city trains leave almost every half hour. Buses come around almost every five to ten minutes.

Trams are even more efficient. Even remote villages in the mountains are connected to the magical transport network. Taxis are literally non-existent compared to London and the invasion of black cabs or Muttrah corniche during tourist-season.

For example, if I’m catching a train to Geneva at 8.05 in the morning I would need to head to the bus stop at 7.50 because I know for sure my bus will arrive at 7.53 and have me at the station at 7.57 just in time to pick up a coffee and be ready for the train to come whizzing through for its one-minute stop.

Where else in the world do trains, buses and trams arrive almost exactly on time? I knew the Swiss were organised and punctual people before my visit, but I had no idea just how efficient this clock-making nation is until I experienced it for myself. Switzerland, I tip my hat to you!
Naturally, I spent half my visit envisioning this phenomenal transport system in Oman. Don’t roll your eyes just yet.

Many of us have read about the new rail network that is being built in Oman connecting major cities and towns. Honestly speaking, I don’t think it will be very successful in transporting people just yet but it’s definitely needed to transport goods. Trucks on our highways are hazardous.

However, Oman is going to have to start thinking seriously about efficient public transport. This generation may not totally buy into it but future generations will if the government markets it properly with good leadership. Let’s face it; oil isn’t going to be available in abundance forever.

Furthermore, Omanis are obsessed with cars. The minute a young person gets a job, he will go into debt for years to buy his dream car. People spend more money on their cars than they do on education and basic life necessities like food.

Our obsession with cars and lack of public transport causes accidents, traffic congestion, road rage, and overall frustration. The only available means of public transport are the occasional baiza buses that poor labourers use to make their way across Muscat and one too many un-metered taxis. In other words, we don’t have a choice.

Inter-city buses are available but they’re extremely uncomfortable and often unhygienic. It’s not for me to say whether our local city infrastructure is ready for an efficient public bus system just yet but I hope the Ministry of Transport and Communications has plans for the future.

Building air-conditioned bus shelters, dedicated bus lanes, and state-of-the-art buses with a women’s section is not far-fetched if you think about it.

An efficient rail system cannot succeed without the support of an efficient bus system in my humble opinion. Obviously, the idea of a subway system is out of the question for now. What do you think? Is efficient public transport an urgent need? Would Omanis use it?