Ibrahim Project, June 7: Last thoughts in Oman & first thoughts in the U.A.E.

[Note: After a long hiatus for the fall semester, I am finally resuming writing about my experience this summer; what our group saw and learned is as pertinent as ever, but as I’ve mentioned I also write largely in order to consolidate my own memories. Thanks for reading!]

← Previous: Ibrahim Project, June 6: Oman, from the mountains to the sea

This is part of a series of posts on my participation in the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project during June 2012.

Final moments and closure in Oman

During our final morning in Oman, we had one last meeting—breakfast with Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Salmi, who works at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and is one of the leading experts on Muslim-Christian relationships in the Middle East. In our discussion about interfaith issues, Dr. Al-Salmi described how Oman’s Port of Sohar was once a “Gate to the Oriental,” facilitating interaction and trade between Oman and various other countries and cultures during medieval times. He noted how, at that time, the country used to have a Jewish population that is largely absent now—although there is still considerable diversity in terms of Muslim sects. He also claimed that the Muttrah souq is emblematic of Oman’s diversity, as its shop-owners come from a large variety of religious backgrounds.

The group poses with Dr. Al-Salmi, fourth from the left, and Maggie, to his right.

According to Dr. Al-Salmi, the Ministry at which he works was renamed from that of “Islamic Affairs” to the more inclusive “Religious Affairs,” in order to better represent Oman’s religious tolerance. He also noted that tolerance is “not a Muslim concept but a Christian one” (although, of course, Islam is essentially the update to its Abrahamic predecessors). The Ministry also sponsors a journal which focuses primarily on issues of citizenship, diversity, tolerance, tribalism, etc.—and this journal is ruled by the same openness that marks Oman itself, as it accepts all kinds of opinions—or as Dr. Al-Salmi calls them, all “wisdoms.” The journal is one of his major projects, and its mission is to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness.

Talene asked Dr. Al-Salmi about the relationship between Sufi Islam and more spiritual or mystic strands of Christianity, something which interests her greatly. He said that each Abrahamic religion has elements of Sufism, and each sect of Islam involves a different Sufism—a “way for common humanity.” He also noted that Orientalists have a tendency to represent Sufism like Christianity. Christianity, he claimed, is similar to Islam—but not Judaism in this case—in how they both have a universal message in life and require reconciliation between the state and religion. He noted that Middle Eastern countries were actually afraid of religion in earlier times, so they placed it within the government in order to gain the people’s support—so people would react with the government, rather than against it, in matters of religion.

More interesting facts from Dr. Al-Salmi: missionary activity is not allowed in Oman because, in Islam, religion is a personal choice—if someone comes to your door to try to convert you, you can call the police! Also, there is an English program in the interior of Oman run by Mormons (fascinating, right?), who he claims “show their religion by example.” Also, Dr. Al-Salmi claims that there are three major factors which shaped Omani history: Ibadi Islam, tribalism, and Indian Ocean trade. Oman’s Eastward trade interactions were crucial to developing its culture of tolerance, as merchants had to be peaceful with one another. This is something that came up at the Grand Mosque’s Islamic Information Center as well.

Of course, as usual we couldn’t help but ask if our guest had any thoughts about Israel. Dr. Al-Salmi said that he tries to avoid the subject of Israel because “it’s endless” (I concur), and you need to find the right vocabulary to discuss it. Refocusing the discussion on religious issues—he claimed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more political, which is indeed the truth—he said many Jews found a home in Muscat, and he’s impressed with Omanis’ tolerance toward them and other groups.

Dillon and Jake M. try on traditional “kuma” caps, worn by many Omani men.

Our conversation with Dr. Al-Salmi set the perfect tone for our departure from Oman, reiterating the themes of diversity and religious tolerance that were prevalent in almost every discussion we had on the subject of interfaith issues in the country. Between breakfast and our flight, we had some time to explore a small mall near our hotel, looking around and doing some last-minute souvenir shopping.

The next morning in Dubai, Mark made time for some final reflections on our time in Oman, with which I’ll conclude my own writings on the country (he also provided an introduction to the Emirates, greater Gulf region, and the Arab Spring, which I’ll detail in the next post). He showed us a copy of a newspaper, the Oman Daily Observer, and its intriguing headline: “Rumors deplored: His Majesty is the pride of the nation” (you can read it online here).

One last group photo before our departure. Top row, from left to right: Jake G., Jake M., and Dillon; bottom row: Sundus, me, and Talene.

This referred to rumors about the Sultan; Mark noted how Oman is trying to harden laws related to the spread of such rumors. The accompanying article actually didn’t mention the content of the rumor at all, in order to avoid perpetuating it. Simply put, the rumor is that the Sultan is gay—something we’d heard from a few different folks ourselves. And to Mark, the way with which this rumor is dealt is indicative of certain political problems we mustn’t forget—there is no independent media in Oman, censorship abounds, and often the media is not reliable because of taboos on discussing the highly revered Sultan. He noted that the media in the U.S. and Israel are (obviously) much freer—but even Egypt historically has had some independent media. Meanwhile, Oman is still monarchical with an inherited government and no political parties. Mark emphasized that when a country has no parties and no free media, that’s a huge problem, even given the many positive aspects of the system, like Oman’s universal suffrage (something the Emirates certainly don’t have).

Basically, amidst all our rightful admiration, we must remember that major elements of the political system are still fundamentally illiberal. And as Ahmad Al-Mukhaini mentioned in our discussion of Omani politics, although the Sultan generally has legitimacy with his people, there are looming concerns about what will happen when it is time for someone else to take the reins. Finally, in Mark’s words, there is a “certain maturation” involved in being comfortable talking about flaws, which he reminded us didn’t really happen in Oman. We actually saw more of this open concern in the Emirates, but only with a much worse manifestation of ostensible modernization coupled with significant social and political problems.

First thoughts in the United Arab Emirates

The infamous extravagance of Dubai struck us as soon as our plane landed. As we made our way out of the airport—which had at least six stories—we saw large shiny golden structures hanging everywhere, palm trees rising toward the high ceilings, and walls lined by torches flickering with fake flames. Waiting in the passport control lines, we were further overwhelmed by the sheer, obvious wealth of the other tourists. There was one line for GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) nationals, which was full of people who, in Jake M.’s words, “looked like they easily could’ve been Saudi royalty.” The men’s thobes were adorned with fancy cufflinks, and the women’s black abayas were punctuated by bright designer handbags. To quote Jake again, “I could tell from the get-go that Dubai was going to be very different from the low-key Oman that we had just experienced.”

The lovely view from our hotel.

Besides the obvious distinctions of class, the passport lines also seemed to reflect a racial-national hierarchy (which I had been told to expect of the region). We were waiting in a default line until someone asked us our nationality—and when they saw our American passports, we were quickly escorted to a “Fast Track” line. I couldn’t help but notice the line for “other” nationalities, full of darker-skinned South and Southeast Asian travelers, many of which were likely here for work, not vacation. This served as another reminder that, for all its glitz and glamour, Dubai has a darker side—pun unintended—which is easily hidden when you’re not looking for it. I want to say that we were able to learn more about these issues during our time there, but unfortunately that was not the case—and this is my one major gripe with an otherwise exceptional program. However, I did my best to learn from what I could see, and I always kept in mind the invisible human backbones of the tall buildings that confronted us at every corner.

The Emirates: NBD.
Dubai is kind of like New York—but with taller buildings, faster cars, and much less walkability.

After settling into what was probably the nicest hotel at which I’ll ever stay in my life, we gathered to celebrate Dillon’s 20th birthday. We actually had a pretty intense debate about where to eat dinner—one of us wanted Arab food, which seemed only right during our trip to the Arab world; another one of us wanted to try the hotel’s Indian restaurant, noting how our current location actually had more Indians than Arabs and wasn’t exactly a hub of Arab culture. We compromised on a nearby buffet restaurant which served from various cuisines, which I think ended up being a perfect fit for cosmopolitan Dubai.

Dillon’s birthday could not be complete without a gorgeous cake.

We returned to the hotel to relax after our exhausting day, meeting one last time to discuss the next day’s plans before heading off to bed. The conversation took a more serious turn as we contemplated our sometimes obsessive focus on Israel-Palestine during the past few days—admitting that we too often brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where it wasn’t relevant, perhaps at the expense of other important topics, we agreed to avoid the subject for the time being. We would focus more on the Arab Spring and other important issues during our two days in the Emirates, after which the Holy Land would be our final destination.

We had originally planned to spend both U.A.E. days in Dubai, but our arrangements for the first day fell through, opening up our itinerary. Thanks to Rahilla (whom we met in D.C. before our departure) we were able to set up a meeting with someone she knew in Abu Dhabi and spent our whole day in that Emirate. I have some relatives who live in Abu Dhabi, so I actually had the opportunity to see them for the first time in many years—I think the unpredictability proved a blessing in disguise.

The view was even more extraordinary at night.
The Burj Khalifa in the distance, along with various other sparkling buildings; a true capitalist dreamland.

Next: Ibrahim Project, June 8: Sociopolitics during an excursion to Abu Dhabi → 

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