CHRIS ALLEN: Oman Journal — The Way Things Work Out

When Elaine and I left Oman just over four years ago after 9½ months teaching at Sultan Qaboos University, we cried.

We left with 10 bags of clothes and souvenirs, accumulated from friends, students and our own purchases, and struggled to get the new checked, paid for and off our hands. We walked through the process of turning in our residence cards, getting our visas canceled and saying goodbye to Chefi and Jamila, who had brought us to the airport. We checked through security, walked to the departure area, sat down and looked at each other. Then the tears came.

We were leaving a place we had come to love. This is such a beautiful country. There is 1,000 miles of ocean. Sharp-angled mountains split the country dividing the desert from the sea. Deep ravines make for spectacular hikes that transport one back in time.

The people we met had become our friends. My students were sweet, filled with humor. The experience was complete. And now it was over.

I wanted to return to UNO and pay back the year that I owed for the university’s support during my Fulbright experience. Then I wanted to retire from UNO, apply to teach at SQU, and spend the rest of my career in Oman, retiring at the mandatory age of 70. But my family situation just didn’t make that possible, and I was gloomy at the prospect.

In fact, God (or something) was protecting me. I found out the other day that the new mandatory retirement age for expatriates is 60, unless one has unusual skills or talents to do a necessary job. I teach journalism. I have no unusual skills, or highly prized abilities. I would be out of a job this year, having reached the mandatory retirement age last February. Moreover, at this age, and having achieved the rank of professor, my changes of getting another teaching position back in the states would be highly unlikely.

The reason for the change here in Oman? Oil.

Since we left four years ago, the price of oil has plunged. It was well over $100 a barrel four years ago. Now, it’s hovering around $40. Oman had based its national budget on oil selling for $75 a barrel, so it was flush with money then. Way more than enough. Now, though, it’s struggling.

Recently, Petroleum Development Oman, the state-owned oil monopoly, had to suspend a number of projects because of the price drop. It laid off 200 workers. But the government said no, it could not lay off Omanis. It was forced to rehire them, and it will have to lay off expats to make up for the budget deficit.

This is not entirely unreasonable. Omanis should have the first chance at jobs in their own country. Oman has had an aggressive program of “Omanization” for many years, working to replace expats with Omanis as they become trained and experienced to take on the work. That’s one reason why three-fourths of Oman’s population is still Omanis, and only one-fourth are expats. Compare that to Dubai, where nearly 80 percent of the population is expatriates. Dubai citizens are a minority in their own country because they would rather let the expats do the work while they collect a paycheck for being an Emirati.

So, Oman’s policy makes sense, but I suddenly realize I would have probably been caught up in it. Maybe not. Maybe there aren’t that many Omani journalism teachers clamoring for a job. But at least I have the security of UNO that I don’t have to worry about it.

I love being back here. I love the sights and smells, and even the heat and humidity. Today, our students visited with Dr. Mohamed Muqadin, a history professor at SQU. We sat in the Staff Club and chatted away about Oman’s history with the U.S., and about several current affairs issues.

In the middle of it, I turned to Zainab, the person who has put together our tour here, and mentioned that last year he treated the students to lunch at the Staff Club. But this year, we were visiting after lunch.

“I want to treat the students to lunch,” he said, and he wouldn’t let it drop until he was sure it was arranged for this Sunday (the Monday of the Muslim week). We will eat lunch with Dr. Muqadin, and he will treat us all.

Is it any wonder I love this country?

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