By David Blanco, MPIA 2014 (Blogger in Oman)

Salam alaikum ya shaab! Since this is the first blog post, allow me to give a brief introduction about both this blog and myself. My name is David Blanco. I’m a second year IA student at the Bush School who spent the summer participating in a language immersion in Oman and who is spending the Fall semester in Qatar. Apart from learning how to speak Arabic at an intermediate-low level, I took this trip to get a better understanding about everything Arab. Frankly, I think I’ve succeeded so far.

David Blanco in Oman Photo courtesy of David Blanco David Blanco in Oman Photo courtesy of David Blanco

While on this trip I’ve visited rebellious provinces, attended weddings, participated in Ramadan, got picked up by a plainclothes police captain, and, of course, made some friends. I’ve had some stereotypes proven false and some proven true. It is my hope that through this blog I will be able to tell these stories to you, so that my experiences can provide some anecdotal context to what you read, or in Oman’s case don’t read, about in the papers. Some blog posts will be themed analysis of a particular issue and some will just tell a story. I will use this blog post to introduce Oman and Qatar.

Tucked away on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula sits the quiet Sultanate of Oman. Ruled by Sultan Qaboos, Oman has quietly been an American ally since the early 1970’s, sometimes acting as an intermediary between Iran and the United States. Most of Oman’s coast is along the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea, but the most northern province of Oman lies at the Strait of Hormuz giving this small country a big responsibility.

Oman is a country not often spoken of or visited by Americans. Its oil production is modest and its Sultan even more so. Oman has a population of about 1.5 million people, with about 1 million of them residing in the capital, Muscat, and the rest scattered throughout the country. According to its own statistics, every Omani citizen is Muslim, but official census data is hard to come by. While this is typical for the region, what makes Oman’s population unique is that while it still has Sunni and Shia, a majority of its population is from the Ibadi sect. It is estimated that somewhere between 400,000 to 600,000 of its population are immigrant workers.

One thing I liked most about Oman was the fact that its oil wealth had transformed the country, but not the people. Even with 35 years of oil production, the median income for Omanis is about $10,000. The Omani people were extremely inviting and gave the country a more authentic and down-to-earth feeling than you would get in Dubai or Doha. Omanis may work mainly in Muscat, but they all consider their rural villages as their true homes. This traditionalist spirit is not to say that there is not a big societal shift happening as a result of the country’s modernization efforts, but Omanis seem to have a good sense of who they are and who they want to be in the future. Whether or not it’s possible to stay “Omani” with their current economic plan, however, is a topic for another post.

Qatar, on the other hand, is a small desert-covered peninsula smack in the middle of the Persian Gulf. Its geography puts Qatar right in the middle of Gulf politics and, luckily for the tiny nation, it has rulers who love the limelight. With a population of about 1.5 million (of which only about 400,000 of those are native Qataris) and an estimated 14% of the world’s recoverable natural gas reserves, Qatar has the monetary means and political desire to punch well above its weight. As the home to Al-Jazeera, Qatar finds itself wielding a powerful tool to shape Arab and Muslim popular opinion–a power that it employs at every available opportunity. Like Oman, Qatar claims its citizenry is 100% Muslim, but unlike Oman, the population of Qatar is almost entirely Sunni, following a less strict version of Wahhabism.

The Qatari people are just as inviting as the Omanis, but these interactions have a much more westernized feel. Whereas Oman has a distinct rural charm that weaves itself into a romanticized Arab past, Qatar has an extremely urban feel to it that clashes with the traditional Arab identities that Qataris try to relate with. The impression I get is that Omanis know what they are about but not where they will go while Qataris know where they will go, but haven’t quite explained who they are. That’s a generalization, I know, but I hope to better explain that impression throughout several posts to this blog.