Said’s three mothers rejoiced to see all nineteen of their children live. A college student in Muscat now visiting friends here in Sur, Said is the eldest child and therefore the first to attend college, though he will not be the last. Before the riches that can buy child survival began streaming into the Arabian Gulf countries, the Sultan of Oman’s obligation to care for his people would not have entailed creating work for all twelve sons in a family like Said’s. In the village in Tanzania where our Karimu volunteers will resume their work this August, children still die on their mothers’ breasts. But no longer in Oman, where boys grow up strong and healthy and eager to find wives among their friends’ many strong and healthy sisters in order to father their own large families.
Less than twenty years before the victors in the First World War helped themselves to the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, the leading religious scholars of Damascus consulted the Qur’an and ruled that “Whoever does not work to advance the economy strays from Islam.” The Egyptian Grand Mufti, or chief religious figure, Muhammad ‘Abduh, had earlier decreed that “Establishing industries is a delegated duty” for “whoever is in charge of the affairs of the nation. . . so that they might provide for the needs of the people.”
The last Ottoman sultans, already laboring under pressure to keep pace with European progress before the ulama started asserting their sacred authority, would fare no better in their economic competition than in war. But the religious scholars of the future independent nations of Syria and Egypt could not know about the happy geological accident that would permit rulers of many of the neighboring states—if not Syria and Egypt, both lacking in geological good fortune—to remain faithful to the straight path of Islam by providing for their people.
Yet the case of Oman reminds us that we must beware of getting what we wish for, since even wealth may impose the heavy burden to generate more wealth. Thus one now sees ordinarily polite young men, whose head coverings and snowy, ankle-length dishdashas observe the Qur’anic commandment of modesty, evict workers from their offices and block roadway roundabouts. They worry about the future and this drives them to act, sometimes rationally and sometimes not.
Student protests that began a week ago in Sohar could still, possibly, spread to Sur. Hence the Scottish teacher who gave my wife and me a lift to work most of the week sometimes took the precaution of parking his car outside the college. The most recent round of protests, last month, took all the teachers and administrators by surprise when picketing started in the middle of the day. The students blocked the gateway to the college grounds to keep cars from coming in. This also kept cars from leaving, of course, so faculty and staff accustomed to parking inside the college found themselves trapped for hours. In a country whose people enjoy a relaxed pace of life, with the workday ending in time to permit a long afternoon nap or a large, unhurried lunch—followed by an early evening nap—this came as a hardship even though the college is not the worst possible place to have to abandon one’s plans and spend an afternoon just killing time.
Because those protests did violence only to the comfort of routine, everyone affected hopes the current round will follow the same pattern of swift and peaceful resolution. The students have serious concerns: during the last round of protests they demanded bigger government allowances, among other things, and they want the Minister of Higher Education sacked this time. Yet in Oman people also talk about their serious concern for avoiding confrontation, especially violent confrontation. While outsiders can easily get the impression that the entire Middle East is on fire, Omanis appear serenely convinced that nothing will burn here.
Recently a student protest at the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, in the capital, Muscat, contradicted the country’s pacific expectations when it took a “violent turn,” according to the headline in the Times of Oman. However, the text of the story will disappoint thrill-seekers by reporting no more than a “bitter quarrel” between students and teachers, which might lead to the disciplining of a teacher who threw his sandal at a woman student but missed his target. Although I want to resist overconfidence, if an errantly thrown sandal can pass for violence in Oman, then I’ve brought my well-established cowardice to the right place.—Don Stoll