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Omanis Cling to Cultural Values As Foreigners Arrive
An Omani woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the Gulf state's northeastern town of Izki during consultative council elections, on October 27, 2019. (Mohammed Mahjoub/AFP via Getty Images)

Omanis Cling to Cultural Values As Foreigners Arrive

Conservative trend in the kingdom may continue with the new sultan even with a temporary, pandemic-related decline in foreigners

The Muscat, Oman municipal council started preparing a public dress code after a pre-pandemic influx of tourists and foreign workers clad in garb considered immodest triggered complaints by locals in the Gulf country.

The municipal dress code would clarify and implement an existing law and comes after the monarchy implemented measures reducing some liberties.

There is already a ban on shorts and sleeveless shirts for men and women in shopping malls in the nation of 4.6 million people, where many continue to wear traditional clothing. The penalty for violating the prohibition is three months in jail or a fine.

“When you have more people coming from other countries, you have people dressed in certain ways … [that may influence] Omanis … to want to dress differently … clashing with … what is deemed appropriate,” Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch’s senior women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Media Line.

“The authorities are now reacting to this by imposing a dress code which they clearly think will help enforce … the way they would like to see people dressed.”

The nearly 50-year reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said ushered in numerous reforms, including religious freedoms and economic development. In the latter part of his rule, limits were placed on some personal freedoms, and the penalty for criticizing the sultan was increased from six months to three years.

When the sultan died of cancer in January, his successor, Haitham bin Tariq, continued the trend toward conservativism, Begum said.

There was hope that the new sultan could mean new opportunities and direction, but really it has been a continuation of existing abuses just under a new [leader]. Nothing has really changed

“Under the former sultan and the current sultan, the entrenchment of cultural norms seems to be a pattern that is continuing.”

“There was hope that the new sultan could mean new opportunities and direction, but really it has been a continuation of existing abuses just under a new [leader]. Nothing has really changed,” she said.

“In recent years, Oman has been regressive, particularly around freedom of expression and association. There have been a number of problematic legislative changes making it more of a crime for people to freely express themselves through a number of laws and changes to the penal code” in 2018, she added.

This also includes amending the law to criminalize “non-normative gender expression.” Men can be jailed for wearing women’s attire. The punishment for consensual relations outside of marriage was also increased and includes prison and deportation.

I expect Sultan Haitham may face competing impulses as the need to diversify the economy will both encourage the promotion of tourism and demand greater input from Omanis

Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute think tank in Washington, said she does not believe that the Muscat council’s actions are part of a larger country-wide pattern.

“This is a proposal from local government and doesn’t necessarily reflect a national trend. I expect Sultan Haitham may face competing impulses as the need to diversify the economy will both encourage the promotion of tourism and demand greater input from Omanis,” she told The Media Line. “I expect this will prompt more appeals to national responsibility and national identity much like we’ve seen in other parts of the Gulf.”

The influx of foreigners is relatively new for Oman unlike in other GCC members, which have long hosted guest workers. Some of them are trying to reduce the number of foreign employees. Saudi Arabia, for example, has instituted a program to train locals to do jobs held by foreigners in order to reduce unemployment and meet economic challenges such as a decline in oil demand. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the number of flights and reduced commutes to work and other travel.

GCC leaders have been trying to steer their countries towards new sources of revenue after years of reliance on oil and gas. They have also been implementing social changes, such as increased freedoms for women.

People are not aware Oman has very similar forms of discrimination against women as many of [its regional neighbors]. They don’t have the same reputation as other countries because they don’t face the same scrutiny

Gulf Arab nations have been among the world’s laggards in women’s rights. Human Rights Watch’s Begum says that Saudi Arabia, which recently gave women more freedom, is still the region’s worst.

Oman is on par with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, requiring women to have male guardians and preventing women from passing on their citizenship to their children.

“People are not aware Oman has very similar forms of discrimination against women as many of [its regional neighbors]. They don’t have the same reputation as other countries because they don’t face the same scrutiny,” Begum said.

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