“Omanis being Omanis, there aren’t going to be any problems”: Youth in Muscat and the Aging Renaissance

By Cara Piraino
Submitted to Session P4968 (Cultural Politics of Youth, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Gulf Studies; Modernization; Nationalism;
In 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id al-Sa’id took power in poverty-ridden Oman and began a rapid development program that radically transformed every Omani’s life. The historical details of the nahda, or “renaissance,” as it is referred to in Oman, are well-documented and analyzed in secondary sources. This paper, however, seeks not to understand the empirical reality of what occurred, but rather how Omani youth today understand their history and how this influences their attitude toward the future of their country in uncertain times. The conclusions of this study are based on twenty in-person interviews with young Omanis living in Muscat. Existing literature focusing specifically on Omani youth perceptions of this period is extremely sparse, despite it being, arguably, the foundation of national identity for a country with a youth-majority population. Moreover, writing on the Omani nahda has emphasized exactly those elements about which many Omanis are ignorant or apathetic: the details of the coup, military operations, the structure of the state, et cetera. Considerations of the future in a region beset by sectarian violence as their sultan dies and their oil supply dwindles take priority over historical details for Omanis, and scholarship would ideally reflect that reality.

Young Omanis’ conception of the nahda has certainly been shaped by nationalistic government rhetoric which valorizes Qaboos individually, aided by restrictions on information and social taboos around political discussion. However, this paper will resist the assumption that young people in Oman are conditioned to center their national identity entirely on one person. On the contrary, the internationally-oriented and opinionated Muscati youth I interviewed synthesize information from their social milieu to reach the nuanced conclusion that Qaboos is simply an exceptional case in a long history of legitimate and respected rulers of the Omani people. Beyond their history classes and royal speeches, they draw on familial memory, WhatsApp, European libraries and foreign classmates to find what matters to them about their nation. Often, their interest eventually lies less in Qaboos himself and his creation of Oman than in how he represents a people that ostensibly preceded him by many thousands of years. By allowing the definition of “Omani” to be distinct from one individual, Omanis consider his nearing death with the cautious confidence of a patriotic, yet critically thinking populace.