Imagine less than 50 years ago, in 1970, on the eve of the current Sultan Qaboos deposing of his father Sa’id bin Taymur, there were no more than three schools in the entire nation of Oman. Under Sultan Sa’id, the country had taken on a philosophy of nationalist isolation in response to a fear of growing westernization. This fear was actually quite common throughout the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire officially at the end of the First World War.
Many Islamic states had a great sense of pride in their longstanding cultural practices and academic innovations over the centuries. They felt these innovations were suppressed for years under the mundane military pawns of the Ottomans and at risk of being lost permanently to western colonialist powers trying to move in to space vacated by the Ottomans. For that reason, and perhaps due to some personal paranoia on the part of Sultan Sa’id, Omani borders were mostly closed off from the outside world, tucked away from global discourse and diplomacy; besides some occasional security help from the United Kingdom who had an interest in power.
Where his father Sa’id believed any act of modernization would jeopardize Oman’s cultural integrity, Qaboos believed that education and modernization of the sultanate were the ticket to preserving Oman’s cultural heritage. This is why in 1970, Qaboos deposed of his father Sa’id to a nursing home in Britain for his remaining years.
Many of the older generation in Oman can directly recall their childhood along these desert shores. Though their schools may not have been as beautiful as the three story brick court-yarded structures seen today, for many elders, their adolescence proved just as pivotal and as much a milestone in their lives. It was shaped by a different kind of education however.
Many of the wealthier children living in Oman were able to seek schools outside the gulf in Egypt and the Levant. Some Omani families stayed away all together and remained living in various east African nations. Others fondly recall studying the Quran out in the pasture of their k’billa or tribal village.
Like many other societies of the time, women were groomed for family care-taking and the rearing of large families, some getting married as young as 13. Though the median age of marriage has certainly gone up in Oman, in contrast to my American ideas on family planning, the practices are still quite different from those that I am used to seeing.
Seen through population and marriage statistics, however, education is profoundly affecting Oman. In the 1970’s only 5% of girls aged 6-10 were in school, in contrast with 92% in the mid 1990s. The Population Reference Bureau’s 2005 “Marriage in the Arab World” states the average age of marriage for a female high school graduate in Oman is now 25, while for those without schooling it is before age 19. In an article on the pattern of female nuptiality in Oman from Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, Feb 2013, three-quarters of female respondents were married by age 20 with a median age of marriage of 16 (52% consanguineous).
However this study mentions that with more recent marriages and with younger women, the average age of marriage is rising, with education being a strong predictor of later age of marriage. The following graphs highlight the effect of education on women’s changing roles in family. They are taken from a fascinating article in the Journal of Emerging Trends in Economics and Management Sciences 2012: “Fertility Transition in Oman and its Economic Impact”:
· http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23573380 · http://www.prb.org/pdf05/marriageinarabworld_eng.pdf · http://jetems.scholarlinkresearch.org/articles/Fertility%20Transition%20in%20Oman%20and%20its%20Economic%20Impact.pdf
From the very beginning of his political career, let alone his first speech, Sultan Qaboos highlighted the importance of universal learning when he declared even if under a tree, there would be education. This was a very bold statement considering at the time there were just three schools in the entire country.
However daring this initial proposal once sounded, the young sultan met with great success. Like any government administered system, provisions for educational change had to travel through a bureaucracy (though not checks and balances), and though there is still work to be done, it is just astonishing what Oman has accomplished in such a short time.
The education ministry, which supervises all education in the country, both public and private, has worked to create its own national curriculum. However, in trying to raise the standard and brand name of Omani schools, the government has also fallen back in some schools on European made curricula such as the Cambridge University system, which often standardizes the stream of learning so that the school must default to external final exams as opposed to administering them themselves.
Furthermore, because of the country’s still tender infrastructure, Oman has very limited experience in accommodating children with special needs, as classrooms are only geared for a very specific learner. Omani schools are realized as a strong base for instilling Muslim identity and Ibadhi traditions and creating passionate learners from the ground up.
Whereas in the United States this religious influence would be a matter of great contention and conflict with separation of church and state, the two terms here are almost interchangeable. Islam preaches directly from the Quran the importance of education and praises the study of science as an internalized form of spirituality. Most Arab boys, and even some girls for that matter, experience a lot of pressure to become engineers or doctors.
School culture places emphasis on physics and mathematics for example. I have found that the arts and humanities are not as developed, and that parents do not express as much of an interest in developing these faculties in their children. Also in line with religious doctrine and tradition, the ministry mandates Islamic studies classes for students, and children of Omani nationals are asked to wear the traditional dress of the dishdasha and kumar as part of their school uniform.
Remarkably with only three schools existing prior to 1970, today people can receive their higher education domestically, a true sign of Sultan Qaboos’ achievements. Many of my host cousins attend both public and private colleges locally, and they have been very pleased with the quality of education and how accessible it is from an economic and even social standpoint pertaining to the values of this family-centric culture. The government heavily subsidizes these schools and works very hard to promote higher education to the young people of Oman.
The government also awards highly competitive academic scholarships to study abroad through Europe, North America, and even Asia to the most promising students in college or graduate school. When you come to Oman, it is easy to see how much money and care is invested in education. I have had a first hand experience with many of these observations, as I am currently attending an Omani high school as a tenth grader.
The only way to truly appreciate the extent of this national achievement in education is through the eyes of history and witnessing how much this nation has managed to grow and adapt since 1970. This gift of a commitment to the nation’s young, when family and tribe are so important, contributes to the patriotism here in Oman, where there is an undivided and unadulterated commitment and respect for the political leadership.
Oman has always had a very unique relationship with their sovereignty. Not only do they respect him deeply, but for many, Sultan Qaboos represents a paternal figure as well. Sultan Qaboos’ unquestioned authority and the loyalty of all who trust him have helped allow for change and adaptation in education.
Oman will likely soon have the ability to train and educate individuals in almost all the fields that it needs, to create local Omani expertise to run the country. When that occurs, and even now, Oman can step back and think about what other skills it will need to teach the young to be global citizens and succeed for Oman in the world at large. What and how schools teach influence Omani children’s global outlook, how they see themselves in the world, and whether or not they see themselves taking part in making their country and world a better place.
There are many important issues that need to be tackled in my generation such as conservation of the environment and inequality and poverty and tackling these will take courage, reasoning and problem solving ability, a strong sense of right and wrong, communication skills, creativity, the ability to work with others, and good language skills.
Education becomes an integral irreparable part of our identity that starts at the very roots of our being, from the first moment someone points at a trunk with leaves and teaches you to say tree. Unearthing the truth of Omani education is a larger piece to uncovering Omani identity itself.