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Coming in to Oman for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’ve spent many years in the Middle East, much of it looking at vast expanses of sand, but as the plane came down into Muscat I could see that Oman was totally different: craggy peaks, bronzed by the sun set, set off the grey sea in the distance. These weren’t sand dunes; they were the kind of rocky mountains that you would see in old movies, depicting a Martian landscape. (At right: Muscat, the capital of Oman.)

It’s not just the topography that makes Oman different. Unlike its other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council; includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) partners, Oman does not have vast wealth driven by oil and gas deposits. While these areas are still primary drivers of its economy, Oman doesn’t have the huge oil fields of Saudi Arabia or the incredible natural gas reserves of Qatar. It also doesn’t have the modernized draw of the UAE, with the sparkling towers of Dubai or Abu Dhabi that draw in foreign investors.

What Oman does have is natural beauty, in addition to income from its natural resources. Many throughout the region flock to Oman for its beaches, and to a town called Salalah – a refuge from the heat found throughout the rest of the region. Salalah is perched on the southern end of the country, and its summertime climate, averaging somewhere around 80å� Fahrenheit, is much cooler than the temperatures around the region, which easily top 110å� on a daily basis and often shoot higher than 120å�. (At left: a beach just outside of Muscat, Oman.)

Oman has been through a massive transformation in education and human rights in the past 40 years. In fact, while I met with civil society leaders in a coffee shop in Muscat near the end of July, the country celebrated the 41st year of the reign of Sultan Qaboos. He is an interesting figurehead, and as I read through the local paper I saw his picture in every ad, on every page, and in article after article congratulating him on the transformation the country has seen in his 41-year reign. He is at once everywhere  on billboards, in the paper, in conversations – but also elusive. The Sultan rarely travels, is single and childless, and rarely makes public speeches. But he is also the driver of much of the modernization Oman has seen. According to the annual Human Development Index produced by the UNDP, from 1970 to 2010 Oman made the most progress out of 135 countries in key indicators like education and health.

For women, there are more and more opportunities. More than 80 women are running for seats in the Majlis As-Shura (more or less, the equivalent to a lower house of parliament), which is about four times more than in the last election. Oman has also recently ratified the CEDAW treaty, and is in the process of writing its first report as required by the treaty to be presented in October.

At Vital Voices, we are engaging with women (and men!) in civil society, the government, and the private sector. We are developing a project to help train key officials in Oman to create legislation that recognizes and addresses the impact it will have on women. For example, if a labor law passes through parliament, our training would help staff in the parliament recognize when or if certain measures in the law would have a negative impact on women more so than men. We will use CEDAW and local laws guaranteeing equal rights to create a standardized training that will be implemented in various levels of government. This will be done through a training of trainers approach, so that, after the project is finished, there will be a strong cadre of trainers in the country who can continue to train government officials and civil society actors in the years to come. 

For more information on the project, visit our website, and if you are interested in helping this project and others, please visit our Middle East and North Africa Fund

Look out for more news from my next stop in Qatar!

– Christine German, Regional Program Manager, Middle East and North Africa