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Making waves

Moosa Al Farei has a busy afternoon ahead. The talkshow DJ is sitting in his studio at the Al Wisal radio station in Seeb, a coastal town 40 kilometres north of Oman’s ancient capital Muscat, confronted by a sea of flashing red lights. Hundreds of people want to talk to him about the big issue of the day: medical negligence.

Most days on Al Farei’s show, ‘Muntada Al Wisal’, are like this. Sometimes he talks about media freedoms. Other times the thorny issue of government corruption is broached. Wages and the cost of living are recurring themes. But today he is talking to three people who have had horrific experiences in the nation’s hospitals. And they want answers.

One of them claims that she went into hospital when pregnant and needed a serious operation, but was left bleeding and untended for 24 hours. Because of this, the baby has suffered serious health problems. Within minutes of the case being aired, the hospital has contacted the show. They want more details on the woman and the child. After hearing their story on the radio they now plan to send the former patient abroad to give her and her son the medical care they need.

‘Muntada Al Wisal’ has had scores of similar success stories. Since the show began it has become the most popular radio programme in Oman. It is unique in the Middle East: a forum where the public can air their grievances towards companies and the government. The show has given Omanis a platform and opened up freedoms in a way not seen for decades.

‘Muntada Al Wisal’, which means ‘The Forum’, began life in March 2011 as a direct result of the Arab Spring. Oman wasn’t immune and thousands took to the streets demanding a better standard of living as well as more freedom. It occurred to Al Farei that there wasn’t a single mainstream institution where people could vent their frustrations. “I don’t know whether it was the government or the media that hadn’t adapted to the people’s needs,” he says. “But we became a bridge, the voice for people in Oman.”

Nadim Attieh, the station manager of Al Wisal, agrees. “We found there was a big gap in society between the people, government and the private sector,” he says. “So we decided to start a platform for everyone to talk rather than expressing themselves in a violent way. We have come up with lots of solutions to solve the country’s problems through this show.”

“We decided to start a platform for everyone to talk rather than expressing themselves in a
violent way”

Government ministers have regularly been called to account. A recent show covered the issue of Oman’s general prosecutor being under the control of the Ministry of Justice, and how this compromised the integrity of the judiciary. Shortly after, the role was made independent.  Attieh doesn’t know whether the country’s ruler listens or not, but the station’s staff believe there is an uncanny correlation between a show bringing up a problem and a subsequent royal decree that solves it.

Sultan Qaboos is both everywhere and nowhere in Oman, something of a nomadic, solitary figure, who appears ageless in the portraits that hang in every office and public building. He is divorced and has no children. He is rarely heard speaking on TV or radio but frequently writes down his thoughts for public consumption and travels the country meeting his subjects. He insists that any Omani can approach him with any grievance at any time.

Moosa Al Farei, host of Oman’s radio talk show ‘Muntada Al Wisal’, which means ‘The Forum’

“The clock of history was stopped”

Oman has a rich history of conquest, wealth and colonisation. Its empire used to stretch from Pakistan to Zanzibar, and its position next to the Persian Empire and between India and Europe saw it grow rich on spices, cloth and slaves. Its success meant that it was coveted, too: it was invaded by both the Portuguese and the Persians.

The ruling family of Oman is the Al Busaidis, who rid Oman of the Persians in 1749 and expanded the nation’s reach and influence. Yet, by the 1960s, Qaboos’s father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, had reduced this once powerful empire to one of the poorest, most backward and repressive places on the planet.

The legendary French journalist Chris Kutschera was one of the few reporters to get access to the country during Said’s reign. At the time it had become viciously divided between its coastal settlements like Muscat, the interior of the country, which was deeply tribal and religious, and the southern area of Dhofar. In a despatch to the Washington Post in 1970, Kutschera wrote:

“The clock of history was stopped somewhere in the Middle Ages. Everything, it seemed, was forbidden. The inhabitants of the coast were forbidden to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast or even from one valley to another…

“Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.

“No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, ‘probably because it was a place where one could have fun’, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.

“No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours.”

In 1964 oil had been discovered, which explained why the British, Soviets, Saudis, Iranians and Egyptians had started to take such an interest in this backward part of the Arabian Peninsula. But the vultures were circling for the sultan. He was fighting a Saudi-backed rebellion among the religious tribes in the interior and a Marxist insurgency in Dhofar which had spilled over from the newly communist rebels of South Yemen. An assassination attempt in 1966 saw him become a recluse. His only son Qaboos was kept as a virtual prisoner in his palace.

In the end, it was Qaboos who rose to take power in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of the Shah of Iran and the British military, exiling his father to London, where he saw out the last two years of his life at the Dorchester, and embarking on a breakneck modernisation of the country, focusing on roads, hospitals, sanitation and housing.

He aimed to unite the country, but it would take another five years to defeat the Marxist rebels in Dhofar, with the help of the SAS who were stationed in Oman to train the army. By 1975 the rebellion had been defeated, but democracy wasn’t the outcome.

“It would be a mistake, a big mistake,” Sultan Qaboos told Kutschera when asked whether he would introduce democracy after taking control of the country. “Most of the people do not even know what a vote is… In these conditions to draft a constitution, to set up a parliament would be like building a huge dome without either walls or foundations. It might perhaps give a nice impression to the outside world, but it would be nothing but a big show. Look how people vote in Egypt. They are driven to the polls in army trucks. If there were a parliament now, I would have to choose its members among the sheikhs and a few others. What would be the significance of such a body?”

Over the next four decades Oman’s infrastructure was modernised and the population quadrupled. The infant mortality rate in Oman in 1970 was 145.4 per 1000, meaning 15 percent of babies would die during or just after birth. By 2010 that had dropped to 9.4 deaths per thousand. Life expectancy in 1970 was 49. By 2010 it was 74. In 1970 there were two hospitals and three schools. By 2008 that had grown to 58 hospitals and 1,283 schools.

But political reform came slowly and incrementally. A rudimentary parliament was introduced. Women were allowed to vote in 1997. Five years later the vote was extended to everyone over 21. However, political parties are still banned and the parliament has zero oversight on hugely important matters like internal security and foreign policy. And unemployment among Omanis has remained stubbornly high. Which is why, despite the pace of development, resentment still drove people onto the street.

Crossing the lines

“We didn’t have the green light to start this show,” admits Attieh, the station manager, when I ask him about how Muntada Al Wisal got permission to air. In the past, such a show would have been unthinkable. “It was a personal initiative. The freedom of speech was there.”

But that isn’t to say there wasn’t teething trouble in the beginning. Pressure was exerted “after the first day we started our show”, says Al Farei, recalling the reaction to his debut. But the station carried on regardless. “Our official newspaper had come out saying: ‘Omanis today need more freedom.’ So I told the guy who called me [from the Ministry of Information]: “I have adopted His Majesty’s [Sultan Qaboos’] words. He says we need more freedom and that is why we are talking across the [red] lines that you had before.’” To prove the point Al Farei opens a package on the table in front of him. It is full of books of the Sultan’s speeches. He pores through them and uses the passages as proof any time an official questions him. “In all these speeches he was talking about freedom and he asked his government to give the people more space,” he says.

“So the first topic we dealt with [on the show] was freedom. That we needed more freedom, the Ministry of Information needed to be changed and the rules need to be changed. Within a month the rules, even the ministers and his undersecretary, were changed.”

This openness is very new. In 1999, when Al Farei was a young student living in England, he and an Omani friend set up a web forum called Sablat al Arab. “Sablat” is an Omani word that means a place where people gather. The site became hugely popular, not just in Oman, but in the rest of the Middle East. It was the Wild West of web forums. The authorities were not impressed. They arrested Al Farei’s partner when he returned to Oman. “When he came back he was expecting to get an award or something from the government,” says Al Farei.  “They put him in jail for 15 days.”

With his partner in jail, Al Farei set up a new forum, Sablat Oman, to campaign for his release. Initially the forum was only going to exist for as long as his friend was in jail. But when his friend was finally released, Al Farei decided to continue, despite government warnings. Sablat Oman is still going strong, with a quarter of a million visitors a day.  Such is its success that advertising on the site costs more than a primetime TV advert.

Back at Muntada Al Wisal, another show is over for Al Farei, and another positive outcome has been attained. The real benefit, though, is far wider. While many other Gulf states are cracking down on dissent and freedom of speech, Muntada Al Wisal has proved that speaking your mind is an essential component of a healthy society. Sultan Qaboos’s huge dome, it seems, now does have foundations. His people do know what a vote looks like. And they won’t need to be driven by army trucks to the polls. Nor do they want to bow down to the authorities when complaining about what they see in everyday life: corruption, nepotism and restrictions on free speech.

“I think the good in our experiences will show in five years time,” says Al Farei as he prepares for the next day of mediation. “It will be a good example to the rest of world of the freedoms we can enjoy.”

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