Cheers from Oman – Issue 35

When I was asked if I was available to go to Oman for business there was one important bit of information that was withheld, had I known about it, my decision may have been influenced. No it wasn’t the Australian travel advisory indicating anywhere in the Middle East is a possible terrorist threat, nor was it being in the Northern hemisphere, near the equator, at the onset of summer. It had nothing to do with having nothing to wear, Omani’s wardrobes and mine are a complete mismatch.

What they forgot to mention is that in Oman they don’t drink. Not only do they not drink, they don’t want you drinking either.

We were lucky to have been engaged by an expatriate UK/Aussie who had the wisdom to know the chances were high that we would be true to the Australian stereotype and come 5:00pm would feel a four X coming on. In fact, he was even kind enough to invite us to his home for drinks – twice! I’ll bet you are wondering how he got the grog if you can’t drink there? He has a special permit obtained from his employer that entitles him (a non Muslim) to make limited purchases of booze each month. The grog is acquired at special stores hidden away with no outside indication of what they sell. Telling names like: Desert Trading Company, African and Eastern LLC, Gulf Supply Services are the ‘go to’ place for booze. Once you obtain alcohol you had better not make any side trips, it is illegal to transport alcohol unless you are taking it from the shop or the airport duty free to your house.

Our host clearly understood the needs of those from the West, because he also put us in residence at the Intercontinental, where there is a thorough understanding of the important relationship that exists between catering to foreigners in the Middle East and alcohol. In fact, many of the large hotels in Oman such as The Chedi, Al Bustan Palace Radisson, SAS and Crowne Plaza will for the first time allow their guests to purchase and consume alcohol after sunset, from 7pm-2am, on Ramadan. This is a time of religious observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is considered the most venerated and blessed month of the Islamic year; prayers, fasting, charity and self – accountability are stressed; therefore, the typical Omani would not even have a sip of water let alone a cosmopolitan.

Before jumping to the shallow conclusion that Caroline Burns, Kim Thornton- Smith and I are lushes, consider this. In Oman they work on Saturday and Sunday, and take Friday off. Having spent the first Friday in transit and the second preparing for a major steering committee meeting, following a busy week of preparation in Australia before we left, we were knackered. Any self respecting person from our culture would have felt like a Tooheys or two!

Aussies will never be like the Omani people, but we are changing. The culture of the work time liquid lunch has pretty much gone by the wayside. Even in journalism – a group I suspect has more cirrhosis of the liver amongst its members than architects – have hardened their attitude to hard drinking. One reason for this is the legal ramification of alcohol in the workplace including OHS and sexual harassment. In addition, we work longer hours, have decreasing job security and busier lives, so many of us can’t find the time to have lunch, let alone drink it.

I have a first hand appreciation for the dangers drinking on the job can cause having lived in Chicago when an apparently stoned driver took the turn to fast at 40th and Wabash and two cars were left dangling from the elevated track, 46 people got injured. I also experienced a summer of exceptionally long commutes in Seattle due to dock repairs required when a heavy footed and supposedly tipsy ferry driver rammed into one of the two docks that serviced the states three main ferry routes. This is why I was happy when a lunch guest from Queensland Rail declared no one in that organisation is allowed to drink during business, from train conductors to sales guys paid to smooze.

Luckily, Australia is right in the middle when it comes to drinking. In Japan overworked and frequently hung-over salarymen, go to special medical clinics where nurses administer intravenous drips for a rapid rejuvenation for as little as 2000 yen ($20). I don’t know about you, but I would say that is pretty messed up. Unfortunately, when you consider the result of a recent study by Stirling University in Scotland that found moderate drinkers earned 17 per cent more than those who didn’t drink at all, and that even those abusing alcohol were likely to earn more than teetotalers you get some understanding of why there is a relationship with drinking and work in some places.

Going back to Oman, it would be wrong for me to define their culture by whether they drink or not. Omani people don’t drink because it is contrary to their faith and with a population in Muscat that is 55% Muslim, 38% Sunnis, 4% Shia Jaffaris and 3% Hindu with virtually no Christians – the group where in some denominations drink at church – it is easy to understand why.
Drinking is very much associated with culture, anthropological literature shows that culture can shape the ways people learn to drink and how they will act when they do. It will be interesting to see how higher taxes, such as what Rudd has done with ‘Alcopops’ and the new catagorisation of binge drinking by the National Health and Medical Research Council – which renders most of us bingers – will impact our cultural approach to alcohol over time.
In many ways, particularly at work, Omanis have the same beliefs we do. In terms of business they want to be more innovative so desire a work environment that promotes collaboration and connection of their people. They have deep concern with their employee’s health and well being and are eager to introduce spaces like gyms, child care and restaurants into their work complexes. They recognise their building and workplace can drive cultural change, contribute to the community at large and be an attractor of a dwindling talent pool of younger workers. This last point is even more critical in a place like Oman where the majority of the population (60%) is under age 18. ‘Y worry’ is prevalent in Oman!

Despite these similarities there are major differences. I mentioned wardrobe earlier, appropriate formal work wear for an Omani man is the traditional white pressed robe called a dishdasha, buttoned at the neck with a tassel which was traditionally dipped in perfume, today the tassel is purely decorative. The dishdasha is worn with a kashmir mussar turban, together they are formal business attire. On the weekends and evenings the turban is replaced with an Omani hat and the dishdasha can be coloured. Westerners working in Oman are expected to wear a suit and tie to the office. Woman wear abayas, long black robes, and hijabs or head scarf. I know you all want to know whether Caroline and I wore a hijab and the answer is no. I brought along my most conservative outfits and had the good sense to leave the slutty things I wear on Fridays when I am in denial about being in my 40s at home.

There are plenty of women in the workforce; Oman has the highest number of working women among the six Arab GCC states, which include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Women not only work they are encouraged to do so by Sultan Qaboos who has called on female citizens to support the continuing development of the country. He describes women as “half of Oman’s potential” and invites them to assume responsibility for the development of the country.

One of the most interesting aspect s of Oman is the respect and admiration shown for His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Educated overseas with classmates like Prince Charles and Prince Abdullah of Jordan, His Majesty returned to Oman determined to use the wealth accumulated from oil sales to make a difference to the people of Oman. The Sultan is responsible for uniting people with a broad range of experiences and histories, improving the infrastructure, developing the educational system and improving medical services. When we asked why there are no issues with terrorists, like other areas of the Middle East, we were told everyone is accepted and heard leaving no cause for extreme measures.
Omani’s have a good sense of humor and pride and will not hesitate to have a go at their Arabian peninsula neighbors with the same determination and glee that we would discuss Tasmania or I would refer to anyplace in the US that is not on a coast. “People from Yemen think they are better than us, the Saudi are stuck up and the ones from United Arab Emirates are okay, but no one here is as good as we are”.
I believe them. Omani are highly intelligent people, totally in tune with what is going on in the world and far more entrepreneurial than we are here. By example, many of the people we were working with had other businesses they engaged in outside of their day job, and their employers didn’t care. Caroline and I got excited when one of the guys from the bank asked if we would like to go to his ‘Ladies Saloon’. Then we realised they spell the Western word salon, saloon, and there would be no martinis only waxing and pedicures.
The most refreshing aspect of working in Oman was the respect and admiration they show for one another which extended to us. Whether it was the CEO talking, or the tea boy bringing in coffee to a meeting, each person is regarded with dignity. This may sound odd, but in the many strategic exercises we have conducted in Australia and New Zealand this is not the case. In fact sometimes the way senior leaders in a company treat one another is appalling – fret with egos, posturing and the deliberate marginilisation of other’s views.
If it is not obvious, I loved Oman and am a better, more knowledgeable person for having been given the opportunity to go. If I had the chance, I would not hesitate to get on a plane for 16 hours to go back, preferable Ethaid business class. The only downside to Oman is the heat, but even that had an upside. As many of you know I practice Bikram Yoga which is done in a room heated to 38 degrees. I discovered that I could go outdoors on the hotel balcony between 5:00 and 7:00 am and it was only about five degrees warmer than the Bikram studio.
I practiced everyday on the balcony, in an outfit that closely resembles undies. Only once was I disturbed and then by an American guy from the room next door, who clearly did not read the sign on the sliding door that warned it would locks automatically when closed. He needed rescue, so being the humanitarian I am I called the concierge confess I did consider letting him perish in the heat to keep the vision of me sweaty, in my undies, between us. I wouldn’t have let him die; just pass out in the heat, that way he would think what he saw was a hallucination. All I can say is thank goodness I was showing restraint when doing Pavanamuktasana – wind removing pose.

Sources:

18 days in Oman with our main contacts: Kaleem Saleem, John Cooper, Khalid Al Raisi, Abdulnasir Al Raisi
The Bank Muscat Steering Committee: Mr. Ahmed Al Abri, Leen Kumar, Waleed Al Hashar, , Shaikha Al Farsi, Ilham Al Saleh, Wafa Al Ajmi
And our friends Fadi and Nahla from Design and Arches, Ben Cooper from Mace and the wonderful and helpful Rohan Thotabaduge from Atkins Architecture.

Bachelard, Michael and Gilmore, Heath. “Shock Alcohol Warning from Nation’s Top Health Boss”
The Sun Herald, June 15, 2008

Crisp, Lyndall. “A Matter of Substance – More companies are taking steps to manage the problem of drug and alcohol abuse among their employees” AFRboss magazine, May 08

Emerson, Sally. “The beginner’s guide to Oman – From goat auctions to Arabian princesses, Oman is less conservative than Saudi Arabia and less westernised than Dubai” The Sunday Times, May 25, 2008.

Norrie, Justin. “Hungover? Tired? Pop out of the Office for a Quick Intravenous Drip”
The Sydney Morning Herald, May 31, 2008

Shanahan, Angela “Nanny can’t end bingeing”. The Sydney Morning Herald, May 03, 2008

Steckel, Colette “Living and Workihng in Gulf States & Saudi Arabia” ACCA homepage (world accounting agency) April 07, 2008

Social Issues Research Centre – on line
Drinking on the Job
The Bad Old Days – Posted November 30, 2004
Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking – Culture, Chemistry and Consequences.

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