This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Over the last few years, there has been an increase in Omani youth initiatives, supported by interest among youth in public affairs after the Arab Spring uprisings. The Omani government, in turn, created several new committees and agencies to catch up with and embrace the fast-paced movements. Dr. al-Moatasem al-Mamari, a physician engaged with youth and media, has initiated numerous projects to address Omani youth concerns and channel their demands. AGSIW spoke with al-Moatasem about institutionalizing youth movements as well as their cultural impact and government interaction with them.
AGSIW: You are a physician, and now you are pursuing a master’s degree in political science. Why did you transfer to social sciences?
al-Moatasem: I have always been interested in public affairs since I was a student at school. When I finished high school in 2007, I wanted to study political science, but this specialty was not available in any of Oman’s universities back then. Thus, I decided to study medicine and graduated in 2016 and I am doing my residency in behavioral medicine. However, a few years ago, Sultan Qaboos University opened the specialization of political science in the school of Economics and Political Science. I felt that I still had time to pursue my dream, and now I am in the second year of my master’s degree.
“We Deserve It” episode on taxes in Oman
AGSIW: You have set up a number of initiatives creating Internet content, the first of which was the YouTube show “Wallah Nestahal” or “We Deserve It.” What is the concept of the program?
al-Moatasem: The program was first broadcast in 2014 but is an extension of a campaign called “To Be Born Great,” which took place in 2011 at a time when the popular movements were active in many Arab countries. These movements had repercussions in Oman, one of which was the interest of young people in public affairs, which was not so evident prior to the so-called Arab Spring. “To Be Born Great” was initiated by a group of students from Sultan Qaboos University who demanded the formation of student unions in Oman. This campaign led to the decision of the Ministry of Higher Education to allow the establishment of student unions in all the universities of Oman, which were later named Student Advisory Councils.
Later, I found that many youths have ideas and concerns that they would like to deliver to state officials and Omani society as well. I began to think with a group of students at Sultan Qaboos University about creating an initiative to address the youths’ ideas in a way that would be accepted by society as well as by the officials. In 2014, I began with five university students, from various disciplines, filming short videos on issues of interest to the youth of Sultan Qaboos University and uploaded them on YouTube. We called the show “We Deserve It” and I hosted it. After I graduated, the team expanded to include 24 youth, males and females from both within and outside the university. Over the past four and a half years, we have discussed about 25 issues. We do research and collect data, which takes between 40 days to two months for each issue. We also try to provide solutions after discussions with different parties, both youth and officials and experts.
AGSIW: What are the most important issues for Omani youth that you discussed in “We Deserve It”?
al-Moatasem: We discussed the case of unemployment several times, the quality of education in Oman – both public and higher education – telecommunications services, as well as topics related to university students, such as housing, transportation, and student allowances. Later, we expanded our content to cover national issues, such as the issue of economic diversification, oil reserves, water security, and the management of economic crises in Oman and the rest of the Gulf states.
AGSIW: You also discussed Oman Vision 2020 and 2040 in the show. What are young people’s perceptions of these visions?
al-Moatasem: It was the lack of clarity of the implementation mechanism. We believe in the quality of the plans of these visions, but we noticed that the timeline for implementation is not clear, and sometimes there is a delay in the implementation of its projects and this is not reassuring to many Omani citizens. There is also a concern about the issue of community partnership in the implementation, which was not strongly present in these plans.
AGSIW: Since you are presenting a viewpoint that may be considered as critical of the national plans, have you encountered any censorship issues on the content of the show?
al-Moatasem: The working team of the show was keen from the outset to take a middle position that appreciates the efforts of the government, but at the same time does not hide the suffering and concerns of citizens. We have succeeded in this over the past four and a half years and have not faced any legal accountability or prevention. At the same time, we always receive satisfied reviews, which can be measured by the high number of views our YouTube channel gets and from the comments we receive from the viewers.
AGSIW: You expanded your work on YouTube and developed several initiatives related to online content. Would you tell us more about these initiatives and where you get financial support for them?
al-Moatasem: In addition to content creation, the team is engaged in a number of field activities, such as organizing an annual forum – the “Oman YouTube Forum” – a gathering for those interested in YouTube production in Oman, and we honor the best videos among them. The other activity is the “YouTube Incubator,” in which every six months we host 14 content creating groups in a co-working space and provide them with office space as well as administrative, logistical, and media support and ask them to produce one YouTube video a month. Our third program is the “YouTube Labs,” an intensive workshop also for online content creators, which we present each time in a different province in Oman. In terms of financing, since we started broadcasting “We Deserve It” in 2014, the show has been supported by donations from team members. We have not received funds from any government or private sector to ensure the independence of our work. But for these field activities, as they only relate to skills development, they are sponsored by private companies in Oman as well as by the National Youth Committee, a government committee specializing in youth-related issues.
AGSIW: You also initiated “Debates of Oman.” What is the nature of the debates and how do you prepare the debaters?
al-Moatasem: In 2012, I participated in the International Debates Championships in Arabic language, a tournament held among international universities for Arabic-speaking students. The tournament is held annually in Qatar, organized by the Qatar Debates Center, which is part of the Qatar Foundation. The first time I participated I represented Sultan Qaboos University and my team finished second in this tournament. The following year we held a Gulf debate championship in Oman. The students of Qaboos University won first place and I won the award for best speaker in the tournament. All this increased my interest in organizing debates in Oman as I felt it was a practice that should be adopted in the Middle East to promote dialogue, discussion, and listening to others. Thus, together with five colleagues, we formed the Oman Debates team two years ago, a national volunteer team whose goal is to spread the culture of debate in Oman in a professional way. The team organizes a national championship every year to debate various topics about economy, politics, and society. We provide free training workshops for the debaters, coaches, and judges, and we travel through all Omani provinces to select the debaters. We organized two tournaments and currently we are preparing for the third in February. In April 2018, we were awarded the Debates Pioneers award in Qatar, which is given to international projects that support Arabic debates, for our achievements in spreading the culture of debates in a short period of time.
AGSIW: You are also part of an initiative called “The Scientific Café.” What is this initiative about?
al-Moatasem: This is a government initiative that was launched three years ago by Oman Animal and Plant Genetic Resources Center, which is under the Research Council in the sultanate. The purpose of this cafe is to bring the natural sciences closer to the public. In other words, we discuss the applications of scientific concepts in our everyday life. We hold a session on the last Wednesday of each month and host a group of speakers to discuss scientific issues and I moderate the discussion between them and the audience.
AGSIW: To what extent have the youth culture and initiatives changed in Oman since you got involved in 2007? And what has been the impact of public and private support on their evolution?
al-Moatasem: In the past, we did not have the culture of a nonprofit organization in Oman, but now I believe this concept has become more widespread among young entrepreneurs. For example, the team of “We Deserve It” began as a volunteer group and in January 2018 it progressed into a nonprofit organization. Many young Omanis have recently turned their activities into nonprofit organizations. This development has affected the quality of youth initiatives as well. The impact of this development was clear when Cyclone Gonu hit Oman in 2007. At that time the relief campaigns were mainly from governmental agencies and were accompanied by some modest and unorganized youth efforts. While when Cyclone Mekunu hit the shores of Oman in 2018, many organized youth teams participated, and the National Youth Committee led a number of these teams. This shift to institutional work, I believe, will ensure the continuity and evolution of the quality of youth work. Moreover, this development has affected even the interaction of government agencies with youth movements. The National Committee for Youth was formed seven years ago, and although it is a governmental committee, it does not impose direct control or deploy youth initiatives. What the commission does is provide the necessary support to these initiatives without interfering in their management or affecting their independence.
AGSIW: How do you evaluate youth culture in Oman compared to other Gulf countries?
al-Moatasem: Our frequent meetings with many youths in the Gulf have made me aware of the general image of the youth culture there. I think the youth movement in Oman is larger than it is in the rest of the Gulf states, and it is focused on different realms. For example, Kuwaiti youths have interest in humanitarian work and the Kuwaiti government’s approach to humanitarian action has served this interest greatly, enabling Kuwaitis to expand their charitable work transnationally to continents such as Africa. In Oman, charitable work is still limited, but on the other hand, reading initiatives and online content production in Oman exceed those of its Kuwaiti counterpart.
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