While there are many ways to describe Muscat, Oman, “The Big City” is hardly one of them. The Omani capital is a quiet seaside mosaic of shops, small offices, and government ministries. The city, with its population of just over 600,000, is a far cry from other, hypermodern capitals of the Arabian Gulf like Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Doha. Yet for many young Omanis, rapid development and new opportunities make Muscat an exciting place to be. College students, young professionals, and others from Oman’s interior have begun making a commute between the capital and their hometown. During the week they live and work in Muscat. However, they often return home on weekends to their villages and families. This “Muscat Commute” has brought conflicting sets of values between the interior and the capital into stark contrast. It is forcing the next generation of Omanis to reconcile tradition and modernity in new ways.
Oman is an absolute monarchy on Saudi Arabia’s southeastern border. Its leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, came to power July 23, 1970 after a bloodless coup against his father, Said bin Taymur. Under the sultan’s leadership, Oman began a national project of development and modernization. Its government invested heavily in building materials and construction equipment. In the country’s interior, the government built new housing and schools, provided water, and installed telephone lines. It also built new roads and constructed modern highways. These highways gave rural villages and their residents access to urban centers. Improved access to these centers created new economic opportunities for Oman’s interior population, and hence the “Muscat Commute” was born.
Young Omanis (whose names are changed to protect their privacy) epitomize the phenomenon. “Sara” is a 27-year-old professional who works in the Muscat suburb of al-Khuweir. She has her own apartment, drives her own car, and hangs out with friends after work. When she calls home, her mother bugs her to get married and have kids. Sara hails from al-Buraimi, a town on Oman’s border with the United Arab Emirates. She drives three hours back to the town every other weekend to see her family. For Sara, living in the capital was an obvious choice. “If I didn’t work in Muscat where would I work?” she asks matter-of-factly. Yet Sara admits, “Some of my friends’ parents didn’t allow them to live alone. It was considered aib.”
The concept of aib appears frequently in discussions of the Muscat Commute. It means “frowned upon” or “shameful” and refers to a whole set of behaviors that are sanctioned in Omani society. However, while aib in the traditional interior encapsulates a wide range of behaviors, standards are more relaxed in the capital. “In the village you must cover your face,” Sara explains, referring to expectations of modesty for women. “In Muscat, if you cover your face it means you’re not from Muscat.”
For many young Omanis, their first exposure to Muscat comes when they head off to college. Muscat and its environs are home to the country’s best universities, but study there requires moving to a new city with classmates from across the country. “Maryam,” an undergraduate at Sultan Qaboos University, explains that, “living in dorms with women from all over Oman, I learn new words, traditions, and ways of dress.” Maryam, who is from the city of Salalah in Oman’s south, notes that in contrast to Muscat, her family “can help in Salalah. They can bring stuff,” she says, referring to food and other household items a family might provide a college student during a visit. “Latifa,” an undergraduate at the German University of Technology is from Ibri, a three hour drive inland from Muscat. She notes that relationships between men and women are different between the interior and the capital. “In Ibri, men eat separately from women. In Muscat they all sit together. Muscati girls talk to guys more because they went to private schools. I went to an all-girls school. It was hard at university to work with guys. I had to get used to it.”
After graduation, many of these Omanis stay in the capital region for work. “Raed,” one such young professional, hails from Shinas, a coastal town near the UAE border about three hours’ drive from Muscat. He has work experience in government, media, and business administration. Yet when he goes home, Raed works on his family farm. Young Omanis like Raed are often caught between wanting to maintain tradition and wanting to get ahead in competitive fields. “I don’t want to work somewhere that I leave at 2:30 and go home,” he says. “I want work to mean something.”
The challenges that come with living in the capital are often a surprise to young Omanis. Ahmed al-Mukhaini, a former advisor to Oman’s Parliament, says Omanis from outside Muscat often see the capital in bright lights. “Some people in the interior think Muscat is like London, that the roads are paved with gold,” he says. Mukhaini has asked the Ministry of Planning to investigate the impacts of the weekly Muscat Commute on Omani society at large. He cautions that this commute may be causing a “schizophrenia” among these commuters. “At home people live like a member of the flock,” says Mukhaini. “They are conformist. But in Muscat they act like trend-setters.” This duality highlights the stark differences in mindset between urban centers like Muscat and rural villages in Oman’s interior. Young Omanis are increasingly in the middle of this divide, which they must navigate on a regular basis.
Despite a recent fall in oil revenue, Oman plans to move ahead with development in the interior. As urbanization creeps inward, so too will economic opportunity and more liberal social norms. Yet as a country that also values deeply its traditions, contrasts between Oman’s center and the interior won’t be erased so easily. As a result, the Muscat Commute is a phenomenon likely to endure into the foreseeable future. As participants in this phenomenon, Oman’s young generation will need to continue seeking balance in a time of change.