December 3, 2013
For a number of reasons, Oman has been a difficult place for me to live and conduct research. Having lived there for nearly three months, I have begun to develop the kind of personal, local knowledge base that can only be elaborated while physically in a country, and without which research success is elusive if not impossible.
For instance, I rent a car, and can now navigate the roads and neighborhoods of Muscat (the city with the highest rate of automobile accidents per capita in the world) with relative ease. I have only traveled to the Omani interior once, where many other cities – such as Sohar, Sur, Salalah, Nizwa and Ibri – beckon. Yet these destinations also remind me of the country’s vast scope – dwarfed in size by neighboring Saudi, but (deceptively) physically larger than Italy – and of the limits of my understanding it fully in one-year as a foreign research fellow. Similarly, I have built up a personal network of governmental, professional and, alhamdulilleh, social contacts. The contributions of these individuals to my initial establishment and ongoing research activities in Oman have been invaluable. In these two ways – social and spatial, I suppose – I feel that I have become grounded, and am in a position to continue and even accelerate the progress of my research now that I am equipped with some of the tools to succeed as an independent, unmarried, white female researcher in Oman.
The principal difficulty I faced upon arriving in Oman was that with regard to freedom of information, Oman can be characterized, depending on one’s frame of reference, somewhere between “strong central government” and “police state.” I had made contact with professors at Sultan Qaboos University prior to arriving in the country, and they had written in support of my project (on women social media users). However, getting formal approval from the government university (and thus a student visa provided by SQU) to study social media, the mere mention of which suspiciously invokes echoes of the ill-favored “Arab Uprisings,” proved impossible. After eight months “in processing,” my visiting research fellow application was flatly denied the day after I first visited SQU in person to explain the nature of my project. The individuals with whom I spoke made it clear that in the interest of the Omani relationship with the US government, certain research leeway was afforded to Fulbright Scholars, but for the rest of us, SQU would only endorse select government-approved projects.
This initial frustration prompted me to shift my research topic to something more realistic given my limitations as an independent researcher in Oman, i.e. one without considerable institutional backing or powerful affiliations. So I decided to focus not on women social media users in Oman, but rather on women entrepreneurs, and specifically on their use of various media platforms to strengthen and expand their businesses. This was politically more palatable and, it turns out, a more personally interesting angle for me to examine.
I have faced considerable challenges as a foreign woman trying to conduct research, both because my Arabic is not fluent and because I simply do not have access to many overwhelmingly masculine social spaces and conversations – both English and Arabic – that might prove instructive to my research. However, as I go forward, I’m learning to mobilize the advantages of being a woman in the Gulf, advantages that are less immediately evident, but comparably useful to acquiring and interpreting local social information.
One obstacle I have faced is the fact that due to my gender, nationality, and the immigration demographics of Oman (80% of the population is expatriates), most of my professional and personal life up to this point has taken place in English. However, I have tried to maintain my Arabic skills by meeting with a tutor three times a week. Additionally, I have finally met and introduced myself to an only-Arabic-speaking Omani family, and I look forward to moving as a guest into their home at the end of December.
At the end of my first few months, I have developed a network of contacts, including the United States Ambassador to Oman, Greta C. Holtz, a number of Omani female entrepreneurs, and a handful of Omani government officials (both male and female) whom I have socialized with and in some cases begun to formally interview. I have started working part-time as a Marketing Consultant for an Omani woman’s start-up company, Al Burooj Al Mumayis, and in that capacity have made my best effort to advance the business in both scope and service. In exchange, the owner, Maliha, has provided me with interviews and “insider access” to the life and quotidian challenges of being a female entrepreneur in Oman, an intimate perspective that I might never have otherwise understood.