Arab Omanis and Covid-19
Eradicating a pathogen using a social distancing strategy is a difficult play. But in collectivist Arab societies, where socializing is a moral responsibility and in-group connection and out-group disconnection creates a societal foundation, social distancing, we feared, would be nearly impossible.
This begs the question: How can social distancing be successfully implemented in societies built on social cohesion? Examining the current Covid-19 pandemic through a cultural lens highlights both the commonality of human experience and cultural variation in crisis management.
In Oman, my country, the first two cases of Covid-19 were related to travel to Iran. Rather than the institutional quarantine adopted in places like South Korea, the Ministry of Health entrusted citizens with the personal responsibility to self-quarantine. This strategy predictably failed, and Oman’s cases quickly surged from 2 to 18,198 (and counting).
Based on the information posted on the official Civid-19 Twitter account of the government in Oman, my students at Sultan Qaboos University summarized the (March-May 2020) position of the Omani government/people in regards to Covid-19 pandemic in the following nursery rhyme:
- No fear. The government of Oman is here (March 2020).
- Be afraid. Be very very afraid. The end is near (April 2020).
- You are on your own, citizen dear (April 2020).
- Societal immunity, (not herd immunity), we must adhere (to) (beginning of May 2020).
- Full quarantine, Omanis request in fear (end of May 2020).
- Government of Oman lifts (many) bans and declares, “business as usual” (June 1, 2020). Oh, dear!
Notwithstanding the bet on personal responsibility, the Omani government continued advising those returning from abroad to practice in-house self-quarantine. Most Omanis declined to do so, whether due to lack of awareness, social recklessness, or lack of space. (Arabs often live with extended families in small houses where rooms are shared). Even those in institutional quarantine continued in-group socialization, as reported on the official Twitter account of Oman TV. Later, we were alerted to the plight of foreign blue collar workers in Oman/Arabian Gulf who reside(d) in communal small living spaces, which of course helped spread the disease in Oman and the rest of the Arabian Gulf.
Moreover, some complained that the government waited too long to implement the drastic measures that could have contained the virus. This brought to light a second discrepancy between intellectuals and upper-middle class Arabs on Twitter advocating for social responsibility versus the majority, who conceptualized COVID-19 as David when it should have been seen as Goliath—a random, giant, and fatal monster with an easily identifiable weakness: social distancing.
Within my own family, my cousin in April visited my mother who was recovering from surgery. Unconvinced by the morality of or need for social distancing, my cousin greeted her with kisses on both her hands and head, thus honoring our Omani cultural norms. I reprimanded her because she violated our government’s social distancing mandate and endangered my mother. In turn, my cousin ridiculed me. I responded by virtually distancing myself through blocking her on WhatsApp.
In Iraqi culture, women were forbidden from spending the night away from home and their male guardianship. As a result, families reportedly refused to institutionally quarantine female patients. As legislators couldn’t interfere in family business, especially when it related to women, Arabic governments’ hands were tied.
Within families in Oman, some perceived the March four-week school closures as a God-given family vacation, in an expression of distrust in government, fatalism, and Arab male pseudo-infallibility, hot-headedness, and reckless behavior. Although the bid for vacation was thwarted by closed borders, shops, and activities, grocery stores were still troublingly swarmed with people shopping hand-in-hand (versus a single representative shopping for each family). The government in Oman immediately started circulating instructions in various languages, not just Arabic.
lack of transparency, clarity, and communication further complicated matters, leaving people feeling more disconnected and irritated. For example, Oman’s national university was persistent in sending warm messages that everything was okay. However, students wanted earlier school closures accompanied with clear expectations and plans. The clarity was delivered later, as schools were shut down but some universities and colleges, including my own, adopted e-learning and extended the spring semester by one month. The adoption brought to light many concerns with the major Omani telecommunication company.
Meanwhile, sarcastic views and constant rumors circulating on social media continued as exasperating distractions that fog facts and cloud our understanding of the future. False claims about cures, mostly from Arab countries, additionally accentuated the hopefulness of Arabic character, marred in fantasy instead of realism.
In the commercial realm, Omanis experienced further stress and disruption. Many companies exploited the crisis by advertising their services, providing minimal aid to the government, and refusing to offer free Internet services. This exploitation became a hot topic on Twitter when I complained that my bank was increasing the insurance on my loan, after increasing the loan interest rate twice in the space of 12 months. The public dissent about their exploration sent a much-needed call to the Omani government to put an end to public exploitation. Many companies came through, as a result.
Notwithstanding the earlier rocky road, important social changes have begun to emerge. Cultural debates raged on Arabic Twitter and Omani WhatsApp, pivoting long overdue discussions on government-citizen relationship, social and behavioral responsibility, and global solidarity. It became glaringly evident that Arabs needed to revisit the threads of the conversations started in 2010-2011 during the Arab (Omani) Spring.
The crisis also foregrounded the ongoing tension between religion and science in Arab societies, tipping the scale in favor of science. The epitome of the clash culminated when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rightly suspended visiting Mecca and closed it down for sterilization, followed by suspending group praying in mosques. Although many lamented this as an attack on Islam, others viewed it as a win for Islam. Many humorously rejoiced, as everyone was forced to obey the sharia laws of covering face, no touching, and social distancing.
The closing of Mecca’s great mosque and Muslim discussion of niqab vs. medical mask
Most importantly, the pandemic brought to attention a discrepancy between clueless, “well-meaning” Western liberals and Arabs: A plethora of non-Muslims took the pandemic as an opportunity to hound European governments for banning the niqab, mistakenly equating a medical mask to a tool of subjugation. We, Arab men and women, took the pandemic as an opportunity to push gender reforms, arguing for the right of women in Arabia to breathe freely, with no niqab. For the first time, Arab men got a taste of the difficulty in breathing while masked. And we had fun with it.
The pandemic also accentuated Arab governments’ (especially Oman’s) good intentions: Love was everywhere. For Omanis, we gained assurance that the new Sultan of Oman had our backs. His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik took power on January 11, 2020 following the passing of the father of modern Oman, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. On inauguration day, he promised to continue the previous administration’s legacy and policies, vowed to sustain women’s rights and free speech, and committed to fighting corruption and unemployment.
When COVID-19 hit, Sultan Haitham rose to the occasion by implementing policies that favor omanisation, fight corruption, and highlight self-sufficiency (and by donating himself and providing free medical care to all Omanis and foreigners). As I expressed on Twitter: Whoever/whatever brought us to the edge of the cliff, will not lead us safely to the shore. A new vision and plan were needed, led by those who proved to be friends of Oman. The government and public agreed.
Moreover, COVID-19 liberated many Arab Omanis from the burden of non-stop socializing, forcing them to spend more time in solitary confinement with their thoughts, family, and hobbies. As one student stated, “It was liberating because they thought that the very fabric of their societies will break should they not follow cultural patterns of behavior.” The crisis showed us that behavior change is not only doable, but it is also desirable, as it leads to important shifts in thinking and character.
Maturation of Islamic religious views also was evident. At first, COVID-19 was conceived as punishment from God to China for its mistreatment of the Uighur Muslims. Later, it was seen as punishment to Israel for breaking international laws and mistreating Palestinians. Then it reached Italy. Many Arabs, including my Omani students, started to reject the punitive narratives in favor of global solidarity, consistent with recent reform actions by Arabs on social media to put humanity first, Muslim identity second. Hashtags in support of Italy trended. Jokes emerged that requested a halt to prayers against Israel. Arabs lightheartedly admitted they needed Israeli scientists to find a cure for all.
Thus, as tight societies and borders were contemplated, erroneously threatening an end of globalization, Arabs and Omanis took to global solidarity to make it through. In addition to praying for the common good and Italy, we reached for Team Coco’s funny YouTube videos to get us through. We circulated ideas by Western intellectuals such as Thomas L. Friedman. (My students found Friedman’s ideas so helpful in making sense of the nonsense they turned him (in honor) into a meme shared on Omani WhatsApp as a joyful reminder to protect against Covid-19). We tried to implement lessons from Asian countries. We rooted for Israeli scientists to find a cure. We joked about Chinese people, and we sent love to the Queen of England so she may live long.
Therefore, when the government in Oman refused to implement full quarantine during the Ramadan end of May 2020 Eid break (Unlike the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), we, the people, decided to take matters in our own hands. Some closed their doors on Eid morning (for fear of relative-visit-attacks). Doing so, however, did not stop my 19-year-old nephew to break into my house to wish his grandmother Happy Eid (Mohammed, a medical student, learnt the skill of breaking in from YouTube videos he watched during the quarantine). Others, as showcased on a famous Omani Eid hashtag, carried out cultural Eid practices (e.g. Eid prayer, group cooking, and showcasing latest fashion) in private living rooms and backyards.
And just like that. As we finally adopted new communicative, social, and cultural behavior, the government in Oman announced it was time to (partially) reopen effective June 1, 2020 (despite the surge in coronavirus cases in Oman). When I asked my students: Why the rush? They jokingly responded: Don’t ask us Prof. Ask China. Then, they reassured me, no need to fear!
The journey to this present moment was one of choices. Thomas L. Freidman stated in a powerful New York Times essay on How We Broke the World. The journey to the future is one of choices, too. Therefore, in Oman we decided to march forward with hope, humor, information, and lots and lots of prayers for all. Because despite cultural and geographical differences, we have realized that we are all in this together. United, we stand. Divided, we fall.
We might be late for the global party. But better late than never.
Author Bio: Najma Al Zidjaly is an Associate Professor of Communication (Social Media and Arab Identity) at Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Acknowledgement: I would like to express my gratitude to my Omani students in Language in Society and Language and Culture classes (Spring 2020 Corona Morona Batch). I especially thank Rawia Altoobi, Ghadeer Al-Quraini, and Amani Al Sabari for the help they provided with the images, links, and the nursery rhyme used in this essay. Many thanks are also in order to Jan Blommaert for encouraging me to write this essay.
Note: The research reported in this essay is part of an ethnographic project on Arab Omani identity and Social Media funded by Sultan Qaboos University, Oman (SR/ART/ENGL/15/01).